Wael B. Hallaq, Reforming Modernity: Ethics and the New Human in the Philosophy of Abdurrahman Taha (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Wael Hallaq (WH): Two main reasons. First, there is an intrinsic value in studying Taha’s general philosophy and its ethical foundations, since he offers a promising alternative to the trends that have dominated Arab and Muslim philosophical thought in the last century. Taha is a substantial, deep, and unique philosopher. Second, he is an intellectual ally, a philosophical comrade of mine, so to speak, despite our disagreements on certain issues. The fundamentals of his ethico-philosophical project lend support to mine, as I have expounded them in the Sharia (2009), The Impossible State (2013), Restating Orientalism (2108), and in the present book.

J: What particular topics and issues does the book address?

WH: I begin the book with an account of what happened in the central lands of Islam during the nineteenth century. I think the transformations that took place in that period, especially between 1826 and around 1880, have not been given sufficient importance in scholarly accounts. To be frank, I think this period is severely misunderstood. And it is almost impossible to comprehend any phenomenon in the modern history of the Arab and Islamic world without a correct appreciation of the transformative powers of the immensely destructive colonialism during that half century.

After providing a panoramic, but also a genealogical, account of Arab intellectual trends since the last part of the nineteenth century, I focus on Taha’s distinction between the spirit of modernity and its application. Since this is one of the points of considerable disagreement between us, I pause to critique his stance. I should say that Taha read the penultimate draft of the book and responded to me concerning this conception of his. I summarize his response in chapter two, reply to it therein, and attach the original Arabic of his response as an appendix. I also focus on how Taha reconceptualized the problem of reason, where he distinguished between ethical rationality and what might be called denuded reason. In the rest of the book, I deal with his elaborations on and around the themes of secularism, religion, critique, modern politics, ethical management, extra-modern forms of governance, and his powerful discourse on trusteeship.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

WH: This book is the latest installment in a project of critique that effectively began with the writing of Sharia: History, Practice, Transformations, an expansive book published in 2009. Writing the Sharia was intended to accomplish certain immediate goals, but there were unintended effects as well. In taking stock of such a massive history of the shari‘a as a “legal,” cultural, and anthropological system, I came to appreciate comparison and contrast as a heuristic and therefore epistemological tool, one that is as methodological and theoretical as it is substantive and empirical. I know that most academics appreciate the value of contrast and comparison, but I am not sure that they see contrast as an entire methodology and science, a way of seeing and analyzing the world. Bringing the history of Islam and its shari’a (and Sufism) to the study of world history as both a continuity and a dialectical contrast is at the core of this larger project.

The 2009 book thus paved the ground for a series of critiques that began with The Impossible State. This latter book sought to deploy a cutting ethical critique of the modern state, a new animal, so to speak, and patently the most significant production of modernity (a fact that speaks plenty of modernity itself). From that critical standpoint, I argued that an Islamic state—unless this designation is to remain a nominal and accidental quality—is an impossibility. This is so because there is no important feature in what makes a state a state that would be Islamically acceptable. The measure of acceptability, mind you, is not a mere theory or a structure of ideas, but also nothing less than a millennium worth of governance forms that are products of actual Islamic historical experiences.

The second installment of this critique came with Restating Orientalism, whose purpose was to critique the very foundations of modern forms of knowledge. Many critics thought this book to be a critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism, but this is of course a simplistic, if not misguided, view. Critiquing Said was necessary because all that his celebrated book had spun did not really go beyond the standards he set. To put the matter succinctly, though bluntly, Restating Orientalism shows how shallow these standards are. And so, while this latter book is about the bankruptcy of the modern forms of knowledge, Taha’s book is about the bankruptcy of modern reason, its irrationality, destructiveness, and ethical poverty.

J: Who do you hope will read the book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

WH: Like its forerunner, The Impossible State, this book is intended to engage Western academics and thinkers with Islamic thought as a heuristic resource. The entire critical series I am talking about has the conscious goal of not treating Islam as an object of study, but rather as an interlocutor, an intellectual partner from whom one can learn. Of course, much hubris stands in the way, but not for long, I think. Under the weight of our failure—which brought upon us multiple major disasters—we will eventually have to listen and learn. I am hoping that an increasing number of people are opening up their minds to at least listen to alternative voices. Taha’s critique is not exclusive to Muslims. He is a voice of ethical critique as relevant to us as those of MacIntyre, Taylor, Habermas, and many others.

J: What other projects you are working on now?

WH: The larger project I have just spoken of continues. The next instalment deals with what one might call, for lack of better terms, the constitutional and political history of Islam, from the Qur’anic juridico-political experience down to the eighteenth century. I am not yet sure if the book will discuss the modern forms that evolved in Muslim countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, or whether the discussion—should it take place—will be an integral part of or a sequel to this volume. I will have to make this determination later. But for now, the major item on the agenda is the production of a description of what I call Islamic governance as a species, one that of course shared certain characteristics with all complex pre-modern polities, but also one that came up with much that is of its own creation. But I want to make sure that this is not just a political account. I do not see politics in only political terms, or from a strict political perspective. Politics and political forms are the outer manifestations of deeply embedded subjective constructions. I am therefore interested in subject formation—or the formation of the subject—throughout the Islamic periods as the foundation of a “political” and “constitutional” explanation. Which is to say that virtually no major discursive field will escape the scrutiny of this study, whether it is cosmology, metaphysics, adab, Sufism, or shari’a.

