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May 7, 2021

At the Movies with African Sufis

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Oludamini Ogunnaike

University of Virginia

Oludamini Ogunnaike’s research interests include Islamic philosophy, spirituality, art, and African diasporic religions.

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At the Movies with African Sufis

I see the shadow play as the greatest lesson
For those exalted in the knowledge of realities
I see figures and voices opposed to one another
And forms without harmony
Coming and going, scene after scene,
All passing away, while the mover abides
—Wajīh al-Dīn Ḍiyā’ b. ¢Abd al-Karīm al Mināwī
Wayang Kulit 1890

Wayang Kulit performance in Java, c. 1890; photo: Wikimedia Commons


Our lives seem to be increasingly spent in front of screens (in fact, you are probably reading this essay on one), and the lockdowns and quarantine measures related to the pandemic have only exacerbated this trend, resulting in an unprecedented surge in home movie and television watching and streaming. A British study estimates that during lockdown, adults spent an average of six hours and twenty-five minutes a day watching television and online video.1 But even before the pandemic, film, television, and online audiovisual content dominated our increasingly homogenous global culture. The hyperreality of streaming and broadcast media is where celebrity and influence are made and cemented. But this was not always the case. In many places in colonized Muslim West Africa, cinema received a much more mixed and even suspicious and hostile reception, included as it was among a host of other coercive foreign sociocultural and political impositions. This is one of the main reasons why cinemas have often been the targets of postcolonial reactionary movements in the region that seek to use the apparatus of the state to control the visual and sensory environment, and hence the imaginations, of their societies.2

But what is cinema that we should be so mindful of it? In the early to mid-twentieth century, numerous West African Sufis, drawing on their own insights and interpretive traditions, developed a distinct approach to understanding this new phenomenon. Nowhere are these dynamics better exemplified than in the Malian author and scholar Amadou Hampâté Bâ’s (d. 1991) accounts of his mother and his spiritual master’s first encounters with the cinema. He recalls how in 1908, the colonial governor organized a film screening for their town of Bandiagara. The local scholars and elders were deeply suspicious of this venture, for “not only did this white man want to show these impious images to the faithful, but he also wanted to charge a small fee for doing so!”3 Given that they could not directly oppose the colonial governor, the town elders met and “concluded that the entertainment that was proposed to us could only be a satanic seduction. For if it were not, a dark night would not have been chosen to present the film.”4 They decided to secretly spread word throughout the town that no one should attend this dangerous event, but that they must keep their opposition quiet to avoid the wrath of, and imprisonment by, the colonial officiate. 

On the night of the screening, only a few local notables—who could not refuse the governor’s invitation—were in attendance, and even they used the veil of dark to cover their eyes to avoid the dangers of the new contraption. The governor was indeed enraged by the poor turnout, but after being convinced to chalk it up to “African superstition” and fear of the unknown (prominent tropes in the European colonial imaginary), no one was punished for the disappointing premiere of cinema in Bandiagara.

It was the memory of this event that Hampâté Bâ’s mother, Kadidia Paté, invoked when he tried to get her to come to the cinema with him in 1934 in Bamako, where he was working as a “native secretary” in the colonial administration: “Ah! When these diabolic shadows were silent, I refused to watch them, and now that they speak, you want me to see them! I will not go, my son, no, I will not go.” However, Bâ eventually convinced her to join him to go see the “wretched machine that spits images.” She watched the entire film in absolute silence, and Bâ feared that she had kept her eyes closed, like the elders back in Bandiagara, and that he had offended her by persuading her to attend. However, the following day, Kadidia thanked him for taking her to the cinema, calling it a “wonder,” but remarking that it was no wonder that human beings, as God’s representatives on earth, could create such wonders, since they were given some of the Creator’s power. She continued:

In 1908, our well-intentioned holy men and esteemed notables had declared that the “tiyatra” is a magical machine of diabolic invention. But for me, rather, the cinema is a wonderful instructor, an eloquent master who amuses and instructs. The film screening yesterday, diabolic or not, permitted me to find an irrefutable proof to bring into being within myself, something that I had only accepted by absolute confidence in Tierno Bokar [Bâ’s Sufi master] who taught it.5

According to Bâ, his mother then explained the debates about the need for a “mediator” between a person and God. Many locally trained Muslim scholars held that there was a need for such a mediator (wasīlah) between individuals and God and that the Prophet s and Sufi saints and masters filled this role, whereas many local scholars trained in the Middle East and their students held that there was no need for such mediation, which, they argued, actually compromised divine unity (tawĥīd) and was a reprehensible innovation. She had accepted the middle position of their teacher, Tierno Bokar (d. 1939),6 who held that there are some cases where a mediator is necessary but others where it is not. The experience of the film had convinced her of Tierno’s position and given her the proof she felt she previously lacked:

