Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Remarkable new book draws on Guénon

A remarkable new book, Wael Hallaq’s Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), draws heavily on the work of René Guénon. Hallaq is a distinguished Palestinian-American scholar and intellectual, and his use of Guénon represents a Traditionalist breakthrough into the Western intellectual mainstream.

Hallaq’s title is slightly misleading. His book does indeed revisit Orientalism (1978), the highly influential book by another Palestinian-American scholar, Edward Said (1935-2003). But the emphasis is more on the critique of modern knowledge than on the critique of Said, and the critique of modern knowledge is embedded in a fundamental critique of modernity.

Hallaq is the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University in New York. He was born in Nazareth, did his PhD at the University of Washington, and embarked on a distinguished career as a scholar of Islamic law, initially becoming famous for a 1984 article, “Was the gate of ijtihad closed?”
Since then he has written a number of books, most notably A history of Islamic legal theories: An introduction to Sunni usul al-fiqh (Cambridge University Press, 1999) and The origins and evolution of Islamic law (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Recently, he has turned towards more contemporary issues. His The impossible state: Islam, politics, and modernity's moral predicament (Columbia University Press, 2013) argued that an “Islamic state” is an impossibility, and was widely read, also in the Muslim world, in English and in Arabic and Urdu translations. Restating Orientalism moves even further from classic scholarly topics towards contemporary issues.

Restating Orientalism is, as has been said, in part revisiting Said’s Orientalism. As Orientalism has been revisited before by many authors, this is not in itself very remarkable. What is remarkable is that Hallaq challenges Said on two points. One is a point that has been made before, that not all Orientalists were as Said paints them. Another point is a more far-reaching one. Said, according to Hallaq, failed fully to understand the phenomenon he was discussing. He placed Orientalist scholarship and literature within the framework of European imperialism, but he did not then put European imperialism within any suitable explanatory framework. The appropriate explanatory framework, argues Hallaq, is modernity. His prime example of an Orientalist who was not as Said paints Orientalists is René Guénon, and Guénon is also an important source for the understanding of modernity that Said missed out.

Hallaq discusses and explains Guénon’s thought at length. He also does something that has never really been done before: he introduces Guénon into the intellectual mainstream. At one point, for example, he gives us Guénon’s views on the Is/Ought distinction, referring also to Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre. The Is/Ought problem is a philosophical classic, raised by David Hume (1711-1776) and most recently addressed by MacIntyre. Guénon did not, of course, address the Is/Ought problem directly, so Hallaq has to interpret Guénon somewhat to bring his thought to bear, but he does this—successfully and repeatedly.

In order to bring Guénon into the intellectual mainstream, Hallaq not only has to interpret him in this way, but also to address another problem that has so long kept Guénon out of the mainstream—or, at least, out of mainstream texts and footnotes, since many people have been reading Guénon without citing him. “That his ideas are esoteric in the extreme and at time outright objectionable,” writes Hallaq, “is of no relevance here.” “Translated into the idiom of the twenty-first century, and transcending its eccentric and unconventional style of expression, Guénon’s critique synoptically captures much of the best in recent social theory, Critical Theory, and cultural criticism.” So: yes, in current scholarly terms Guénon may be eccentric and unconventional, esoteric and even objectionable, but let us not bother with that, let us see what he actually gives us.

Restating Orientalism does much more than simply restate Guénon’s Traditionalism, of course. It develops a new critique of modernity, and as well as drawing heavily on Guénon’s work, also draws on a range of other thinkers—Michel Foucault, Carl Schmitt, Antonio Gramsci, and Hannah Arendt, to name a few.

It will be very interesting to see how Restating Orientalism is received.

Click here for Amazon.com.

My thanks to Andrew Booso for drawing my attention to this book.

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