Sufism in Cinema: The Case of Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul — by Ridade Öztürk
April 16, 2022
This article presents a discussion of key aspects of knowledge in Sufism through an analysis of the film Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul (Nacer Khemir, 2005). The dominant Western perspective argues for the necessity of a rational, objective form of knowledge which is based on logical argument and precepts. This perspective, however, fails to recognize the alternative form of experiential knowledge which lies at the heart of the Sufi tradition. In this respect, Bab'Aziz is an important film because its content and its narrative technique is an expression of certain knowledge, knowledge without doubt, and kashf, unveiling or discovery. This article compares knowledge in Sufism (Tasawwuf) to the concept of knowledge in the Western tradition, and argues for a reconsideration of the meaning of philosophy as understood by the Ancient Greeks. Originally published in Volume 23, Issue 1 of Film-Philosophy journal and republished here via CC-SA-4.0.

Nacer Khemir, the director of Bab’Aziz, was born in Tunisia and is a writer, a visual artist, a storyteller, an interpreter of contemporary culture extending the tradition of The Arabian Nights. His work expresses the multitude versatility of being brought up in Islamic tradition within a contemporary Western culture. His acclaimed work includes The Flower (La Fleur, 1970), The Mule (Le Mulet, 1972), L’ogresse (1977), Wanderers of the Desert (El-Haimoune, 1984), The Dove’s Lost Necklace (Le Collier Perdu de la Combe, 1991), Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul (Bab’Aziz: Le Prince Qui Contemplait Son Âme, 2005), Sheherazade (2011), Looking for Muhyiddin (2014) and Whispering Sands (2016) among others.

The film Bab’Aziz is the last part of his Desert Trilogy. These three films display a common bond in their poetic, mythic language woven with rich metaphors and symbols. They all feature characters in a passionate search lost in a vast desert. In this trilogy, the desert appears as the metaphorical space of inner search. Khemir refers to this point as:

The desert is a literary field and a field of abstraction at the same time. It is one of the rare places where the infinitely small, that is a speck of sand, and the infinitely big, and that is billions of specks of sand, meet. It is also a place where one can have a true sense of the Universe and of its scale. The desert also evokes the Arabic language, which bears the memory of its origins. In every Arabic word, there is a bit of flowing sand. It is also one of the main sources of Arabic love poetry. In all of my three movies, which form a trilogy, The Wanderers of the DesertThe Dove’s Lost Necklace, and today, Bab’Aziz, The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul, the desert is a character in itself. (Khemir interviewed by Nawara Omarbacha, 2006)

In the first film, Wanderers of the Desert (1984), a young teacher travels to a remote, all-woman village, where the community is under an ancient curse that leads its children to wander lost in the desert. In the second film, The Dove’s Lost Necklace (1991), a student tries to understand the meaning of love with the help of Arabic calligraphy. The last film of the trilogy, Bab’Aziz (2005) tells the story of a Sufi adherent and his granddaughter on their way to a meeting that will take place in an unknown location and time (Duggan, 2008, p. 533).

This trilogy represents an important aspect of Islamic culture, which becomes especially significant alongside the dominant image of Islam in the West. Commercial Western films typically portray Muslim people as villains (see Shaheen, 19972001 and Vanhala, 2011), but this trilogy reflects the culture of Islam positively. The first two films mostly focus on Andalusian culture while the third film, Bab’Aziz, directly speaks of the mystical core of Islam with its Sufi songs, dances and teachings (Armes, 2010, p. 78).

Bab’Aziz presents how a Sufi believer pursues and perceives knowledge and the experiences he or she goes through on this journey. The significant point here is that this knowledge cannot be pursued theoretically; it has to be directly experienced. I will discuss the meaning of this experience in the context of Tasawwuf (another term for Sufism understood as Islamic mysticism) and how this experience leads to Sufi knowledge, based on an analysis of Bab’Aziz. I want to discuss the theme of Sufi knowledge through such a film because a fundamental theoretical source for this knowledge is hagiographic literature.1 I will analyse Bab’Aziz2 as a modern hagiography and provide some context for a discussion of knowledge in Tasawwuf. Here, the other two films of the trilogy will not be discussed because they do not reflect the Sufi perspective in a manner as clear as Bab’Aziz.

