Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Idolatry of Modernity and the Impossibile State

In the concluding chapter of his book The Impossible State, Wael B. Hallaq argues that the crisis of the Muslim world is not a uniquely Muslim crisis, but is the crisis faced by all of humanity in our present times. This crisis stems from modernity, from Enlightenment philosophy, from a humanism that says “man is the measure of all things”.
Hallaq presents two worldviews in fundamental contradiction to one another. On the one hand, we have a theology that says we live in a universe saturated with moral values, with reasons that make normative demands of us (165). These moral demands transcend human subjectivity: they are part of the created world in which we live, and they come from God, the only Sovereign. On the other hand, we have a humanism that says we live in a value-free universe, and that the only moral constraints on us have their origin in human Reason.

Hallaq characterizes this humanism as accepting at its foundation the Enlightenment distinction between Is and Ought, between fact and value. This Enlightenment orthodoxy views the natural world as value-free; consequently, the world can be treated as a mere object which makes no moral demands on us (163).

“[T]he world is seen ‘as ultimately nothing more than the matter in motion…normatively mute, [and] barren of any guidance as to how we are to conduct ourselves’” (Hallaq on p.164 quotes Charles Larmore, The Autonomy of Morality [Cambridge, 2008], 111-112).

As value cannot be found in the world, humanism locates the source of moral demands in the Kantian conception of “autonomous and self-legislative reason”.

“But the appeal of autonomous rationality as grounded in freedom is in no way a fortuitous one, for the essence of this brand of rationality is precisely the will to freedom….the freedom of man to rule over nature and all that is found in it, including ‘anything’ human that may come to be defined as integral to it (e.g., the ‘noble savage,’ those beings who live ‘in a state of nature’). It is the freedom from the obligations of living under the moral demands of this world as a cosmic system of value that imposes, as such, its own constraints on us. The ethics of autonomy, which derives from this freedom, has been so dominant that [Susan Korsgaard] went so far as to declare it ‘the only one consistent with the metaphysics of the modern world.’” (in her Sources of Normativity, 5; here Hallaq is dependent on Larmore’s criticism of Korsgaard, loc cit.)

This is to say that humanistic belief in the autonomy of Reason removes all constraints that might be found outside of Reason itself, and that once these constraints are gone, it is relatively easy to objectify and, thus, justify the domination of not only the natural world but human beings, e.g. those of “inferior races” or “lower classes”—or any individual or group objectified as ‘Other’.
            According to the theological worldview that stands in contradiction to this humanism, human Reason is morally constrained by norms that are found in the world, norms which ultimately come from God. Hallaq follows the arguments of contemporary Western moral philosopher Charles Larmore, asserting that human Reason is not an agent that legislates moral norms (as Kant conceived); rather, human Reason is “a faculty that we who are [the] agents, exercise more or less well” (Hallaq, 164, quoting Larmore, 109). In his Introduction to Islamic Law, Hallaq argues that classical Islamic law and theology rejected the idea that “rational thinking–even in its best forms–[is] sufficient for Muslims to know precisely how to conduct themselves” (14). While “most Muslim theologians held the view that rational thinking is a gift from God and that we should fully utilize it–like everything else that He bestowed on us–in as wise and responsible a manner as possible”, they argued that the substantive content of our ethics, especially its epistemological starting point—“how do we determine what is good and what is evil?”—cannot come from human Reason alone, but must come from God—that is, from divine Revelation (i.e., the Qur’an) (15).

“[I]t is not only precisely how we think but also, and equally important, what substantive assumptions must we make when exercising our processes of thought? For example, the content of our modern rationalist thinking about the natural environment may be our immediate concern with material welfare and physical comfort (leading, among other things, to heavy industrialization), but the consequences of this thinking and the ensuing actions could well lead us to an environmental disaster. On the other hand, if the positive content of our rationalist thinking were to be, say, the integrity of the natural order (as, for example, Buddhism teaches), then our conclusions and therefore resultant actions and effects would be entirely different, despite the fact that nothing in our rationalist methods themselves has changed.
“God is the One who created the world and therefore the One who knows its secrets. We may exercise our intellects to their fullest capacity, but without His aid, we will overlook and misunderstand much. The content of rationality, in [the Muslim jurists’ and theologians’] thinking must thus be predetermined by the all-knowing God, who has revealed a particular body of knowledge through the Quran and the Prophet. This combination, viewed as a marriage between reason and revelation, was the ultimate source of law. Law, put differently, was the child of this marriage” (Introduction to Islamic Law, 15).

