Musings on The Impossible State

A Book Review of The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament by Wael Hallaq


For a beginner, The Impossible State (henceforth referred to as TIS) is an incomprehensible tome. Throughout the book, Hallaq strings together technical terms effortlessly. It took me a few reads to even begin to understand Hallaq’s central thesis, let alone the finer details embedded across the text. Therein lies the benefit of reading TIS, as it not only forces exposure to Hallaq’s own ideas alongside a dozen other authors and half as many fields of study, but it is an expansionary learning process. Consequently, finishing TIS is akin to acquiring an introductory knowledge of law, politics, history, anthropology, and moral economy.

The following review introduces each of TIS’ chapters and offers a short summary and review to help readers struggling to digest the various arguments Hallaq weaves together. It will also act as a basis to energise future discussion on Traversing Tradition around TIS.

1. Premises

Hallaq’s central thesis charges many modern Islamist movements with attempting to Islamise the modern nation-state, whose ontological and epistemological origins lie within western (Christian) civilisation and are inherently incompatible with Islamic civilisation [1]. Attempts at using the modern state to enforce Shari’a have, by Hallaq’s standards, utterly failed. He criticises modern Muslim states for “distilling from the Shari’a – while flagrantly disregarding both its procedural laws and communal context – such punishments as dismemberment and stoning” [2]. Indeed, one cannot help but despair at the unjust use of the Hudud (corporal punishments) in states such as Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia against the poor and meek, as well as political activists and rivals.

This is not a novel view; writing since the 1940’s, Muhammad Asad lamented that the Shari’a had

now come to resemble nothing so much as a vast old-clothes shop where ancient thought-garments, almost unrecognisable as to their original purport, are mechanically bought and sold, patched up and re-sold, and where the buyer’s only delight consists in praising the old tailor’s skill” [3].

But this failing is not merely procedural – its failure strikes at the core of what the contradictions between the Shari’a paradigm and western paradigm are.

However, what lies at the heart of this failure? Sheer incompetence on the part of Muslims? The charge that Muslims are simply not ready for “modern life”? Hallaq contends that it is enlightenment-modernity’s inherent incompatibility with Islam that has led to these failures. Islam should not be shoehorned into modern concepts but instead stand-alone as its own equally viable way of life, entailing both a socio-political order and moral cosmology that is at odds with enlightenment-modernity.

Pre-modern Islamic governance was defined by the paradigmatic Shari’a. Paradigm, interchangeable with the “central domain,” is a word that features centrally throughout TIS.* Hallaq utilises Carl Schmitt’s interpretation of central domain, which in a traditional age meant “moral upbringing, moral education, and worldly moral desidarata,” whereby all other issues in life were secondary domains and considered to be downstream from this central domain. Hallaq proclaims the Shari’a as “the defining emblem of this paradigm” [4]. It determined the solutions of secondary domains, such as “language, linguistics, hermeneutics, logic, rhetoric, dialectic, and epistemology” [5].

For Hallaq, the Islamic tradition is composed of

the theoretical-philosophical, sociological, anthropological, legal, political, and economic phenomena that have emerged in Islamic history as paradigmatic beliefs and practices [6].

As part of the idea of central domains and paradigms, this tradition informed and was informed by the Shari’a. Although the Shari’a acts as the central domain and the rest of these phenomena are subsidiary/peripheral domains, the relationship is dialectic. Sometimes, what goes downstream may come back up.

On the other hand, the western paradigm not only possesses a different central domain, but also draws from a set of different traditions. The western paradigm is defined by Enlightenment thought, drawing on thinkers as diverse as Hobbes, Voltaire, Rousseau, Hume, Spinoza, Kant, Hegel, J. S. Mill, and Marx. Its aim

was the displacement of local, customary, or traditional moralities, and all forms of transcendental faith, by a critical or rational morality, which was projected as the basis of a universal civilization [7].

This is the central domain of what we may term enlightenment-modernity, being the specific and unique creation of Europe. All problems were solved in relation to what this central domain demanded.