According to Sufi doctrine, existence can only be known through witnessing and experience, that is through presence, taste or illumination, which are all important Sufi terms (Adonis, 2013, p. 16). Tasawwuf is a method of education and a way of life which enables a human being to become closer to Allah, and Sufi knowledge can only be reached as a result of certain practices and training which aim to tame the nafs, the individual ego or soul. Sufis describe the knowledge given to them with various words such as discovery, finding, enjoying, owning a state, tasting and inspiration; marifairfankashfwajdjazba. In Tasawwuf, knowledge is bestowed by Allah; a person does not achieve this knowledge through personal striving, it is given to them. Still, they are expected to strive as if they are going to achieve it by themselves (Arabi, 2008, p. 26). All of these concepts point to the fact that Sufi knowledge is not theoretical knowledge, but instead a subjective experience which cannot be given to another person.

Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul

The film Bab’Aziz begins with an old man, BabAziz (Parviz Shahinkhou) and his granddaughter, Ishtar (Maryam Hamid) on their way to a Sufi meeting. Several other characters, on their way to the same meeting, join them as they walk along. The film focuses on the journey rather than the gathering and this journey is a clear metaphor for the spiritual Sufi journey. All the elements in the film contribute to the story of life undersood as a path that leads to one’s inner truth. The vast desert reflects the unpredictability, the immensity and the mystery of this path. The narrative refrains from a classic three-act structure and presents several stories woven into each other through flashbacks. Characters meet, share their stories and appear as the different faces of one great journey: the journey of knowing oneself. This story represents the bond which connects all human beings in timeless, boundless, circular movements.

The opening scene of the film reflects this circular movement. First, we see a whirling dervish, with Qur’anic verses recited in the background, and then follows an intertitle of a well-known Sufi statement: “There are as many paths to Allah as there are souls on earth”. Finally, a circular pan of the vast desert reveals the film’s characters as they emerge out of the desert one by one. The vastness of the desert implies the unpredictability of the journey and the circular movement of the camera implies the endless nature of such cycles.

The characters take a journey in two ways. The first is physical as they move into the uncharted territory of the desert. The second is the journey taken in order to reach Sufi knowledge. “Path” (tariq) is a very significant Sufi term in Tasawwuf and implies a path taken in order to become close to Allah (Devellioğlu, 2011, p. 1206–07). The tariqa is a school which transmits Sufi knowledge through the relationship of the murshid and the murid; namely, the master and the apprentice. Tasawwuf, above all, is a spiritual path (Chittick, 2013, p. 140) and the film presents a metaphor for such a path.

We are then introduced to Bab’Aziz and Ishtar as they come out of the sand after being buried in storm. Ishtar has lost her bag and wants to find it but Bab’Aziz prevents her: “Everything we need, we have with us”, he tells her. This approach is important for the whole film since the inner path of the Sufi becomes possible only in as much as he or she surrenders outer possessions. Characters are they are only able to pursue their path to the meeting as they relinquish their physical belongings: Ishtar releases a pet turtle, a prince leaves his palace, and other characters surrender their possessions. The visual emptiness of the desert figures this ascetisism.

Bab’Aziz and Isthar first meet Hassan (Hessam Hassanipour) who is looking for the red whirling dervish of the opening scene. Suddenly a gazelle appears from nowhere, but Bab’Aziz seems to know the animal and introduces it to Isthar. He then tells her the story of a Prince, which seems like a diversion at first, but is in fact the actual story of the film. According to the story, the Prince had left all his worldly possessions behind after meeting this gazelle. In Sufism, such animals are a symbol of beauty which lead to divine inspiration and contemplation (Shah-Kazemi 2006, 81–124).

New characters enter the story: Zaid (Nessim Khaloul) is following the traces of Nour (Golshifteh Farahani). After winning a competition for Qur’anic recitation, Zaid had gone to a banquet where, he had met and fallen in love with Nour. It turns out that Zaid had recited a poem that was written by the girl’s father, but Nour leaves him and takes his clothes as she is on her way to the meeting to find her long-lost father.

Osman (Mohamed Graïaa) is a sand-trader who wishes to go to a place with no sand. He had fallen into a well and met a woman named Zahra (Emnanaoui) in a palace. After falling in love with her, Zahra had sent Osman to go look for a fire and now he jumps into every well on his path, hoping to dindZahra and the palace. The Sufis take him along on their journey to the meeting.

None of the characters pursue the same path for the same reason and, as the story unfolds, each traveller learns how to move forward, while pursuing his or her unique path. All these travellers change and grow in their own particular ways. They learn from each other, exchange stories and affect each other’s journeys in one way or another.

