Wael Hallaq and Edward Said: A Third Argument is a 190-page book written by Muhanna Al-Hubail and published in 2020 by the Beirut-based Arab Institute for Research and Publishing. Al-Hubail is a social activist and an independent researcher on contemporary Islamic thought and global affairs. His research focuses on the dialectical relationship between the East and West, and his approach stresses the shared values between them. In his books and lectures, Al-Hubail calls for a cultural path that transcends humanity away from the political hegemony and the material destruction, and this book is one of his many attempts to engage the East and the West in a constructive conversation, by analyzing Edward Said’s and Wael Hallaq’s proposals regarding modernity and its moral consequences.
“In his books and lectures, Al-Hubail calls for a cultural path that transcends humanity away from the political hegemony and the material destruction, and this book is one of his many attempts to engage the East and the West in a constructive conversation, by analyzing Edward Said’s and Wael Hallaq’s proposals regarding modernity and its moral consequences.”
Al-Hubail starts his book by summarizing his interlocutors’ arguments. Said’s main argument is that the West has gained its modern status, power, and identity from its ongoing domination of the East. Hallaq’s main argument is that it is inherently impossible to integrate the virtuous values of Islam into the modern state. Al-Hubail notes that both thinkers were highly influential, and both suggest that modernity is in a moral predicament, which can be seen, for example, in the catastrophic consequences of materialism in everyday life. Al-Hubail also discusses the methods applied by each author. He argues that while Said criticizes Western Orientalism using the Foucauldian theory of power, knowledge, and authority, Hallaq goes beyond Said’s argument, and even criticizes Said for not digging deeper into the foundational philosophy that produces Orientalism to begin with. The goal of Al-Hubail’s book is not to simply compare and contrast the two points of view. Rather, Al-Hubail takes the conversation between Said and Hallaq to a different level by suggesting a third possible option, which is to advocate for shared moral values and then proceed from that common ground. While Al-Hubail does not claim to offer a quick remedy for the moral predicament of modernity and its consequences, he pushes for the idea that modernity would find its panacea in the moral basis of Islam and, therefore, he presents his book as a call to conceptualize a new modernity based on shared universal moral values.
“While Al-Hubail does not claim to offer a quick remedy for the moral predicament of modernity and its consequences, he pushes for the idea that modernity would find its panacea in the moral basis of Islam and, therefore, he presents his book as a call to conceptualize a new modernity based on shared universal moral values.”
In the first half of the book, Al-Hubail stresses two points: first, that philosophical discussions must have moral grounds or at the very least provide some insight into practical issues in human life; otherwise, philosophical discussions are redundant. Al-Hubail contrasts this with what he describes as the secular tendency to separate intellectual discussion, especially in academia, from its real-life implications. Second, these philosophical questions should be open to anyone who has the tools to engage with them and should not be limited only to academic institutions. Limiting the discussion to Western academia enforces the Western monopoly on knowledge and the intellect. As an independent thinker, Al-Hubail tries to challenge this norm and bring a new perspective to materialism, modernity, and their moral consequences in everyday life.
Building on Said and Hallaq, Al-Hubail illustrates the intellectual domination of the West and its institutions. Said suggests that part of the Orientalists’ agenda is to limit the intellectual freedom of the East by creating a particular image of what it means to live, think, and be a human. This picture is enforced by what gets ignored and what gets celebrated by Western institutions. Al-Hubail agrees with Said and provides further material in this regard, comparing the intellectual attention that is given to Michel Foucault and that which is given to René Guénon. Even though both philosophers are respected in their field, he argues that the former became a celebrity while the latter is hardly known. Al-Hubail contends that the different academic attitudes toward Foucault and Guénon would make more sense when we consider the fact that Guénon converted to Islam and tried to build his philosophy on Islamic moral values while Foucault was intellectually and physically immersed in a pleasure-centered lifestyle. This bias in academia, Al-Hubail argues, is one example of how Western modernity has lost its moral compass. Otherwise, he suggests, why would the pleasure-centered philosophy get huge attention in comparison to the moral-based philosophy?
Al-Hubail acknowledges many of Said’s conclusions regarding the effects of Western domination of the East. However, He argues that Said analyzed Orientalism only as a method or a tool. Going beyond Said’s method, Al-Hubail builds on Hallaq’s criticism and argues that Said did not dig deeper and criticize the original philosophy that produces Orientalism. For Al-Hubail, Orientalism, materialism, capitalism, and other modern phenomena stem from the philosophy that excludes the soul from the world and relies mostly on the narrative of probabilities, coincidence, and other materialistic explanations. Because of this reductionistic focus, power, status, and physical pleasure are celebrated and prioritized over moral values. As a result of this perspective, people are used as servants and means to materialistic ends instead of building a philosophy that serves people as its ends in themselves. Al-Hubail argues that because of these priorities, Western enlightenment has failed to adhere to any moral standard: it does not (and will never be able to) connect to global values, bring peace, or make the world a better place in any meaningful way.
Al-Hubail notes that the domination of the West has impacted the East in many ways. One major impact is seen in the rise of three contrasting groups in the East: a group that lost confidence in its ability to compete with the West, a group that decided to accept Western philosophy without questioning it, and a group that completely lost trust in Western institutions and rejected it as a whole. Al-Hubail suggests that none of these groups has the intellectual insights and tools needed to fill the existing moral gaps in modernity. Thus, one of the intellectual and moral duties of Easterners, according to Al-Hubail, is to analyze and then challenge Western domination, especially in academia. He makes it clear that analyzing and challenging the Western domination of the East does not aim to exclude the West from participating in what constitutes the shared universal values of humanity. Instead, this challenge is supposed to open our eyes toward the catastrophic consequences of materialism in everyday life and, then, bring back the critical spirit that has been excluded for too long by many Western institutions.
“Thus, one of the intellectual and moral duties of Easterners, according to Al-Hubail, is to analyze and then challenge Western domination, especially in academia. He makes it clear that analyzing and challenging the Western domination of the East does not aim to exclude the West from participating in what constitutes the shared universal values of humanity.”
In conclusion, Al-Hubail believes that Easterners and Westerners share a wide set of values as they are part of the universal community. The goal of Al-Hubail is not to argue for or against Hallaq and Said on how Orientalism and modernity should be criticized. Instead, the goal is to initiate a needed conversation that includes all members of humanity to establish a common ground of values. Al-Hubail affirms that the moral predicament of modernity would find its cure in Islam, not just as a religion but also as a complete set of well-needed values that have been excluded from the conversation for too long. Although the book does not tell us exactly how the conversation between the East and the West should precede, it provides an important insight to where should we start: from the values that we all share as humans!
Shahdah Mahhouk is a graduate philosophy student at McMaster University. She earned her bachelor’s degree in philosophy and psychology with high distinction from the University of Toronto in 2020. Her core areas of interest include Islamic ethical thought and epistemology. Her project explores the intersection between Islamic epistemological thought and modern Western normative ethical theories.