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Reviewed by:
  • The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament by Wael B. Hallaq
  • Mark D. Welton, Professor Emeritus
The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament, by Wael B. Hallaq. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. 256256 pages. $37.50.

Readers familiar with Professor Wael Hallaq’s earlier books and articles will not be surprised by the title of this most recent work. As Hallaq has long argued, the shari‘a was a sophisticated and complex moral-legal project that served the Muslim communities exceptionally well for much of their history, but which collapsed under the weight of European colonialism and all its consequences, including the creation of modern states in the Muslim world. The foundations of the shari‘a, especially the independent jurists who developed the doctrines of God’s will as expressed in the sources of the law and articulated them for rulers and peoples alike, were swept away in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This destruction was total, and the resurrection of the classical shari‘a is an impossible task.

In this short book, the author takes this historically-based argument and advances it in order to explain why, theoretically and philosophically as well as in practice, the existence and function of the modern state — a creation of the West — is inherently incompatible with the shari‘a. The largest portion of the text is devoted to a postmodern critique of the modern state, and the pages are replete [End Page 492] with short quotations from philosophers, sociologists, and other thinkers to support this analysis. The modern state is an amoral entity based on positivism that exists solely for its own perpetuation. In order to survive, it demands the complete adherence of its citizens, and concepts such as the rule of law and separation of powers are subordinate to, and ineffective constraints on, the political, cultural, economic, and legal instruments of the state’s “will to power.” There is no idea or goal greater than the survival of the state; the Is and the Ought are irreconcilable, and the latter has no relevance to the functioning of the state.

The shari‘a admits of no such separation between the Is and the Ought. It is a comprehensive approach to individual and communal life in which the moral imperative is always present and indeed dominates the legal, political, cultural and social aspects of society. Resting primarily on the five pillars of religion (shahada, prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, and almsgiving), the shari‘a focuses on shaping and developing the individual as a moral being. What binds the law together with political rule is the overarching concept of God’s sovereignty. This means that paradigmatic Islamic governance exists not as an end in itself, but as a means to develop fully the divinely mandated moral content of the community and the individual subject. The idea of Islamic governance, “nurturing the community qua Community and serving its interests as a morally constituted entity” (pp. 139–40), is therefore fundamentally at odds with the concept of the modern state.

Professor Hallaq’s arguments are well-constructed and thought-provoking, and the depth of his knowledge of both Western and Islamic political and legal thought is evident throughout. The postmodern critique of the modern state is compelling, though readers unfamiliar with the works of such philosophers as Alasdair MacIntyre may find that the discussion requires careful and repeated scrutiny, with frequent reliance on the many endnotes. Despite its short length, this is not a book to be absorbed in one quick reading.

In 1988, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini declared that the interests of the Islamic state would whenever necessary supersede the application of the shari‘a (e.g., prayer, pilgrimage, and fasting). This remarkable statement was taken by many to mean the demise of the experiment of Islamic governance in Iran. Readers of this book would not find such a development at all surprising. It is an important contribution to understanding the role and potential of the shari‘a in the modern world.

Mark D. Welton, Professor Emeritus
United States Military Academy at West Point

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pp. 492-493
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