It is a fundamental presupposition of the Sharī‘a “that fact and value are one and the same, that all existence is a unity” (Impossible State, 158). Values that make demands on us are here in the world. For example,

“In the very terms ‘poor’ and ‘poverty’, the value of an inherent right to aid, assistance, and compassion is intertwined with and indistinguishably meshed into the fact of descending into poverty. There is no ‘poor’ in the vocabulary and conceptual categories of Islamic governance that can be distinguished in any way from the deontological moral value not only of the poor’s right to aid but also of a commensurate duty incumbent upon those who can provide it. This type of nondistinction is pervasive, extending to nature and the nature of things” (158).

            Hallaq’s criticism of modernity—of the idolatry of the state—is at root criticism of the distorted moral vision of the humanism that makes human Reason rather than God the Creator and Revealer the ultimate source of morality. Modernity’s distorted view of the world and of human Reason is behind the amoral ends of the state which stand in sharp contrast to the justice of God.

“[T]he modern state…remains engaged in a preeminently material world of Fact. It depends on and promotes a homo economicus whose exclusive and ultimate desideratum is material profit and little else. This stands in sharp contrast with the morally constructed homo economicus of Islam and its governance, a species that is subordinated to a higher moral imperative. … The paradigmatic Muslim homo economicus seeks wealth and profit but remains materially and psychologically committed to social responsibility…. As everything is owned by the Ultimate Sovereign, wealth and profit are not possessed by or destined for only the rich. They are made ‘from’ and ‘for the sake of the Ultimate Sovereign,’ whose Rights are identical with those of the rights of the poor and unprivileged. In this equation, the poor are integral to God, and He is integral to them. Serve them, and you serve God; serve God, and you serve them” (161)

(For the scriptural grounds of a comparable Christian theology, see Deuteronomy 6:10-15 and Matthew 25:31-46.)
The Revelation of God is a call to justice, a reminder of the moral demands the elements of God’s created universe make on us. And this call to justice, this revelation of “a cosmic moral order” is the foundation of the Sharī‘a as it is the heart of the Qur’an.

“While fulfilling contracts, distributing shares of inheritance, and punishing the offender constituted a part—however miniscule—of the Qur’anic corpus, any insightful reader of the text cannot fail to realize that these substantive “judgments” were incidental byproducts of the overarching Qur’anic message: that we humans do not own the eart; that there is something or someone bigger than us; that being created in communities concomitantly creates the obligation on our part to perform good works; that humanity and morality are concomitant; that divine omnipotence, however, eternal and abstract, is functionally and sociologically laid in the service of these grand moral imperatives” (166-167)

            Hallaq argues that the classical Muslim jurists, the keepers of the Sharī‘a, “all recognized the permanency of this moral domain” but that they also all recognized “that the particular legal norms to be derived from this moral domain are situational, subject to the never-ending ijtihad” (167). In this theological perspective, Hallaq grounds a moral philosophy that both acknowledges an objective, irreducible, permanent world of moral norms and acknowledges the relativity of morality to culture, time, and place. Politically, this means Hallaq is opposed to one group’s imposing its specific moral and political system on all other groups. He calls for Muslims to engage in dialogue using a vocabulary that “attends to the concept of rights within the context of the necessity to construct variants of the moral order befitting each society. Here, Muslims engaged in this process would be convinced and would expend the utmost intellectual energy in persuading others—including Muslim liberals—that universalism and a universalist theory of rights can have no fate but ultimate failure” (169).
            That Hallaq opposes universalism (itself a modern, liberal notion) means that he does not accept a one-size-fits-all social and political order. Yet he recognizes that there are voices in many cultures today calling for a moral critique of modernity and of the modern state: “all these voices—Muslim and Christian, Eastern and Western—are responding to the same moral condition, however much their respective vocabularies and idioms may differ from each other” (169). He calls for all of these cross-cultural voices to “transcend their ethnocentricity and join ranks in the interrogation of the modern project and its state”, to “dismantle the pernicious myth of a clash of civilizations”, and to help create an anti-modern vision “that installs the moral as the central domain of world cultures, irrespective of ‘civilizational’ variants” (169).
            A moral awakening of this sort, Hallaq argues, is a pre-condition of Islamic governance. And this is why any attempt by Islamists (or by the Christian Right or the Christian Left) to employ the state as a tool to effect social and legal justice involves a contradiction in terms. This is why an “Islamic state” (or, in my own estimation, a “Christian nation”) is an impossibility.

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