Post-Colonial Muslim World in the Face of Modernity

There has been a long history of debating the relationship between Islam and its compatibility with the framework of the Modern State. Due to a long history of abiding by shari’a law and a harmonious integration of Islam and political governance, many predominantly Muslim countries have had difficulty approaching a secularized, western-style approach to statehood. Many scholars have argued that this difficulty stems from a traditional adherence to shari’a, as well as many Islamic states reluctance to adapt to western/European standards due to their experiences and trauma from European colonization. This train of thought corresponds to Hallaq’s argument against the installation of a Modern Muslim State in majority Muslim countries. Due to Western nations’ exploitation and installation of racist violence through practices of capitalism, how is the West’s approach to statehood compatible with notions of Islam and for Muslim people?(1) Hallaq explores this question in his work and discusses the importance of shari’a law:

“The Shari’a… represented and was consititued by a moral law… Its paradigmatic status for us lies in the very fact of its being a moral system in which law (in the modern sense) was a tool and a technique that was subordinated to and enmeshed in the overarching moral apparatus but was not an end in itself. In the Shari’a, the legal is the instrument of the moral, not the other way around.” (2)

Hallaq argues that the modern state is coercive while enforcing legal and/or political changes. These changes usually tend to uphold the interests of the state over the moral obligation to its people, which is in direction contradiction to the practices of shari’a law. (3) However, Hallaq also was wary of religious fundamentalism, which he describes as “the spiritual vacuousness of the fragmented, hedonistic, and narcissistic self to the destruction of the organic community, family, and natural environment.” (4) Within the Muslim fundamentalist framework, The Iranian Revolution is considered the most visible in rejecting Western values by incorporating strict theocratic structures in their government. Despite the fact that many anti-colonialist Muslims want to strengthen the role of shari’a, they do not share the belief in a single literal translation of Islamic law that fundamentalists do. Fundamentalists deny the progression of Islamic law  hat has shaped many contemporary interpretations and practices of shari’a.

Brown’s understanding of the integration of Muslim theocracy and government differs from Hallaq. He advocates for a structural separation of church and state, even if politicians are outwardly religious themselves:

“… the history of Muslims and Islamic civilizations is too rich, diverse, and ever changing to be reduced to a few eternal essentials… No one suggests a timeless and unchanging Christian approach to politics. The same should hold for Islam. The possible difference in its worldly manifestations between the Christianity of Paul, Augustine, Aquinas, or Luther is readily accepted. Christianity has a history. So does Islam. Christianity also has its diversity. To take just modern American examples, one appreciates that Paul Tillich and Billy Graham both fit under the rubric Christian. The same holds for a high church Episcopal service and a revivalist tent meeting. Islam has its equivalents.”(5)

Brown further argues that a fundamentalist response has several roots. Through state military failures, colonial violence, and drastic political changes triggered a striving for stability in the Muslim world. In addition, the rise of nationalist ideologies brought over from Europe also enhanced a deep allegiance to the state and its enemies in conjunction with religious law and obedience. Therefore, there is nothing inherently Muslim about a theocratical fundamentalist state, but rather a political phase or aspect of existing as a visibly religious state and/or region. Brown also argues that incorporating shari’a and Muslim practices are essential for Islamic states’ political success, but unlike fundamentalist political figures, Islam not the full answer to many MENA countries’ political struggles.

Hallaq and Brown may have different approaches to colonialism and the Western world’s influence on the nations in MENA, but they would both agree that fundamentalism is a reactionary force against the violence, trauma, and destruction from two hundred years of colonialism. Fundamentalist groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan or ISIS do not encompass all methods of practicing Muslim theocracy. Nor does it provide a full, accurate interpretation of shari’a. The fundamentalist project is just an interpretation of Islam, which is true for other theocratic governments of different religions around the world. Modern interpretations of shari’a and the relationship between religion and government produce tension for Muslims around the world, who are forced to represent “all Muslims” or the most visible Muslims for the Western world, which are the Western world’s “enemies” (the fundamentalists). Half and Brown’s different approaches to this crisis differ due to their religious, political, and positional interpretations of Western and Non-western approaches to effective governance.

  1. Hallaq, Wael B. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Colombia University Press, 2014. 162.
  2.   Hallaq, Wael B. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Pg. 15-16.
  3. Hallaq, Wael B. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Pg. 40
  4. Hallaq, Wael B. The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament. New York: Columbia University Press, 2013. Pg. 132
  5. Brown, L. Carl. Imperial Legacy: The Ottoman Imprint on the Balkans and the Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. pg 175