A Second Look at Invisibility: Al-Ghayb, Islam, Ethnography

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The Arab concept al-ghayb refers to the hidden, the unseen, the invisible. The term encompasses a range of important phenomena in Islam and in the everyday experiences of Muslims. The dominion of the unseen (alam al-ghayb) includes those parts of reality that cannot be seen simply because they are covered by other visible objects. It also refers to those phenomena that by their nature cannot be perceived (e.g. the face or throne of God, paradise, hell, the past, or the future), as well as those objects that are blocked from view by one’s perspective (Drieskens 2006; Mittermaier 2011; Suhr 2013). Al-ghayb is important to the notion of barzakh, the intermediary realm between life and death; to the issue of veiling; to visions of deceased saints or dreams about the Prophet Muhammad as well as to the uncontrollable powers of jinn, angels, magic, the evil eye, and omens (Pandolfo 1997; Rothenberg 2004; Khan (Cultural Anthropology, 21(6), 234-264, 2006); El-Zein 2009; Rytter (The Journal of Royal Anthropological Institute, 16(1), 46-63, 2010); Edgar 2011; Taneja (HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 3(3), 139–65, 2013); Bubandt 2014a; Suhr (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society, 21(1), 96–112, 2015). The unseen, in other words, is in Islam infused with power and potential, but the lure of the territories of the unseen is also disturbing, troublesome, even dangerous. The seven contributions in this special issue trace invisibility as both wondrous potential and vexed problem in the lives of people in the modern Muslim world. They seek to enrich the study of Islam by discussing what it means to live with al-ghayb, and how this concept is reshaped through people’s experiences of the invisible in their lives. The contributions demonstrate how al-ghayb constitutes an entrenched, but also highly contested, part of Islamic experience. For the domain of al-ghayb evokes a series of paradoxical tensions. While al-ghayb is a marker of the unseen domains of reality, for the adept it signifies a supremely visible reality. Al-ghayb is also an all-determining locus of power; yet, due to its inaccessibility, it is often also a great source of indeterminacy in the lives of Muslims. While full of danger, al-ghayb is also a potential source of healing, protection, and resurrection. And lastly, while it is an all-determining omnipresence, al-ghayb nevertheless remains essentially unknowable, a consummate “Elsewhere” (Pandolfo 1997; Mittermaier (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 18(2), 247–265, 2012); Bubandt 2014b; Suhr (Journal of the Royal Anthropological Society, 21(1), 96–112, 2015); Rytter (Ethnography, 17(2), 229-249, 2016). The special issue explores these paradoxes in order to make a broader contribution to the study of invisibility in social studies. It argues that a focus on the ambiguities of al-ghayb within Islam offers an analytical point of departure for a wider exploration of the sensual, existential, spiritual and political interfaces and contradictions of visibility and invisibility within other religious and secular traditions as well. To this end, the contributions trace the contradictory poetics and politics of the invisible, suggesting that the realm of al-ghayb constitutes an alternative methodological and analytical entry point into an investigation of the contemporary politics of the gaze. The study of al-ghayb, we propose, entails an important critique of conventional notions of modernity as the “empire of the gaze”.

Original languageEnglish
JournalContemporary Islam
Volume13
Issue1
Pages (from-to)1-16
Number of pages16
ISSN1872-0218
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2019

    Research areas

  • Anthropology of Islam, Islamic mysticism, Paradox, Visibility, SELF, MUSLIM

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