Mystics in the movies: Sufism in global cinema

by Emily Jane O’Dell

The figure shows Mystics movies covers: Hideous Kinky, Bab’Aziz, The Willow Tree

Sufism appears in films from around the world in places as diverse as Tajikistan, Senegal, Kazakhstan, Iran, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Sudan, Pakistan, and Turkey. Analyzing the history of representations of Sufism in global cinema reveals the various ways in which it serves as a cinematic signifier, and elucidates the structural frameworks and socio-political contexts of these portrayals. The conceit of a spiritual journey in these films offers an “alternative” modality through which (neo/post) colonial, patriarchal, religious, and political discourses are questioned and transcended. By focusing on characters who live on the margins, be they disabled, diasporic minorities, poor, or rebellious women, these films address cultural issues and social tensions through the guise of a spiritual transformation. At the same time, Sufism provides filmmakers with a poetic frame through which they can explore ontological and existential questions within a tradition that lends itself to visual representation through its musical, ritualistic, and meditative practices and mystical aesthetics. Sufism in global cinema grants characters on the margins a transgressive and transcendent escape from the pressures of patriarchy, the alienation of modernity, and the violence of imperialism, while it is simultaneously framed by filmmakers as an alternative to terrorism and a challenge to negative portrayals of Islam in the west. Themes of exile, displacement, and migration that course through these films employ Sufism as a vehicle through which identity can be re-claimed, spirituality embodied, and community belonging enacted.

Defining Sufism in film

Sufiism is notoriously difficult to define. There are many different definitions, manifestations, and interpretations of Sufism; thus, cinematic portrayals of Sufism in global cinema are by no means uniform and are culturally specific. In generalizing terms, Sufism can be understood within the context of this chapter to refer to the mystical dimension of Islam, specifically the esoteric and ritualistic practices which are intended to purify the heart of all negative qualities and draw a believer closer to the divine through all-consuming love and ecstasy. The Sufi path is framed as a renunciation of the ego and the temptations of the material world in favor of the world of the heart -the invisible and experiential realm where nurturing and embodying love of God, who is referred to in Sufi poetry as “the Beloved,” is the sole objective. The films in this chapter point to the diversity of Sufi practices around the globe and demonstrate a variety of culturally and historically specific representations of Sufism in cinematic imaginations.

Sufis have been depicted in film in a number of contradictory ways - as emblems of progress and regression, orthodoxy and heresy, piety and corruption. Sufism has been employed in film to subvert dominant media narratives on Islam (Bab’Aziz), carve out new representations of empowered female spirituality (Door to the Sky), and manufacture “modern” models for masculinity and nationhood (The Nine Holy Men). Sufis are presented as enlightened guides, blind seers, caring healers, virtuous saints, social justice warriors, moralizing missionaries, and national heroes. They serve as symbols of anti-colonialism, model masculinity, feminist empowerment, and nationhood. However, they are also critiqued as deceptive charlatans (Hideous Kinky) and misguided mystics (The Nine Holy Men).

Notably, several films with Sufi protagonists carve out cinematic space for disability, by centering characters who suffer from disabilities (“seers” with visual impairments) or provide hands-on help to people with disabilities in need of charity and guidance (Door to the Sky and Marriage of Zein). In addition, women in both dramatic films and documentaries about Sufism occupy central positions, serving as spiritual guides and healers. In Door to the Sky and Exiles, it is female Sufi guides who initiate seekers onto the Sufi path, ushering them from feelings of displacement and alienation into new forms of being and belonging.

Sufi narratives in general tend to focus on seekers who are on the margins -women, people with disabilities, migrants, and displaced (bicultural) postcolonial subjects. The reoccurring theme of marginality in these narratives uses the transcendent trope of Sufism to represent various homecomings -to the soul, to the body, to culture, and to territory. In several instances, these homecomings are achieved through the healing tonic of dhikr. From the perspective of corporeal phenomenology, dhikr in cinema is portrayed as a deeply sensory experience that allows “westerners” (whether British spiritual seekers or Arabs living in France) to disconnect from their personal trauma and alienation in the “west” and (re)connect to an embodied and emotive state of being - surrendering to corporeal and experiential realms. Dhikr serves as a liminal portal of literal and figurative conversion from west to east; present to past, and mind to body. In films that have probed the diasporic imaginary, it is Arab directors who have lived outside of the Maghreb, who have put a spotlight on Sufism and used it to chart alternative postcolonial geographies.

Sufi portrayals are shaped by the politics of the day. For instance, the Sufi backgrounds of several historical figures have been downplayed in biopics and semi-biographical films due to reductive Orientalist portrayals of

Islam in the “west” (The Mahdi in Khartoum) and the rise of Islamic movements hostile to Sufism in the “east” (Omar Mukhtar in Lion of the Desert). Likewise, Wali Songo films from Indonesia have downplayed the mystical orientation of Javanese mystics, which they frame as secondary to their role as “dakhwah warriors” spreading Sunni Islam, to avoid charges of heresy from “fundamentalist” inclined viewers. Sufism is also employed as a political corrective; for instance, a number of post-9/11 films have employed Sufism to challenge negative portrayals of Islam in the “west” by focusing on its perceived tradition of tolerance1 (Bab’Aziz) and reverse decades of dervishes being portrayed negatively in film in the “east” (Takva: A Man’s Fear of God). Thus, the deployment of Sufism in film is intimately tied to the politics of the day.

Sufism & disability: blindness as a symbol of spiritual (In)sight

Several Persian language films with Sufi themes, such as The Willow Tree (Bid-e Majnoon) and Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated his Soul (Bab'Aziz, le prince qui contemplait son ante), feature a blind protagonist whose spiritual journey privileges the “insight” of faith in the spiritual realm over the ease of “sight” in the material realm. In these films, visual impairments function as a metaphor for the ability to see with the heart into the unseen realm of divine love through spiritual insight, faith, and devotion. These disabled protagonists are configured as spiritual wayfarers whose lack of outer vision grants them greater expertise in the arts, such as in teaching poetry and playing music, and greater capacity for spiritual insight and transformation.2

The Willow Tree, a 2005 Iranian film directed by Majid Majidi, is a Sufi-inspired parable that follows the journey of Youssef, a blind professor of Rumi poetry, after he recovers the vision he lost as a child. Youssef begins the film completely blind, but outwardly satisfied with his life and the doting care of his loving wife and daughter. But before he embarks to France for the operation to restore his sight, Youssef writes a note to God which he places between the pages of the Mathnawi, the poetic masterpiece of the medieval Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi: “I’m the one you deprived of the beauties of the world and who never complained. Instead of light and brightness, I lived in darkness and gloom and I didn’t protest. I found happiness and peace in this small paradise ... I beg of you to show me more compassion.” Eventually, with his vision successfully restored, Youssef moves from a world marked by darkness but steeped in piety and humility to a world of sight saturated with beauty but also temptation and disappointment.

When the bandages are removed from Youssef’s eyes following his corneal transplants, he marvels at the natural world and the faces of his loved ones. However, his eye is also caught by Pari, his uncle’s beautiful sister-in-law, who becomes an object of his desire; he listens with lust to her phone

Mystics in the movies 99 message asking for his help on her dissertation on mystical Persian poets. Whereas his heart was once drawn to Sufi poetry for its mystical messages of divine love, his connection to these poems transforms into an expression of carnal desire. He becomes disinterested in his wife who leaves him, and he loses interest in teaching. When he fails to stop a boy on the subway from stealing a wallet, he comes face-to-face with his own moral impotence. Youssef unexpectedly loses his sight again, seemingly as a punishment for his abuse of the gift of sight. Imprisoned in his failure to have transformed for the better, he is finally able to “see” his own selfishness and disconnection from God.’

Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated his Soul, a 2005 film by Tunisian writer and director Nacer Khemir, follows the journey of a blind dervish named Bab’Aziz and his granddaughter Ishtar as they wander the desert in search of large Sufi gathering that takes place every 30 years.4 Like in the other two films of Khemir’s Desert Trilogy (Wanderers of the Desert (El-haimoune) and The Dove’s Lost Necklace (Le Collier perdu de la colombe), the desert dunes in Bab’Aziz symbolize the “valleys that the mystic passes through as he matures in his search for truth, and it is also an existential metaphor for the transitory nature of life and the imminent presence of death: the final return to dust” (Papan-Martin, 52).5 The character Bab’Aziz is framed as an exemplary model of Sufi adab, or spiritual conduct; his lack of “vision” or focus on the material world endows him with the potential for greater spiritual insight.

Bab’Aziz is an audiovisual tapestry of Sufi cultural heritage from around the world, teeming with allusions to Persian, Arab, Turkish, Indian, African, and Mongol history and culture. The film itself was a transnational and multicultural endeavor, having been produced by French, Iranian, and Tunisian companies, filmed on location in Tunisia and Iran,6 and scored with Persian, Indian, and Bengali-inspired melodies and songs, such as “Zikr” and “I Made the Lamp” by Armand Amar. As for the nonlinear structure of the film, Khemir notes: “Now, concerning the structure of this movie, I think it helps the spectator to forget about his own ego and to put it aside in order to open up to the reality of the world. It borrows the structure of the visions usually narrated by dervishes, and the structure of their spiraling and whirling dances.”7 The screenplay is a palimpsest of verses from the Qur’an, and Sufi poems by Rumi, Attar, Ibn Arabi, and Ibn Farid.

The film also tells the story of a handsome young prince who leaves his royal lifestyle behind to admire his reflection in the water. The theme of spiritual in(sight) is explicit in the screenplay: “The prince contemplated his soul so much that he left the visible world for the invisible one.” Khemir has stated that the idea of the “Prince” character came to him “from a beautiful plate that was painted in Iran in the 12th century” in Kashan that shows a prince looking into water with the inscription: “The prince who contemplated his own soul”8 - a rather unique example of material cultural heritage inspiring cinematic narrative.

The enigmatic dialogue of the film, delivered in Persian and Arabic, is circular and cryptic; language, like sight, becomes revealed as an inadequate modality for understanding and articulating the spiritual realm. Since the film frames the “heart” as the prime organ for seeing the unseen realm and expressing its beauty, Bab’Aziz says to his granddaughter: “look with the eyes of your heart.” Traveling on the Sufi path is an experiential endeavor that requires spiritual intuition, keen discernment, and divine guidance; there is no one right way to progress on the path toward the divine. When the granddaughter protests that they are going a different path than the others, he responds: “Everyone has his own way,” and later shares a cherished saying among Sufis. “There are as many paths to God as there are souls on earth.” The path to the gathering and by extension to God cannot be “seen” with the eyes, but must be felt with the heart and searched for through faith and grace.

Bab’Aziz is as much a political film as a spiritual one. In Khemir’s words, it is a “highly political film, and deliberately so,”9 since he made the film to dispel negative stereotypes in the west about Islam in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the belief that “Sufism stands against all forms of fanaticism.”10 The opening image of Bab’Aziz emerging from under the rubble of sand-swept ruins is a visual representation of Khemir’s desire to emerge from the wreckage of the 9/11 attacks with a narrative of Islam focused on love and tolerance. Thus, the red-haired dervish character who considers his job of sweeping the mosque, an act of devotion to the “Beloved,” may be seen as an avatar of the director himself who expressly tried to “wipe Islam’s face clean” with this film “by showing an open, tolerant and friendly Islamic culture, full of love and wisdom.”11 According to Khemir, “dervishes free Islam of certain dogmatic interpretations, just like this auburn dervish in the movie, who is attracted by the minaret, and tries to clear the ‘dust’ off it with a broom.”12 Thus, the film is configured as a corrective - a political attempt to challenge the dominant narrative in the west about Islam by employing Sufi themes. It is also an intentional rebuke of “fundamentalism” -a challenge to those who would claim that Sufism is separate from Islam or heretical. In his interviews, Khemir positions Sufism as the antithesis of fundamentalism. According to his definition of Sufism, Sufism is the “Islam of the mystics,” the “tenderness of Islam,” and the “pulsating heart of Islam.”13 Khemir sees Sufism as the essence of Islam itself, noting: “Far from being a marginal phenomenon, it is the esoteric dimension of the Islamic message.”14 In his view, cinema is a prime vehicle through which negative images of Islam in the west can be challenged, and the diversity and history of Islamic practices in the east can be reclaimed.

Reverting hearts & trancing bodies: gender and ritual in Postcolonial North Africa and Occupied Iraq

Films such as Hideous Kinky (UK), Door to the Sky (Bab Al-Sama Maftouh) (Morocco), and Exiles (Exits) (France/Algeria), all feature female

Mystics in the movies 101 protagonists who journey from Europe to North Africa and become introduced to the Sufi path. In these films with exile, migration, and alienation at their core, it is female Sufi guides and friends who welcome these women onto the Sufi path. In Hideous Kinky,15 a 1998 film directed by Gillies MacKinnon, Kate Winslet plays Julia, a young British mother who moves to Morocco in the 1970s with her two young children after splitting with their father to find “another world” where there is “a kind of pure joy, a blissful emptiness and no pain.” Julia’s quest for spiritual enlightenment in Morocco replicates the Orientalist narrative of “‘finding’ yourself in the Arab world” (Long, 213). Though her motivations for exploring Sufism can be considered essentializing and Orientalist, the film finds clever ways to subvert and highlight her misguided misconceptions, “New Age” naivete, and cultural ignorance.

Julia is introduced to Sufism through her European revert friend Eva, who has reconfigured her entire life to follow the Sufi path in Marrakesh. Married to a Sufi, Eva jokes with Julia: “This is what happens when you come to Morocco for a good time - you get married and join the Sufis.” Eva shows Julia a slipper of “the greatest living Sufi,” Sheikh Ben Jalil, who is the “a great teacher and a true saint” working in “school of the annihilation of the ego” in order “to find the god within.” Eva wears niqab when they travel outside the house to attend a dhikr, a meditative and musical Sufi ceremony of divine remembrance, where Julia shakes in trance and faints ostensibly in ecstasy.

The film also offers a critique of Sufism, delivered through the perspectives of two male characters. When Julia says she is no longer afraid of death because of the “annihilation of the ego,” her Moroccan boyfriend Bilal, who is a charming acrobat and conman, shoots back: “How can you people talk like that?” When she speaks with a middle-aged Moroccan friend about her intention to find a Sufi sheikh, in her search for “knowledge” and “some kind of guidance,” he warns her against Sufism, describing such practices as involving “sitting around on cushions, a great deal of illogic, and even a greater deal more incense” along with “days of fasting, interminable amounts of prayer, and a personal visit from God.” He calls Sufism his “country’s tragedy - this escapism.” In his mind, the Sufis are “dangerous” -“Asian frauds” who would never be tolerated in Europe. But in Julia’s mind, “Europe lacks this inner world.” Julia’s daughters are also disturbed by her spiritual journey, believing that Sufis “live in a mosque, they pray all day, and they never go out.” Watching their mother kneel in prayer prostrations and faint in ecstasy at the dhikr, her daughters feel alienated from her and fear losing her to the Sufi path, asking if they will still have a garden and mashed potatoes every night after she officially becomes a Sufi.

When Julia finally make an exhausting pilgrimage to a faraway Sufi lodge in search of a revered sheikh, she learns that he has died, so she speaks instead with another sheikh - Sheikh Habas. While she wants to talk about baraka (spiritual power), he instead asks her mundane questions about her family and partner. Realizing she is still in love with her partner in London, she responds: “I’m not ready, am I?” With this acknowledgment, she returns to Marrakesh to pack her bags and return to London. The death of the sheikh she was seeking and her spiritual unpreparedness to step formally onto the Sufi path abort her mystical journey in Morocco; however, due to her encounters with Sufism, she has grown in self-awareness and maturity and feels ready to “return” to her homeland enriched by the self-knowledge16 she has gained through these Orientalized subjects and landscapes.

