August 1, 2012 § 5 Comments

I really enjoyed the ninth chapter of Agamben’s Nudities, titled “Hunger of an Ox: Considerations on the Sabbath, the Feast, and Inoperativity,” when I read it about a year ago. It begins by introducing the “inoperativity” of the Sabbath (described as the paradigm of Jewish faith and archetype of every celebration) as abstention from everyday activities, insofar as they aim toward construction or production. Inoperativity in Genesis itself is a work of God that puts to rest all other works (110). Agamben then lifts a couple of paragraphs from The Time That Remains (71-72) to note, with the author of Genesis Rabbah and Rashi, that “the repose of the Sabbath is not a simple abstention…it corresponds, rather, to the perfect fulfillment of the commandments” (110). “The feast day is not defined by what is not done in it but instead by the fact that what is done – which in itself is not unlike what is accomplished every day – becomes undone, rendered inoperative, liberated and suspended from its ‘economy,’ from the reasons and aims that define it during the weekdays” (110-111). The things done on the Sabbath may not be unlike the things done other times; but they are subtracted from the economy of utilitarian reason. The inoperativity of the sanctified feast defines a particular modality of living and being.

I knew when I first read this chapter that any resonances to Islam were going to be less than straightforward, not least because the Muslim Friday asymmetrically precedes the Jewish Saturday and Christian Sunday. The Qur’an is explicit: And when the prayer is ended, disperse freely in the earth and seek to obtain [something] of God’s bounty; but remember God often, that you might attain to a happy state! (62:10). That is, after the Friday prayer ends, the trade and barter that in the previous verse were suspended (and leave all worldly commerce) are reinstated, and the worshipers who moments prior had been gathered at the mosque (jami’) may return to the marketplace to seek what they will. Others remain (with tafsir ibn ‘Abbas) to disperse throughout the mosque, seeking through disciplines and litanies to obtain something of the states and stations (maqamat and ahwal) that are also of that bounty. Do what they choose, and however frequently they remember God, the day itself is not necessarily sanctified as a Sabbath. Nor did the Prophet sanctify the day for specific ritual practice: “Do not single out from the nights Friday night for prayer, and do not single out from the days Friday for fasting, but only when one of you is accustomed to fast [on dates] that coincide with this day [should you fast on Friday],” as Abu Hurayra reports. The lunar year and its (indeterminate) rhythms overlay the week and its divisions. Although there is a body of literature on “the virtues of Friday” (containing as it does an hour when all supplications are answered, being a day witness (shahid) to the other days of the week (Q 85:3), the day on which the week turns, a day of eid), yet Friday is one day alongside any other. Unlike what Agamben claims for Saturday and the Jewish Sabbath (Time That Remains, 72), that is, the Muslim Friday is in many ways differentiated from the rest of the week by degree and not by kind.

The Qur’an of course is familiar with the concept of a Sabbath. It excoriates the Sabbath-breakers, citing the case of certain Jews in a town by the sea who fished that day, giving themselves over to the economy of utilitarian reason and breaking their covenant (Q 7:163). Do not transgress on the Sabbath!, the Qur’an insists, perhaps at the gates of Jericho (Q 4:154). But it does not legislate any such heterogeny for the Muslim Friday, instead embedding the Friday prayer scandalously close to the market (cue the European accusations of Islam as this-worldly religion, religion with too little religion, Islam-as-politics).

Without presuming either the relevance or irrelevance to Islam of Agamben’s work on the Sabbath and its time, can we think possible points of contact? My first venture, upon reading the chapter last year, was the relation between the rabbinical tradition that sees the Sabbath as “a small part of the messianic kingdom and an anticipation of it” (Nudities, 110) and salat, the five-times daily prayer that a hadith announces is nothing less than “the Ascension (mi’raj) of the believer.” This was of a course with the extended paper I was writing at the time, arguing that Muslim apocalyptic (in both its registers as a narrative genre and ahistorical chronography) provides a productive site to think Islam with Agamben’s messianism. This past week, however, I have been wondering whether another Islamic analogue to Agamben’s messianic Saturdays might not be the month of Ramadan. It is slightly inverted, of course: activities this month are not dis-oriented from their workaday aims and reasons, we are removed from them. The domain of everyday exchange still envelops us, of course, and we go about our business as usual – while still trying to maintain the difference introduced by the fast (sawm – linguistically both “abstention” and “elevation”). Everything is as it was, but different. A different kind of embodiment, to be for a time without food, drink, sex, this time when the Qur’an descends and the night prayers extend.

