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May 7, 2021

At the Movies with African Sufis

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Collecting Ogunnaike Rgb

Oludamini Ogunnaike

University of Virginia

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

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At the Movies with African Sufis

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Tierno Bokar’s contemporary and fellow master of the Tijānī Sufi order, Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (d. 1975),1 probably the most popular and influential African Sufi shaykh and scholar of the twentieth century, offered his own interpretation of the cinema in his famous Mauritanian Sermon.2 Drawing on a long Sufi tradition of comparing creation to a dream, mirage, or shadow play, Niasse compares the experience of a particular stage of spiritual realization to that of a cinemagoer:

If he continues in the invocation/remembrance (dhikr) of God with the presence of his heart with God, this world will fade away from him and he will arrive at God. This world will be like a mirage upon a desert plain, which the thirsty person supposes is water, till when he comes upon it, he does not find it to be anything, but finds God there before him (24:39). The Shaykh al-Akbar, Ibn al-‘Arabī al-ātimī says: “Whoever sees creation as a mirage, has transcended the veil.”…
An example of this is what you see in the cinema. Whoever among you has not seen the cinema… I would love for you to see it, even just once. For you will witness a thing which you know is not existent, while it is yet existent. For if it were not existent, you would not see it, but in reality, it is non-existent. And so all existing things are also both [existent and non-existent], just as in the case of the cinema. You see a thing existing/not-existing. And existence is just like this. You do good deeds and you know that you have not done anything, and you avoid bad deeds, although you know that you have not done anything. God, the One (al-Wāid), He is the doer.3

In remarkably similar terms, classical Sufi scholars and poets such as al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), Farīd al-Dīn ¢Aṭṭār (d. 1221), Ibn al-¢Arabī (d. 1240), Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī (d. 1273), and Ibn al-Fāri (d. 1234) used the performance of the shadow puppet play (khayāl al-ill)4 to illustrate the seemingly paradoxical relationship between the One and the many, the Creator and creation, Reality and Its diverse appearances.5 For example, Ibn al-¢Arabī writes in his Al-Futūĥāt al-Makkiyyah:

He who would like to know the reality at which I have hinted in this matter should consider the “curtain play” (khayāl al-sitāra), its images (uwar), and who is speaking through these images, as far as the children are concerned who are at a distance from the screening curtain, which is fixed between them and the presenter of the characters (al-lā¢ib bi-tilka ’l-ashkhāś) who speaks through these. The same applies to images in this world. Most people are like the children that we posit: how should they know from where the voice comes? The children in this gathering are happy and delighted; the heedless take it as amusement and entertainment (li¢ban wa lahwan), while the learned regard it as a lesson and know that God has presented it only as a parable. Thus a character (shakhś) comes on first called al-Waśśāf (“describer,” “praiser”). He delivers a speech in which he extols and glorifies God, and then he speaks about all kinds of images (śuwar) that will perform after him behind the curtain. Then he tells the audience that God has produced this [shadow play] as a parable for His servants to consider as a warning, and so that they may know that God’s concern with the world is like that of the muĥarrik [mover/puppet master] with these images. In fact, the curtain (sitāra) is the screen (ĥijāb) that veils the secret of the foreordained future from His creatures. In spite of all this, however, the heedless consider it an amusement and entertainment, in accordance with God’s words: “Those who consider their religion as amusement and entertainment.” [6:70] Then the Waśśāf disappears. He corresponds to the first created human being, Adam (upon whom be peace). When he disappears, he is hidden with his Lord behind the curtain of His divine secret. “God speaks only the truth and gives guidance on the right path.” [33:4]6

Or as Ibn al-Fāri writes, describing the shadow play in his famous “Poem of the Sufi Way” (Nam al-sulūk):

The spectre of the shadow play, in the drowsiness of diversion
 Presents to you what the curtains conceal
You see the forms of things, manifesting themselves to you
 In every robe, from behind the veil of confusion
Opposites combine in them for a reason
 So their figures appear in every guise
Silent, they appear to speak, 
 Still, yet they move; giving light, though not bright
You laugh, amazed, like the giddiest of the joyful
 Then cry, weeping like a bereaved mother who lost her child
You mourn when they lament the loss of their fortune
 You thrill when they sing from the sweetness of song

But all that you witnessed is the act of one
 All alone, but enveloped in veils
But when he removes the screen, you see naught but him
 And about the figures, no doubts or confusion remains
And in this unveiling, you realize that by his light
 You were guided to his actions in the dark
Even so, I let fall the veil of confusion of the soul
 between me and myself in a light of darkness

His figures are where his actions appear on the screen
 When he appears, they turn and vanish

The tongues of all beings, if you are awar
 Bear witness to my oneness in clear eloquence7

But just like Ibn al-Fāri’s veil, cinema and videos conceal even as they reveal, potentially trapping us in a world of shadows of shadows, dreams of dreams, the creations of creations. It is hard enough to remember the Real surrounded by the dizzying and dazzling variety of the world of natural appearances, so it would seem that the virtual world of video removes us yet another step from reality. However, just as all shadows and veils can reveal even as they conceal, such forms, by drawing attention to their own nature, can serve as a powerful reminder (for the spiritually inclined) of the nature of the world. This can clearly be seen in Shakespeare’s plays within plays, and films such as The Truman ShowThe MatrixInception, or television series such as Black Mirror, which, in a certain sense, turn the artifice of the medium back on itself, holding up a mirror to the audience and encouraging them to reflexively examine their experience and question their own reality. In medieval shadow puppet plays, this was often achieved through a speech given by the puppeteer or a monologue by one of the characters near the end of the play.8 So while it is sad to see so many of us with our faces buried in our phones on a sunny day, or binge-watching our lives away, Tierno Bokar reminds us that “we must draw lessons from the events that we experience and see around us.” He encourages us to interpret these phenomena as signs of the “great book” of creation (even those things that appear to be authored by those made in the image of the Divine Author), indicating that most of us are similarly unhealthily binging on and identified with the unfolding drama of the life of this world (al-ĥayāh al-dunyā), oblivious to those higher realities (the Real/al-Ĥaqq) and the hereafter (al-ākhirah), compared to which this outward life is but an illusory, fleeting pleasure (matā¢) (Qur’an 3:185, 13:6). The examples of Kadidia Paté, Tierno Bokar, and Shaykh Ibrahim Niasse (like those before them) call us to strive to develop “a new spiritual language” to discover, describe, and communicate timeless truths for our video-dominated time, to use the black mirrors of our ever-present screens to help us contemplate the light of Truth, which Tierno Bokar famously described as “a darkness more brilliant than all other lights combined.”9