J: We note that the cover image of your book is your own painting, which you titled Tree of Knowledge. How does your artistic work reflect your intellectual concerns?

WH: Painting is obviously a manner of self-expression, similar to writing a novel, or even to the authoring act in scholarship. Of course, the latter is bound by stricter conventions and rules of genre, but it remains as much a subjective manifestation of the self and its imaginings as any form of self-expression. Painting is the arena of the power of color, where the fascination with the image and its pigment-expressiveness has a certain persuasive potency, at times great. Tree of Knowledge (to be seen in full on Pinterest.com), is one of several paintings that depict a critique of modern forms using biblical mythology and symbolism (the Serpent of the Great Fall) as mixed with nature (tree and skulls) and modern technology (clocks). This particular painting would have been equally appropriate as a cover image for Restating Orientalism, but it is apt for Taha’s book for being a consequential ethical critique of modern reason, since both books are ethics-grounded critiques of epistemology, or, as I would like to call it, psycho-epistemology.

Critique travels far and wide in my visual depictions, as can be seen in Improving on Nature, a portrait capturing the ugliness of modern control, manipulation, and destruction of nature—a theme I discussed in detail in Restating Orientalism. Variations on this theme commanded several oils, including a critique of progress, as exemplified in ProgressDepletionModern ResurrectionThe New Order, and The Last Thread; the destructiveness of colonialism as annotated in The Vanquished, IIBefore the Napalm, and Portrait of a Colonized Subject; and crisis of justice and ethics, as depicted in The Book of EthicsA Modern GazeJustice, and Scale of Justice and the Invisible Hand (see Pinterest.com). This latter piece addressed capitalism’s faulty, if not delusional, idea of market self-regulation and distributive justice.

Excerpt from the book (pp. 187-92)

A salient characteristic of Western modernity and now modernity at large is that it is a “civilization of speech” (ḥaḍārat qawl) this standing in contradistinction to a “civilization of deed” (ḥaḍārat ʿamal). In the civilization of speech, a fundamental gap exists between words, speech, and discourse, on the one hand, and deeds, actions, and praxis, on the other, a gap in which the former dominates and oppresses the latter (SA, 59). This is represented in what our philosopher calls the “information flood,” where information technology, the communication revolution, and globalization of information have permeated all forms of social and political life. The effects of this “verbal proliferation” on ethical modes of living have been devastating, particularly in light of the separation and isolation of ethics from various domains of life…. Among other such constrictions, ethics and morality have been relegated to the private life of individuals, a sphere that is in turn progressively both shrinking and thinning under the state’s domineering power.

The progressive narrowing of the scope of ethics is thus further assailed by a process of straightjacketing that deprives it of evolution, flexibility and expansion. Ethical formations of the subject have been pushed aside in favor of “legal speech,” for law – or the discursive practice of the law – is now seen as the only means capable of social organization and of serving the public good. But “legal speech” is only a subcategory of “political speech,” an extensive and intensive discursive formation (to use Foucault’s expression on behalf of Taha) that is regarded as having the legitimate right to determine and manage the nationalist “spirit.” Yet, “it is well-known that among all possible “speeches,” there is no speech that contradicts, and stands detrimental to, the ethical deed as political speech does, an argument that Taha will pursue expansively in Rūḥ al-Dīn (the concern of chapter 6). Whereas the ethical deed purifies the soul and ethicizes the subject as a human, political speech, the product of the civilization of speech, has no preoccupation other than to engender love for power and quest for control,” thereby producing a national subject, a citizen made of and by politics and juridicality (SA, 79).

The civilization of speech is characterized by its operations on two parallel fronts: knowledge and technique. Although technique precedes the latter logically and ontologically, the two have become complementary and dependent on each other. They have both become objects of fascination (iftitān), to such an extent that the pursuit of knowledge has exclusively been defined and constrained by technique. The culmination of the process by which the two forms. Have evolved since the early seventeenth century has also been one that led to crises in the current forms of knowledge, giving way to the sovereignty of technique. In their aggregate effects, both have led to much harm (SA, 91).

