Moin on Hallaq, 'Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge'

Wael B. Hallaq
Azfar Moin

Wael B. Hallaq. Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. 380 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-18762-6.

Reviewed by Azfar Moin (University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-Asia (December, 2019) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

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In Restating Orientalism Wael Hallaq does just that, restate Edward Said's criticism of Orientalism, the Western academic study of non-Western civilizations. Said's Orientalism is now a canonical text on how not to conduct such a study. However, Hallaq revises Said's position in terms that are much starker, darker, and broader, encompassing not just Orientalism but also all branches of Western learning—the sciences, professional studies, social sciences, and humanities—as well as the totality of Western political, economic, and cultural structures that sustain these forms of knowledge. Hallaq's totalizing argument is driven by a sense of existential urgency. The very fate of humanity and its environmental habitat depends on an immediate recognition of the threat posed by this expansively restated Orientalism. It is a threat that, Hallaq believes, can be met—paradoxically—by embracing Orientalism anew, but this time as an ethically revamped study of the modern West's other.

Hallaq defends Said from most of the criticisms leveled against him, both formal (e.g., that he was not thorough enough) and substantial (e.g., that he was not historical enough), none of which in Hallaq’s opinion negate Said's central thesis. For Hallaq, Said's thesis does not need qualification or adjustment but rather a correction of exponential proportions: “Orientalism is nothing more than the tip of the iceberg, the part that Said saw, but the part that, alone, could never sink a titanic” (p. 183). The titanic that Hallaq wants to sink is the entire knowledge system of the post-Enlightenment West. This is because the Western epistemic edifice is sustained by secular—that is, value-free—political and economic rationalities that have turned over humanity, especially non-Western humanity, to rapacious capitalism and genocidal colonialism on a global scale, and brought the nonhuman world to the brink of ecological disaster. Said could not have stated the problem so broadly, Hallaq observes, because he was too enamored of secularism, liberalism, and humanism to realize that these ideologies were constitutive of capitalism, colonialism, and genocide.

Said is merely Hallaq's foil. His real interlocutor is Michel Foucault, the truly radical and historically aware critic of the West who mocked its posture of objectivity and unmasked its claims of humane government as oppressive and amoral. Hallaq finds Said's use of Foucault too timid and neglectful (ch. 1). He criticizes Said for neglecting Foucault's concept of the “author” and its functional role both in establishing “discursivity” and in subverting the dominant discursive tradition. Although he does not say it, Hallaq seems to wish that Foucault, who nursed an implacable loathing for the bourgeois West, had authored Orientalism, and not the opera-loving Said.

However, Hallaq's issue with Foucault is that in his genealogical critiques of the West he compared it to the premodern West but not to the non-West. Truly useful comparison, for Hallaq, requires stepping outside one's cultural realm, especially when the purpose of the comparison is to assess the dominant paradigm or “central domain” of one's culture. This is where Orientalist knowledge is actually useful. Indeed, this is where Hallaq can offer what neither Said nor Foucault could in their critique of the West, a thorough insider knowledge of the dominant paradigm of an “Oriental civilization”: premodern Islam.

Hallaq argues that premodern Islam provides an ideal comparison because it did not undergo the fact/value split that the Enlightenment forced upon the West. Thus, in Islam's central domain, the sphere of ethics continued to dominate all other spheres of life, most importantly, those of politics and economics. Because Islamic ethical norms were enshrined in the legal aspects of the sharia and a mild-mannered mysticism (Sufism), and because the sharia and Sufism were sustained by an acephalic civic body of learned men (and mostly men, though Hallaq has nothing to say about this gender imbalance), no Muslim ruler or merchant group could ever monopolize it or escape its moral force. The resulting paradigm of premodern Islam was thus deeply antithetical to the joint-stock corporation that, in the West, would absolve the individual of moral responsibility by accepting a corporate body as legal entity. Furthermore, the distributed nature of authoritative discourse in Islam also foreclosed the possibility of absolute forms of government that could operate above the law. By contrast, in the modern West, the model of total politics extolled by Carl Schmitt would prevail, in which sovereignty was defined by the emergency power to suspend any and all law. Thus, in modern times, the Schmittian state, by invoking at will extralegal states of exception, would enable genocidal violence (ch. 2).