It is the theory of progress is the bedrock of this paradigm. This theory presumes that history as a teleological, universal Geist that brings together all of humanity’s experiences as one long culmination into the modern world. We are destined to be modern, because modernity recognises the fullest extent of human realisation and liberty. There may be setbacks here and there, but we will all surely “evolve.” By its nature, the theory of progress is an absolutist force that seeks to encompass the totality of space, yet also demands the relativity of time – the adage that certain morals and practices belong in certain times is a fundamental tenet of the theory, which has become widely held and popular among those exposed to the modern world. It is a given, and those arguing against this presumption are accused of attempting to hold humanity back.

In defiance of the theory of progress, Hallaq declares that “while the past is materially and institutionally defunct, its moral principles are not” [8]. In an age when the greatest attack against Islam is its supposed regression and incompatibility with modern values, Hallaq’s surgical dismemberment of the theory of progress serves as a beacon for those seeking passage out of the murky depths of liberal hegemony.

2. The Modern State

Ultimately, Europe took a radically different path, often termed The Great Divergence, during the period we may call enlightenment-modernity. This is a rough estimate of time beginning somewhere in the 17th or 18th century. The most consequential thing to emerge out of the material, institutional, and philosophical products of this time is the state. What distinguishes Hallaq’s conception of the modern state to pre-modern governance are the five form-properties (the essential elements) [9]:

  1. Its constitution as a historical experience that is specific and local
  2. Its sovereignty and the metaphysics to which it has given rise
  3. Its legislative monopoly and the related feature of monopoly over legitimate violence
  4. Its bureaucratic machinery
  5. Its cultural-hegemonic engagement in the social order, including its production of the national subject

Hallaq concedes that pre-modern political entities shared many aspects with the modern state, yet this alone is not enough to simply accept that they share the same genealogy, as the five form-properties make it distinct.

In the pre-modern world, the “state” (or polity, government, empire, kingdom, and any other form of political organisation) was one sphere of life in active competition with others. In Europe, that could mean social classes, guilds, the Church and so on. Life was complicated, with identities and allegiances overlapping. Today, the state comprises the totality of our lives: it demands our allegiance, it shapes our culture, and is often is in control of or entirely negates religion.

We take it for granted that no one can live outside of citizenship, for no one can find an independent space outside the state. There is no neutral site between one state and another and nothing that allows a human being to be just a human being, one without political, state-based affiliation [10].

Different forms of political organisation exist across the range of human civilisations, but the modern state itself cannot be simply transplanted into any of those settings or attached to their process. Furthermore, the state is a sovereign entity. It recognises not any higher power, but only itself. There is no moral cosmological order or ethical system that calls to beliefs and action going above the state; it is its own reference.

3. Separation of Powers

One of the cornerstones of the modern state is the theory of the separation of powers (which, alongside rule of law and democracy, are considered founding constitutional principles, even in authoritarian states that feature none of these aspects). One of the charges that Hallaq levels at modern Islamist movements is their thinking they may simply adopt the modern state and Islamify the three branches of government, often using convoluted arguments about how the Madinan state first presented this. If the separation of powers cannot operate in practice among the western states that developed it in the first place, how could a people with an entirely different ontological and epistemological approach seek to use it themselves? This draws parallels with today’s reformists who call for an Islamic liberalism to heal the woes of Muslim countries, yet the West itself is abandoning liberalism. In fact, Hallaq goes further. Not only can the separation of powers not be adopted, but also why should it, as the Shari’a paradigm offers a far better alternative.

Enlightenment-modernity oversaw the process whereby ethical and moral considerations were replaced by positivist and political ideals. Positivism rose through the victory of the Is/Ought distinction, whereby modern jurists separated morality from law and turned it into a purely positivist instrument. Hallaq contrasts this with Islam’s moral cosmology, found in the Qur’an and which orders all existence around a moral order. He also points out the intersection between the state, citizenship, nationalism, and violence. By the state’s very ability to command its citizens to kill and be killed for its sake, it seeks to transcend ethics and replace it with politics.

The modern state cannot be constructed on ethical grounds, nor can it ontologically operate as a moral entity. It “does not seek to enter the moral realm,” nor is it its duty “to make us good.” Any moral argument adduced in politics and in the framework of state domination is, in the final analysis, nothing but a political argument, a way to legitimize “political ambition.”

