Islam: Introduction

The first part of an interview with Wael Hallaq by Hasan Azad has just been published on al-Jadaliyya. Below is the introduction and the first part of a much longer exchange which can be followed here.

Throughout the last three decades, Wael Hallaq has emerged as one of the leading scholars of Islamic law in Western academia. He has made major contributions not only to the study of the theory and practice of Islamic law, but to the development of a methodology through which Islamic scholars have been able to confront challenges facing the Islamic legal tradition. Hallaq is thus uniquely placed to address broader questions concerning the moral and intellectual foundations of competing modern projects. With his most recent work, The Impossible State, Hallaq lays bare the power dynamics and political processes at the root of phenomena that are otherwise often examined purely through the lens of the legal. In this interview, the first of a two-part series with him, Hallaq expands upon some of the implications of those arguments and the challenges they pose for the future of intellectual engagements across various traditions. In particular, he addresses the failure of Western intellectuals to engage with scholars in Islamic societies as well as the intellectual and structural challenges facing Muslim scholars. Hallaq also critiques the underlying hegemonic project of Western liberalism and the uncritical adoption of it by some Muslim thinkers.

Hasan Azad (HA): One of the debates raging nowadays has been about the inattention that Muslim intellectuals receive in the West. One can say that, with relatively minor exceptions, the modern Muslim presence in, or contribution to, the intellectual world of the West is near nil. In the closing pages of your Impossible State, you have pointed out that a robust intellectual engagement between Muslim thinkers and their Western counterparts is essential, not only for the sake of better Western understanding of Islam, but also for the sake of enlarging the scope of intellectual possibilities in the midst of Euro-American thought. Your argument, I believe, meant to convey the idea that there is much that the Islamic worldview and heritage can contribute toward enriching our reflections on the modern project, in the West no less than in the East. What is that contribution, and why is it not happening? What are the obstacles standing in the way?

Wael Hallaq (WA): To speak of the potential contributions of Islam to a critique and restructuring of the modern project is a tall order, one that should come subsequent to a diagnosis of the present modern condition and its causes. The obstacles you alluded to are numerous and multilayered, and originate in both sides of the divide. If there are any failings—and there are many indeed—they cannot be located on one side only. The first, and most obvious of course, is the linguistic obstacle, the only means to communicating ideas. The West (by which I here mean Europe, its Enlightenment, distinctively modern institutions and culture and the spread of all these mainly to North America), has seen it sufficient to consider its two or three major languages so universal as not to care to learn other languages well, if at all. Even Orientalism, as an academic discipline, has not been successful in producing sustained command of Islamic languages, despite the fact that it did produce individuals whose linguistic competence even in more than one Islamic language was no less than masterful. It remains the case however that those who can navigate an Islamic language or text are a miniscule—in fact insignificant—minority in Western societies.

But there is a larger sense to Orientalism involved here. In many ways, the field of Orientalism is surrounded by an outer, immensely extensive layer; that is, countless numbers of influential voices who really never bothered to do any of the hard intellectual and philological work on Islam; yet, they feel quite justified and confident to pronounce on the “Orient,” both within the classrooms of academia or as so-called “experts” in mass media. This “peripheral” Orientalism usually escapes our common definitions of that discipline, but it forms the bulk of common and popular Western knowledge about the rest of the world, especially Islam. In any case, this is roughly the linguistic obstacle.

“Don’t debate religion with fundamentalists: what they need is rehabilitation”

by Saad A Sowayan

Fundamentalism is a cultural phenomenon, though it dons religious garbs. It is a mode of consciousness shaped by cultural values, not religious principles. Thus we can understand it only if we examine it in its cultural context as a sociological rather than a theological question.

So, I will begin by taking a close look at the social incubators most likely to hatch fundamentalism.

I understand by fundamentalism strong adherence to an archetypal point of view and a fierce conviction of its fundamental truth, to the exclusion of any other alternate idea. Any alternative is resisted by a fundamentalist and treated not as a legitimate substitute stemming from a rational free choice, but as a detrimental antithesis of the fundamental truth of the archetype. The archetype is a model to be emulated and reproduced, not dissected or scrutinized. (more…)

In 1981, during a trip to Egypt, I bought the old multi-volume Cairo edition of the mother of all Arabic dictionaries: al-Zabidi’s Taj al-‘Arus. It took up an entire suitcase and was so heavy that I paid the porter extra. As I arrived home, the handle broke and the books spilled in the landing of my home. Those were the days when most Arabic books had to be physically bought in the Middle East and carried home in luggage. Books that used to be accessible only in major libraries are often available online today. If one is patient just about any classic Arabic text from the past is available online. Some are pdf scans, where there is a treasure trove at and It is usually best to search these sites in Arabic. But even a ouja-board Google search in Arabic can yield full texts.


