Knowledge as Politics by Other Means: An Interview with Wael Hallaq
June 9, 2014 6:35 PM   Subscribe

Throughout the last three decades, Wael Hallaq has emerged as one of the leading scholars of Islamic law in Western academia. He has made major contributions not only to the study of the theory and practice of Islamic law, but to the development of a methodology through which Islamic scholars have been able to confront challenges facing the Islamic legal tradition. Hallaq is thus uniquely placed to address broader questions concerning the moral and intellectual foundations of competing modern projects. With his most recent work, The Impossible State, Hallaq lays bare the power dynamics and political processes at the root of phenomena that are otherwise often examined purely through the lens of the legal. In this interview, the first of a two-part series with him, Hallaq expands upon some of the implications of those arguments and the challenges they pose for the future of intellectual engagements across various traditions. In particular, he addresses the failure of Western intellectuals to engage with scholars in Islamic societies as well as the intellectual and structural challenges facing Muslim scholars. Hallaq also critiques the underlying hegemonic project of Western liberalism and the uncritical adoption of it by some Muslim thinkers.

Muslims and the Path of Intellectual Slavery: An Interview with Wael Hallaq (Part Two)
Hasan Azad (HA): You have discussed the failure of intellectuals in the Muslim world to digest the changing relationship between knowledge and power during the modern era. What about the Western intellectuals’ share of responsibility?

Wael Hallaq (WH): Of course. The leading Western intellectuals have done little, if anything, so far (although, as we all know, a number of scholars have done their share in presenting Islam and its traditions as a fertile place for intellectual engagement). But for these leading intellectuals, the non-Euro-American continues, in the vein of the nineteenth century, not to count for much. For Euro-America (to speak at large and paradigmatically), the world remains about Euro-America, the Rest being some footnotes or marginalia. It would be naïve and daft of us to forget that the same patterns of thinking in the Western liberal world continue virtually uninterrupted since the seventeenth century. It remains an astounding fact that Europeans and Americans would dissect countless aspects of liberty and freedom, and fight off their monarchs tooth and nail, and while doing all this, they (and perhaps the hypocritical John Locke and the “neo-Roman jurists” standing at the top) gave not a single gesture or consideration to the very people they were engaged in oppressing in the colonies and at home. Locke unabashedly continued to invest his personal wealth in the slave-trade business and to vigorously speak of liberty and freedom, simultaneously! And were not many of the American founders the same? An isolated voice or two aside, none of the Enlightenment thinkers understood human rights and political liberties to extend to the people they oppressed, as if these were not humans at all. And we see the patterns repeated as I speak, however different in form they may appear nowadays.
posted by whyareyouatriangle (6 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
I love your posts, but please put your quotes within quote marks... it makes it easier to distinguish between your own statements and the things you cite.
posted by ardgedee at 7:18 PM on June 9, 2014

Wish this wasn't an E-mail interview. I want to hear him talk.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:24 PM on June 9, 2014

HA: What is your response to those who give the example of the Abbasid Caliph al-Ma’mun and his Bayt al-Hikma and its role in translating ancient Greek texts, and their incorporation into much of Islamic philosophy, metaphysics, and so forth, as an example of how Muslim thinkers made use of foreign sources of knowledge as a means of enriching their own thought in the past, and in so doing the argument that is made is that Muslim thinkers should do the same with regard to modern, Western thought and philosophy?

One could just as easily make the argument that pre-Enlightment europe translated the works of Avicenna and Averroes and other Islamic thinkers into Latin and jump started the Enlightenment, so why shouldn't we import Islamic thought and philosophy again?

I think a lot of westerners have this impression that the "Islamic World" just popped out of the abyss in 600AD and hadn't existed before. Which is not really the case. Pre-Islamic Arabia was thoroughly connected with Roman, Persian, Indian and East African cultures through trade routes. Sure, there were various 'translation projects', but it's not as if they had no idea that Plato existed before that and had to import all of his ideas. The ancient world was full of travelers, books and trade. There were Hindu yogis in ancient Greece, and Roman traders in India. I just kinda don't like the idea of "Western Thought" and "Islamic Thought", as if they're entirely distinct domains with very little overlap. There's been an ongoing conversation for 1500 years now.
posted by empath at 7:44 PM on June 9, 2014 [7 favorites]

the failure of Western intellectuals

What about Wael Hallaq? He's one of the leading scholars of Islamic law, and he's a Western intellectual, based at Colombia in the USA. That seems pretty successful.