These two amoral entities of the West—the joint-stock corporation and the Schmittian state—unleased a colonialism upon the world that was designed to clear the path for capitalistic exploitation by genocide (ch. 4). This genocide, Hallaq notes, could be either direct, like in the settler colonialism of North America and Israel, or structural, that is, brought about by a mimicry of the Western model, such as via the Ottoman reforms of the nineteenth century. What Said called Orientalism was thus merely the knowledge-producing tip of this submerged amoral and world-destructive iceberg, which came into being because the West underwent the fact/value split that Islam had managed to avoid. This view also explains how the West colonized the Muslim world by denaturing Islam, that is, by attempting to abolish a system of law that had shielded ethics—by locating these in divine commandments—from corrosive economic and political rationalities. In a word, secularism was the short end of modernity's biopolitical stake.

What would Foucault say? Hallaq does not ask the question. However, he does answer it in a way by introducing a Foucault substitute, another French intellectual who also thoroughly rejected the modern Western mode of being in the world. This was René Guénon (d. 1951), who took the name 'Abd al-Wahid Yahya upon conversion to Islam and who was steeped in the study not just of Islam but also of philosophical Hinduism. Guénon was an Orientalist who had offered, in the manner of Foucault, a wholesale critique of Western modes of knowledge. Moreover, unlike Said, he had embraced the Orient, by not only studying it, but also marrying into it, living by its ethical mores, and embracing its nonsecular worldview. Hallaq believes that Guénon is the “subversive author” (ch. 3) that Said should have used—indeed, should have been—to forge a critique of Orientalism of Foucauldian proportions.

Guénon also provides Hallaq a model for how to counter this Restated Orientalism. Hallaq suggests that Orientalists can collectively subvert and bring down the edifice of modern knowledge if they opened themselves—that is, their selves—to a serious encounter with the ethical norms of the civilizations that they study (ch. 5). This would mean, however, that instead of explaining Islam (or Hinduism or Buddhism) to the liberal secular West, Orientalists must learn to critique modern forms of knowledge in ethically Islamic (or Hindu or Buddhist) terms. Only such a revolution would allow Western academia to redeem itself and contribute to the larger project of rescuing the world from genocidal and environmental annihilation. This is a stance, he argues, that is more in alignment with modern Western thinkers like the German philosophical anthropologist Max Scheler (d. 1928). Scheler had also advocated that the West should wean itself from the impulse to dominate and change the rest of the world and instead learn from it an ethics of spirituality and coexistence. 

When an argument is made on such a majestic scale and so deeply concerned with “foundational moral principles and ethical structures” (p. 25), it is pointless to assess it, in whole or in part, in typical scholarly terms. To say that it is polemical because it refuses to accept Western Enlightenment norms at face value while embracing the literal claims of majoritarian Islam would be to state the obvious. To say that its treatment of Islam is selective and ahistorical would be simply to admit that its use of Islam is strategic. To say that the solutions it offers to reform modern knowledge are impractical would be a fruitless indictment of an undertaking that is manifestly philosophical and intended to provoke.

Nevertheless, two observations can be made about the style and scope of the endeavor. In terms of style, the argument might have had more impact if the writing was less prosecutorial and more performative. Foucault's critical effectiveness, after all, owed much to his ability to mix incisive invective with surreal imagery. In terms of scope, it might have helped to take the argument even further back in time, before the comfortably familiar era of classical Islam. This would have led to a more dynamic consideration of the place of ethics within premodern religious traditions. From such a longue durée perspective, the Egyptologist Jan Assmann observes, “The most important compliment that monotheism has ever paid itself is that it is the religion of justice.”[1] This observation concerns, mutatis mutandis, the foundational conceit of all salvation religions that they were the ones to bring truth and ethics into the world where there was once nothing but ignorance and corruption. This regulative idea, “that idolatrous religions are completely lacking in ethical orientation,” also transformed humanity with a great corrosive effect and not a trivial amount of violence.[2] In other words, despite the heroic effort of its author, the question remains whether Restating Orientalism manages to break fully free from the trap of familiar categories.


[1]. Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), 43.

[2]. Ibid., 30.

Citation: Azfar Moin. Review of Hallaq, Wael B., Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. December, 2019. URL:

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