I have been thinking about this in relation to some of Ibn al-‘Arabi’s “secrets of fasting” and a talk by Abdal Hakim Murad recommended by Farooq, each of which take as their touchstone the hadith qudsi (divine paraphrase) “Fasting is Mine, and I repay it.” Every good action is rewarded manyfold, the slightly variant narrations of the hadith continue, except for fasting (Bukhari 1795Muwatta 18:57). The merit of the fast we are left to assume is yet with God. This is where the relation to Agamben’s discussion of the Sabbath is closest, in that the fast is explicitly suspended – by God himself, if through Prophetic paraphrase – from the economy of salvation. The otherworldly merit of all other deeds can be calculated (thawab, hasanat) as they facilitate one’s way into paradise, whether religious obligations (prayer, charity, pilgrimage) or otherwise (any act of right intention). This regime of calculation, this economic theology, is constantly cross-cut and interrupted by a contiguous regime of excess (baraka), and so is ultimately only quasi-utilitarian. (“There is no possibility of calculating general equivalence, because it is ultimately brokered by God,” Ruth Marshall commented on Amira’s paper on some of these themes at a workshop a few months ago.) In any case, according to this hadith the merits of the fast, although a primary religious obligation like prayer and charity, are simply incalculable.

“In reality,” Ibn al-‘Arabi writes, “fasting is non-action, not action.” In being liberated from the economy of salvation, fasting is revealed not to be an action alongside other actions. The fast does not belong to humans as do their other actions. “Fasting is Mine…”: the proprietary relation to one’s own deeds acquired and merits earned (kasb) does not obtain. The fast is instead a negative attribute (“it consists of abandoning things which break it”), and so is an action or a form of worship only in an equivocal sense. The faster rejoices, Ibn al-‘Arabi writes, in participating in the negative attribute; he is described by “that which has no like”. This incommensurability inheres in the fast alone, and is recompensed by the One the Quran describes negatively: Naught is His likeness (laysa ka-mithlihi shay’) (42:11). Of course, this incommensurability does not mean that the economy of salvation is rendered inoperative, given over to festive play as Agamben reads the Sabbath to do (Nudities, 114) – but it does (as Abdal Hakim Murad suggests in the khutba) move those fasting toward awareness of the entangling of constriction and expansion (qabd/bast) each as generated by the divine difference.

This also resonates with a recent Facebook comment I came across, a well-respected member of the British Muslim community writing that Ramadan suggests “free will is not about making a choice between things you can have but making the choice of not having anything at all.” The relevance to “free will” aside, this slightly broadens the scope of these unfinished thoughts: the permissibility (ibaha) of things and one’s acquisitive relation to them is at once affirmed and undermined. It may suggest that Ramadan, its fast, something legislated by the Islamic theologico-juridical apparatus but ultimately incommensurable with it, away from the economies of salvation and theodicy, signifying both the experience of constriction and of expansion, and displacing one’s perspective on the rest of the calendar year, fulfilling the pillars of religion but ultimately incalculable, can be understood as a “modality of living and being” in productive tension with Melville’s Bartleby.


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§ 5 Responses to 01.08.12

  • Dawud Israel says:

    I believe the word you are looking for is zuhd…

    Also I would make it simpler and simply say Ramadan is tasawwuf for a month.

  • Dawud Israel says:

    Also if you want to take this in another direction…see Surah Ma’idah 112-115.

  • biqbal says:

    well no, because that doesn’t actually say that much. zuhd as a virtue one cultivates is not a practice with this kind of incommensurability built into it. it’s certainly related but not what i’m getting at here. likewise, saying ramadan is tasawwuf for a month may tell us something about ramadan and tasawwuf but very little about agamben, which is more what the post is about. i’ll think further on the al-ma’ida verses.

  • biqbal says:

    These are unfinished thoughts, finally, because the next questions (if this reading of sawm holds) would be how Ramadan pushes back against Agamben’s reading of the Sabbath.

  • […] also wanted to direct folks’ attention to the blog of Basit Iqbal whose recent post on Agamben and Ramadan may be of […]

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