Door to the Sky, a 1988 film from Morocco written, directed and produced by Farida Belyazid,17 revolves around the hybridized postcolonial subject of Nadia, a young Moroccan emigre, who journeys from Paris to Fez to visit her dying father. Though she arrives as a drinking, smoking punk with dyed hair, she gradually moves from feeling “alien” to feeling at home in Fez through her encounters with Sufism.18 She is drawn to the Sufi path when she hears the Quranic recitations of a Moroccan spiritual guide named Karina at her father’s funeral. Soon, she transforms her father’s home into a zawiya, a Sufi lodge, which she uses to shelter and care for women on the margins of society.19 She severs her ties to France by ending her relationship with her French boyfriend Jean-Phillipe, wearing the veil, and stepping onto the Sufi path.

The film was created at a time when filmmakers in Morocco were trying to cultivate a new “national” cinema and local audience in opposition to Morocco’s “Years of Lead” and the rise of Islamist movements that proliferated as a counter to Marxism and the political repression of the state. At that time, women were also engaged in the struggle to change post-independence personal status laws (mudawwana) which favored men in matters like inheritance - a prime theme in the film as Nadia fights her siblings for possession of the house. Door to the Sky broke with the aesthetic of social realism to suggest a world and cinema style that might transcend the east-west divide and the secular-religious dichotomy. However, like Hideous Kinky, the film does fetishize the visual elements of Islamic architecture and practice, and upon feeling the pull to Islam, Nadia asks herself: “Am I in the 15th century or the 20th?” She encourages her French boyfriend Jean-Philippe to “listen to the timelessness of Islam,” another tired Orientalist trope.

By beginning the film with a dedication to Fatima al-Fihriya, founder of the al Qaraouine Mosque in Fez in 10th century,20 Belyazid aimed to reclaim the image of women as respected scholars, religious guides, and patrons in Morocco’s history at a time when radical Islamist groups were gaining ground. Nadia also discovers her healing powers as a sherifa (a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad). Her spiritual evolution has been understood by scholars like Ella Shohat as a “rebuke of both white, western bourgeois models of feminism and Islamic fundamentalism, and a destabilization of postcolonial oppositions of tradition and modernity,”21 as she is able to spiritually evolve and care for others “out of the patriarchal regional context of Morocco” (Gönül Dönmez-Colin, 127). Nevertheless,

Mystics in the movies 103 her stated desire at the beginning of the film “to have it all” is ultimately unattainable.

At the end of the film, disappointed when the women in her Sufi lodge refuse to welcome an atheist young woman and a sick young man that she healed into their shelter, Nadia realizes that no sacred space is free of the prejudices outside its walls. She leaves her home behind in pursuit of a different freedom, seeking to become untethered even to the structures of Sufism. While in the beginning of the film, Sufism is sanitized as a spiritual discipline untainted by the ugliness of the world, such as hypocrisy, class inequality, fanaticism, and racism, by the end of the film, Nadia realizes that a spiritual community cannot be separated from the world that created it, and she awakens to the “folly in exchanging one cultural identity for another” (Martin 2011, 64). Nadia leaves behind her female collective and seeks freedom of movement as an individual on an inner and outer journey to the “vast, spiritual expanse of ‘the sky’ ” (Gönül Dönmez-Colin 2007, 125) alluded to in the film’s title.

Tony Gatlif’s22 Exiles (2006), which features two Parisian lovers - Zano (son of French colonists in Algiers) and Lubna (daughter of Algerian Arabs) - on a journey to Algeria,23 also explores the therapeutic nature of return to postcolonial countries of origin. Since neither one of them speaks Arabic, they feel culturally adrift in Algeria; their journey mirrors that of the North African migrants they encounter who are trying to make their way to Europe.24 In this sense, the film “underscores the links and continuities between colonial mobilities and postcolonial ones, and emphasizes the fact that not everyone is free to move or stay put in the same way” (Bayraktar, 66). At the end of their circuitous road trip, they experience a spiritual awakening of sorts at a dhikr gathering, which (like in Hideous Kinky) resembles more of a zar-ceremony to exorcise jinn than a typical dhikr.25 In the penultimate scene, a female spiritual guide tells Lubna that her spirit is lost and implores her: “Refind yourself, your family, and bearings.” In the following 12-minute single-take trance scene, Naima dances and shakes uncontrollably, her convulsing26 resembling an epileptic fit or exorcism. While Naima begins the movie lounging naked in bed, laughing at Zano’s suggestion that they travel to Algeria, she ends the film in an ecstatic trance - exorcizing her demons, and finding liberation in her body not through sexuality but spiritual catharsis. Caught between east and west, Naima finds her “home” in her own body, a “defiant gesture in the face of loss” (Holohon, 33) that (re)connects her to her spirit, the Maghreb, and by extension Islam. Through the music and movement of the “ceremony,”27 Lubna moves from a state of alienation (“a stranger everywhere”) to one of embodiment, reconnected with her body, culture, and land of origin.

Trance also provides a pivotal point of spiritual, moral, and political conversion in the 2017 award-winning28 film The Journey from Iraq. Set in 2006, the film centers upon Sara, a young woman wrapped in a hidden suicide vest in Baghdad’s train station, whose plans to detonate her vest to “purify” Iraq from the American occupation keep getting thwarted by unwelcome intrusions. However, it is not until she encounters the ecstatic music, dancing, and dhikr of a wandering group of dervishes from the Qadiri29 Sufi Order (Iraq’s largest and most popular) that she begins to experience a change of heart as she becomes lulled into a trance. According to director Mohamed Al Daradji: “The Sufi dancer’s scene in the station is my favorite it’s so trance-like and transcends you into another world, I love this scene because it’s very significant to the story and marks the beginning of the change in the main character Sara.”30 This scene reconfigures the “journey” of the title from a physical one to a spiritual one. Daradji has said he made the film to combat terrorism intellectually rather than militarily. According to him, “We’re trying to fight terrorism through ideas and to get rid of extremist and fanatical behaviors and concepts through dialogue, understanding and rapprochement between people.”31 Thus, this film, which was the first Iraqi film to be shown in Iraqi theaters in more than 25 years,32 employs Sufism as an alternative to terrorism in occupied Iraq - an inward and transcendent escape from imperialism, violence, and injustice.

Mystic masters and holy fools: masculine models of morality and modernity

While films from the Maghreb feature women who find respite from their dissociated bicultural identities, economic anxieties, and relationship issues through Sufi encounters with female guides, other films, such as Takva: A Man’s Fear of God (Takva) (Turkey), The Wedding of Zein (Urs Al-Zayn) (Sudan), and The Nine Holy Men (Sembilan Wali) (Indonesia) center male mystics whose spiritual journeys explore the complex intersections of modernity, masculinity, and morality. In the 2006 Turkish film Takva (directed by Ozer Kiziltan), Muharrem, a pious middle-aged Sufi, is catapulted from a quiet ascetic life of seclusion to the excesses of modern daily life when his Sufi sheikh asks him to manage the financial affairs of the order and its real estate properties.33 Outfitted with new digs, Western-style clothes, a cell phone, and a car with a driver,34 Muharrem is forced to compromise his spiritual and moral principles, and confront hypocrisy in his Sufi Order, the world, and himself. After finding himself lusting after the daughter of the Sheikh, Muharrem’s competing desires eventually drive him to madness,35 and he ends the film in a catatonic state in the arms of the Sheikh’s daughter on a bed in the dargah. While he begins the film separated from modernity through seclusion and asceticism, he ends the film in internal exile, trapped in his own body and immobilized between two seemingly irreconcilable desires and multiplicities.36

Tak va: A Man’s Fear of God is unique in Turkish cinema for depicting dervishes in a sympathetic light. According to director Ozer Kiziltan, there have been many films which “attack the dervishes and make fun of Islam, like for example Varan Kahpeyi,37 but he “wanted to take a more conciliatory

Mystics in the movies 105 approach.”38 Throughout Turkish film history, films have focused on the tension between modern and traditional life, as a result of the modernization / westernization efforts of the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic. Since the early republican period, films have portrayed imams, sheikhs, dervishes, and religious people in general negatively, recycling clichés and stereotypes of spiritual seekers as backward, unethical, and obstacles to the development of society and the modern nation-state.3

Sufi leaders in early Turkish films were presented as major obstacles to modernization and unethical traitors who used religion for their own personal interests - including sexual abuse. The film The Mystery of Bogazici, which critiques sexual abuse in Sufi orders, prompted Sufis in the Bektashi Order to destroy the movie set and attack the actors and crews as they filmed in the courtyard of Eyiip Sultan Mosque. Later, films from the 1960s directed by religiously devout Muslims directors featured historical Sufi figures, such as Yunus Emre, Haji Bektash Veli, and Jalaluddin Rumi, but they were not historically accurate and lacked all aesthetic considerations. In Marxist-inspired social realist films from around the same time, Sufis are portrayed as backward, irrational, superstitious, fatalistic and out of touch with modern life. With the rise of moderate Islamic politics in the 1990s,40 however, Turkish directors began to carve out more creative and sympathetic representations of Islam - paving the way of films like Takva: A Man’s Fear of God to emerge.

