Against a dogmatic Islam

Interview with Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud, by Catherine Ruelle

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In his documentary feature Mille et une voix soufies, the Tunisian film director Mahmoud Ben Mahmoud advocates a liberal, interiorised Islam.

Why did you choose to make this film?
It was initially commissioned by ARTE as part of a trilogy on sacred music. The Parisian production company Artline called me at the last minute to replace the Syrian documentary filmmaker Omar Amiralay. He was originally meant to make the film, but was otherwise engaged at the time. They gave me the original screenplay, which I naturally had to re-appropriate, as it were. As I normally work in fiction, I felt that I needed to introduce a personal, even autobiographical note, my own point of view, if you like, which was to make my father’s mystical memory the point of departure.
Was the film initially meant to be about the Sufi?
No, but the fact of the matter is that Islam has no liturgical music. There is no liturgy or religious service like in Christianity or Judaism. Sufism incorporates almost everything that falls under the religious music or chants domain, as the basic Muslim celebration is extremely austere and spartan. It has no liturgical rituals apart from the prayer call and the daily act of praying itself, which are more traditions than sacred obligations. Sufism has taken this patrimony on board and forced it to evolve. It varies from one country and musical culture to another. Hence the differences and, at the same time, the profound unity between what you might hear in Senegal and what you might hear in India, for example.
You propose a voyage via a thousand and one voices, a thousand and one types of music, a thousand and one cultures, to cite the title of the film.
Yes, absolutely, and what’s more, there are several major figures missing from this film. The challenge was to avoid a feeling of lassitude. It was vital to reflect the extreme variety of Islamic melodies and sonorities. I thus also chose the countries in relation to their musical specificity, their own pre-Islamic musical heritages and, above all, how these have influenced the way in which the Muslim religion is celebrated in the Sufi brotherhoods. But it’s true that I would have also liked to go to Iran, to Morocco, and even to Eastern and Central Europe, to Bosnia, for example. There are riches and varieties to be explored there too.
What difference is there between the Sufi brotherhoods and Islam?
The main difference is that Sufism encourages an individual spiritual development that focuses on the direct relationship between the creator and the created. It doesn’t recognise any kind of institutionalised mediator. It doesn’t recognise the clergy – even if there has never been a clergy in Islam. It has no ambition or political project to run society at any rate.
So it’s a spiritual force then?
It is spiritual, but it is an individual force in the same way that you’d talk about an individual ideology. And the voices and means of celebrating this direct relationship with God are thus eminently artistic means because they are based in song, music, dance, trance, and even sexual relationships, as physical love can be considered the pathway to God. So, it’s an Islam of the senses, an Islam of emotion, an Islam of interiority, in a word, an Islam of ecstasy. And there is no place for coercive practices. It’s a very liberal, tolerant Islam. My predominantly European film crew can indeed testify to the welcome and openness the Sufi brotherhoods showed them, whether in Senegal, India, Egypt, or Tunisia.
It’s an Islam without fanatics?
The Prophet distinguished between two types of Jihad – the inner and outer Jihads. The Sufis practice inner Jihad, a Jihad that focuses on improving one’s own interiority, one’s own self.
A battle against the self?
Yes, to reach perfection. The outer Jihad is what Muslim fundamentalists and political Islam glorify today. It is recommended when Muslims have to defend themselves against an outside aggression. Inner Jihad, which was truly defended and promoted by the Prophet, has been shelved, naturally, because it is a lot harder to achieve as it focuses on human imperfection, or the imperfections that have to be corrected to reach God. This interior, individual, introspective Jihad, which aims to improve the self, is the founding principle of Sufism.
Have the Sufi brotherhoods existed ever since Mohammed?
In his wake, at any rate. Sufism as a brotherhood, as a parallel branch of Islam, is thought to have been created in around the 8th century A.D. It began to have a whole series of ramifications throughout the Muslim world before reaching its apogee in the 13th century. You will notice in the film that all the brotherhoods I speak about and their founding saints, who are the most important saints in the Muslim world, date back to the 13th century, with the exception of the saint of Touba in Senegal, who dates back to the 19th century, who was a very late saint!
Was Averoes depicted in Youssef Chahine’s « Destiny » a Sufi?