5. The Political Subject and Moral Technologies of the Self

Hallaq posits that before colonisation, which introduced European institutions such as modes of governance, economic organisation, and most importantly new paradigms of thought, Islamic civilisation formed distinct subjects. The pre-modern man was formed by the moral essence of Islam, which was not to be found solely in or controlled by any political organisation (for Hallaq, the ‘Ulema played this critical guardianship role). Colonisation put an end to that, as Europe forced its paradigm on Islamic civilisation, eviscerating the social, political, and economic structures that existed and were a direct product of the Islamic tradition, and replacing them with the modern state with its uniquely European experience.

This, he says, lies at the heart of all the contradictory attempts of many Islamist movements who take the modern state for granted: using western paradigms of thought and subject-formation to try to create Islamic states.

Modern Islamist discourses assume the modern state to be a neutral tool of governance… When not used for oppression, the machinery of state governance can be turned by leaders into a representative of the people’s will, determining thereby what the state will become: a liberal democracy, a socialist regime, or an Islamic state… The modern state…comes with its own arsenal of metaphysics and much else. It inherently produces certain distinctive effects that are political, social, economic, cultural, epistemic, and, no less, psychological [11].

TIS moves conversations around the state beyond neutral administrative procedures and shows how they distinctly shape their subjects. Hallaq builds on the work of Michel Foucault and uses the idea of “technologies of the Self,” a project that aims to draw from the substance of the five pillars of Islam, probably the only active element of the Shari’a still widely in practice today. It is within the Shahada (testimony of faith), Salah (five daily prayers), Zakat (charity), Sawm (fasting), and Hajj (pilgrimage) that we may find the moral resources to re-orient our lives towards a moral purpose. In essence, this is a call for self-governance. If the Muslim is to stay true to his beliefs and guided by the moral imperatives of his faith, he must develop the requisite “technologies of the Self” to do this [12]. Michel Foucault developed this term, stating,

Technologies of the self…permit individuals to effect by their own means, or with the help of others, a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality…” [13].

Traditional society had practices, rituals, and customs that acted as technologies of the Self, aimed at shaping the subject towards achieving particular ends. The evisceration of these traditions, a core part of the enlightenment project, resulted in the loss of these technologies. In essence, we are unmoored souls that lie entirely at the mercy at the vicissitudes of the era’s prevailing mood.

The modern state replaced the technologies of the Self with its own forms of discipline and regulation, unprecedented in their scope and subjectivity. Prisons, schools, and hospitals are just some of the institutions working in tandem that possess distinct ideological aims and the desire to discipline and shape its subjects. Once again, Hallaq exposes what appear to be neutral, procedural institutions to be imbued with ideological or even metaphysical assumptions. These modern forms aim to engender two attributes in their subject: submission and utility. Submission is docility and obeying, and utility as the material productiveness of the subject. This is as an external force, as opposed to the internal discipline provided by the technologies of the Self that were found embedded in Islam’s moral frameworks. The evisceration of the family, guilds, and religious institutions are part-and-parcel of the state’s ever-expanding tools of subjectivity to form citizens that are wholly obedient and useful for the state.

6. Beleaguering Globalization and Moral Economy

This chapter moves beyond theories around constitutions and the separation of powers into the realm of international politics, economic imbalances, and power structures. Hallaq directly challenges those grappling with the question of Islam and enlightenment-modernity: how would an Islamically-paradigmatic form of governance exist alongside other modern states; how would it be able to sustain and defend itself without accepting the global capitalist system? Today, Muslim states face this dilemma. Can a state that buys into the global financial system, participating in interest-based lending and borrowing to build a modern, consumer economy, thereby trapping itself firmly within the net of global finance, call itself independent and Muslim in a paradigmatic sense? Is it possible for a polity that believes it belongs in a moral order to participate in a fundamentally immoral system of states? I, myself, am on the horns of dilemma. If I am to reject this integral part of enlightenment-modernity as being un-Islamic and thus impossible to pursue, then can I really accept any other project that entails riding the tiger?


People often ignore the references and bibliography of a book; these are some of the most important chapters in itself. The bibliography contains the authors that the writer draws upon, all relevant to the subject and necessary to engage with to continue one’s study of the subject. Once you have finished with TIS, you will be equipped with the understanding needed to further explore this field of knowledge. However, this relationship is not one-way; while reading TIS, you can and should refer to the notes for references on a point Hallaq makes that you do not understand. Circle the works that feature prominently throughout Hallaq’s books, as well as other famous names in academia that you may notice. Put them on your reading list and it will begin to form a web of research and reading. Through this syntonical strategy, you will learn much and be able to contribute to the discussion around Islam, politics, and modernity’s moral predicament.


