Wael Hallaq. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013.
Reviewed by Said Salih Kaymakci
The title of Wael Hallaq’s book contains his main argument. The Islamic State is the Impossible State because the modern state devoid of morality is a European invention with a clear European genealogy. Hallaq substantiates his argument through a description of the historical rise of the modern state and its comparison to the “paradigmatic Islamic governance.” The delineating features of modern state are its sovereignty, monopoly of power, domination of the process of subjectivity formation, and its discursive abstraction as a universal, timeless and enduring subject (pp.23-36). This is the result of a process Hallaq traces back to the rise of powerful absolutist European monarchs who were sovereign in the sense that they had legislative power and used legislation to give discipline and order to the societies they ruled. He notes that armies and barracks were the first institutions of coercion and discipline and that conscription signaled the arrival of the modern state. Prisons, schools, and hospitals later joined this system as institutions of discipline and control. Hallaq argues that disciplining operations carried over the body through these institutions created tamed -and politically innocuous- “state subjects”. The modern state project, therefore, entailed the rise of the legal and political devoid of the moral, which inculcated the citizens, or “state subjects,” who would sacrifice their lives for the state.
Hallaq contrasts this European development with the “paradigmatic Islamic governance” based on a morally grounded “paradigmatic sharia” that could not accommodate absolutism and a top to down disciplining apparatus. Muslim rulers lacked sovereignty, which belonged to God. That is, they did not have legislative power, which remained at the hands of ulama as the interpreters of divine law. The modern Arabic equivalent of the state, dawla, meant transitory dynastic rule, which Hallaq identifies as “executive sultanism” (p.66). Hallaq contends that “Islam never knew conscription” and that the armies of Muslim sultans consisted of slave soldiers. The disciplining operations in Muslim community were carried out through the bottom-up moral technologies of the self. Therefore, he argues, a modern “Islamic State” is “the Impossible State.”
Review of Hallaq’s Treatment of the History of the Modern “European” State
Hallaq’s synoptic examination of the philosophical foundations of the modern state and its historical rise in Europe as an object of comparison for the paradigmatic Islamic governance and his meta-narrative deserves credit as this is an enormous task and a pioneering attempt that adapts an interdisciplinary approach, encompassing a long historical period. Yet, his treatment of both European and Islamic histories is misinformed and outdated.
“Hallaq’s notion of almighty absolutist monarchs and states were once conventional in the European historiography that contrasted the historical trajectory of the continental Europe to the different trajectory of Britain.”Hallaq’s notion of almighty absolutist monarchs and states were once conventional in the European historiography that contrasted the historical trajectory of the continental Europe to the different trajectory of Britain. This historiography followed that continental Europe was defined by absolutist monarchies and states whereas Britain adapted a limited form of government.
The old orthodoxy of absolutism, however, gave way to a new nuanced understanding of absolutism “as social collaboration.” While the top to down disciplining processes continues to hold its explanatory power for the European experience, the role of bottom up processes have come to be seen as equally important and these two are not viewed as mutually exclusive. Even the epitome of European absolutist monarchs, Louis XIV, did not have the powers Hallaq envisioned for “absolutist” kings. The sovereignty of the king came from his power to change the public law, not private law or property laws- a distinction Hallaq fails to make. The divine, natural and customary laws bound the king. Even in the matters of public law and military affairs the king needed the collaboration of nobles and parlements, which were their representative institutions rather than being able to subject them to his “absolute will.” In the early modern era (1500-1800), the European kings indeed gained more power and the state developed both conceptually and as a reality but this process was not as simple as Hallaq wants us to believe. Even if we accept what the modern state came to be in Hallaq’s terms, its historical genealogy is different than we find in his narrative.
Hallaq’s Great Omission: A look into The Impossible State with Reference to the Ottoman Experience with Modernity
The flaws in Hallaq’s reading of European history can be overlooked given that it is not his main area of study and his focus is on Islamic history. And yet, it is exactly because of his misinformed treatment of the latter subject matter that it is difficult to extend Hallaq the benefit of doubt. Although Hallaq spent all his academic life in rebutting the Orientalist paradigm that argued that the sharia was frozen through the closure of the gates of ijtihad, in The Impossible State he does not shy away from depicting a picture of frozen paradigmatic Islamic governance based on the sharia.
