Scholarship as Resistance: An Interview with Wael Hallaq

This interview was conducted by Omar Abdel-Ghaffar (Harvard University, PhD student).

This interview is part of the Islamic Law Blog’s Roundtable on Islamic Legal History & Historiography, edited by Intisar Rabb (Editor-in-Chief) and Mariam Sheibani (Lead Blog Editor), and introduced with a list of further readings in the short post by Intisar Rabb: Methods and Meaning in Islamic Law: Introduction.”

Islamic Law Blog [ILB]: Your interventions in the field of Islamic law have caused dramatic shifts in the way researchers approach the field. Looking back, what do you think has been the most important intervention you have made, and what do you think still must change in the field?

 Wael Hallaq [WH]: Although the articles and books one writes over four decades can never have an identical teleological vision, my project on the whole has been, I think, one of resistance.[1] It can be described as an ongoing program of critique (to be distinguished from criticism). When I was directly exposed to Euro-American discourse on Islam – in 1978, the year I started reading in the English language – I soon discovered how depressingly negative the view of Islam in the West is. I made this discovery through an encounter with the works of Joseph Schacht, the first Western scholar I read.[2] Almost nothing in Euro-American writings on the sharīʿa made sense to me, not even when mere common sense is applied to the issues this scholarship raised. The bottom line – if I am allowed to bluntly cut through the chase – is that my scholarship, as I see it, has always aimed to expose the duplicity and political corruption of Western scholarship on Islam in general and on the sharīʿa in particular.

What must change in the field? A lot, to say the least. Although the young or younger generation of scholars is much more aware of the crisis of modernity and the staggering predicaments we are facing, and although they tend to be far more sophisticated theorists and analysts than the previous generation(s), there remain some disturbing instances of naivete and intellectual innocence. What makes this a depressing picture is that many of these are scholars coming from a Muslim background, usually writing in a modernized though essentially Orientalist fashion, or wielding some liberal vision whose effects on the world they have yet to understand. But there is an even larger group – one that seems to be growing in size and tendency – seeking to nationalize history in the most anachronistic way. Without listing other groups, just these two require critique and self-critique, that is, critique from within the field, before some “outsider” from literary criticism or anthropology comes along and shows us how far behind we are lagging. The field has yet to reckon with its own intellectual history, with its complicity with violent forms of domination, and with its profound ideological biases. 

ILB: You argue that we must embed our projects in responsible theoretical frameworks, moving away from strict micro history: (from Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge,) “the legitimacy of the [research] project rests on a host of broader questions inevitably informed by even larger philosophical and theoretical considerations.”[3] How can we evaluate a project’s theoretical considerations when the researcher is fundamentally informed by the anxieties, perspectives, and questions of the present? You bring up the point of, for example, Sultanic involvement in the law in 14th century Cairo. Can we, as modern subjects, living with fears and worries regarding executive involvement in the law, engage the tradition without these concerns? Would it be helpful? What factors should inform our research questions?

WH: There is no escape from the present moment and its condition. Any claim to writing history in a dispassionate and “objective” manner is an illusion, one that satisfies the naïve and the intellectually innocent, especially those bereft of theoretical capacity and philosophical depth. But let me be clear here. I am not saying that such naivete is always less than clever or intelligent. We are witness to a host of brilliant and encyclopedic scholars from the second half of the nineteenth century and first half of the next (mostly German) stretching down to such familiar names as Patricia Crone and the likes of her. These people were incredibly smart but lacked vision and wisdom, qualities not to be confused with intelligence. What we need is theoretical and philosophical wisdom, the ability to ask big questions even though we might be engaged in writing about a micro-subject. In all of this, it is important to realize that there is no history outside the history of the present. To claim an escape from our epistemological present is literally tantamount to claiming that a material body can exist simultaneously in two different places.