TIS’ conclusion is sobering. The Islamic tradition is a colossus, yet all attempts to draw from it today have failed or turn up in a piecemeal fashion, far removed from its original spirit. There is a subtle warning about time: the farther we move away from this tradition, the less chance that it may be retrieved and built upon. Eventually it will disappear into the obscurities of history and we may be firmly disconnected.

Like most books tackling the problem of Islam and enlightenment-modernity, Hallaq’s conclusion is open ended. Some have criticised this, for why would one write a book full of criticisms and deconstructions, yet fail to offer a concrete solution? Nonetheless, I find it satisfying that through the immense syntonical effort presented in this work, his humble conclusion impresses upon the reader the magnitude of the challenge that Islamic civilisation faces today. No one person can possibly understand at an expert level the variety of issues that Islamic civilisation faces, let alone provide an all-binding solution on which we may act upon. It is up to the readers themselves to ensure that the dialectic continues, reading and discussing the contents of TIS, developing their own ideas, and synthesising them. We can ask no more of mortal men.

*Hallaq employs his own interpretation of the word “paradigm.” However, it is highly technical and for the sake of the average reader, I have replaced it with a simpler translation

Amazon link to the book hereThis is not a sponsored post. 

Works Cited:

  1. Alternative Paradigms, Davutoglu (Ahmet) – University Press of America, 1993
  2. p. X, The Impossible State, Hallaq (Wael) – Columbia Press, 2014
  3. Page 11, This Law of Ours, Asad (Muhammad) – Islamic Book Trust, 2001
  4. p. 7,The Impossible State, Hallaq (Wael) – Columbia Press, 2014
  5. Ibid. p. 10
  6. Ibid. p. 6
  7. Ibid. p. 8
  8. Ibid. p. 18
  9. Ibid. p. 23
  10. Ibid. p. 91
  11. Ibid. p. 155-156
  12. The Winnowing of American Democracy (on self-government):
  13. Technologies of the Self, Foucault (Michel).

Image Credit: stuz0r

About the Author: Dimashqee is a student of history and politics, focusing on statecraft, geopolitics, and world history.

Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.

3 thoughts on “Musings on The Impossible State

  1. Fascinating read.
    In my humble opinion, the acceptance and desire for death (and meeting The Creator) has left the Muslim Ummah. We strive for dominance and power in this Dunya. Either that is through winning wars or through competing within the capitalist system. So even if we accept death, it is with this long term goal of attainment of power/prestige. As a result, we have Muslim armies for “survival”, but not for “upholding truth”. We all want to be Khalid Bin Waleed (R.A.) but no one wants to be Hussain Bin Ali (R.A.).

    In order to truly figure out a solution for this dilemma, the Muslim Ummah will have to start standing up for the simple virtuous qualities of truth, honesty, integrity and patience. This has to be done at all levels. From against the fruit vendors who are trying to earn more through dishonesty to against the government officials who are involved in corruption – the voices of truth have to find courage. Those who possess this courage will face challenges of uncertainty in life, uncertainty about future prospects, uncertainty about sources of Rizq (when those in power hit back for being against them), and will have to have an absolutely unshakable belief in God and His Total Control over all apparent systems of survival and prosperity. They will have to face the fear of death, but will have to also believe in the weight of pure intentions and ALLAH’s plans for those who stand by HIS side.

    Islam has the enemy within. That enemy is coward and corrupt. Honest, Akhirah minded Muslims and a few more battles of Karbala will be needed to destroy that enemy and move forward.

    Until then, we will be the perfect description of this hadeeth by the Holy Prophet (S.A.W.):

    “On the authority of Thawbaan , the Prophet said:

    “The People will soon summon one another to attack you as people when eating invite others to share their food.” Someone asked, “Will that be because of our small numbers at that time?” He replied, “No, you will be numerous at that time: but you will be froth and scum like that carried down by a torrent (of water), and Allah will take the fear of you from the breasts (hearts) of your enemy and cast al-wahn into your hearts.” Someone asked, “O Messenger of Allah, what is al-wahn?” He replied, “Love of the world and dislike of death.” [An authentic hadith recorded by Abu Dawud and Ahmad]”

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