Published by Columbia University Press on July 3rd 2018
Since Edward Said's foundational work, Orientalism has been singled out for critique as the quintessential example of Western intellectuals' collaboration with oppression. Controversies over the imbrications of knowledge and power and the complicity of Orientalism in the larger project of colonialism have been waged among generations of scholars. But has Orientalism come to stand in for all of the sins of European modernity, at the cost of neglecting the complicity of the rest of the academic disciplines?
In this landmark theoretical investigation, Wael B. Hallaq takes Orientalism as a point of departure for rethinking the foundations of the modern project. Refusing to isolate or scapegoat Orientalism, Restating Orientalism extends the critique to other fields, from law and scientific inquiry to core ideas of academic thought such as sovereignty and the self. Hallaq traces their involvement in colonialism, mass annihilation, and systematic destruction of the natural world, interrogating and historicizing the set of causes that permitted modernity to wed knowledge to power. Modern knowledge has created and justified a political concept of sovereignty that has unleashed unprecedented forms of domination. Restating Orientalismoffers a bold rethinking of the theory of the author, the concept of sovereignty, and the place of the secular Western self in the modern project, reopening the problem of power and knowledge to an ethical critique and ultimately theorizing an exit from modernity's predicaments. A remarkably ambitious attempt to overturn the foundations of a wide range of academic disciplines while also drawing on the best they have to offer, Restating Orientalism exposes the depth of academia's lethal complicity in modern forms of capitalism, colonialism, and hegemonic power.
If you are going to come at Edward Said, and in particular his magnum opus ‘Orientalism’, you would be well advised to tread carefully. Published in 1978, ‘Orientalism’ presented to the eastern world a construct and vernacular that could be used to counter (quite frankly) the bullshit that was written about them. As recent colonial subjects of western Europe in particular, Edward Said produced a piece of work that was not only emancipating, but also transformatory in its immediate need.
With the above background to ‘Orientalism’ in mind, Hallaq’s critique begins and largely maintains a tone of disrespect. Granted, that a young twenty-something-year-old Hallaq would not have been well placed at the time to critique the twenty-year senior Said, but there has been a forty-year period since in which Hallaq’s own contributions have not had the same transformative impact that Said brought to post-colonial thinking.
None of this is to say Hallaq is wrong in what he is saying in ‘Restating Orientalism’, but it is important that we situate Hallaq’s critique in a wider context. I believe there is some real benefit in this latest contribution, but the tone is wrong, and quite frankly outside of good manners and taste. What Hallaq does do well, is to remind us that Said’s work was limited in its transformatory nature, that there is so much more work to be done beyond identifying ‘Orientalism’ and the way in which it serves to harm.
Hallaq does not view ‘Orientalism’ as a defining issue of interactions between East and West. At the centre of his critique, is the idea that Edward Said chose to focus on a narrow issue, seemingly without reference to wider structural/systemic issues. As Hallaq writes in the opening gambit of his introduction:
“…a true political critique of Orientalism must begin with the foundations that gave rise to a particular conception of nature, liberalism, secularism, secular humanism, anthropocentrism, capitalism, the modern state, and much else that modernity developed as central to its project. Said’s critique remained political in the (conventional) sense that it questioned none of these categories of thought and action as fundamental and foundational to the construction of the problem that is Orientalism…” [p.4]
Hallaq is thus not seeking to specifically respond to the specific arguments made by Said within his work, but rather his larger schema – in particular referencing Said’s call to secular humanism as the way forward. For Hallaq, Said cannot escape the paradigmatic structures that have been imposed by modernity (through the Enlightenment) and so will always remain limited in its capacity for systemic change (p.10).
These introductory remarks by Hallaq come with some degree of irony of course, as he points to those whom he considers to be ‘good orientalists’ in Chapter 1 (p.30). Among the ranks of virtuous scholars, he includes individuals such as Henri Laoust and Noel Coulson – two individuals whose work I am more familiar with. The claim that somehow these scholars exist outside of structures of racism, empire, and indeed ‘Orientalism’, betrays Hallaq’s own limited ontological understandings, he doesn’t see the impact these scholars have had in the development of ‘Islamic law’ in UK courts for instance – that the rulings of judges, work of prosecutors etc, has been developed through their ‘expertise’ – and so the idea of the Muslim and Muslim-practice, has been constructed without critical and necessary understandings of how these scholars ultimately intersected and informed the criminal justice system.
Intellectually, however, Hallaq does specifically highlight the problem with knowledge construction in modernity. We have been taught to ‘know’, through the philosophy of the Enlightenment period, and Hallaq rattles off the names of those who have been responsible for the central canon of this thinking. For him, these thinkers have set at the centre of their being, the, “…notion of rationality, materiality, individualism, autonomy, and, crucial for us, domination of nature.” (pp.36-37). It is this domination attempted domination of the natural world, that Hallaq sees in the way that the modern world harms.