And so if we shed the veneer of pretension to objectivity – which has been the ideological cover and justification for much violent colonial scholarship – we all, each of us, must reckon with our individual motivations and reasons for engaging scholarship. We must ask and perpetually remind ourselves of the important genealogical question “Why am I in it? Are the reasons for why I am in the field, this field, convincing and satisfactory? Would other people, whose opinions I respect, see the matter as I do? How can my engagement improve on the human condition? Am I contributing to the welfare of people beyond my own individual interests? Do I understand the implications of what I think and what the field of which I am a part lays down as acceptable, paradigmatic discourse?” Recent scholarship has not improved on earlier racist and nationalistic scholarly forms that Europe propounded in the nineteenth century and continues to spew to some noticeable degree. Even younger scholars of Muslim persuasion are now “enhancing” this pathological scholarly scene, “practicing” their nationalistic ardor in, say, promoting a national conception of Egypt as the site of a spectacular juristic accomplishment or attaching philosophical or intellectual brilliance to particular origins, notably “Persian,” “Arab,” etc. But this harmful attitude is not just about such superficial matters – it runs deep into the inner layers of the mind that inform how one reads and reproduces historical narrative.

All of this is just the preparatory background that one must examine closely. Then the big issues must be entertained: “For what purpose am I engaging my specific topic of research?” “How does it solve a problem in the real world?”  “If I study Sultanic involvement in the law in 14th century Cairo, what are the theoretical parameters that define my field as a history of the present?” Of these parameters, one must ask the primary question of “What conceptual language should I use?” “How do I relate my constitutional knowledge of the present to a past that did not speak this language?” If, say, that past spoke of ethical considerations as determining factors of “constitutional” structures and practices on the ground, I must ask the fundamental question “Do I understand the full implications of a system of ethics?” And if I do and decide to continue with my project, the next vast and complex question would be “Do I understand my own age and its ethical, epistemic, and other crises?” “Do I understand the ethical predicament of the Enlightenment?” “Do I understand the genealogical intention and the socio-economic, political effects of such concepts as free rational will?” Effects, that is, on our subjective formation as historians. Do I understand what the genealogy of the separation of powers in Europe is?” “Do I understand what the rule of law really means?” “Do I understand how the modern concept of the rule of law intersects with Enlightenment notions of freedom and will, or with the reason of state?” “Do I understand what the prehistory of this particular conception of rule of law was?” And “how such a prehistory informs my own study of Islamic ‘constitutional’ history from the Qurʾān onwards?”

Of course, there is a long series of other questions that can and should be asked, but perhaps the most important of these is this: “How does my study of history teach me about myself, my society, my age?” Obviously, I am not claiming that all knowledge of history is good for us. In fact, Orientalism itself spent all its life in the pursuit of either useless or destructive forms of knowledge, with extremely thin exceptions. What I am arguing is that some things in history are profoundly ahistorical and relevant to all times and places, and ethics is no doubt one of them. There is no amount of “scientific” rationality that can save us without an ethically humane frame of mind. We now know that scientific reason can be as murderous and genocidal as it can be kind and humane. There is nothing that can restrain it from the former dispositions without the watchman of ethics.

ILB: Your analysis of Islamic law oftentimes incorporates structuralist, poststructuralist, and even environmentalist theories. You also emphasize how important the “auxiliary disciplines” of Orientalism may be in understanding texts produced by an “other:” disciplines like philology and codicology. How have critical approaches from other fields in the humanities and social sciences informed the study of Islamic law?

WH: We recall that Edward Said characterized Islamic studies as lagging behind the more “lofty” academic disciplines, such as literature and philosophy in the humanities, and several others in the social sciences. His characterization was accurate but he did not adduce a reason for this phenomenon. One can now claim that within Islamic studies, the sharīʿa – defined in the largest sense possible to include work on ethics and juridico-moral phenomena – remains within Islamic studies in the same status as Islamic studies themselves stood and continue to stand vis-a-vis other academic disciplines. It escaped Said, who did not care to study legal Orientalism, that if colonialism is entangled with Orientalism, then the “law” was the most central project of colonialism, the means by which power colonized and fashioned subjects. And this is precisely why the study of so-called “Islamic law” has academically and intellectually lagged behind. Law is the subsidiary and handmaiden of political power, of colonialism, and, in one word, the Schmittian political. The more theoretical the study of the law becomes, the more it turns toward the critical, that is, critique of the self and other. Our field remains entirely unconscious of itself, entirely self-virtuous, and therefore in need of outer disciplinary ravishment. (Sadly, many continue to think that a critic of modernity is less “objective” than one who is not, as if such lack of critique is less dogmatic and “ideological.”)