Bab’Aziz is at the centre of all the travellers and, through the symbolic nature of the gazelle, the audience comes to understand that Bab’Aziz is the Prince, and that whole film is his meditation. Nobody except Bab’Aziz knows the truth about the journey and the meeting and it is fitting that they do not know this because they can only discover themselves through their own journey. Bab’Aziz is the only one who will not be at the final gathering because he has already completed his inner journey. Striving for knowledge is a metaphor for the essence of Sufi knowledge.

According to Bab’Aziz’s story, the Prince had surrendered everything in order to know himself and to know Allah, including the palace Osman is after or the girl Zaid is after.

Know that all these actions are aimed at knowing Allah and believing as yaqin3 that there is no aim but Him and that all will be returning to Him. Consequently, all actions come through this knowledge. The closest way to reach this knowledge is the path of dhikrtawhid and confrontation with the nafs under the guidance of a murshid al-kamil (Mısrî, n.d. p. 115).

In this sense, the focus of Sufi knowledge is Allah. Knowing Allah is knowledge of certainty, and the way to reach this knowledge begins in oneself. As the person comes to know himself, namely as he takes an inward journey, he gains this knowledge.

Knowledge of the Heart

The Prophet Muhammad says: “He, who knows his nafs (himself), knows his Lord,” and this saying of lies at the centre of the Sufi educational system. Here, the verb “know” does not refer to knowing in the intellectual sense but points to the Arabic word irfan, which means direct experience and direct knowledge of the true nature of things (Chittick, 2014, p. 33). Knowing oneself in this sense is a central aim of Sufi knowledge. In the film, a number of questions are raised: Where will the gathering take place? Why does nobody know where it is going to take place? How can they go to a meeting without knowing its location? Ishtar is the one who asks these questions in the film and, in order to find the meeting, the characters have to discover a different kind of knowledge that comes with experience and transcends theoretical knowledge. In the beginning, Ishtar asks her grandfather:

Ishtar: But what if we get lost?

Bab’Aziz: He who has faith will never get lost. He who is worriless won’t lose his way.

Ishtar: But where is this meeting?

Bab’Aziz: I don’t know, my little angel.

Ishtar: But do the others know?

Bab’Aziz: No, they don’t know either.

Ishtar: How can you go to a meeting without knowing where it is?

Bab’Aziz: It suffices to walk, just walk. Those who are invited will find the way.

Bab’Aziz does not reply to the questions in a rational manner but the viewer feels that Bab’Aziz and Ishtar will nevertheless find the location of the meeting because the film makes an argument for a different form of knowledge.

The source of this knowledge is not the mind as conceived in rational thought; it is the heart as conceived in Tasawwuf. The significance of this knowledge is not only reflected in the words of Bab’Aziz, but in the desires of all the other characters since these transcend physical matters. Osman and Zaid are on the road because they search of the women they love. Nour is travelling because she wants to find her father at the gathering. However, the significance of the knowledge of the heart is expressed most clearly through Bab’Aziz. He is blind, but the viewer feels that he is the one who sees the most clearly, because it is the soul which is necessary for clear sight. The sight of his soul is clear, and this expression is rooted in Tasawwuf: the soul is the source of contemplation and vision. Some may assume that this knowledge is not certain because it is not rational but, for the Sufi, this heart knowledge is yaqin (certainty) (Kaşani, 2010, p. 74).

The Sufis follow the Koran in viewing the heart as the home of kashf and inspiration, as the mirror which reflects the revelations of the unknown. The heart is a hidden power which perceives the divine truths clearly and precisely without doubt. (El-Hakim, 2005, p. 400)

Allah has commanded: “Then do they not reflect upon the Koran, or are there locks upon [their] hearts?” (Koran 47: 24, Surat Muhammad)

In Bab’Aziz, the relationship between the intellect and the heart is presented in various ways. In one scene, Bab’Aziz and Ishtar arrive at a mosque. They hear the chanting of the dervishes:

The people of this world are like the three moths around a candle’s flame.

The first one went closer and said: I know about love.

The second one touched the flame lightly with his wings and said: I know how love’s fire can burn.