Said we are told, has a ‘one-sided secular rationality’ (p.55) that is steeped in imprisoned within the construct of the Enlightenment. This is an unacceptable position for Hallaq, as he sees the secular humanism that Said subscribes to (despite his end of life ‘flirtation’ with spirituality) as being a system that is built on wrongdoing:
“For however much secularism is free of the secular, it will not do as a critical apparatus of the very system that gave it its own form and structure. Involving far too much collusion and interdependence with racism, colonialism, imperialism, and the fabrication of “religion” as an enemy and straw man, critical secularism of the secular will, as typical of modern solutions to modern problems, solves one problem only to fall into another, as repeatedly evidenced in the social, economic and medical fields.” [p.55]
I must admit – that my sympathies with Hallaq’s argument are located here. In this ‘post-Saidian discourse’ (p.66). The limitation of Said, is built into the ‘very structure of thought.’ Hallaq suggests that a central domain of thought provides tools and instruments that permit correctives/enhancements within that domain, but cannot be used to alter the domain paradigmatically. He rightly exemplifies this by stating that you cannot critique capitalism from within the domain of capitalism itself – and so for Hallaq, modernity cannot escape the epistemological framework or domain that defines it (p.66). This line of argument leads Hallaq to what he considers to be the main problem with the discourse of ‘Orientalism’, that it is a problem that Said relegates to discursive manifestations, and in Hallaq’s mind does not respond to the ‘balance of power in international relations’”
“Nor does colonialism appear as a distinct category of analysis; nor still do genocide, other forms of collective atrocity, social and cultural engineering, and totalistic transformation of indigenous traditions. If anything Said is not sure that the narrative of colonialist destruction of native lands and peoples is wholly accurate, standing without a good measure of “mythmaking”.” [p.68]
It is the narrowness of the ‘Orientalism’ discourse, that makes its contribution limited, as for Hallaq, the way that modern knowledge and indeed the whole of modernity itself has been constructed, is the real issue that needs to be critiqued. As a foil to this knowledge production, he turns to pre-eighth century Islam in order to consider a non-colonial form of governance and power, one that he claims was less interested in producing ‘Occidentalism’ or ‘Orientalism’.
An Islamic teleology?
Islam, as a civilisation, conquered vast lands and extend its power and reach over those who both converted and did not convert to the religion. It had its own economy and political structures, much like many other empires, but Hallaq explains that it never produced anything quite like ‘Orientalism’ (p.72). By studying pre-eighth century Islam as a specific case study, Hallaq’s aim is to explain how exceptional European thought is, and how out of congruence it is with nature.
The Shari’a is presented as a ‘moral law’ by Hallaq, and it is this law that provides a moral system. Instead of the law providing a state morality, the legal provisions provided by the Shari’a became the instruments f morality – it became the central domain. Regardless of whatever field experts went into later on in their studies, the ulema or scholarly class, were nearly always trained in an undergraduate form of Shari’a. All other domains of knowledge became subject to this one central domain, a guiding and organising centre to all other domains of knowledge that might emerge (p.77).
Where Islam, and its central domain differ from the West, is the starting point of man’s relationship with the world – the Shari’a provides the view of custodianship, rather than domination over nature (p.81). The nature of the relationship with the world is transcendental, as Hallaq explains that even something as taken-for-granted within modernity, such as ownership, takes on different meaning within Islamic schema, as the relationship to ‘things’ is ultimately one based on understanding of God:
“This was a posited doctrine, a priori accepted as the rational foundation of moral behavior that governed all aspects of life, social-legal, and, no less, political. Many things can and do change in the world, but whatever the-change, this principle governed.” [p.81]
The fundamental difference between European understandings of the nature of relationship to the world, is one of the key aspects that differentiates it from ‘eastern’ understandings, as relationships to both God and the earth take on different meanings. For this reason, Hallaq places the birthplace of modern colonialism and genocide with Christianity in the ‘long sixteenth-century’ – particularly the genocide against Muslims and Jews in Andulicia (p.86).
Hallaq eventually traces this dichotomy back to Kant, that through him, autonomy, freedom and reason negate God’s omnipotence, and everything becomes subservient to personal happiness and utility. Thus, he prosecutes the idea that an absolutist Christian doctrine that once existed has been transposed on to an ‘utterly free absolutism’ through the Enlightenment that ‘went the full circle of replicating the very tyranny that caused its rise in the first place’ (p.92).