In this little house [the film projector], there are several openings through which light shines; ending on the large white cloth. As soon as the operator, whom we do not see, begins his work, some noise comes out of the little house. It passes over our head while we are thrust into a deep darkness—a metaphor of our ignorance of the unknown. The light came from the little house in measured portions, in thin lines, rather than all at once.…
After having watched the large white cloth for a long time, I wanted, in its absence, to make out with my eyes alone, the images which came from the little house. What happened to me? As soon as I turned directly towards the opening in the little house, the beam of light that came out blinded me. Although the images were in the rays, my eyes were not strong enough to perceive them. I closed my eyes in order to concentrate, but my ears continued to clearly make out the sound that accompanied the light.
I found myself in the following situation: First, when I look at the big white cloth, I see the images and hear the sound. I benefit from both the image and sound. But, on the other hand, when I only use my eyes [and not the screen, by looking at the projector], I only hear the sound. I am not able to endure the powerful light, which blinds me. At the same time that there is some good in it, there are also disadvantages.
This deduction leads me to the conclusion that as long as the cloth is essential to clearly see the images and discern the origin of the sound, a mediator is needed between us and God to understand the divine message.7

In this reading of the sign (āyah) of the cinema, Kadidia Paté came to a conclusion found in many Sufi works over the centuries: that the Prophet , as the most perfect mirror of the divine names and qualities, is essential to our efforts to transcend the limitations of our own less-perfect mirrors and understand God better.8

A few years later, Bâ relayed this story to his master, Tierno Bokar, who was passing through Bamako. After hearing this account, Bokar decided to go see a film for himself, and he discussed the experience with Bâ the next day. Praising Kadidia’s intelligence and insight, Tierno Bokar concurred with her interpretation of the symbolism of the cinema, paraphrasing a hadith, “God asks us to meditate on his creation and not on his essence,” to illustrate the difference between looking at the projector or at the screen but also to approve of Kadidia’s reading of the cinema as a part of the “book of creation”: 

This great book of God, with multiple pages, colors and forms, is nature. What unfolds within them could just as well be lessons for humankind…. God asks us to meditate on his creation and not on His essence, because there is no imperfection in divine creation. Therefore, the best examples must be taken from nature, the great work of the one and only supreme God.
The Prophet Muhammad said: “To each era, its book.” We must draw lessons from the events that we experience and see around us: trains, boats, airplane, cinema, etc. There are so many sources from which we should draw: from the example of the Messengers before us; from the elements needed to formulate our modern parables and to clarify our faith in order that it might be understandable within a contemporary context. The Prophet of God said: “Speak to the people according to the capacity of their understanding.”… To those who have conquered distance around the globe, and who have discovered the vast, hidden forces of nature, there must be a new spiritual language.9

Tierno Bokar went on to concur with Kadidia’s interpretation of the symbolic significance of the cinema:

We can, by metaphor, say that the Messenger or the saint is a necessary screen between man and God. It is written in the Koran: “It is not for any mortal that God should speak to him, save by revelation, or from behind a veil, or that He should send a messenger in order to reveal what He will by His leave” (42:51). One who, in the same parable, looks directly in the opening of the projection box may continue to hear the sound, but will not be able to see the images that create these sounds. Moreover, the light will blind them. The effect of dispensing with the screen can only be partial and imperfect. This is a warning to those who are intelligent and have been given ears to hear.
Whereas the person who discreetly faces the screen and looks, will hear the sound and see the images as well as discern the makers of the sounds.… The teacher, the shaykh, that is to say, the intermediary, is indispensable to the person who wants to become fully realized on the path to God, as the screen is necessary to the cinema viewer who wants to see well. It is not given to all people to understand the veils through which God speaks to people. This is why the Lord has sent Messengers. His Messengers have instructed the saints, who have become the instructors and intercessors, the helpers of the religion.10

He then gave his own additional interpretation of the ritual of the cinema as mirroring various aspects of the relationship between this life and the hereafter, death, and the Day of Judgment. He noted that just as everyone rushes to buy things and speak to each other before the film starts, we are all rushing after various things in life before death separates us from them. Bokar likened the guards and ushers that seat people in different rows depending on the price of their tickets to the angels on the Day of Judgment who sort people according to their degrees of proximity to God, and he compared the flickering of lights indicating the imminent start of the film to the signs and indications that God gives us throughout life to alert us of our impending encounter. He concluded:

Suddenly the lights go off and on, a signal that indicates that everyone must take their seats. This also may be interpreted as a symbol that God sends from time to time. But people are so distracted they easily return to their frivolous pursuits. There is cemetery-like silence. In this moment, plunged into darkness, everyone is symbolically dead. Strange and unusual sounds rupture the silence. And rays of light pierce the darkness. Each spectator only thinks of herself/himself. Is this not an image of the Last Judgment? The day when the mother leaves her children and where people turn their eyes towards their intercessors, Moses for the Jews, Jesus for the Christians and Muhammad for the Muslims?11

... continue to Part II of “At the Movies with African Sufis” by Oludamini Ogunnaike