Before studying “Islamic law” one needs to anchor oneself in philosophy, both Islamic and European; Asian mystical thought and praxis as well as European Enlightenment philosophy. Before studying the sharīʿa and concurrently with philological preparation (another essential tool of trade), one must study and understand modern law not just in the way law schools teach it but also, and more importantly, in the way it is approached by Critical Theory and other postcolonial, including poststructuralist and Latin American thinkers and philosophers. To study the sharīʿa therefore requires studying, and ultimately problematizing, ourselves first.

ILB: What is your chosen approach to the historical study of Islamic law, and why? Could you perhaps give us insight into what formed your approach and how it has developed over the course of your career?

WH: My project began, in a Saidian fashion, as a critique of historical mis-narration and bigoted characterization of Islam and Muslims, of Arabs, Africans, Persians, and Turks, among others. But I began to realize, in the late 1990s, that this approach does not seem satisfactory and that there was something horribly absent from the Saidian criticism. This dissatisfaction – even disenchantment – was to bring me deeper and deeper into the study of that which undergirds the law, that upon which the very academic disciplines rest. The new interest was located as much in cosmology and in our modern forms of cosmological understanding as it was in metaphysics and ontology. Our view of nature, and therefore of ourselves, became my foremost concern. I also wanted to understand the forms of knowledge that inform such drastically different ways of being in the world, such as those of the premodern conception of the world and our own, modern one. And when I speak of “modern,” I obviously speak of a quality of epistemology, not merely a time-unit, a temporality. With time, I became increasingly more self-conscious of what I was doing, asking questions that have to do with the raison d’etre and mission of philosophy. There is no study, of anything, that can meaningfully begin without such preparation, without turning inward to ask the trans-historical question that never loses sight of itself, a question – Foucaultian in essence – that must accompany us at all times and through all our investigations, namely: Who are we? What have we become? How? Why? The study of the sharīʿa, the study of all law, of the entire range of social sciences and the humanities, must begin and end here, making for a whole and endless world of intellectual and hopefully spiritual and ethical pursuits.


[1] This resistance has taken multiple forms, as evidenced for instance in Wael Hallaq, Authority, Continuity and Change in Islamic Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001); Wael Hallaq, Sharīʿa: Theory, Practice, Transformations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Wael Hallaq, The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012); Wael Hallaq, Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018); Wael Hallaq, Reforming Modernity: Ethics and the New Human in the Philosophy of Abdurrahman Taha (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019); and Wael Hallaq, “Usul al-Fiqh and Shafi`I’s Risala Revisited,” Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 19 (2019): 129-83.  

[2] See e.g. Joseph Schacht, The Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1950); Joseph Schacht, An Introduction to Islamic Law (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1964); Joseph Schacht, “Foreign Elements in Ancient Islamic Law,” Journal of Comparative Legislation and International Law 32 (1950): 9‑17; Joseph Schacht,“Notes on Islam in East Africa,” Studia Islamica 23 (1965): 91‑136; and Joseph Schacht, “Problems of Modern Islamic Legislation,” Studia Islamica 12 (1960): 99-129.

[3] Hallaq, Restating Orientalism, 579.

(Suggested Bluebook citation: Scholarship as Resistance: An Interview with Wael Hallaq, Islamic Law Blog (Jan. 21, 2021),

(Suggested Chicago citation: Islamic Law Blog, ed., “Scholarship as Resistance: An Interview with Wael Hallaq,” Islamic Law Blog, January 21, 2021,

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