I was surrounded by men and women wearing white clothing engineered to combat the Tunisian desert sun. Standing across from me, a shirtless man had just lit two bundles of sticks on fire. “There is nothing to fear,” he said. “I am the same person you see now that I am in the trance.” Under a cloudless sky, the shady, stone-paved courtyard in which we were gathered erupted into mesmerizing drum beats and repetitive Arabic vocals as everyone began to worship Allah.
The shirtless man I met was Mohamed, a 40-year-old who practices Sufism. Members of his brand of Islamic mysticism usually appear in pop culture as entrancing whirling dervishes, or victims of violence. Last November, 305 Sufis were murdered at a shrine in Egypt. A wave of thinkpieces aimed at explaining the belief system’s relationship to mainstream Islam surged across media landscape after the attack. But ex-UN Creative Director Gabo Arora has created a more direct way for the curious to connect with Sufis: Worship with them in virtual reality.
Arora’s new film, Zikr: A Sufi Revival, cuts through the two extreme perceptions of Sufism to reveal the reality of everyday life and worship. It’s a rare opportunity to take part in an authentic performance of Sufism’s primary ritual, the zikr. In English, “zikr” translates to “remembrance," originating from the Quran's charge to, “Remind thyself of thy Lord when thou forgettest." The ritual is as old as that holy book, but takes on significance in Sufi communities as a group activity in which worshippers recite the names and qualities of Allah. By emptying the mind and filling it with prayer, Sufis seek to become one with God.
“The goal is self-annihilation, becoming one with the divine,” said executive producer Reza Aslan, a popular historian and theologian who wrote the New York Times bestseller Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and briefly had a show about religion on CNN. In between mesmerizing recordings of the ritual vocals, dancing, and music, Zikr broadcasts the vital stories of Sufis like Mohammed, or Wajdi Moamari, who chose the religion at the age of seven and is now the matriarch of her own Sufi music troupe.
The film was directed by Arora and produced by a supergroup of new media studios and production companies: Sensorium, Superbright, Tomorrow Never Knows, and Aslan’s media company, BOOMGEN. They got access to Tunisian Sufis through a local producer Arora met at a party in Brooklyn. "These are not public performances, nor are they meant to be," he told VICE. To make them more comfortable with the camera, he said they directed their subjects to, "treat the camera as a sacred person." It is from that perspective that viewers see the holy rituals normally performed behind closed doors.
Zikr premiered at Sundance this year. Below is an amazing video of a bunch of people trying it out, a.k.a. dancing in VR. Visitors view the film in groups of four, and they can see each other, and effectively worship together, inside the digital space. Aslan said, “Religious rituals lend themselves to VR because it’s about being immersed in the experience itself.”
Americans can attend a zikr themselves at one of the many shrines and learning centers that pass on the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, largely credited with bringing Sufism to the United States. The Light of Guidance Center for Sufi Studies in New York City is open to the public, and Zen master and Sufi Murshid Samuel L. Lewis's Sufi Ruhaniat International operates locations throughout the country. But this film captures a zikr unaltered for an American audience, reflecting what the religion is like in a nation where it is a vital part of the culture and under constant threat of violence.
According to The Arab Weekly, there are more Sufi shrines than mosques in Tunisia, but they’re frequently the target of violence from conservative Muslims known as Salafis. “After the Arab Spring, Sufis were getting persecuted in Tunisia. Shrines were being burned,” said Arora. “But people really resisted and fought back. Tunisia is considered one of the most successful states after the Arab Spring because of its Sufi roots.”
Practicing Sufism has become popular with young people as an alternative to Salafism and jihadist recruitment, according to Arora. He asked ten-year-old Waad, who sings zikr prayers in front of her family for the first time in the film, if she preferred this music to Taylor Swift or the French pop that charts in Tunisia. Waad said, “I don’t like singing those as much. There’s something special about Sufi music.”
To explain the allure of Sufism, Aslan cited an analogy from the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi. “Think of your life as a wave as it comes up, and then dips back down into the ocean. Imagine yourself as this wave, screaming that you are an individual. But you are merely an expression of the ocean, and the ocean is God,” Aslan said. “The idea is that you can destroy this sense of self, who you are, and everything about your ego to connect to the universe around you, not as an experience of humility, but as an experience of supreme power. It’s an experience of being God itself. That’s a different way of thinking about religion from the orthodox version of Islam, which is about submission to God.”
Arora said he made Zikr, “not only so that people look at Muslims differently, but look at all religious people differently.” He compared the nationalism sweeping the US and Europe to the Arab nationalism of the 1940s and 50s, which set the stage for the current reign of religious extremism in the Middle East. Zikr is vital, not because it’s fun—though it it is—but because it’s mind-expanding. “If we don’t figure out this divide in our country now, it’s going to have a similar type of repercussion.”
Distribution company Dogwoof bought Zikr after Sundance. It's exploring museums like the Abu Dhabi Louvre as the next platform to screen the VR, but the endgame is to spread it far and wide. Arora envisions his work on Steam, accessible to anyone curious enough to type "Sufi" into the search bar.
Back within the digital zikr, I was infected by Mohamed’s dance moves. The repetitive beat spread to my feet, then knees, then hips, shoulders, and head. I nearly forgot I was wearing a virtual reality headset. Only when a digital bundle of twigs appeared in my own hands and bursts into flame did I snap back to reality. When Zikr: A Sufi Revival came to a close, I only had a taste of the religious experience, but it was intoxicating. I, a lifelong "spiritual, but not religious" type was ready to sign up for one of New York City's many prayer shrines. “Most Sufi masters will say that annihilation takes a lifetime,” said Aslan. “The zikr experience is a way of jumpstarting yourself into the experience.”
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