An Interview with Professor Wael Hallaq

An Interview with Professor Wael Hallaq

This interview was conducted by Fatima Taskomur, Web Staff Editor of The Fletcher Forum.

FF: How does your book, Restating Orientalism, critique Edward Said’s Orientalism, and expand his argument to other fields? What didn’t Said address, and how do you address these?

WH: To answer your question, I want to begin with the blurb’s statement that Restating Orientalism is concerned with “re-evaluating,” “deepening,” and “extending” the critique of Orientalism. Let me begin with the last of the trio, “extending,” but let me insert a caveat first. At one level, I could not even begin to extend Said’s critique when he, like almost every scholar engaged in such matters, applies the term indiscriminately, almost to any idea or person writing about anything Islamic, Asian or African.  Said erroneously thought that Orientalists are to be found everywhere, from ancient Greece to thirteenth century Latin scholars, to von Grunebaum, Bernard Lewis and their likes in the twentieth  century. So it is not true that I extend the critique in any of these directions. If anything, in fact, I limit its diachronic scope, I reign it in, and refuse to accept its sweeping historical coverage. There was no Orientalism before modernity, not even in the high cultures of antiquity who, according to Said, were also “racist.” […] I may even counter by deploying an equally categorical statement: “No matter how ethnocentric and how dominating pre-modern empires all were, none could wed knowledge to power and redefine ethics as our modern empires did and continue to do.”

But how do I extend the critique, which I in fact do? First, in order to show why it is a modern phenomenon, I deepen the exploration into the genealogy of modern knowledge in order to excavate a structure of thought that is – as a hegemonic structure -- unprecedented in human history. Second, because this structure is a foregrounding structure, it obviously did not just sit under the field of Orientalism alone. If the structure foregrounds modern thinking and ways of living in the world, then it radiates onto all disciplines, especially the ones formed by this structure as paradigms. This is the accurate meaning of “expanding the critique” in the blurb. I see engineering, economics, business schools, journalism, law schools, mainstream philosophy, science, medicine, and a host of others as being epistemologically structured in the same manner in which Orientalism was fashioned. The major difference, from this perspective, is the substantive content of each discipline. Orientalism is the most obvious field for the study of the other, even more so than anthropology, and it is here, in Orientalism, where racism, manipulation, control, domination, and sovereignty show themselves most obviously.

My argument, furthermore, is also that showing and practicing sovereignty over a Hindu or a Muslim in Asia is not very different from showing and exercising sovereignty over a tree or a river in the forests of Peru or Ecuador. I call each instance an epistemological “genetic slice” where the totality of such instances amounts to a unique but structured modern attitude toward the world.  Said navigated at the political level of racism, pejorative language, and exoticizing the Orient, but could not see that what is involved in the production of Orientalism was nothing short of a deeper, underlying structure of thought from which he could not extricate his own thought.

To critique Orientalism is to critique secular humanism, liberalism, anthropocentrism, materialism, capitalism -- all of which, and more, Said took for granted. 

FF: What is the relationship between ‘the west’, modernity, knowledge and power? Could you elaborate on the relationship between orientalism and colonialism?

WH: I think it is important to understand that modernity is not a continuous trajectory with what preceded it. Modernization theory continues unabated in almost every academic field. This theory, foundational to writing and making history, operates on the assumption of what I have labelled a “theology of progress.” The theology is founded on the assumption that time has a homogeneous teleological structure, that this structure is inevitable, and that the earliest phases of history were preparatory for the later ones, which were in turn simply the means to reach the intended summit of real human progress: Western modernity. Integral to this understanding is that no culture or “civilization” outside of and prior to modern Europe possessed the same validity, competence, and moral and intellectual development. Whatever these civilizations had possessed of value, culturally or otherwise, was consumed in the process of preparing for a higher goal, outside and beyond themselves. The goal was Western modernity, which was imposed on the world by colonialism, coercion, and hegemony.

Even if we were to concede—however objectionable and repugnant this may be— that modernity’s violent tools were adopted by necessity with a view to improving the human condition, we find ourselves facing the bitter reality of a world in which we have destroyed almost everything around us, from communal and social structures to ecology and environment.

What many do not seem to understand is that all this is integral to modernity as a particular project, as a particular epistemology which has dictated a particular set of practices, all of which are the work of a particular subject, a particular subjectivity. My argument is that modernity’s structure of thought created a novel relationship between man and nature, one that produced a pathological sense of domination over nature, including our own.

Colonialism did not start in the colonies, but in Europe itself, and this is because early modern Europe embarked on a quest in which knowledge was systematically harnessed to subjugate nature, including our own selves. Orientalism is nothing more than a strand of discourse by which this bleak result was achieved, but every branch of knowledge – philosophy, science, law, etc.– is equally involved in the same project. That modernity now is everywhere in the world should not hide the fact of its European origins. The reader is advised to read the book for a detailed account of how all this happened.