No. He was more like the French philosophers of the Voltaire or Rousseau period. He was more like a freethinker. His approach was rationalist rather than spiritual and in this respect was avant-garde for the time. Extremists challenged him for backing enlightenment, modernity, and rationality, not because he advocated an individual, apolitical Islam. But both can be the targets of fundamentalism. Do you realise that Les mille et une voix is inconceivable in Saudi Arabia? It will never be shown there. It would get me into trouble, even, because the ruling doctrine that has been in place there since the end of the 17th century, which is the cause of most of the problems today, is the root of what we call political Islam. It started by attacking the mystical brotherhoods precisely because they thought that they advocated a fainthearted, aesthetic Islam. The mystical brotherhoods are forbidden in Saudi Arabia and anywhere where that type of regime exists. The point is that Muslim fundamentalists will attack both rationalism and enlightenment and a mystical Islam that promotes spirituality over politics.
Are the Sufi brotherhoods all Sunnite?
Yes and no. The Sunnites believe that Ali inherited the tradition of individual, spiritual Islam from the Prophet (who was his father-in-law and cousin). It is true that the Sunnite are predominant in the Sufi brotherhoods, but you also get Shiite brotherhoods like the one I filmed in India. By tradition (not Sufi tradition, the extraverted tradition of celebrating rituals via music, song, and even dance), Sufism is closer to Sunnite Islam due to the fact that Ali inherited the Prophet’s recommendation for an exteriorised, rather than interiorised litany.
Westerners have very few images of the Sufi brotherhoods, other, for example, than the Turkish whirling dervish.
You know, these brotherhoods all exist in the West where they have their followers, ceremonies, and pilgrimages. But because they cultivate secrecy, because they represent a monastic, withdrawn Islam, they are very rarely given media attention. People aren’t aware that they exist. Sufism is forbidden in Turkey since Ata Turk because the dervish brotherhood was close to Ottoman power and the Sultan. All ceremonies since 1925 until today virtually were held completely clandestinely. They have been co-opted as local folklore to entertain tourists. But when I was filming, I realised that behind this rootless façade, the young generations who practice in Turkey are extremely fervent.
You went on the « Grand Magal » in Senegal, the Mouride pilgrimage to Touba, where you filmed not only the huge crowds of people arriving, but also the place of women.
Yes, but as we had very little time to shoot, I wasn’t able to angle the film enough to show this feminine presence. If I’d have had more time, I would have given more space to the female brotherhoods or the female branches of the brotherhoods that you saw in the film. There is indeed a very strong female presence in the Mouride. It has to be said, however, that women are even more present and tolerated in the so-called rebel Mouride branch known as the Baye Fall than in orthodox Mouridism itself where I didn’t see any women in the choirs or religious meetings, or in the rituals in general. It’s true that it’s a pretty austere, rigid Sufism that one sometimes finds amongst non-Arabic Muslims who think they will earn more respect from the Arab world’s historic centre by observing a certain rigidity. Female presence is, however, clearer and completely normalised in the Baye Fall branch that has descended from African traditions and continues to perpetuate certain animist practices.
You were commissioned to make this film to talk about your relationship with your father, who was a theologian, as a way of also talking about the Muslim religion in general, which is rarely discussed in film.
It is discussed in Algerian cinema because of the current situation. But that’s the problem. Only this vulgar version of Islam circulates today because it makes the headlines. The other discreet, even secretive Islam is all the more marginalized thanks to the aggressive, vengeful slogans brandished by this dogmatic Islam. Les mille et une voix has roused unexpected international interest following the 11 September. It was premiered in Venice on 2 September without any further echoes other than a few kind invitations to come and present the film whenever I was next passing through the States. And suddenly, one week later, these people I hadn’t even given my address to were storming the producer’s e-mail, whose name was in the Venice catalogue, telling him that their initial desire had now become a necessity. An English-language version has since been doing the rounds in the States.
Did the fact that many filmmakers were Marxists, modernists, or influenced by Western thought stop a lot of North and sub-Saharan African filmmakers from addressing Islam?
North Africans, certainly, as Islam is completely absent from the culture and education of the North African filmmakers I know. In religious terms, or rather in cultural terms, because I see faith more as a private affair, the fact that almost all the prominent intellectuals have no – or so very little – rooting in Muslim culture has caused a deficit of comprehension and a lot of misunderstandings. That is why some Arab journalists have said that it’s a film that is almost more useful at home than abroad. The same can be said of the series on the Prophet commissioned by ARTE. They constitute a series of fundamental re-establishments that are more urgent to communicate to those who use Islam to plant bombs than to foreign civilisations who, after all, don’t really find it their cup of tea!

///Article N° : 5577


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