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The ‘Impossible State’ and Challenges of Modernity


By Fahad Suleiman Shoqiran

16 January 2018

With the wave of changes taking place in Iran, the decline of the ISIS, and the prospects of al-Qaeda’s return, questions about the religious state and its relations to ethics and modernity have returned the fore. The state cannot survive under the theocratic system unless it has effective modern institutions.

Therefore, it is claimed that Iran is a modern state and not an Islamic state because of the existence of constitutional arbitration councils that safeguard the interests of the regime. Even ISIS and the areas controlled by al-Qaeda had such institutions and organizations. A state has to be built on modern legal foundations.

It should have the ability to set up a system built on equality among citizens. We cannot separate the state from its values and its ideologies and the spirit in its institutions, hence the difference between the “possible” modern state and the impossible “theocratic” state in the modern context.

The concept of The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament is the title of a book by Wael Hallaq, a professor at Columbia University, which was published in 2012. The book has stirred controversy, because of his critical understanding of the shape of the state and its relation to ethics, modernity and secularism.

Through his work, the author tries to understand the influence of the West on modern political system. Professor Hallaq is inspired by Professor Talal Asad, who has criticized secularism and provides new scholastic insights through his book Formations of The Secular: Christianity, Islam and Modernity.

Jurisprudence of Classical Islam

Since the 1990s, Hallaq’s works have dealt with “the jurisprudence of classical Islam, the emergence of Islamic jurisprudence, the authority of the doctrine and the history of jurisprudential theory”. He has an upcoming book in cooperation with Columbia University on Orientalism. The Impossible State tackles issues of Political Islam and secularism with a thorough analysis of the concepts of the state, law, institution and the individual.

In his book, Wael Hallaq has studied political Islam and its form of jurisprudence as a basis for examining the possibilities of achieving the ‘impossible’ Islamic state as it tries to acquire legitimacy within the historical possibility. Jurisprudence is not law, although jurisprudence states that: “It is characterized by legal pluralism, not because it recognizes local traditions, takes them into account and carries them seriously, but also because it presents a range of views on the basis of one system of the same facts.”

It adds that if the law, “as a representative of sovereign will, is everywhere, the distribution of legal force does not only intersect with (every individual life plan) but also with each unit that constitute the state. If the law, defined as a normative system, penetrates into these units vertically and horizontally, it is legitimate to question the relationship between this normative system and the institutions that embody it, especially those that specialize in solving arguments and activating its own principles.

Modernist Intellectual View

Hallaq goes beyond the modernist intellectual view of the West, a criticism that seems surprising at first glance. However, researcher Mohamed Hashas presented an important study that addresses some of the confusion presented by the theory of the impossible state.

He points out that: “al-Hallaq presented harsh criticism of western modernity and the concept of a modern state, supporting his arguments with (references from) the great philosophers of the West in the modern era … such as Emmanuel Kant, Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, Max Weber, Carl Schmidt, Theodor Adorno, Michel Foucault, John Rawls, Pierre Bourdieu, John Gray, Michael Walzer, and Charles Taylor. The writer sums up his critique of modernity and its appearance in the concept of the modern state”.

Hallaq does not consider his thesis to be part of a parallel alternative to a new secularism, such as the theoretical proposals put forward by some Arab intellectuals like Ali Abdul Razak and George Tarabishi, but rather takes another approach.

In an interview with Egyptian researcher and translator Karim Mohammed, he stated: “I deeply disagree with Ali Abdul Razek’s basic thesis on Islamic political governance. Hence, there is nothing in the impossible state book that acknowledges Abdel Razek’s ideas if it is read correctly. Government and politics (in the general sense of the two terms) were tools for organizing society in a complex structure. Islam has since introduced a solid approach to governance, but also more flexible and changing approach than we have seen in the last two or three decades in the West (and all over the world recently). Abdel Razak was wrong in his argument that Islam did not provide a model for politics and governance. This is another thematic problem whose justification can be discovered in the folds of the book.”

In his book, al Hallaq says: “The law in Islam is essentially a social phenomenon, not a political one. It is connected to society, not to the state, regardless of the definition of the state.” This is a major problem that will not be solved by a single thesis, but the author’s contribution is important in light of the escalating talk about the imaginary “Islamic state” in the light of fundamentalism and its many branches.

Fahad Shoqiran is a Saudi writer and researcher who also founded the Riyadh philosophers group. His writings have appeared in pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat,, among others. He also blogs on philosophies, cultures and arts.