Technique is the product of a practical method that depends on sensory observation in the creation and accumulation of knowledge. Experimentation comes to verify or falsify findings, which, once proven true, are elevated to universal laws that all human beings ought to adopt and live by. The method also depends on the derivation of structural forms and quantitative relations that govern the subject matter of study, thereby ordering these forms and relations in such a way as to permit them to yield further conclusions that are purported to possess certainty about sentient and insentient objects. Scientific technique cares little, if at all, about “ontological density” (kathāfa wujūdiyya), the vertical and horizontal relations between the subject of analysis and the range and depth of surrounding existents, those that envelop the subject and give it its true and full meaning. Technique is then a procedural operation that conceives of its objects and defines them in ways, and to the extent, that these procedures can comprehend. All that which cannot fall within these quantifying and calculating procedures remains outside consideration. They are, in other words, suppressed from view. As is well known, a procedural technique is instrumentalist, transforming its object into means for yet another object, which in turn is instrumentalized for further inquiry and knowledge. This is combined with a formalistic approach to things in the world, without regard to their matter as value, thereby converting them into objects that come to possess an exclusively procedural dimension (SA, 114).

At this point, Taha’s reader begins to question his designation of Western modernity as a civilization of speech. As the preceding paragraph abundantly demonstrates, our philosopher is acutely aware of the rise in modern Europe of an unprecedented sense of sovereignty, one that affirms not only the death of God but also the crowning of man as the ultimate lord among beings. Since this rise to sovereignty is admittedly practical and effectively entrenched in practice, and since this latter is closely tied to command, control, and what Scheler has articulated as a unique form of domination, then Western modernity is hardly confined to, or characterized by, speech, however expansive this designation may be. It would seem that if Western modernity has anything to commend it, it is its penchant to do everything that can be done, an attribute which Taha, as we saw, himself recognizes. Yet, this does not, and cannot, preclude the characterization of this civilization as one of speech. Indeed, everything Taha says of this attribute and the mode of its manifestations in modernity is, I think, correct. But an unqualified and categorical qualification of this civilization as one of speech may appear as both partial and misleading. In fact, one could argue that the “speech” aspect is somewhat secondary to the practical side of things, although “speech” has undoubtedly played a crucial role in making “practice” and action possible, for “speech” is considerably performative. One, furthermore, can confidently say along with Taha that “speech” in Western culture has converted unethical value into a new form of ethics, with the support of denuded rational argument as well as an imperious philosophical tradition, both being major components in that “civilization of speech.” This is precisely what René Guénon meant when he also attempted to categorize “Western Civilization” by contrasting it to “Eastern Civilization.” But Guénon was more to the point when he described it as a civilization of moralism, in clear contradistinction to genuine forms of morality and ethics, which recognize the bindingness of higher principles.

That Western civilization is a civilization of action par excellence is beyond doubt; that the effects of its actions have been disastrous and very often unethical is even less in doubt. That all this has been legitimized and rationalized by “speech” is central to any understanding of modernity, but this speech comes subsequent and is therefore ontologically posterior to the more trenchant and

powerful expedient of practice. For if we accept, as Taha does, that the European primeval outlook of “what can be done shall be done” is integral to the modern project – including its forms of colonialism – then this “doing” is the foundation of this project, however much “speech” was conjoined with this “doing” both dialectically and performatively.

One could even go further and insist that denuded rationality, a component of speech and the Logos, is neither the theoretical foundation nor the cause (or reason) of this practice, but the other way around. In other words, “speech,” as most eloquently attested in the discourse of the liberal tradition since J. S. Mill, if not before, has had the important function of clothing practice with what Arendt has effectively called, in the case of Hobbes, an intellectual ennoblement of an otherwise tyrannical practice.

Nonetheless, there are two ways in which the idea of “civilization of speech” can be made sense of within Taha’s overall system of thought. The first is that Western modernity preaches ideals that it does not practice, or that the ideas (“speech”), however sublime and well-intended, culminate through a logic of practice in results and conclusions contrary or at variance with their original intentions, declared or inferred. This is consistent with much that Taha has already said. In the name of liberating man from bondage, European modernity instead enslaved and often annihilated peoples around the globe, and technique, intended to improve the physical human condition, did more than enslave its own creators. The second way is to say that the West is a “civilization of speech” because a fundamental disconnect exists between reality as an expression of practice and what he might have called technologies of the soul. This is represented in the structural discrepancy between Sunday’s church worship and Monday’s business-as-usual, which succumbs to the paradigmatically sovereign realities on the ground. Yet, for this argument to hold, the distinction should not be one between “speech” and practice as fiʿl, a neutral term, but rather one between speech and ʿamal, that which, in Taha’s conceptual repertoire, stands for praxis, habituation, and technologies of ethical embodiment.

Although the expression of “civilization of speech” is painted with all-too wide a brush, it is nonetheless difficult to see how this over-generalization is detrimental to Taha’s philosophy, for in his constant and consistent emphasis on the practical side of Western modernity (which has problematized his designation in the first place) there is ample and detailed acknowledgement of its role in his overall thought. Modern Western civilization is a civilization of action and deed, no doubt, but not the kind of deed and praxis which Taha wants, and rightly so, to see. Taha would have stood on the side of caution had he described it as a materialist civilization whose speech consists of moralism. More apt, a “civilization of discursive moralism” would per force presuppose material and materialist ambition and all the forms of fiʿl that Taha has rightly attributed to it.