The critique of Hallaq doesn’t end there. He extends his response to modernity by bringing in the notion of ‘sovereignty’ as being the ‘new god’ on which the modern state stands (p.100). This sovereignty of the state heralded new forms of education that reinforced modes of exploitation, particularly during the Industrial Revolution. Class based structures emerged leading to great disparities between social classes, but in particular maintained through an organised surveillance state and police apparatus – with its consequent prison system – a system unprecedented in its use. Sovereignty was created and protected, in order to maintain a form of governmentality that protects capitalism (p.100). Nationalism, for him, is not just a political formation, but also an epistemological and ontological one. The subjects of the modern state’s sovereignty are homogenised by forms of education, bureaucratic and discipline, through institutions that do not permit variance – what Hallaq refers to as the ‘paradigmatic citizen’ (p.102).
Referencing his previous book ‘The Impossible State’, Hallaq reiterates his claim that the Islamic world never conceived of anything akin to the modern state until it encountered European colonial entities. It is the Islamic Law (Shari’a) as mentioned above, that provides a moral-legal formation that according to Hallaq, is capable of withstanding political manipulation. In theory this might be correct, and perhaps it is important to make a distinction in terms of what Hallaq is trying to say – that on a long enough timeline, the moral framework is able to withstand the pressures or attempts to homogenise it:
“This is the meaning of the distinction between the rule of law and the rule of the state, a distinction unknown to modernity. Comparatively speaking, modernity has produced a rule of law within the state, managed by the state, and subordinated to its imperatives; Islam’s conception and practice were one in which “law” – constituted by a shar’i-sufi regulating structure – ruled over any concept or practice of governance or body politic. One of the most crucial implications of this account is that there was no one individual, no one authority, agency, or institution, who could even attempt to decide on the Schmittian Exception. In premodern Islam, there was no Exception. Law was not, and could never be, suspended.” [pp.112-113]
There of course an irony in Hallaq’s shar’i-sufi presentation, as if somehow, he is presenting the spiritual aspects as disconnected from the moral/legal – the entire schema of Islam is interconnected in a way that there can be no separation between the two, so even this terminology that he uses falls foul of the very thing he is trying to escape.
What Hallaq does evidence well, however, is the micro and macro impacts that colonialism had on Muslim societies – attempting to ossify a moral/legal schema that had otherwise been resilient to the trappings of a nation state model. This was largely achieved by the colonialists through their various models of colonialism and in particular, settler-colonialism.
“European colonial effects are unique because their causes are embedded in a unique structure of thought.” [p.129]
Hallaq makes a distinction between the forms of ‘arm’s length’ domination carried out by empires, such as that of Islam and others, as opposed to European colonialism as a particular moment in history. European colonialism in general, and the example of Dutch colonialism that he provides, aimed at changing the ‘very constitution of the colonized subject’ (p.129). Returning to the original premise of this work, it is here that Orientalism re-emerges, as a tool used by the colonisers to inflict great physical and cultural violence on their subject communities – to ‘civilize them short of changing their “blood” and browness’ (p.131).
Hallaq would have done well in his fourth chapter to refer to Iza R Hsuin’s work ‘Politics in Islamic Law’, which would have detailed how colonialism formalised traditional forms of jurisprudence, which ultimately leading to great harm to those societies by virtue of new forms of both crime and punishment – ones that were largely alien to them. The point he is attempting to drive home, is that ultimately colonialism that is both settler and non-settler, is ‘inherently genocidal’, and as such, it is the entire production of knowledge that has gone into colonialism’s central domain, not just ‘Orientalism’:
“All this brings us back to the central point I have been pursuing in this book: that colonialism, in all of its variants, is inherently genocidal, and that this genocidal quality is ultimately connected, in tie most structural and structured ways, with a thought structure that has defined modern academia and the discursive formations that academia has largely shaped and continues to reproduce. In this picture, Orientalism plays a considerable part, but by no means the most important one.” [p.233]
For those who are interested in reading this book as a critique of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism’, I would not suggest that this is a text that needs to be read. It is far more interesting for what Hallaq has to say about modernity and the direction it has travelled in. Particularly interesting for those who are keen on reading Hallaq’s works, is his emphasis on the central domain of European modernity being rooted in a knowledge production that not only allows for, but propagates settler and non-settler colonial violence. This is important, as the War on Terror created only the latest manifestation of the violence that western thinking can produce – and so it not only becomes necessary, but for many around the world, is existential.
Less interesting for me, was Hallaq’s insistence on good ‘Orientalists’ and in particular his insistence on the perennialism of Rene Guenon. If one were to be cynical about Guenon’s inclusion, it might be said that he is being used as a device to rescue Hallaq from the sympathies he has shown for schema that can be rooted in Islam – but perhaps that is too cynical.
Hallaq’s book is not the last word on these matters, but there is a central heart to the book that I found useful to think about, but also a vernacular that I would argue is in the tradition of Edward Said, and one that builds on the tools he gave us since 1978. Read ‘Restating Orientalism’ as a continuation of an argument, a development that synthesis some of what others have already been doing, but I don’t believe it to be the end of this discussion. Much more work needs to be done in order to truly engage in a decolonial knowledge, but further, a decolonised way of being.0