“Although Hallaq spent all his academic life in rebutting the Orientalist paradigm that argued that the sharia was frozen through the closure of the gates of ijtihad, in The Impossible State he does not shy away from depicting a picture of frozen paradigmatic Islamic governance based on the sharia.”In Hallaq’s account, Islamic governance is depicted as antithetical to the modern state while his portrait of Europe is dynamic. In this narrative, an Islamic constitutional order made the modernization and creation of a modern state impossible and paradigmatic Islamic governance dominated the Islamic world until the nineteenth century. It seems that in Hallaq’s account paradigmatic Islamic governance took its final shape long before the Ottomans. He does not examine how the Ottomans responded to the challenge of governance when they encountered the advent of modern state formation and rise of “state discipline” in Europe during the early modern ages. In this era, the fate of the “paradigmatic” Islamic governance was far from being sealed and there was a contestation for the best form of governance among the members of the Ottoman ruling elite and ulama, which amounted to a constitutional conflict. Ottoman constitutionalists were the defenders of the spirit of what Hallaq calls “paradigmatic Islamic governance.” The absolutists, however, envisioned higher powers for the sultan that included the right to change the public law. The relationship between constituent elements of “siyasa shariyya” (Hallaq defines it as “Islamic juristic-political theory and practice”), “siyasa” (“executive political management” according to Hallaq), and sharia was not as smooth as Hallaq seeks to describe. The constitutionalist defenders of sharia saw the siyasa of the rulers as an attempt to infringe upon the domain of sharia. They either totally rejected recourse to siyasa or aimed to limit its use to the executive branch. The absolutist exponents of siyasa on the other hand took pains to justify the sultan’s “right” to use siyasa to enact kanun (public laws and regulations) “in accordance with sharia” and apply them. It was the triumph of the constitutionalists in this conflict that preserved the paradigmatic Islamic color of the Ottoman governance until the nineteenth century. This process was far removed from the frozen picture depicted by Hallaq; it was a dynamic process of negotiation.
The Arabic word “dawla” which Hallaq freezes at its medieval use of dynastic rule, displayed a conceptual development in the Ottoman lexicon. The Ottoman constitutionalists elaborated the concept of dawla (“devlet” in Ottoman Turkish) in an attempt to limit the powers of the sultan and the dynasty and to separate the government from them. By early sixteenth century, the Ottoman authors began to call their state Sublime Eternal State (Devlet-i Aliyye-i Ebed Mudded), a conception contradicting Hallaq’s temporal conception of dawla. In addition, by the first half of the eighteenth century the Islamic State (Devlet-i Islamiyye), a term Hallaq claims never existed before the modernity, just as the former, enters Ottoman lexicon. In the early seventeenth century, the state and religion (dinu devlet) came to be the twin concept at the epicenter of all political texts, replacing the use of “the religion and sultan as twins” found in the Islamic literature since twelfth century. There was even a sense that the state was a legal innovation with religion being the foundation (asl) and the sate as the branch (fer) based on it.
While they were contemporaneous to the conceptual transformation of the state in early modern Europe, Ottoman constitutionalists preserved the paradigmatic elements as a reflection of their concern for an ideal form of governance. This rendered the development of Ottoman conception of the state different. The basic element, which made the European rulers and states sovereign, that is the legislative power, was missing in the Sublime State. The Ottoman constitutionalists conceptualized the state as an executive apparatus with no law making power. By the seventeenth century, they had been using the genres of reform treatises, mirror for princes, histories and ethics tracts to progressively reject the law-making power of the sultans of their times. In this literature, public law became a negotiated space with sharia at its epicenter. At the same time, different interpretations of customary laws by different groups such as janissaries, civil officialdom, local notables, merchants, and guildsmen existed alongside sharia. This led to an appearance of legal stagnation whereby each group claimed a certain set of rights based on an unwritten ancient “bills of rights” and constitution that the sultans of their times could not change.
“…the paradigms surrounding Ottoman Islamic governance was far from the frozen image in Hallaq’s book. Yet, the gradual change that took place displayed the continuing importance of constant elements of the pragmatic foundation.”
The Ottomans prayed for the continuation of the religion and the state (devam-i dinu devlet). An instrumental approach to the state meant that the interest in it was only to uphold the religion and community of Muslims rather than to continue the existence of the state for its own sake. The sublimity and eternity associated with the state had its origins in its association with the religion. The concept of the good, “maslaha” (and interests of the state) was prevalent in the eighteenth century political writing but this was never thought to be the good of the state alone. “The good of the state” was equated to and undifferentiated from the good of the religion (dinu devlet maslahati) and servants of God (maslahat-i ibadullah) as the state was thought to be the upholder of the order in which the existence of the religion and the community of believers could continue. Apparently, the paradigmatic element in the Islamic governance that prioritized the community and religion was diehard while “dawla” was gaining new meanings. What is clear, however, as these examples suggest, is that the paradigms surrounding Ottoman Islamic governance was far from the frozen image in Hallaq’s book. Yet, the gradual change that took place displayed the continuing importance of constant elements of the pragmatic foundation.