FF: Could you speak a little more about this type of critique? Is it possible to address and confront the epistemic structures of modernity?

WH: My short answer is a resounding Yes. I think that the position which argues that one cannot critique modernity from within modernity—necessarily the only place in which we find ourselves— is a nihilistic one. It is both historically and epistemologically untenable. Historically, because every piece of evidence points to the undeniable fact that systems and cultures and “civilizations” are not only in constant change, but they come and go. Modernity came at the heel of European Christendom, just as Islam came at the heel of Persian and Byzantine empires, and Greece before it displaced Pharaonic Egypt and Phoenicia. Each one of these “civilizational constellations” was epistemologically and culturally unique, each with a particular way of seeing the world. To say that modernity is the end of history is sheer foolishness. Epistemologically, because our forms of knowledge have done us a great deal of disservice. To say the least, we have destroyed the very Earth we live on, our home, and this is because we no longer know who we are.

So the question is how do we go about exiting this situation? In Restating Orientalism and [my] new book to appear next year, Reforming Modernity , I argue that our only hope is to develop what I call an external critique, which does not mean that we can speak from outside modernity. To speak from within modernity is inescapable. In my earlier The Impossible State, I developed the concept of central and peripheral domains, both of which must exist in all cultures and “civilizations.” For example, in modernity, the state, capitalism, bureaucracy, and a particular form of reason have become central domains that govern all other domains. These central domains have formed our subjectivities, and made us who we are. My argument is that we can capitalize on the peripheral domains, through an act of heuristic retrieval, in order to displace the central domains. And ethics is one peripheral domain from which we can begin to rethink who we are. In the time and space we have here, I cannot of course tell you what the details and modalities of this project are, but the three works I have referred to above begin this continuing project.

FF: What does your work entail for academia, and for students of social sciences or public policy specifically? 

WH: I think there are at least three dimensions to my writings over the past ten years or so, which has so far been the culmination of earlier work on law, philosophy, ethics, and epistemology – work that has spanned the three preceding decades. The first dimension is the urgent call for us to be self-conscious about what we are doing at large and what we are “saying” and writing in learning institutions, higher academia being a main concern. This is so because this academia manufactures much of what we know, and this manufactured knowledge has substantial power in deciding what we should or should not do in our lives. Essential to this self-consciousness is the need for us to understand and develop a deep sense of responsibility and accountability, [and] not in the narrow sense of being “conscientious citizens” or socially responsible individuals. What I mean is that responsibility and accountability must run deep into an awareness of everything we do, from the seemingly innocuous act of buying a soft drink from a convenience store to what we think of what, say, business and public policy mean to less powerful others around the world.

Yet, this awareness of deep responsibility toward the rest of the world and toward the nature that sustains us will not just develop and come about on its own. Like everything else, this needs lots of work. And it is here where academia can play a central role in educating the public, which is the second dimension. My work is calling on us to rethink not just what we do, how we do things, and what measures we should take to minimize damage to ourselves (as human beings everywhere) and to the environment. We often talk, for instance, about emission control, recycling, and the promotion of human rights in this or that country. I think all this is an external maneuvering, a bandage solution that is both superficial and unwise. My recent work […] has been arguing that there is no way to reach a genuine solution unless it begins from within ourselves. If we want to change the world, we need first to change ourselves, our subjectivities, our ways of thinking, or as [Reforming Modernity] argues, we need a new concept of the human.

Finally, the third dimension is that to make the change and to build a sense of ethical responsibility, academia must deploy what I call external critique of everything we teach and write about. External critique is to refuse the established premises and assumptions that have so far foregrounded our thoughts and actions; it is to refuse the very foundations of their logic. The critique must question who and what we are.

Image: Cover of Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge by Professor Wael B. Hallaq

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Wael Hallaq is the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches Islamic law, ethics and intellectual history. He is the author of more than 70 scholarly articles and books including Ibn Taymiyya Against the Greek Logicians (Oxford, 1993); A History of Islamic Legal Theories (Cambridge, 1997); Authority, Continuity and Change in Islamic Law (Cambridge, 2001); Origins and Evolution of Islamic Law (Cambridge, 2005); and Shari’a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge 2009).

His latest work, Restating Orientalism was published by Columbia University Press in 2018, and his The Impossible State (2013) has won Columbia University Press’ Distinguished Book Award for 2013-2015. Hallaq’s work has been widely debated and translated into Arabic, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Persian, Turkish and Urdu, among others.

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