My last Ramadan as a Muslim began with a video we at the Vanguard were commissioned to make for the Fast Not Feast campaign:
The video’s style was a deliberate attempt to combine the sort of tone of “The Story of Stuff” and the RSA shorts with the Laitman Kabbalah videos — of course on a much lower budget and with low production values.
By this time I had found myself in an unusual situation of having the opportunity to speak publicly about religion to Islamic forums in London (including two appearances as a minor Muslim spokesperson on the BBC no less). The situation was unusual in the sense that I really wasn’t qualified to talk with any authority about Islam — never made shahada, learnt my salat from the internet, knew no Arabic, etc — but somehow I faked my way in. In general, London’s the kind of place where you can easily get pulled into things, roped into quite high level activities, providing you just walk the walk and talk the talk. I’m not complaining, the city’s done me more good than harm in this way.
I remember being so pleased with the video when we finished it: we really felt like this was “it” for this audience — that we’d accurately worked out what the ummah needed and wanted to hear, in a polished and modern fashion — a Sufic reading of the injustices of power, objectification, really — and a Kabbalic solution to live right and well.
The solution proposed works at one level — but at another was a very deliberate Kabbalic code: when Sally says “Charity = Creativity” she is referring to the “poor girl in rags” of the Zohar — the Shekhina, the immanent, feminine aspect of God. “Creativity” has always been our codeword for this Shekhina, this feminine Divinity. It fills our hearts when we become aware of what our fundamental “lack” or “need” really derives from — and turns that need and lack from something negative into something creative and truly productive. The Shekhina is a field of wheat that is reaped through reading Torah. We were arguing the same idea for reading Qur’an during Ramadan. That Ramadan is a time of Shekhinic harvest of the “real” food, through comprehending our “lack”.
But phrased in a modern language that people might find less mystical — in particular, that the modern progressive Muslim who loves his political/economic theory might enjoy.
I was really happy with the video when I completed it, and felt certain that this was the right tone to take immanetize the Shekhinic potential within the ummah. The modern progressive Muslim won’t stomach the Shekhina or the Zohar, but they love Western-sounding philosophy, the Zizeks, the Foucaults. But a bit of that stuff in to make it scientific sounding, and bob’s your uncle.
That’s the kind of headspace I was in at the time. Quite devious — but well intentioned as well as deluded.
The video went down okay in its screening. Online, there were quite a few objections to the “creativity” angle. People could sense that there was something “not quite right” or “foreign” being introduced into the Ramadan story. I was accused of invention (bidah) — deviation from the normative embodied practice of Islam. That’s fine — I got that all the time with this blog, when I label posts with “Islam” or “Sufism” in the title, there’s always some Islamo-Sufic gestapo out to kindly inform me of the error in my ways.
But also people who were important to me — not strangers, but friends, people who I trusted and loved devotedly — who knew my whole backstory, listened to my whole theology and had encouraged me to go down this particular path of explanation and exploration as a Muslim — they suddenly changed in attitude toward me and finally objected to the “foreign”, “impure” aspect of this content.
That unsettled me. Emotionally at first.
It took a while for me to grasp the point: the language is foreign, the concepts are impure, I did make it all up. It is bidah. Within Islam, Ramadan is an embodied discipline of the body — a legitimate rite, a modality of comportment towards God.
Any kind of Kabbalic/Tailorite projection onto it — of course — has the character of hostility, of a hostile attack on that which forefather’s worship. It is a fundamentally non-religious act, in fact.
And — importantly — for such an act to make sense — derived from my belief that I was speaking the same language, when in fact I was speaking pure gibberish — hostile gibberish, in fact. That they spoke Muslim-ese and I spoke something else entirely.
Maybe I could learn and study Muslim-ese and learn to, at least, accurately imitate how Muslims talk to Muslims. But the fundamental discovery at that moment was, in all the time I thought I was Muslim, I was a mere simulacrum, a poor mimic, a weak fake. The mask had fallen off — no true conversion had ever taken place into their tribe. I realised — of course! — I had never been Muslim. It was just “me” under those robes and prayer hat and facial hair … all that time.