“War Making” and “State Making” in the World of the “Paradigmatic” Ottoman Governance
The main strain on the Ottoman Islamic governance was the military challenge of modernizing European polities. An example supporting Hallaq’s “paradigmatic” picture of conscription as the harbinger of modern state and its absence in “Islamic governance” where armies made of “slave soldiers of the sultans”, is the difficulty the Ottomans faced in transitioning from janissary corps as the slave soldiers of the sultan into a modern standing army of the state consisting of conscripted soldiers with a discipline based on top to down subjectivity formation until the nineteenth century. Ottoman constitutionalists observed the new disciplinary formation in the armies of European rulers and argued that the king’s legislation lied at its foundation. They despised this picture as they viewed European soldiers turning into the slaves of their kings. Consequently, they looked down on the new state formation, which they immediately connected into these armies. In accordance with Hallaq’s case for paradigmatic Islamic constitutional order with “the moral technologies of the self,” the foundation of Ottoman subjectivity formation and notion of freedom was the morally grounded sharia, which prioritized the community over the ruler and the state, and provided room for the communal customs and autonomy. In this view, the government authority had only a limited role. Being unable to compromise this with what they observed in Europe, the Ottoman constitutionalists consciously rejected the transition into a modern disciplined army in the Ottoman polity until the Ottomans experienced major defeats at the hands of modern European and Russian armies in late eighteenth century, which shook the confidence in the old.
The Ottoman intellectual and bureaucratic classes were conscious of the difficulties present in accommodating change while working within the parameters of “Hallaqian” “paradigmatic Islamic governance” and constitutional order, and what the change would do to the paradigmatic foundation. Starting with Ibrahim Muteferrika (d. 1746), they started to express an awareness that because their conception of the state (devlet) was intertwined into religion, any fundamental change in the nature of the state through a change in public laws required a change in the interpretation of religion and “religious” laws through “ijtihad” and a new interpretation of the customary laws of the state, which amounted to a constitutional change. The reform treatises written after 1792 when a consensus among a circle in the ruling elite emerged for a new order reflected this dilemma and sought to legitimize a change in public law with empowering the sultan to enact laws. It is crucial to note that even at that junction there was no discussion of a change or codification in private law or family law through sultan or state’s involvement. To the contrary, the Ottoman authors from the ruling elite disapproved the increasing involvement of late eighteenth century European kings outside the domain of public law such as in the case of Austria and Russia. While being impressed by the discipline they observed in European and Russian societies and armies, the Ottoman observers also noticed the “deficit of morality” in the ordering apparatuses behind this discipline. Yet, similar to what Hallaq observes in modern Islamists, the late eighteenth century Ottomans perceived the modern state as a neutral tool that needed to be infused with a moral dimension through bringing it in line with sharia. For them this would constitute the treatment for the ills of the Sublime State.
In conclusion, while Hallaq did not use any Ottoman sources and did not examine the Ottomans particularly, his arguments and the conceptual toolkit he provides would help us to capture the Ottoman notions of subjectivity formation and freedom.
“With all the Ottoman dynamism and attempts at accommodating change without upsetting its constitutional vision, an examination of Ottoman sources in the light of Hallaq’s The Impossible State shows indeed the steep difficulty, if not impossibility, of the compatibility of modernity with paradigmatic Islamic governance.”When adapted with certain modification to the Ottoman context, these notions that have their roots in paradigmatic Islamic governance on the one hand, and the Ottoman difficulty of accommodating establishment of a modern disciplined standing army on the other, allows us to understand the central role of the moral, legal and political visions in state formation. With all the Ottoman dynamism and attempts at accommodating change without upsetting its constitutional vision, an examination of Ottoman sources in the light of Hallaq’s The Impossible State shows indeed the steep difficulty, if not impossibility, of the compatibility of modernity with paradigmatic Islamic governance.
 William Beik, “The Absolutism of Louis XIV as Social Collaboration,” Past & Present 188, no. 1 (2005): 195-224. Cesare Cuttica and Glenn Burgess, “Introduction: Monarchism and Absolutism in Early Modern Europe,” in, Monarchism and Absolutism in Early Modern Europe ed. Cesare Cuttica and Glenn Burgess (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2012).
 Philip Gorski. Philip S. Gorski, The disciplinary revolution: Calvinism and the rise of the state in early modern Europe. University of Chicago Press, 2003.
 James B. Collins, The State in Early Modern France. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
 Baki Tezcan, The Second Ottoman Empire: Political and Social Transformation in the Early Modern World. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
The rest of this review is based on my original doctoral dissertation research and unpublished paper “Constitutional Limits of Military Reform: Ottoman Political Writing, 1596-1800.”