Takva: A Man’s Fear of God presents an unusually nuanced, objective, and realistic depiction of Sufi Orders in Turkey today. The film is a landmark in Turkish film history, as it is the first Turkish film in which a lengthy (four minute) dhikr ceremony is depicted41 with real dervishes. According to director Kiziltan, “There are many films about Muslim topics in Turkish cinema but no-one has ever filmed inside a mosque or within a religious order before.”42 Dervishes were also involved in the means of production, as Kiziltan explains: “The Dervishes helped us a great deal throughout the process of making the film because the film deals with their own problems, and they identified with the screenplay.”43 Such realistic details can be found in the sheikh’s assistant Rauf kissing a glass of sherbet before handing it to the sheikh in true dervish fashion, and politicians from Ankara visiting the sheikh out of respect. The film has been framed by the director as a corrective of earlier depictions of Sufis in Turkish cinema.44 However, while the film revolves around a modern dervish trying to straddle modernity and traditional life, the film ends with him paralyzed by this dialectical divide -suggesting that such reconciliation may not be possible.

The tension between modern life and traditional life can also be seen in Sudan’s most famous film with Sufi sentiments, The Marriage of Zein, a 1976 film based on Tayeb Salih’s classic novel45 and directed by Kuwaiti director Khalid Siddik.46 The film revolves around the marriage of Zein, a lovable village simpleton, and his friendship with Haneen, a Sufi figure with magical abilities who only associates with those on the margins of society, such as Zein and “Mousa the Lame.” Haneen is “called a holy man not because of his dedication to his religious devotions, but because of his ability to see through appearances and to gauge the importance of the role played by Zein in the life of the community” (Abbas, 56). As the novel explains, Zein appears to be a village idiot to normal eyes, but in reality, he has the heart of a saint: “Zein is no imbecile . . . Zein’s a blessed person” (Salih 1985, 64). Haneen stops an attack on Zein by the local “bad guy” - drinking and womanizing Seif ad-Din. While Zein is a symbol of the Sufi simplicity and saintliness of traditional life, Seif ad-Din represents the dangers and sinfulness of modernity.

Haneen repeatedly confirms throughout the book and the film that Zein is blessed with special spiritual qualities. He calls Zein a “Blessed One of God” and considers him a “darwish” (dervish). In the novel, “everyone knew that Zein was a favorite of Haneen and that Haneen was a holy man who would not frequent the company of someone unless he had perceived in him a glimmering of spiritual light” (Salih 1985, 93-94). Haneen spiritually educates Zein and teaches him how to confront and transform evil into good. Both characters represent “the mystical side of the spiritual world” (Abbas, 58). Haneen rarely speaks with the villagers; as a Sufi ascetic, he is focused on the divine realm and guiding Zein into his own spiritual powers and saintly station. Haneen also performs miracles and draws the villagers to God through his love, piety, and asceticism. He successfully prophesizes that Zein will marry the best girl in the village, and he turns Seif ad-Din from a scoundrel into a pious Muslim. He stands in opposition to the imam who represents the exoteric and legalistic dimensions of Islam.

Accordingly, one of the main tensions in the narrative is the tension between Sufism, epitomized by the loving heart of Zein and the miraculous powers of Haneen, and orthodox Islam, represented by the imam with his fiery sermons of dogma and damnation. Zein’s loving embrace by diverse sectors of Sudanese society also hints at the possibility of national unity and spiritual love triumphing over tribal divisions and fanaticism.47 Through Haneen’s mystical blessing, Seif ad-Din leaves his sinful ways behind, gets married, and even delivers the call to prayer at the mosque.48 Tayeb Salih wrote the novel as a rebuke of socialist realism; as a result, the supernatural triumphs over the secular and Sufism is positioned as a more desirable method of reform and community building than tribalism and “heterodox” Islam.49

A number of New Order Islamic films in Indonesia from the 1980s feature the Javanese mystics (Wali Songo) credited with helping to spread Islam in Indonesia in the 15th and 16th centuries?'0 Films such as The Nine Holy Men (dir. Djun Saptohadi) and Sunan Kalijaga5' (dir. Sofyan Sharma) depict these “civilizing” medieval mystics as models of masculinity and morality who ignite social change through Islamic virtue and values that usher in the proto-nation state (Izharuddin 2017)?2 While these historical figures, framed as “founding fathers,” were educated Muslim mystics, they are

Mystics in the movies 107 framed first and foremost as “dakwah warriors”53 (Soenarto 2005, 36), spreading Sunni Islam after the disintegration of the Majapahit Kingdom at a time when Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic/Sufi, and animist practices existed side-by-side and blended into kejawen (a Javanese spiritual blend of these traditions) (Daniels 2012, 36).

While it is commonly accepted that these nine saints54 had a Sufi orientation and claimed supernatural powers (Hanan, 33), the Islamic modernism movement that appeared in the 19th century and still influences Islamic practice in Java today rejected mysticism. As a result, the Sufi nature of these saints is usually downplayed in film, and Wali Songo films that do depict their miraculous mystic powers have been criticized (even though these films are based on mystical stories in The Chronicles of Java [Babad Tanah Jawi] - a set of manuscripts on the history of the Java).55 In The Nine Holy Men, Sunan Gresik is depicted as the first Javanese mystic, inspiring his disciples to instill social order, justice, and morality in Java through Islam. However, the acceptable limits of mysticism are made clear through the persecution and execution of Syeikh Siti Jenar, who is deemed an infidel for his teaching of the principle of wahdatul wujud - becoming one with God.56 Instead of focusing on the mysticism of the Wali Songo, the Wali Songo subgenre frames them as symbols of Indonesian nationhood, Javanese refinement,57 and “founders of a proto-nation that would give rise to the modern-day nation and postcolonial state” (Izharuddin, 24). Further, the Wali Songo subgenre of film is lam i depicts these early mystic missionaries as virtuous and non-violent crusaders against economic injustice (feudal lords), social degeneracy, and moral bankruptcy.

Biographical films about notable Sufis are not, of course, unique to Indonesia. Notable Sufi figures like Yunus Emre, Abdel Qader, Al-Ghazali, and Rumi58 have been commemorated and represented in films from Tajikistan, Turkey, Pakistan, and the United States.59 A 1959 Soviet Tajik film about the Tajik-Persian poet Abuabdullo Rudaki, A Poet’s Fate, was screened at the Turkmen National Music and Drama Theater in Ashgabat in 2008 for the 1150th anniversary of his birthday (“People’s Artist of Tajikistan,” Marat Aripov, plays Rudaki).60 Al-Ghazali: The Alchemist of Happiness (2004) traces the spiritual evolution of one of the greatest Sufi philosophers in Islamic history, as he moves from a life of religious dogma to one of the Sufi reverie. By contrast, the Hollywood film Khartoum (1966) completely neglects the indispensable Sufi background and context of “The Mahdi,” the anti-colonial Sudanese hero (played by Lawrence Olivier in blackface) who boldly fought the British.61 Similarly, Lion of the Desert (1980), starring Anthony Quinn and funded by Muammar Gaddafi, does not pay much heed to the fact that Omar Al-Mukhtar, the anti-colonial hero against Italy in Libya, was educated in the Sanusi Sufi Order and first joined the Sanusi resistance in 1911 to fight the Italian invasion.62 These productions intentionally downplay the Sufi context of their respective protagonists in favor of a reductive narrative that strips these historical figures of their mystic formations and allegiances to cater to the sensitivities and prejudices of their intended audiences.