Also, yay for the hegemonic project of Western liberalism! We got round to slavery eventually, though it took a shamefully long time. And we're not done: still working on trans* and other issues, and of course feminism, and we haven't really sorted out race and nationalism.

But given all that, is Western liberalism uncritically adopted by Muslim thinkers? That doesn't sound like any Muslims I know.
posted by alasdair at 3:43 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't think he is really critiquing the failure of western intellectuals to engage with islamic academic thought. I mean, he is critical of western academia in that style which academics often are where you throw around words with pejorative moods and hope no-one notice you haven't made an actual argument anywhere.

However, he actually does acknowledge that the fundamental premises of contemporary islamic thought are those which most academics in the west would consider to be not even wrong and that failure to engage with such ideas is a feature not a bug from a western perspective.

Muslim thinkers begin with fundamentally different premises from those that Western writers start from.... (a) a religious context from which they can talk, and which defines the limits, if not contours, of their narratives, and (b) a historical context or, more precisely, a substantive frame of history that continues to be a source of authority for legitimating forms of modern life. And when I say “history” or “historical” here, I mean a fairly committed historical engagement that calls upon many bygone centuries as a source of knowledge and guidance, trying to retrieve from this history, or through it, an interpretation that conforms to living in the modern world
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 6:27 AM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

No seriously: Yay for Western Liberalism.

For all of its many flaws and mistakes - slavery, discrimination, LGBT rights, economic inequality, etc etc - liberal, secular democracies have addressed those issues more successfully than societies where religion dominates public life and the state. This is not necessarily inherent to Islam - I believe that would be just as true of a country with the same depth and intensity of links to the Christian bible as it is of countries with roots in Islam. Societies and governments that are explicitly rooted in religious dogma are less tolerant of dissent, criticism and debate; criticism and dissent too easily become apostasy or heresy. But the current reality is that the majority of religious states are Islamic ones.

The interviewer asks Azad, "One can say that, with relatively minor exceptions, the modern Muslim presence in, or contribution to, the intellectual world of the West is near nil." Azad blames the lack of engagement on Western thinkers. Maybe. Broader perspectives are always better. Of course there is great value in understanding the origins of Islamic thought, its variations, its historical contributions to many aspects of Western culture and society, to valuing the great art and literature that has come out of Islam, and treating people who believe in the teachings of Islam with respect.

But its also true that countries and societies rooted in Islamic culture and law have historically and consistently repressed and constrained intellectual debate. Debate has been allowed only within narrow constraints defined by religious rules. The lack of tolerance even encompasses varying interpretations of Islam. Look at what happens to Ismailis and Shia in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Even Turkey, which has an explicitly secular constitution and government but is ruled by a party with strong Islamic roots, is experiencing significant political restrictions.

As Azad says, Islamic thought is not widely incorporated because it starts from a pre-modern or anti-modern perspective that is based in religious thought, and does not accept the framework for thinking that emerged in the Englightment. That is good. The Enlightment was a good thing.

Azad bemoans, "During the past two or three decades, a new trend has emerged in the Muslim world that tends to condemn Islamic history as “dark and abusive,” replicating almost exactly the European narrative of condemning the violations of the Catholic Church and monarchical absolutism." That is good. It was good to condemn those violations and Islamic thought should do more of that, not less.

If you disagree, point me to one modern Islamic state where there is the kind of widespread acceptance of cultural diversity, tolerance for dissent, tradition of empirically-based thinking, support and educational system that is likely to generate a robust and diverse body of intellectual thought.

Or try the Rawlsian experiment: If you had no control over which class or caste of society you were going to be born in, would you rather be born and live in a country with an Islamic state or a Western liberal democracy? Where would you rather publish a newspaper or run a website that criticizes the government and support diversity? Where would you rather be gay? Or trans? Where would you rather put one of those little Darwin fish anti-creationism bumper stickers on your car? Where would you rather have tenure and institutional support for your thinking and writing?
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 11:11 AM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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