The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame and was consumed. He alone knows what true love is.4

Here, three levels of knowledge are metaphorically described. Yaqin is a knowledge mentioned in the Koran which signifies knowledge of certainty without doubt:

Yaqin has three levels. The first is ilmu’l-yaqin. This occurs when someone becomes certain that the sun exists when he sees the light and feels the heat. The second is aynu’l-yaqin. This occurs when a person becomes certain that the sun exists when he sees the sun itself. The third is haqq’al-yaqin. This occurs when a person becomes certain that the sun exists when the vision (the light) of his eye becomes immersed in the light of the sun. (Kaşani, 2010, p. 74)

Ilmu’l-yaqin (Koran 102:5, Surat at-Takathur) is the certainty of the intellect. It is certainty which can come through reasoning and the Koranic assertion is that if one uses the faculty of reason, one can be certain of the Day of Judgment (Siddiqui, 2010, p. 267). Ilmu’l- yaqin implies theoretical knowledge and, for Sufis, this is the knowledge of scholars who study intellectual and narrated knowledge (Yılmaz, 2000, p. 137). At this level, the Sufi discovers the knowledge that “There is no aim but Allah.” Attachment to the world begins to diminish, but certainty still remains at the level of intellect (Kılıç, 1996, p. 1704–1705). The Sufi uses their intellect in order to challenge their nafs and become closer to Allah. In Bab’Aziz, this level is symbolised in song as the moth that approaches the fire and knows love from a distance.

The second level, aynu’l-yaqin (Koran 102:7, Surat at-Takathur), is described as the certainty of the eye. Here, knowledge goes beyond thinking; the person “sees” what they have implicitly known with ilmu’l-yaqin. With aynu’l-yaqin, divine meanings received from texts are witnessed through a form of kashf (unveiling) and revelation (El-Hakim, 2005, p. 697). Even though seeing implies seeing with physical eyes, the true seer is the heart (Lings, 1986, p. 72). The knowledge of the heart in this sense is aynu’l-yaqin. A Sufi at this level of certainty has completely given up his love for the world. His desire is the love of Allah (Kılıç, 1996, p. 1705). In Bab’Azizaynu’l-yaqin is symbolised by the moth that experiences the burning of fire by touch.

Haqqa’l-yaqin (Koran 56: 95 Surat Waqi’ah; 69:51, Surat Haqqah) is a form of knowledge without error (Siddiqui, 2010, p. 267), based on the unity of subject and object (Laliwala, 2005, p. 83). Allah is never an object and cannot be an object of knowledge; Allah can be known only through Allah (Corbin, 2014, p. 257). Haqqa’l-yaqin is the realisation of knowledge by truly experiencing something and depends on being one with the known object. Such knowledge is only possible with the disappearance of everything which differentiates the knower from the known (Konevi, 2012, p. 48). When the Sufis refer to this knowledge, they mention the ayat of the Koran (8:17, Surat Anfal): “And you threw not, [O Muhammad], when you threw, but it was Allah who threw”.

The aim of yaqin knowledge can be summarized thus: according to the well-known Sufi master Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi (1240 CE), there is one essential question which all human beings must strive to answer: “How can I find Allah?” Furthermore, having found an answer to this question, they must proceed to verify the truth of their answer by finding Allah in fact, not just in theory. Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi refers to those who have successfully verified the truth of their answer as the People of Unveiling and Finding (ahl al-kashf wa’l-wujūd) (Chittick, 1989, p. 3). According to orthodox Islam, human beings cannot achieve knowledge of Allah since knowledge of Allah is only accessible to Allah himself. Humans can only have knowledge through religious texts (the Koran and Hadith, the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad) and through the repetition of certain practices (Sunnah, the practices of the Prophet Muhammad). However, for Sufis, true knowledge can be discovered and those who have attained this true knowledge are called the friends of Allah (Çalış-Kural, 2014, p. 30–31). The film Bab’Aziz points to the levels people go through while they are on their journey to find Allah, and the character Bab’Aziz symbolizes a friend of Allah who finds and unveils true knowledge through haqqa’l-yaqin. Therefore, the blind Bab’Aziz does not see the material world but sees truth with his heart.

Only Those Who Are Not in Love See Their Own Reflection

Bab’Aziz’s journey to haqqa’l-yaqin is narrated by him as a story to Ishtar. The story is of a Prince who is blessed with all kinds of riches but who is nevertheless unhappy. He is disinterested in worldly pleasures because he suspects another truth through first level experience of ilmu’l-yaqin. He needs to act in accordance with what he thinks he knows, and he needs to leave the world. In other words, he needs to release his love for the world and tame his nafs, his individuality. One day, the Prince sees a gazelle and begins to chase her and his journey begins as he leaves everything he owns behind in material reality. We next see the Prince beside a water well. He stares at the water and is completely disinterested in anything else. He seems to be looking at his reflection, but it is implied that he sees something else. Rationally this cannot be true, but for the Prince who passes from ilmu’l-yaqin to aynu’l-yaqin, from the first level to the second level, knowledge does not depend entirely on rationality but is still connected to it. Therefore, the Prince does not see his image and is in contemplation.