Musical assemblages: portraying pilgrimage, zar, and qawwali on film

A number of dramatic films and documentaries in global cinema feature Sufi pilgrimage to the shrines of important Sufi figures as well as the Sufi music performed at the world’s most popular shrines. The most notable documentary on Sufi pilgrimage is Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s Touba, which showcases the annual pilgrimage (Grand Magaal) of a million Sufis in Senegal to Touba, a city founded by Cheikh Amadou Bamba, a non-violent Sufi leader exiled by French colonialists to Gabon in 1895 who remains a popular symbol of anti-colonialism, spiritual mastery, and the nation itself.63 Vasarhelyi felt “compelled to document this story to expose outsiders to another face of Islam”64 by showcasing the poetry, songs, and whirling dances of the Mouride Brotherhood enacted at this three-day festival in Bamba’s honor.65 Other documentary films depict healing rituals associated with Sufism. Films from Iran that document the zar-ceremony,66 a spiritual exorcism67 with music and dance associated by some with Sufism and used to remove a jinn causing mental or physical suffering,68 include Dingomaro (2014), The African-Baluchi Trance Dance69 (2012), The Jinn’s Wind (1970),70 and Iran Southwestern (2010). Female healers who blend Sufism with shamanism are featured in The Last Dervish of Kazakhstan (2010), which follows Bifa-tima, one of the “last practicing” dervishes in Kazakhstan,71 and the short film Habiba: A Sufi Saint from Uzbekistan, which showcases a traditional female healer in Bukhara from the Sufi Order of Bahauddin Naqshband. As Habiba explains in the film: “People come to me every day for help.... This is the step that opens their hearts, which allows them to surrender to God’s love and compassion.”72 An Uzbek documentary about the 14th century Sufi master Bahauddin Naqshband himself, Beaming One (dir: Shukhrat Makhmudov), was created by the Foreign Trade Association of Bukhara for the 675th anniversary of Bahauddin Naqshband in 1993 to encourage pilgrimage from Southeast Asia and Turkey to his shrine.73

One neglected sub-genre of Hindi film is the “Muslim Devotional,”74 a number of B-movies from the 1970s and 1980s with Sufism at their center that showcase sacred sites of pilgrimage like the shrine of Khawaja Moi-nuddin Chishti in Ajmer.75 While Sufi music in India has historically been confined to Sufi shrines, qawwali has risen in popularity the past few decades due to the Sufi craze that hit Bollywood in the 1990s after the release of Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s76 album Magic Touch (1991) followed by his performance several years later of “Ishq Da Rutba” in Cartridge (Kartoos, 1999).77 A Chishti himself, Khan’s vocals have also appeared in Hollywood films, such as The Last Temptation of Christ, Natural Born Killers, and Dead Man Walking, for which he collaborated with

Eddie Vedder on two songs with indigenous American bluegrass chords.78 Sufi music has appeared in a number of Hindi films in the past few decades in films with secular plots, such as Roop Kumar Rathod’s song “Moula Mere Moula” in the 2007 film Anwar.79 In the 1990s, Madonna also joined in the Sufi fad, with her 1994 music video for “Bedtime Story” that featured whirling dervishes, Arabic calligraphy, and the Sufi inspired verse “let’s get unconscious”; in her 1998 song “Bittersweet,” she recites a Rumi poem on that theme.

A number of Bollywood movies feature Sufi-inspired songs that are performed at the most popular Sufi shrines in India. Though khanqahi qawwali (i.e., qawwali associated with a specific Sufi shrine) is the most popular genre of Sufi music in South Asia (Sarrazin, 182), Bollywood films that use qawwali songs80 tend to reinterpret them to conform to the demands of the commercial film industry. A. R. Rahman altered Sufi melodies and adapted the verses of Bulleh Shah, a 16th-century Punjabi Sufi, to create the popular hit “Chaiyya chaiyya” in the 1998 film Dil Se, in which the “incessant repetition of ‘Chaiyya’ in the refrain serves as a simulacrum of the dhikr chanting breath required for trance and spiritual union with the divine” (Sarrazin, 182). Oftentimes, Sufi music that celebrates divine love is repurposed in Bollywood to score scenes steeped in romantic love.

The 2008 film Jodhaa Akbar features the Sufi-inspired song “Khwaja Mere Khwaja” (“Master my Master”) which was composed by A.R. Rahman and praises India’s most celebrated Sufi sheikh, Khawaja Moinuddin Chishti. The plot revolves around the 16th century courtship of Mughal Emperor Jalal-ud-din Muhammad Akbar and the Hindu Rajput princess Jodhaa Bai, who is reluctant to marry him just to cement a political alliance between Akbar and her father, King Bharmal of Amer. Akbar prays for guidance at the shrine of Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer prior to his marriage. Eventually, she is won over by his assurances that Hindus have the same rights as Muslims in his kingdom and his insistence that she does not have to convert to Islam.

For their royal wedding, the song “Khwaja Mere Khwaja” (“Master my Master”) is sung by a troupe of Indian Sufis who are dressed in the white dress (tennure) and tall brown hat (sikke) of the Mevlevi whirling dervishes. To the accompaniment of this Sufi-themed song that makes use of the scale structure of a classical raga and requires classical Indian musical instruments, the Sufis begin to whirl to the refrain: “O my Lord/Come and reside in my heart.” However, unlike Mevlevis who whirl with both arms raised above them (with the right palm open to the sky and the left palm pointed to the ground), these dervishes whirl with their right arm extended down to the ground in a creative appropriation of this ceremony. Above the head of Akbar, who is sitting in a meditative state, a bright light overtakes the sky and bathes Akbar’s body in luminosity. He then stands up and joins them in whirling in this climactic scene which hints at his spiritual illumination and the promise of a happy interreligious marriage.

A. R. Rahman did not originally write the song for the film. He had been going to the Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti shrine for 15 years and was yearning to do a song honoring India’s most revered Sufi saint. He composed the song out of the blue in 2005, and later offered it to the director, as he knew the film’s story was inspired by Sufism, specifically the Chishti Order. The film, with its strong Sufi overtones, was created to encourage interreligious tolerance between Hindus and Muslims and warn of the dangers of religious nationalism.

The film Rockstar (2011) also features a qawwali by A.R. Rahman that praises another Sufi saint buried in India - Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi?1 The extended sequence scored by the song “Kun Faya Kun” (“Be, and It Is”) was shot at his dargah, which contains his tomb along with that of the poet Amir Khusro and the Mughal princess Jehan Ara Begum. After the main character Janardhan Jakhar (aka JJ) is thrown out of his house due to a family misunderstanding, he takes refuge at the shrine where he sings qawwali with other male musicians.82 The lyrics of “Kun Faya Kun” mirror his sense of being lost in life and experiencing a “homecoming” of sorts in seeking divine love to clean up his “dark soul.” The lyric mirror JJ’s inner struggle: “free me from myself” for “there is a mirage in my mind/ for the weakness of my actions have got me where/I am lost... I didn’t fit in the world/Yet you embraced me.” JJ transitions from clapping alongside the musicians to grabbing his guitar to sing qawwali and take center stage.