The New York Times has a video posted on the first Muslim college fraternity at the University of Texas Dallas. Check it out at here.

The prominent scholar Omid Safi has written a commentary on Jadaliyya entitled “Reflections on the State of Islamic Studies”. It is well worth reading. I attach the beginning paragraphs below.

I have been asked to share my impressions about the state of Islamic studies in the North American academy. Given that the pioneers of this field include many of my mentors, and many of my own peers have struggled for years to help advance the field to its current state, my observations will not be dispassionate. And since I have been fortunate to have a front-row seat along the development of the field over the last twenty years, I hope I’ll be able to do justice to the current state of the field.

I became a graduate student in the field of Islamic studies in the early 1990s. In those days, almost all of us were “converts”: no one went to undergraduate studies planning to become a professor of Islamic studies. For many, particularly Muslims of transnational background, the usual academic caste options were the familiar: doctor, lawyer, engineer, maybe the always dubious “business.” Almost all of us who entered the field did so by following the siren call of one mentor or another: Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Hamid Algar, Roy Mottahedeh, Bruce Lawrence, Vincent Cornell, Carl Ernst, Michael Sells, Annemarie Schimmel, and a few others.

My own path was similarly convoluted: I had been accepted to medical school, and turned that down to embark on a PhD. It was three or four years before it occurred to me to ask anyone what the likelihood of getting a job in this field was, or what kind of salary one could expect. Imagine my shock towards the end of finishing my PhD to find out that in 1999, there were four jobs in Islamic studies in all of North America That actually represented a remarkable improvement over the 1980s, when typically there was one tenure track job in Islamic studies in the whole country.

The game changer, of course, was 9/11. In the aftermath of those events, the overwhelming majority of American universities and colleges suddenly found themselves without the necessary faculty to “explain” the event to their students, to serve as a spokesperson in engagement with local communities, and to interact with the media. Those are not identical roles, and the list of desiderata was long and imposing. But quickly, the demand for Islamic studies positions went up dramatically: the next few years (until the market crash of 2008) saw between 40-50 tenure track positions per year…

For the rest of Omid’s article, click here.

A video of Professor Richard Bulliet speaking about “Current Affairs through the Lens of Islamic History” at Princeton University is on December 4, 2013 is available online.

This video interview with Talal Asad (Professor of Anthropology, Graduate Center of
the City University of New York), recorded in 2008, is well worth watching. Harry Kreisler welcomes Professor Talal Asad who reflects on his life and work as an anthropologist focusing on religion, modernity, and the complex relationships between Islam and the West.

By Samira Ali BinDaair, Sanaa, Republic of Yemen

[for Part One of this essay, click here]

Islam and Democracy

“Al-adala” (Justice) is a keyword in Islam, and Islam like the great religions preceding it came to regulate man’s life on earth and Allah sent many prophets to admonish the people who had gone to excesses and violated “Nawamis al-kawn” (Allah’s laws governing human interaction with the cosmos). Islam came to complete all the preceding messages in its being comprehensive, encompassing both the spiritual and material. When it is said in the Holy Quran that Allah has created man and jinn to worship Him, obedience to Allah’s laws of how man is to conduct himself on earth is part of that process of worship. In reading the Hadith literature (sayings of the Prophet PBH) and the Sira (biography of the Prophet,PBH), one can see how Islamic teachings were operationalized and exemplified, and what stands out is the absolute sense of justice in Islam.

The way Islamic affairs are to be conducted is through a consultative process (Shura) and in fact the concept of Shura is so important in Islam that a whole Sura (chapter) has been devoted to Shura. In Surat al Shura (ayya 38), it says: “Those who hearken to their Lord and establish regular prayer ….. who conduct their affairs by mutual consultation”. In choosing their leaders, Muslims should undertake the “Mubaya” ( declaring allegiance through the process of “Ijmaa” ( general consensus). No one practiced Shura more than the Prophet (PBH) himself. He always consulted with young and old on all matters. He consulted with Um Salama and Zainab bint Gahsh (wives of the Prophet) and respected their opinions. When the message was first revealed to him, he consulted with Khadija (his first wife) who reassured him and allayed his fears and consulted with her couisin Waraka ibn Nofal Christian monk at the time) who in turn reassured him that it was the angel Gabriel who had also been sent to prophets before him. During the battle of the “Khandak” (trenches) Salman Al-Farisi had informed the Prophet(PBH) about building trenches in battles as practiced in Persia where he came from; this was then adopted by the Muslims. The Prophet(PBH) was not autocratic and left some worldly matters to others who knew better than him. When when farmers in Medina asked him about cross pollination in date planting, his answer was:”You know better about these affairs”. (more…)

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