Ishtar: You’d think he’s contemplating his image at the bottom of the water.

Bab’Aziz: Maybe it’s not his image. Only those who are not in love see their own reflection.

Ishtar: So, what does he see?

Bab’Aziz: He’s contemplating his soul.

Those who are not in love see their own reflection, but what about those who are in love? The Prince sees truth through aynu’l-yaqin and his heart is turned towards love for Allah. We do not see whether the prince reaches haqqa’l-yaqin after aynu’l-yaqin, but this is implied. Ishtar asks Bab’Aziz:

Ishtar: So, what happened to the Prince?

Bab’Aziz: The Prince contemplated his soul so much that he left the visible world for the invisible one.

This implies that the Prince had indeed reached haqqa’l-yaqin. More significantly, it is also suggested in the film that the Prince is Bab’Aziz himself. Bab’Aziz is a friend of Allah, because he has let go of his nafs; he has known, seen and become the truth. Therefore, all of the characters in search of the same knowledge, will cross paths with Bab’Aziz. The film can therefore be read as a symbol of yaqin. These characters who let go of material things and therefore transcend material knowledge, represent different levels of knowledge sought on the Sufi path. The material desires of the nafs are released and the knowledge of the heart gradually becomes prominent. Therefore, the film presents a different perspective to a secular worldview, which prioritizes rational thought dependent on intellect. However, it would not be fair to claim that Western thought only relies on rational knowledge. The philosophy of many world religions offers significant claims about alternative sources of knowledge and the question of religious or mystical experience remains important for ideas around religious knowledge. Still, it is true that in the West and the secular world more broadly, rational thought takes precedence over such sources of knowledge. New lines of thinking appear only as reactions against this dominant tendency and, in this sense, we can say that Western philosophy is built upon methods of abstract analysis (Solovyov, 1996, p. 94). However, it is also important to ponder the significance of philosophy for a philosopher’s way of life. Is philosophy a branch of social science which has to remain within the limits of academic discussion? Or can its claims be taken from an abstract level to the experiential level? Thomas W. Morris points out that many philosophers have faith in God and believe that the ultimate truth is God, however, it is questionable whether these philosophers can support their spiritual claims through their philosophical arguments. The rational philosopher cannot express their spiritual insights with their methods of philosophy. In a modern context, it is not expected that a philosopher writes from his heart. Philosophers are more practiced in intellectual discussion and use abstract analysis and rigorous debate to further knowledge (Morris, 1994, p. 4).

This perspective can bring new light to understanding Ancient Greek philosophy. It is generally accepted that in Ancient Greece, mythical thinking gradually diminished to be replaced by rational thought. In this discrimination between myth and philosophy, philosophy is usually described as rational explanation (Direk, 2005, p. 12–13), but it is possible to see the Ancient Greek tradition from another perspective. Many Sufis, including Sadr al-Din al-Qunawi (1274 CE), claim that in the Greek tradition until Aristotle, a way of knowing similar to kashf, unveiling, was more significant than other forms of knowledge (Konevi, 2007, p. 43). A similar interpretation can be seen in the works of Pierre Hadot (19992002). Hadot claims that in the Greek tradition philosophy was not a theoretical study based on abstract analysis, but a work of spiritual exercise which transformed a person’s life. He points out that the modern view has difficulty in understanding the Ancient Greek tradition (Hadot, 1999, p. 277–287) and that this difficulty causes us to assign certain premises to this tradition which did not actually exist at the time. I will now go on to discuss the relationship between the Ancient Greek tradition and the knowledge of kashf.

The Foundations of Kashf in Western Thought

The idea of the certainty of knowledge and the claim that the intellect is the source of this knowledge is rooted in Ancient Greece. The pattern, so powerfully impressed upon Western minds through the rise of modern science, was the conception of knowledge as completely impersonal, explicit and permanent: the ideal of total objectivity. The optimism of the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment assigned prominence to the intellect and contributed to this ideal (Grene, 1974, p. 17). In the philosophy of Enlightenment, Immanuel Kant assigned dominance to the intellect and applied his methods to science, arts, morals, politics and religion (Wood, 2009, p. 22). Over time, in Western thought, a line was drawn between Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Kant. These philosophers claimed that the intellect is the source of knowledge, and Western thought, broadly understood, has always approached knowledge in this manner.

