Wael Hallaq

Role of Islam in Modern State

Year of Birth




Field of Knowledge


Wael B. Hallaq is a scholar of Islamic law and Islamic intellectual history. He is currently the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University at the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies. After a Ph.D. from the University of Washington, he joined The McGill University Institute of Islamic Studies in 1985, to become an assistant professor in Islamic law. In 1994, he earned full professorship, and in 2005 became a James McGill Professor in Islamic law.
Hallaq is considered to be a leading scholar in the field of Islamic legal studies. His work has been translated into several languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Persian, and Turkish. In 2009 Hallaq was named among the 500 most influential Muslims in the world.
Hallaq first became known for his work challenging the notion of closing of the gate of ijtihad, i.e., the abandonment of independent reasoning in search of a legal opinion, which had been posited by historians such as Joseph Schacht to have occurred in Islam around 900 C.E. His recent work explores the paradigmatic structures of Islamic political and ethical thought, which he uses as a foundation for a thorough critique of modern ethico-political paradigms that, he argues, are dominant since the Enlightenment (The Impossible State: Islam, Politics, and Modernity’s Moral Predicament (Columbia University Press, 2012).
Hallaq’s publications, lectures and course offerings reveal several dominant areas of interest and expertise. Primary among these have been: 1) a concern with the markedly problematic (yet often overlooked) epistemic institutional ruptures generated by the onset of modernity and the many socio-politico-historical forces subsumed by it (including Colonialism and its many projects), especially in the overlapping areas of law and morality; 2) a related concern with intellectual history and the development of Orientalism, and the many repercussions of Orientalist paradigms in later scholarship and in Islamic legal studies as a whole; and 3) a thorough explication of the synchronic and diachronic development of Islamic traditions of logic, legal theory, and substantive law along with an elucidation of the particulars of interdependent systems within these traditions.
Hallaq’s writings have laid bare the structural dynamics of legal change in pre-modern law, and have more recently asserted the central role of moral theory for understanding the history of Islamic law. His most exhaustive work to date — Shari‘a: Theory, Practice, Transformations (2009) — has been well-received, and represents a pioneering attempt at introducing theory into the field of Islamic legal studies.
Hallaq’s interests and activities also extend into the world of art; in the past two decades he has produced numerous paintings and drawings, a selection of which may be viewed at Pinterest.com. All of these works appear to combine aesthetics with notions of moral and existential philosophies. With regard to the former, a strong interest in cubism and surrealism is evident. Most apparent in terms of philosophies—and perhaps at the very heart of Hallaq’s work, artistic and academic—is a penetrative exploration of the antinomy of the modern human condition, with all the paradoxes, contradictions and destructive tensions that this condition entails.


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