Despite the seductive appeal of its vision, Islamist politics is anti-politics, a search for a changeless world and a sinless humanity, a utopian longing that renders the pursuit of all politics and all dialogue with history superfluous. The misery of Islamist thought, however, is not due to the poverty of the historical tradition it is heir to, but it issues from its inability to comprehend the real nature of the modern Leviathan and its amoral ideology of sovereign power. This is the main verdict of Wael Hallaq’s The Impossible State, a very incisive and merciless analysis of the logical incoherence and political imprudence of the Islamist project. But his book also leaves you in the dark about the ultimate target of Hallaq’s censure – Islamic State or the Modern Leviathan?

Wael B. Hallaq, ‘the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University’, has distinguished himself as a diligent and resourceful scholar of the history of Islamic law. His various works such as Sharia: Theory, Practice, Transformation (2009); Authority, Continuity and Change in Islamic Law (2001); The Origin and Evolution of Islamic Law (2005); A History of Islamic Legal Theories: An Introduction to Sunni Usul al-fiqh (1997); Ibn Taymiyya Against the Greek Logicians (1993), and others, amply testify to his erudition, intellectual acumen and moderating temper. Hallaq’s present study reveals that this judicious interpreter of legal texts is also a philosophical inquisitor of no mean stature. His ability to conduct a sustained philosophical inquiry is as impressive here as was his facility earlier with the unravelling of a complicated legal argument. No wonder that the present volume reads like a prosecutorial indictment or a philosophical treatise. The legal and the philosophical are in perfect symbiosis; only the couple that cannot cohabit under the same political roof is made up of ‘Islam’ and ‘State’. For, the ‘Islamic state’, so reads Hallaq’s categorical judgement, ‘is both an impossibility and a contradiction in terms’.

The ultimate challenge facing the Muslims, in Hallaq’s highly schematised depiction, is the reconciliation of two facts: ‘first, the ontological fact of the state and its undeniably powerful presence, and, second, the deontological fact of the necessity to bring about a form of Shari‘a governance’. The misery of Islamist thought stems from its inattention to history and its ensnarement by ontology: ‘being’ rather than ‘time’ was/is the truth of its metaphysics. The state thus conceived and propagated by it is the natural order of things and not a temporal entity. Having no inkling of its genealogy, metaphysical foundations and teleology, Muslim thinkers fell prey to the mystique of the state and took it for a timeless paradigm of political rule. It is this metaphysical confusion and philosophical naiveté that underlies some of the pathetic claims made by modernising Islamists who neither have a foot inside Islam’s classical tradition nor know a thing about modernity. Hallaq exemplifies this by the following statement by the Muslim Brothers, who argue that the modern state ‘does not stand in contradiction with the implementation of the Islamic Shari‘a, because Islam is the highest authority in Muslim lands, or so it should be. With its mechanisms, regulations, laws and systems, the modern state – if it contains no contradictions to the founding and indubitable principles of Islam – does not preclude the possibility of being developed… so that we can benefit from it in achieving for ourselves progress and development’.

Wael B. Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, State and Modernity’s Moral Predicament, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012.

Mehrzad Boroujerdi, Editor, Mirror for the Muslim Prince: Islam and the Theory of Statecraft, Syracuse University Press, New York, 2013.

Azfar Moin, The Millennial Sovereign: Sacred Kingship and Sainthood in Islam, Columbia University Press, New York, 2012.

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