On the other hand, Bertrand Russell in “Mysticism and Logic” (1910), claims that great philosophers have always felt the need to balance insight and reason. This balance raises metaphysical philosophy to a level above the competition between science and religion (Maddrey, 2009, p. 60). In this sense, there are two different impulses; the impulse to approach knowledge scientifically and the impulse to approach it through mysticism. For instance, for David Hume, the scientific impulse is dominant; while for the poet William Blake, mysticism dominates to such an extent that it creates hostility toward science. According to Russell, great philosophers, including Plato, complied with the contexts of both science and mystical thought. For Plato, there is always a competition between scientific and mystical impulses, but whenever there is a battle between the two, mystical knowledge takes precedence (Russell, 2010, p. 7–10). Understanding Plato in terms of mystical knowledge is an alternative route in Western thought, but approaching Plato in this way does not necessarily mean that he is a mystic, but implies that his way of philosophy may be understood differently.

Hadot extensively analyses how various concepts were understood by the Ancient Greeks and his basic claim is that the modern mind cannot sufficiently understand the Ancient Greek tradition. According to Hadot, philosophy in Ancient Greece was not an intellectual pursuit giving rise to abstract assumptions, but that philosophy was a way of life that transforms the human being and knowledge arises as a result of this way of life. The philosophical act is not situated merely at the cognitive level, but at the level of the self and of being (Hadot, 1999, p. 83). For Hadot, philosophers were connected to schools of thought which represented ways of life, aiming for a total change of lifestyle and a complete transformation of the individual. The aim is to achieve wisdom, and philosophy is merely a preparatory exercise for wisdom (Hadot, 2002, p. 3–4). Hadot claims that the modern mind can better understand the Ancient Greek system if we name it as a “spiritual exercise” instead of “philosophy”. He deliberately chooses the word “spiritual”, because words such as “psychic”, “moral”, “ethical”, “intellectual”, “of thought” or “of the soul” cannot cover all aspects of reality (Hadot, 1999, p. 81). This clarification is necessary because in the Ancient Greek system, knowledge of the virtues has no value if it is not accompanied by striving to be virtuous in life. The nature, the purpose and the outcome of this striving necessitates a form of spiritual exercise.

A knowledge system based on spiritual transformation can also be found in the teachings of the Sufi thinker Sadr al-Din al-Qunawi (1207–1274 CE). Al-Qunawi describes the importance of kashf, not as a philosopher, but as a Sufi who has attained this knowledge through his own experience. Al-Qunawi studied Ancient Greece and approached these ancient philosophers from the perspective of a Sufi and explains the difference between theoretical knowledge and kashf by pointing out that the theoretical intellect has a limited capacity for this form of knowledge. According to him, if proof by reason and rational thinking were sufficient, then the prophets and the friends of Allah, the heirs of the prophets, would not turn away from these methods (Konevi, 2007, p. 40–41). Al-Qunawi follows the footsteps of Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi (1165–1240 CE), who was his mentor and stepfather. Al-Arabi classifies knowledge seekers in two groups: the first walks towards Allah with thinking and rationality but hey are mistaken because they believe that their knowledge is complete and correct. The second group is the messengers and prophets and the chosen saints. This group is the possessor of true knowledge (Kılıç, 1996, p. 1697). Al-Arabi argues that the rational thinkers cannot pass beyond material reality but that human beings have the ability to comprehend a more honorable, superior, stronger and more transcendental knowledge (Arabi, 2008, p. 84).

According to al-Qunawi, the real location of knowledge is the heart, understood as a metaphysical organ. However, this heart has to become cleared and purified (Konevi, 2007, p. 42). In Tasawwuf, this clarity or purification is directly connected with the taming of the nafs (Sunar, 1978, p. 49) and the transformation of the heart into a state which can receive the knowledge of kashf necessitates living in a system which rests upon the taming of the nafs. This system is called Tasawwuf and this process for taming the nafs does not proceed in a rational manner. A Sufi leads a life according to the necessities of taming the nafs. Because rational thinking is not an effective method for taming the nafs, the Sufis do not base their processes for acquiring knowledge upon rationality.