JJ garners large and enthusiastic crowds at the shrine, and he even sings alongside the famous Nizami brothers, whose family has been provided the main singers at the dargah for centuries.83 After entering a Sufi-like trance, however, JJ puts aside his guitar at the dargah, and changes into more standard Sufi attire to enter a more sober and solemn spiritual state. Little does he know that Ustaad Jameel Khan, a renowned classical musician, witnessed him singing at the dargah and is prompting Dhingra, the owner of Platinum Records, to sign him. This extended Sufi shrine sequence is the turning point in the film, as JJ then goes on to be a “rockstar.” Like Jodhaa Akbar, the film also borrows from the tradition of Rumi, as it ends with the same line of Rumi poetry with which it began: “Beyond all concepts of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”84

The 2006 film Slowly, Slowly (Ahista Ahista) showcases the song “Aawan Akhiyan Jawan Akhiyan,” a qawwali which is also performed by Sufi singers at the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi. The song, composed by Himesh Reshammiya with lyrics by Irshad Kamil, scores the emotional scene in which the main characters Ankush and Megha visit the dargah after Megha’s fiancé fails to show up to Delhi’s Registrar of Marriages, where Ankush works as a marriage witness. Ankush takes Megha to the dargah where she waits outside, as women are not allowed inside the shrine. Ankush helps place a chaadar on the grave, upon which rose petals are also scattered, while Megha cries outside, despondent over having been seemingly abandoned by her fiancé. The Sufi lyrics to the song focus on turning

Mystics in the movies 111 away from the temptations of the material realm to drown instead in love. The song’s allusion to eyes wet as rain from crying out of the grief from being separated from “the beloved” mirror Megha’s plight, as she cries in yearning for her lost love. The spiritual love expressed in the qawwali is used to convey the desire and pain of romantic love. The scene also shows how the shrine is woven into the fabric of daily life for many in Delhi.

The 2015 film Bajrangi Bhaijaan, starring Salman Khan and Kareena Kapoor, features the Sufi-inspired song, “Bhar do Jholi Meri” (“Fill My Bag”), which was the first song to ever be shot at the Aishmuqam Shrine in the Kashmir Valley. In the film, the Pakistani mother of a mute girl takes her to the Nizamuddin Auliya Dargah in India in hopes that she will miraculously be able to speak. However, along the way she loses her daughter, who is eventually found by Bajrangi (played by Khan), a dedicated Brahmin devotee of the Hindu deity Hanuman. He decides to journey with the Muslim girl to her hometown in Pakistan to reunite her with her family. The old qawwali-inspired song, “Bhar do Jholi Meri,” written by Kausar Munir and sung by Adnan Sami, plays while Bajrangi carries the girl on his back into the dargah of Sheikh Hazrat Zain-Ud-Din Wali. At the shrine, he prays for a way to reunite her with her family and he ties a piece of cloth on the fence to make his wish. In this sense, the scene at the Sufi shrine is the heart of the film, as it highlights the film’s theme of the power of love to transcend all religious, linguistic, and caste differences.

As for Lollywood (the film industry in Lahore), Pakistan’s first feature film in English, Kashf: The Lifting of the Veil (2008), directed by Ayesha Khan, revolves around the Sufi shrines of Lahore. The film tells the story of a man who returns to Pakistan after 25 years away and finds himself caught in a web of mystical experiences, unaware that his mother made a promise to a Sufi master when he was a child that he would “walk the Sufi path when he grows up.” According to the director, Ayesha Khan, “The experiences Armaghan’s character undergoes are based on true stories that have very generously been passed on to me by real people on the Sufi path.”85 In Bollywood and Lollywood alike, Sufi shrines are important characters that serve as communal sites of interreligious harmony, intoxicating portals of divine and romantic love, and ready reminders of the possibilities of personal and spiritual transformation.


While award-winning films from Iran like those by Abbas Kiarostami have been celebrated for their mystic subtexts, several Persian language films that are more explicit in their Sufi themes feature blind protagonists whose “disability” privileges the insight of faith over sight in the material world. In several films that take place in North Africa, Europeans - Arab and nonArab - travel from Europe to North Africa and become transformed through their encounters with Sufism and especially female spiritual guides. Sufism also serves as a counter to terrorism in cinematic narratives, and a device through which directors can challenge stereotypical portrayals of Islam in the west. Cinematic intersections of Sufism and postcolonality mirror the Sufi spiritual narrative of “return,” to comment upon ongoing migrations, diasporic longing, interstitial identities, and postcolonial relations between Europe and the Maghreb.

Exploring how Sufi identities are imagined and rituals depicted in global cinema reveals how Sufism serves as sacral salve for the soul and a limi-nal respite from the pressures of modernity, postcolonialism, imperialism, and alienation. Documentary films that feature Sufi pilgrimage, sema (the ceremony of the whirling dervishes), and the zar ceremony (a healing exorcism) display and preserve the diverse practices of Muslims both on and off the screen. The rise in popularity of Sufi music in global cinema, especially qawwali-inspired songs in Bollywood, and the increase in biographical films about notable Sufi figures in history attests to a growing presence of Sufism in cinematic space in the 21st century. For the celebrated filmmakers in this chapter, Sufism has been alternatively embraced in the pursuit of a distinctly feminist and national cinematic consciousness, employed as a missioniz-ing model of moral masculinity, and enlisted in the fight against terrorism, occupation, and negative portrayals of Islam at home and abroad.

Sufism has been deployed as a cinematic third space in which (neo/post) colonial, patriarchal, and political discourses can be interrogated and inter-cultural tensions and suspicions diffused through the trope of a spiritual journey. Sufi narratives in cinema produce liminal spaces of interreligiosity, migration, marginality, and transnationality that suggest and offer new forms of viewership, tolerance, and understanding for film audiences around the globe. Just as Sufi-themed films with blind protagonists employ visual impairment as a modality of spiritual insight, the films in this chapter use Sufism as a “seeing” device through which narratives of modernity, alienation, and postcoloniality can be re-envisioned, mysticism re-interpreted, and filmmaking celebrated as a transcendent modality poised to direct the audience’s gaze toward unseen realms.


  • 1 The framing of Sufism as a vehicle of “tolerance” is also incorporated into Monsieur Ibrahim, a 2003 film starring Omar Sharif as a Turkish grocer in the 1960s living in France who becomes a father-figure to a young Jewish boy. Though he takes the boy to Turkey where they see the whirling dervishes, the only direct mention of Sufism is when Sharif’s character defines it as an “inner religion that is not legalistic.”
  • 2 For more examples of disability in Iranian film, see Emily O’Dell, “From Leprosy to The Willow Tree: Decoding Disability and Islamic Spirituality in Iranian Film,” Disability & Society 30, no. 7 (2015).
  • 3 Similarly, another Persian film which marries together visual impairment, mysticism, and the arts is The Silence (Sokout), a 1998 Iranian film by Mohsen Makhmalbaf set in Tajikistan. The film focuses on a young blind boy who

Mystics in the movies 113 supports his family by tuning instruments, but he is constantly being distracted by his love of mystic music. The award-winning Iranian film The Color of Paradise (Rang-e Khoda) also features a young blind boy as its lead character, but The Silence is more explicit in its Sufi themes.

The film won the Golden Dagger for best picture at Oman’s 2006 Muscat Film Festival, even though Sufism is not considered acceptable Islamic practice in the Sultanate of Oman.

Of course, the blind “seer” trope can be traced back to Tiresius in Greek literature.

Desert scenes in the film were shot in the Iranian central desert (near Annarak) and in Tataouine in Tunisia. Other scenes filmed in Iran were shot in Kashan, Yazd, Kerman, and the ancient city of Bam (where the final scene of the dervish gathering was filmed just a few months before the devastating earthquake destroyed the citadel). In Tunisia, additional scenes were also shot in Tunis, Korba, and Walad Sultan.

Nawara Omarbacha, “Interview with Nacer Khemir: Director of ‘Bab Aziz, The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul’,” The Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society, 2006, Accessed 23 January 2020.

This could very likely be a reference to Ibrahim ibn Adham, the eighth-century Prince of Balkh, in present day Afghanistan, who walked away from his princely life to become a dervish.



Iklim Arsiya, “God, Beauty, and Love: An Interview with Nacer Khemir,” Daily Sabah, 2017, Accessed 23 January 2020.

Nawara Omarbacha, “An Interview with Nacer Khemir,” Spirituality and Practice: Resources for Spiritual Journeys, 2006, www.spiritualityandpractice. com/films/features/view/17822/an-interview-with-nacer-khemir. Accessed 15 January 2020.



