April 19, 2014

Duality and Tradition (by way of Wael Hallaq's The Impossible State)

"Many religious, mystical and other formulations are, up to a point, shrines for the relics of a completely or partially successful attempt to present and make available to various individuals and communities means for acquiring this knowledge. Like almost everything on earth, they are subject to deterioration or fossilization. They become both museums and exhibits, at one and the same time.
Because the tendency of stress discipine and group-attention without contemporaneous adjustment of other factors, many such formulations crystallized in the short or long term, and not infrequently claimed a monopoly of truth or effective ritual. This process, mirroring limited thinking patterns, frequently goes so far as to lead to a virtual destruction of the dynamic of the formulation of the school. In practice, exclusivism and dogmatism, beyond a certain point, militate against certain necessities of flexibility. There is a continuing need for regeneration.
What appears to some people as the sum total of the human heritage of philosophy or metaphysics or religion can also be viewed as heavily burdened with the wreckage or misinterpretation (through selective choice) of formulations previously operated by coherent schools. The factor causing this state of affairs is endemic in the human community."  -Idries Shah

Over the past few weeks, I have been reading the brilliant, but deeply flawed book The Impossible State, by Wael Hallaq. If you are looking for a more thorough critique of the book, you can google Dr. Lamu Abu-Odeh, who adroitly identifies some the book's major shortcomings (including its cynical reading of the modern nation-state as contrasted with the lofty idealism of something Hallaq calls "Islamic governance."). Despite its flaws, the book is a major work of scholarship and deserves serious attention. However, I will have to deflect my extended thoughts on the book to a later time. For now I would like to focus on a major ethical problem of Hallaq's book: the idealist characterization of a past ethical paradigm (what Hallaq calls 'Islamic governance.').

 In what follows, I would like to reflect briefly on the broad claim that it is both possible and desirable to "recover" precolonial ethical paradigms that were lost or fragmented by colonialism. I regard this claim as wrong. I do not mean to say that one cannot gain from studying the past, nor do I mean to deny the profound ways Western thinkers have ignored or subjugated "non-Western" traditions. What I have to say is that it is urgent that those interested in ethics and spirituality learn to see the duality in all religions and cultural traditions.

I must start with the most obvious claim. The primacy of enlightenment reason is a false absolute. In parts of the academy where I spend a great deal of time (notably Religious Studies) this is now a truism. The slow death of enlightenment reason has left intellectuals looking around for other enabling traditions, many of which were suppressed or denigrated by modernity. Understandably they find in these a source of moral guidance and clarity. But if enlightenment reason is a false absolute, there is no past tradition that contains this absolute ground of truth.

Thus I am suspicious of claims that we can find ourselves out of the duality of modernity (its violence that co exists with and is constitutive of its reason) through access to various modes of precolonial reality. I would not be so bold as to say that various premodern traditions cannot be enabling guides or fonts of moral inspiration. But there are two objections when it comes to "recovering" precolonial spiritual traditions. One is that these traditions no longer exist in their original form. There is a real sense in which modernity has rendered significant parts of these traditions obsolete or at least incomprehensible and trying to go back to 'sankofa' what has been lost leads to various forms of cult like veneration of outmoded ideas. For example, since one cannot recover the type of self these technologies worked on, the technologies themselves are obsolete. This is the significant agreement I have with Wael Hallaq's argument about sharia and the Islamic State. He argues that the Islamic State is an impossible one in the current Westphalian climate, and is thus a doomed proposition. This is a significant objection that is not readily or easily overcome. But Hallaq still seems to think it is possible to argue that "Islamic governance" was manifestly superior to the current nation-state system. I do not regard the comparison as feasible, due to an absence of any comparable data. I think it is quite likely that if we were able to go back in time to observe, we would find most of the same problems that plague our current justice system: bias, favor towards the affluent, corruption, blatant disregard for the law, etc. Hallaq, however, succumbs to the temptation to read a universal Islamic subject out of old jurist manuals. Yet he does not seem to realize the anachronism. Imagine if I were to read the universal Western subject out of John Rawl's A Theory of Justice!!  No doubt this anachronism will be less troubling for some than others, and some will regard the statement as cynical. I do not wish to advocate cynicism, but neither do I believe it healthy to persist in the illusion of being able to "go home again" (to quote Thomas Wolfe), or even the desirability to do so, were it possible.

The second objection is that modernity and what we currently know about the world has also rendered the objective descriptions of the world by past traditions obsolete. It is not merely a matter of mis-translation, or the need for new interpretation. These avoid the real ontological issue. Rather the problem is about new understandings of the objective world which render past pictures in holy books as a kind of blurred picture taken using outmoded and outdated equipment. The 'sacred' nature of a particular book ought not to blind us to this fact, although it often does. I suspect, the construction of the "sacred" is in itself an attempt to place dogma and tradition beyond the reach of reasonable doubt. The declaration of a book or a tradition as the objective and final word on reality is a tremendously tempting path for many smart, caring and dedicated activists and intellectuals. But one must ask oneself if they are dealing with things as they are or as things as they wish them to be. Finally, there is a dark side to "choosing or converting" to a single tradition. It manifests in an unwillingness to interrogate their own chosen tradition with the same acuity with which they critique modernity or atheism. Perhaps said tradition is under attack, and they feel the need to close ranks against outsiders, or perhaps it "works for them" and they do not wish to give the matter further thought. These reasons ought not to be taken lightly, but they cannot be regarded as serious arguments by the contemporary seeker.

My call again is for seeing the duality in all ethical social cultural and religious projects, and their contingent nature, including Enlightenment as well as all past religious traditions. I believe this attitude in and of itself is the appropriate ethics for our time, rather than any one tradition which needs to be (or can be) recovered and revived. I believe we have yet to investigate the possibilities of this attitude as an ethical and spiritual one. Indeed religious believers will see it as a form of unbelief, or radical skepticism which undermines their foundationalism. Our point should be that all past foundationalism is arbitrary. Once you realize the need for setting a foundation line for what you know, it becomes impossible to authentically do so, for foundationalism can only arise out of an objective conviction of the truth of something, not out of a psychological need for some foundation.


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