Al-Qunawi states that true knowledge is the knowledge given by Allah to the Sufis who turn toward Allah and who tame their nafs, their individuality, and purify their hearts by following the path of messengers, prophets and saints. Al-Qunawi speaks about the first philosophers in Ancient Greece until Aristotle. According to him, although these philosophers had employed rational thinking, they pursued a different way of living for knowledge, just as Hadot claims. According to al-Qunawi, these philosophers lived according to their principles, sometimes in halwat (seclusion in order to practice contemplation and worship [Uludağ, 1997, p. 386]) and in riyazat (abstinence in order to tame the nafs [Devellioğlu, 2011, p. 1047]). Hadot points out that almost every philosophy school offers practices for voluntary suffering and self-restraint. In the school of Plato, for instance, the individual is expected to give up sensual pleasures and comply with a special diet, fasting and sleep deprivation which enabled spiritual development (Hadot, 2002, pp. 189–190). Al-Qunawi claims that the knowledge system in Ancient Greece was based on a master-disciple relationship, just as it is in Tasawwuf, and points out that if a disciple in Ancient Greece disagreed with his master, he was advised to tame his nafs and clear his heart until he reached the certainty of knowledge at the divine level (Konevi, 2007, p. 43).

Following Hadot and al-Qunawi, it is possible to say that the Ancient Greek tradition until Aristotle rests upon the knowledge of kashf. Knowledge depends upon a way of life which aims to tame the nafs. Attaining knowledge is a purpose, but being virtuous, having a good character and being a good person is crucial for the pursuit of knowledge. Hadot points out that Socrates is a prime example for this. Through Socrates, Western thought became acquainted with spiritual exercises which lead to knowledge (Hadot, 1999, p. 85). Socrates lived his whole life according to the truth he recited; he invited people to study their consciousness and to analyze their inner process. The dialogues were spiritual exercises in which the individual was supposed to comply with the dictum, “Know thyself” (Hadot, 1999, p. 90). In Tasawwuf as well, knowledge is dependent upon knowing oneself. This knowledge mandates that the individual sees oneself in order to ontologically know this self. At the same time, knowing oneself entails knowing one’s darker traits and becoming free from them. Socrates has the same view. He aims to lead the individual to question himself, which will lead to a community which questions itself. The philosopher knows nothing, but is conscious of this. His philosophical method is not to transmit knowledge, but to act as midwife by leading his students to question themselves (Hadot, 2002, p. 25). According to Hadot, Socrates represents a position in which knowing meets being. Knowledge is only possible if it creates a certain transformation in the person. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to separate knowledge from being virtuous. Knowledge and lack of knowledge have to do not with concepts, but with values: for example, the value of moral good and moral evil. The content of Socratic knowledge is thus essentially “the absolute value of moral intent”. Hadot understands that this knowledge only comes through inner discovery (kashf).

Sufi Knowledge

Bab’Aziz can be seen as the story of an old man and a girl on their way to a meeting with an unknown location. It can also be interpreted as the story of a Prince who left his palace and found his truth through contemplating. Both will be true, because the film is about the journey to find the Sufi knowledge. In the opening scene of Bab’Aziz, we see the red-headed dervish, who says, “Sweep with your soul before your beloved’s door. Only then will you become the lover”. He is surrounded by sand and therefore it is clear that no matter how much he sweeps, there will be more sand. This scene is loaded with symbols regarding the true meaning of knowledge. Sand in the desert covers one’s path and makes it uncertain. On the path leading to truth, there will be uncertainty and unexpected obstacles. In truth, the source of these obstacles is a single one; it is the nafs. The nafs is a veil between the human being and Allah, and the aim of the Sufi is to lift this veil. However, this aim is not caused by a desire to achieve knowledge in the modern sense. In other words, this is not a quest to know something which is not known. Here, there is a striving to comprehend one’s own truth, one’s purpose for being created, and to be transformed into a human being who acts in agreement with this purpose.

We retun here to the three levels of knowledge. At ilmu’l-yaqin, a person comprehends this knowledge through the intellect. Aynu’l-yaqin defines a knowledge in which witnessing or seeing is possible. Haqqa’l-yaqin, finally, defines a knowledge in which the distinction between the knower and the known disappears. The red-headed dervish is devoted to striving for this knowledge and the object of his love is Allah (ilmu’l-yaqin). He then wants to be the object of Allah’s love (aynu’l-yaqin) and then he wants to become the lover (haqqa’l-yaqin). Therefore, the dervish constantly sweeps the love of the world which becomes accumulated in his heart. In other words, he is taming his nafsBab’Aziz is intentionally playful in matters of cause and effect and this is a choice in order to express kashf, the knowledge of the heart. This is a knowledge which causes the transformation of the human being and brings the recognition of his truth, based on a striving which is the Sufi way of life.

