Restating Orientalism

A Critique of Modern Knowledge

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Wael Hallaq
  • New York, NY: 
    Columbia University Press
    , July
     392 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Since the 1980’s, Wael Hallaq has been known to American scholars as a specialist of Muslim law who, over the years, has concluded that shari’a law is morally superior to Western common law. In his last book, Restating Orientalism. A Critique of Modern Knowledge, Hallaq notes that “shari’a represented, and was constituted by, a moral law. Its paradigmatic status lies in the very fact of its being a moral system” (77). Hallaq put forward this assumption in his previous book The Impossible State (Columbia University Press, 2013), claiming that Muslims cannot comply with shari’a when they are living in a nation-state that bestows legislative function to an executive power, reminding the reader that—under Muslim law—this function belongs to society through fuqaha and ulemas. The logical consequence of this statement, as Hallaq indicates, is that contemporary Muslims are sinful to the extent that they are disobeying the divine law. Furthermore, he asserts that Muslims have two choices: either return to shari’a that the postcolonial state has mutilated through multiple juridical reforms (which implies giving up the building of a modern state); or give up shari’a and organize politically in the form of a nation-state (imposed by the global order since the beginning of colonial domination). For Hallaq, the Muslim countries have chosen the second path. 

In his last book, Restating Orientalism. A Critique of Modern Knowledge, Hallaq deepens this reflection on the basis that modernity, born in Europe, is at the origin of colonialism, genocide, and orientalism. He finds fault with Edward Said who superficially addressed the issue of European-American orientalism, putting aside its intellectual and political roots, (i.e., liberalism and Enlightenment)Modernity, at large, led to sovereign domination over peoples and nature. “In the process of scapegoating Orientalism, Said and the very discursive field his work has created have left untouched the structural anchors of the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, as well as their political manifestations in the larger modern project” (6). By ignoring the intellectual roots of orientalism, Said failed in his attempt and labelled thinkers like Louis Massignon, an admirer of Sufism, or René Guénon, the mystic thinker who converted to Islam, as Orientalists. Hallaq argues that “René Guénon, a credentialed orientalist who—as a case study—subverts Said’s narrative” (22).

Hallaq’s book is dense and deserves a thorough examination that would be better served by a more lengthy review. However, it is important to draw attention to two inconstancies: the first pertains to a theoretical incoherence in the criticism of modernity by Hallaq (who does not refer to the worldview and values defended by Massignon, Guénon, or even Henry Corbin, in order to make his case). Instead, to rebuke modernity, Hallaq uses the writings of thinkers like Theodor Adorno, Antonio Gramsci, Hannah Arendt—and most importantly—Michel Foucault. In doing so, Hallaq faces a huge theoretical problem insofar as these thinkers criticize the bourgeois society, and its violence and inequality, on behalf of the values of the Enlightenment which capitalist societies have been unable to meet. These thinkers are Kantians or Neo-Kantians and do not praise the medieval cosmology to which Hallaq seems attached. Even though these thinkers are critical of bourgeois society for its failure to implement the liberation and moral progress promised by the discourse of the Enlightenment, they do not adhere to the theocentric social order common in the middle ages.

The second inconstancy is that Hallaq betrays Foucault’s belief that “the modern age is that of man as object of knowledge and as knowing subject” (What is Enlightenment? Pantheon, 1984). In The Order of Things: an Archeology of the Human Sciences (Pantheon Books, 1971), Foucault studies the origins of the social sciences, revealing a disenchantment and expressing the demise of medieval metaphysics following the birth of a new episteme. Hallaq rejects an intellectual modernity built on this Foucauldian episteme, using the word “epistemic” so often that it loses its emphasis with its repetition on each page of the book. Yet Hallaq misjudges the concept that Foucault coined to address the cognitive change Europe experienced in the 18th -19th centuries. Here Hallaq does not perceive that Europe created a new philosophy radically different from the ancient Greek philosophy that was asserting the theocentric worldview. A new anthropocentric social order, which Hallaq is opposed to, emerged to the detriment of the theocentric one, arguing that “[p]ut in another way, classical Islam’s conception of the world, which directly effected the juridico-political structures, is non-anthropocentric” (81).

Furthermore, Hallaq idealizes Muslim history, opining the illusion that violence and inequality belong exclusively to European modernity. He does not believe that violence is inherent in social life and human anthropology. Hallaq reckons that Muslim history did not experience “the Schmittian notion of political enemy,” and concludes that hatred did not exist among Muslims. “Collective identity is thus an identity of bellicosity and hate, for by [Carl] Schmitt’s own logic … the ‘love’ of the self is structurally grounded in the hate of the other, always the enemy” (91). Hallaq idealizes the  perception of the Muslim driven by virtue and protected by shari’a, in comparison with the modern European mired in violence and a lust for power. In separating Muslims so deeply from Europeans, Hallaq strikes a blow to the anthropological unity of humankind. If Hallaq had read Machiavelli, he would have learned that “the Prince,”—Christian or Muslim—always has political enemies over whom he exerts a cruel barbarity when challenged. If Hallaq read Thomas Hobbes, he would have understood that “humankind is driven by an insatiable lust for power upon power, lust that ends only with death” (Leviathan). Hallaq does not refer to Ali Abderrazak, (Al Islam oua Usul al Hukm, Cairo, 1925), nor to Ibn Khaldoun who offers a parallel power theory to the philosophy of Hobbes, partaking the same anthropological pessimism. Admittedly, Ibn Khaldoun has been mired by religious discourse from the beginning, though it is worth reminding that his work was discovered by Orientalists in the 19th century. William Slane, known as baron de Slane, translated Ibn Khaldoun’s Muqqadima into French in 1847 and this was the text that Mohamed Abdu taught to his students in Dar al Ouloum in Cairo at the end of the 19th century.

Finally, Said’s book, buffered by philosophy and the social sciences, addresses orientalism better than Hallaq does here. For Said, orientalism is an ethnocentric representation of the Orient by Europe. This representation is clothed in an academic discourse that bestows an intellectual legitimacy to Western domination. However, we should recognize that the force of this discourse stems from the inability of Muslims to produce an academic discourse on their own history and societies. By rejecting both the social sciences, and their Kantian underpinning, Hallaq strengthens the intellectual hegemony of orientalism.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Lahouari Addi is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Lyon, France.  His latest book is Radical Arab Nationalism and Political Islam, Georgetown University Press, 2017).

Date of Review: 
January 17, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Wael B. Hallaq is Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University, where he teaches and writes about Islamic law, ethics, and intellectual history. His books, translated into a number of languages, include Shariʿa: Theory, Practice, Transformations(2009) and The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament (2013), which won Columbia University Press’s Distinguished Book Award.


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