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
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 ﷺ, 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