The film is based on Esther Freud’s semi-autobiographical 1992 novel of the same name.

After they have decided to leave Africa behind and return to Europe, Julia shows her girls the Sufi slipper and says, “When a holy man dies, his things become magical. So you can make a wish on the Sufi slipper.” The daughters make a wish to return to her boyfriend Bilal’s village in Morocco, and for Bilal to be safe from harm. The end of the film ends with one of the daughters saying, “The Sufi told Mum and Mum told me: ‘If all the roads close before you, he can show you a hidden path which nobody knows.’ ”

When she returned to Morocco in 1981 after having studied French literature and cinema Paris in the 1970s at the University of Paris VIII and The Ecole Supérieure des Etudes Cinématographiques, she struggled to convince Moroccan authorities to create and protect filmmaking for the preservation and promotion of Moroccan culture.

While Door to the Sky is not autobiographical, Belyazid has said that it was inspired by her “own spiritual quest” (Martin 2011, 64).

See Gauch (1988, 2015a, 2009).

See Khannous (2001); Shafik (1998); Donmez-Colin (2004).

As Ella Shohat and Robert Stam have noted, the “Maghrebi form of feminism” is “distinct from white, western bourgeois models of feminism, rooted in a female (re)interpretation of Islamic values of faith and solidarity” (Donrnez-Colin 2004, 125).

Exiles can be considered “post-beur cinema due to Gatlif’s identity as an emigre director and the film’s focus on Maghrebi French characters on a home-seeking journey to Algeria” (Bayraktar 2015, 62).

Gatlif, who was born in Algeria in 1948 and exiled to France in the early 1960s, is not unlike the characters in his film; he has stated: “I reject the idea of having a homeland. I am a foreigner in Algeria. I am a foreigner everywhere, a chronic foreigner. It is an idea I don’t dislike, in fact. I feel very close to France and I feel it is my culture after all these years, but I always say one culture is as good as another.” See “The Gypsy King,” The Age, January 9, 2005, www.theage. Accessed 24 January 2020.

See Amy L. Hubbell, Remembering French Algeria: Pieds-Noirs, Identity, and Exile (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2015); and Kaya Davies Hayon, “ ‘Je suis une étrangère de partout’: The Material Realities of Exile in Tony Gatlif’s ‘Exils’ (2004),” Studies in French Cinema 17, no. 1 (2017): 70-90.

For documentary films on dhikr and moulids, see Celebrating the Prophet in the Remembrance of God: Sufi Dhikr in Egypt, which shows how dhikr is traditionally performed in Egypt and discusses the inclusion of women and children, and the him For Those Who Sail to Heaven, which investigates the moulid (festival) of the Sufi “saint” Abu’l Hajjaj held annually in Luxor (his shrine today sits atop Luxor Temple as it was built on top of it before the temple was excavated). The film includes clips filmed by Henry Barnes of the same festival in 1925.

After independence and due to the rise of fundamentalist interpretations of Islam, Sufism in Algeria was seen as an “innovation” and hence heretical. However, in the post-911 era, Sufism has been promoted by President Abdelaziz Bouteika and government bodies as a peaceful alternative to Salafism and terrorism. For more on the shifting local attitudes on Sufism in Algeria, see Khemissi, Laré-mont, and Eddine (2012).

In terms of authenticity, it should be noted that this depiction does not resemble any dhikr I have attended in North Africa as no divine names are chanted and no spiritual lyrics are sung. Further, the character’s barely clad body would not be tolerated at a dhikr in any Sufi circles I have visited in my field research in the region.

The 2018 Muscat International Film Festival in the Sultante of Oman awarded the film the Jury Award and the film’s star Zahraa Ghandour received the Best Actress Award.

The Qadiri orientation of the dervishes would not be apparent to most audiences, but as an expert on Sufism, I picked up that they were Qadiri and had the chance to ask the director at the Muscat Film Festival if they were real dervishes and from the Qadiri Sufi Order. He said yes to both questions.

Joey Tamburelio, “BFI London Film Festival: Director Mohamed Al Daradji Talks to the Blog About ‘The Journey,’ ” Let’s Start with This One, 2016, http:// html. Accessed 6 December 2018.

Mustafa Saadoun, “ ‘The Journey’: An Iraqi Film in Iraqi Cinema After 27 Years,” Al-Monitor, March 7, 2018, Accessed 6 December 2018.

It was jointly produced by producers in Iraq, the United Kingdom, France, and the Netherlands.

See Nilüfer Gôle, “The Quest for the Islamic Self Within the Context of Modernity,” in Rethinking Modernity and National Identity in Turkey, eds. Sibel Bozdogan et al. (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1997).

See Hülya Önal, “From Clichés to Mysticism: Evolution of Religious Motives in Turkish Cinema,” Religions 5, no. 1 (2014): 199-218.

This is not the first Turkish film, however, in which a character loses his mind. For instance, the film Hope (Umut) tells the story of a poor man named Cabbar who turns to a revered hodja (Hüseyin) when his horse dies - and ultimately loses his mind. Of course, Muharrem’s descent into madness in Takva also evokes the insanity at the end of the Persian film The Cotv (Gaav) (1969) in which a villager completely loses his mind and believes he has become his lost cow. This classic Iranian film has also been interpreted as an allegory for modernity as a catalyst for the erosion of traditional values and an example of the madness that the “everyday” man suffers from in navigating the transition from the “traditional” to the “modern.”

See Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, (1980), trans. Brian Massumi (London: Continuum Books, 2004). Strike the Whore (1949).

Amin Farrzanefar, “Crisis of Faith in Modern Turkey,” Qantara, March 16, 2007, Accessed 19 January 2020.

See Levent Yaylagiil, “In 2000’s Cinema and Religion in Turkey: The Sample Film of ‘Takva’ (A Man’s Fear of and Respect to God),” ¡letiçim Kuram ve Araçtirma Dergisi 34, no. 3 (2012): 42-65; Levent Yilmazok, “Eurimages and Turkish Cinema: History, Identity, Culture.” (Ph.D. Thesis, University of Amsterdam, 2012); Bilal Yorulmaz and William L. Blizek, “Islam in Turkish Cinema,” Journal of Religion & Film 18, no. 2 (2014): 8.

The production of religious films by Turkish directors began in 1961 with The Justice of Omar (Hz. Ömer’in Adaleti), and the number increased gradually through the 1970s. These films were poorly made but broadened religious representations in Turkish film.

See Gönül Dönmez-Colin, ed., The Cinema of North Africa and the Middle East (New York: Wallflower Press, 2007); Serezar Pekerman, “ ‘Framed Patterns of Infinity’: ‘Takva’, a Mortal Individual’s Fight for Becoming-Imperceptible,” in Cinema in Muslim Societies, ed. Ali Nobil Ahmad (Abingdon: Routledge, 2017).

Amin Farzanefar, “Crisis of Faith in Modern Turkey,” Qantara, March 16, 2007, Accessed 19 January 2020.


Önal, “From Clichés to Mysticism.”

Tayeb Salih, The Wedding of Zein and Other Stories (London: Heinemann Education, 1968); Ahmad Nasr, “Popular Islam in Al-Tayyib Salih,” Journal of Arabic Literature 11 (1980): 88-104; Ali Abdalla Abbas, “Notes on Tayeb Salih: Season of Migration to the North and The Wedding of Zein,” Sudan Notes and Records 55 (1974): 46-60.

Siddik studied at the Pune Film and Television Institute in India and he also directed The Cruel Sea (1971).

See Roy Armes, Third World Film Making and the West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

After the film premiered, my friend and colleague Professor Malik Badri spoke with Salahi who played the sheikh and said: “Salahi, I think you were not acting. You were completely spiritually absorbed.” According to Professor Badri: “He was moved. He was tearful.”

See Eiman El-Nour, “The Development of Contemporary Literature in Sudan,” Research in African Literatures 28, no. 3 (1997): 150-162.

