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Book Review of The Impossible State by Wael Hallaq

6 Pages Posted: 27 Aug 2013  

Lama Abu-Odeh

Georgetown University Law Center

Date Written: 2013


In his book, The Impossible State, Wael Hallaq argues that the modern state is a bad fit for Muslims. This is so because the paradigm of “Islamic Governance”, developed through centuries of Islamic rule, and the modern state of the West are incompatibles if not altogether contradictory. The modern state, a European invention and an expression of the unique unfolding of Europe’s history, being premised on the deep penetration by the nation state of its population, a separation of powers between the executive, legislative and the judiciary that is always faltering, a separation between the is and the ought and the primacy of the political over everything else goes against the very grain of the Islamic non-state. The latter, by contrast according to Hallaq, is organized organically around the center of God’s sovereignty, Sharia being the moral code, the privileged expression of His Will. The translation of Sharia the moral code into law unfolds through the work of a learned juristic class that acts as mediator between the community, to which the jurists are organically connected, and God the sovereign. The world of Islam is moral by excellence that rejects the separation between fact and norm, for whom the “political” is confined to executive rulers of rotating dynasties that remain external to the embryonic tight embrace between jurists and community, whose role is to tax, organize armies, and regulate on the margins. In this universe, the “the care of the self” by the individual Muslim to fashion oneself as moral according to the dictates of the Sharia is the organizing principle of life, which is in contradistinction to the pitiable plight of the modern Western citizen whose subjectivity is fashioned by the state for its own selfish utilitarian ends. Pulling a Huntington-inreverse, Hallaq argues that not only the modern state thrown by Europe into Muslim shores by force a bad fit for Muslims, it is decidedly inferior to the counter model of Islamic governance. For Muslims, due to their “paradigm” of governance, had lived in peace and tranquility for centuries, spared the revolutions and tumults of Europe, as they had been historically free of the tyranny of monarchs, the cruelty of feudalism and the abuses of the church, all of which had forced their European compatriots to rebel!

Hallaq ends by on the one hand inviting the West to recognize the radical-ness of the Muslim other and to give up its imposed universalisms. Indeed, he invites the West to open its heart and mind to the Islamic model, for who knows it might learn to be enlightened by it. On the other, he expresses skepticism of contemporary projects of Islamic reconstruction of law such as Islamic finance because the modern state is the background assumption and the locus for such projects. The problem according to Hallaq is that such attempts proceed to reconstruct law while leaving aside the reconstruction of the moral Muslim who Islamic governance assumed to be the ontological prior to law and litigation. Deprived of the moral context that lend them the quality “Islamic” such projects are either inauthentically so or are doomed to failure.

Keywords: Islam model, Muslim, Islamic governance, Sharia, foreign law, international law

JEL Classification: K00, K33, K39

Suggested Citation

Abu-Odeh, Lama, Book Review of The Impossible State by Wael Hallaq (2013). International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Forthcoming. Available at SSRN:

Lama Abu-Odeh (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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