While Islam first appeared in Indonesia in the eighth century, it did not flourish until the thirteenth century beginning in the kingdom of Aceh at the northernmost tip of Sumatra (van Doorn-Harder 2006, 21).

Having received a Fulbright-Hays Fellowship in Indonesia to study the Wali Songo, I visited their tombs and the Demak mosque complex to document ritual practices at these sacred sites in Java which remain popular to this day.

For an in-depth discussion of masculinity in Wali Songo films and gender and Islam in Indonesian film in general, see Alicia Izharuddin, Gender and Islam in Indonesian Cinema, 1st ed. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). Also Eric Sasono (2010).

The film was endorsed by the ulema of Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) who helped with its production.

The Wali Songo are Sunan Gresik, Sunan Kalijaga, Sunan Bonang, Sunan Kudus, Sunan Giri, Sunan Ampel, Sunan Gunung Jati, Sunan Muria, and Sunan Drajat. The title “Sunan” is an “honorific for these early prostelytizers of Islam in Java” (Quinn 2008, 65).

Since the end of the 17th century, the “legend of the wali songo was read aloud as babad literature or court chronicles to large groups of people in mosques or performed as wayang storytelling traditions” (Ras 1986, 344).

See Ermita Soenarto (2005, 62-64) for more on how misunderstandings and misrepresentations of Syeikh Siti Jenar have eclipsed the nuances of his teachings. The Wali Songo embody the Javanse concept of “refinement” idealised in Javanese masculinity and culture in general (Clark 2004, 119).

The Turkish government produced a film about Rumi entitled Tolerance which frames him as the precursor to Turkish nationalism and embodiment of the secular values of modernity, despite the fact that Sufism has been illegal since 1925. See Ernst (2017).

Turkey alone has seen the production of historical films on Yunus Emre, Haji Bektash Veli, and Rumi. The recent popular Turkish television series Yunus Emre focuses on the medieval poet’s dervish wanderings while fleeing the Mongol invasions. A 2008 PBS documentary, Rumi Returning: The Triumph of Divine Passion, features Rumi’s life in Central Asia and legacy in Afghanistan and Turkey.

Directed by Boris Kimyagarov and written by Satim Ulugzad.

One British military official in the film at least acknowledges that the Mahdi is “a mystic, an idealist with ideals strictly his own.” For more, see Vivian Bickford-Smith and Richard Mendelsohn, Black and White in Colour: African History on Screen.

Al Qaeda in Libya has invoked Omar Al-Mukhtar as a hero and martyr.

Vasarhelyi’s previous film, Youssou N’Dour: I Bring What I Love, also showcased Sufi practices in Senegal, as she filmed Senegalese singer Youssou N’Dour going on pilgrimage to Touba while they were filming. The film pivots around the controversy surrounding the release of his 2004 album Egypt, which celebrates Sufism. N’Dour, in an interview with William Dalrymple for the TV documentary film, Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam (2005), remarks: “Before the recent problems, for the majority of Muslims, Islam was always a religion of peace and tolerance .. . Music can correct the image of Islam.”

See Vadim Rizov, “Five Questions with Director Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi,” Filmmaker Magazine, March 8, 2013, Accessed 24 January 2020.

The first documentary on Touba was Blaise Senghor’s Grand Magal a Touba (The Great Pilgrimage to Touba (1962).

See Behnaz A. Mirzai, “African Presence in Iran: Identity and Its Reconstruction in the 19th and 20th Centuries,” Revue française d’histoire d’Outre Mer 89, no. 336 (2002): 229-246; Taghi Modarressi, “The Zar Cult in South Iran,” in Trance and Possession States, ed. Raymond Prince (Montreal: R.M. Bucke Memorial Society, 1968), 149-155.

See Henkesh (2016).

More recently, the zar-ceremony has become especially popular in Egypt (Cairo) and Mali (Bamako) as a form of women-only entertainment. Natvig (1988) notes that the zar-cult “served as a refuge for women and effeminate men” in the Sahel (Sudan) region under Islamic rule. When I attended a zar-ceremony in Bamako, Mali it was attended only by women and there was homosexual activity in the audience which no one felt compelled to stop or comment upon.

Mirzai (2002) suggests that the zar was introduced to Iran in the 19th century (Qajar period) by enslaved Africans who arrived in Iran as a result of the Arab slave trade; this also would explain its ubiquitous presence in neighboring Oman, which once controlled the slave trade in Zanzibar. The practice of zar still exists today in Iran in Makran, Baluchistan, and in the coastal areas of southern Iran such as Salkh, Keshm and Kish island.

This film was adapted from Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi’s The People of the Air (Ahl-i Hava), an ethnographic monograph about zar as practiced by descendants of African slaves in Bandar Lengeh. Nasser Taghvai’s The Jinn’s Wind (1970) is significant in film history because it is narrated by renowned modern poet Ahmad Shamlou. See Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi, Ahl-i Hava (Tehran, Iran: University of Tehran Press, 1967).

See Cinema in Central Asia: Rewriting Cultural Histories, edited by Michael Rouland, Gulnara Abikeyeva, and Birgit Beumers (New York: LB. Tauris, 2013). For more on Sufism in Central Asia, see Emily O’Dell, “Subversives & Saints: Sufism and the State in Central Asia.” In Islam, Society, and Politics in Central Asia (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017). See also Hohmann (2010); Kamp (2011); Kandiyoti and Azimova (2004).

The film compares him to Gandhi and Tolstoy to secularize his narrative and life.

See Dwyer (2010).

Chaturvedi (2015).

See Sufis at the Cinema: SO Years of Bollywood Qawwali & Sufi Song 1958-2007 (Times Square Records, 2011), a two CD set, and A Voice from Heaven: Nusrat Fateh AU Khan. 1999. Directed by Giuseppe Asaro, performances by Supinder Bedi et al., Winstar.

He also performed the song “Haq Ali” in the 1981 film Nakhuda.

Those songs are “The Long Road” and “The Face of Love.”

It should fie noted that the mainstream song style of Hindi films actually arose in the late 1940s as a result of Christian musicians in Goa with knowledge of cabaret, jazz, and western classical styles flooding into the film industry after the British left India. They also modeled some songs at that time on Sufi qawwali. For more on Sufism in Bollywood, see TJ. Nelson. “Sufi Expression in Bollywood Films.” World Music Central, April 18, 2011 - November 29, 2017.

Save for Hot Winds (Garam Hawa, 1973) which showcases traditional qawwali (Boyk and Faruqui 2006, 22).

A.R. Rahman also dedicated the Sufi-inspired qawwali “Arziyan,” which appears in the film Delhi 6 (2009), to Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya; scenes from the film scored by this song show pilgrims giving charity and taking photos at his shrine.

While female singers are incorporated into many Sufi rituals in Pakistan and India, especially the singing of devotional poetry, Even though female singers perform sufiana-kalam (mystical poetry) at Sufi shrines, community gatherings, and concerts in India and Pakistan, female singers have received little academic attention until recently films in the west that have incorporated Sufi music tend to use male singers. See Shemeem Burney Abbas, The Female Voice in Sufi Ritual: Devotional Practices of Pakistan and India (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2003). In the 1960 Bollywood film Barsaat Kki Rraat (A Rainy Night), 1960), however, the heroic protagonist performs the qawwali “Na To Karvan” alongside female qawwals. in perhaps the most famous qawwali of the Indian cinema, “Na to caravan.” Even though female singers regularly perform sufiana-kalam (mystical poetry) at Sufi shrines in the region, community gatherings, and concerts, female singers have received little academic attention until recently.

  • 83 The Nizami singers lip-synched the song which was actually sung by singer Mohit Chauhan, Javed Ali, and the music director of the movie, A.R. Rahman.
  • 84 It should be noted that this is not an accurate translation of the original Persian which does not say “right doing” and “wrong doing” but beyond “faith” and “being an infidel.”
  • 85 “Q&A: Ayesha Khan Talks About the Santa Fe Film Festival, Producing Films in Hollywood, & the Need for Diversity in the Pakistani Film Industry,” Syner-gyzer no. 3 (2013),


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