This form of knowledge, kashf, differs significantly from the process of reasoning which is based on abstract arguments supported by theoretical sources. In Tasawwuf, knowledge can only be attained through experience and Western thought may in fact be rooted in exactly this form of knowledge. In order to extend this claim, in the second part of this article, I have discussed Sadr al-Din al-Qunawi and Pierre Hadot in order to argue that Ancient Greek philosophy is rooted in a knowledge of kashf. The first philosophers viewed philosophy as a way of life and their ultimate aim was to be a virtuous human being and philosophy served this purpose. From this perspective, Ancient Greek philosophy is not merely based on intellect and is therefore a tool of self-transformation and the outcome is the knowledge of kashf. While I am not making claims about a direct relationship between Sufism and Greek philosophy, their correspondences are striking.

The film Bab’Aziz presents a reflection upon the knowledge system of Tasawwuf, and, for the philosopher, the film is a medium of analysis; for the Sufi, it is a story in which he can see himself. This is an essential aspect of the knowledge of kashf. The difference between experiencing kashf and studying kashf is crucial, because in Tasawwuf, true knowledge means experiencing kashf. In this sense, Tasawwuf is a path which can only acquire meaning by walking this path. As the Sufi Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani (1078-1166 CE) says: “The journey of the Sufi ends in the land of haqqa’l-yaqin”, and perhaps we can understand the experience of viewing the film Bab’Aziz as, at least metaphorically, just such a journey into kashf.


1. The name given to works which recount the miracles of the awliya (saints and close friends of Allah) (Şahin, 2004, p. 112). As Tasawwuf proliferated in the Islamic realm after the 3rd century AH (9th century CE), the word hagiography has been used to signify the exemplary wisdom and actions of the Sufis. The hagiography of the awliya tales are different from folk stories and folk legends because they recount the stories of real and sacred people who lived in certain times and places. These narratives are written in a plain style and they are believed to be literally true (Ocak, 2010, p. 34).

2. Bab’Aziz refers to the main character in the film. Bab’Aziz; (in italics) refers to the name of the film.

3. Yaqin (certainty) is an Arabic word which addresses the certainty of knowledge in Islamic literature and Tasawwuf.

4. The relationship between the moth and the flame is a much-used metaphor in Tasawwuf. The reference in Bab’Azizis from Mansur al-Hallaj’s Kitab al-Tawasin(922 CE). It also appears in the works of masters such as Mawlana Jalaluddin Rumi (1274 CE), Ruzbihan Baqli (1207 CE), Farid ud-Din al-Attar (1221 CE) and Najmuddin al-Razi (1256 CE) (Armutlu, 2009, p. 881–889).


Adonis. (2013). Sufism and Surrealism. (J. Cumberbatch, Trans.). London: SAQI. Google Scholar

Arabi, İbnü’l. (2008). Fusûsu’l-Hikem (3rd ed.) (E. Demirli, Ed., Trans.). İstanbul: Kabalcı. Google Scholar

Armes, R. (2010). The Poetic Vision of Nacer Khemir. Third Text, 24(1), pp. 69–82. CrossrefISIGoogle Scholar

Armutlu, S. (2009). Kelebeğin Ateşe Yolculuğu: Klasik Fars Ve Türk Edebiyatında Şem’ü Pervâne Mesnevileri. Atatürk Üniversitesi Türkiyat Araştırmaları Enstitüsü Dergisi, 15(39), pp. 877–907. Google Scholar

Chittick, W. C. (2014), İbn Arabi Giriş Kitabı; Vâris-i Enbiyâ. (K. Filiz, Trans.) İstanbul: Nefes Yayınları. Google Scholar

Chittick, W. C. (1989), Ibn al-‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination, The Sufi Path of Knowledge. Albany: State University of New York Press. Google Scholar

Chittick, W. C. (2013). Konevi’ye Göre Ruhanî Yükseliş Dairesi. InT. Koç (Ed., Trans.) Varolmanın Boyutları Tasavvuf ve Vahdetü’l-Vücûd Üstüne Yazılar. (4th ed.) (pp. 139–167) İstanbul: İnsan Yayınları. Google Scholar

Corbin, H. (2014). History of Islamic Philosophy. (P. Sherrard & L. Sherrard, Trans.). London, New York: Routledge. CrossrefGoogle Scholar

Çalış-Kural, B. D. (2014). Şehrengiz; Urban Rituals and Deviant Sufi Mysticism in Ottoman Istanbul. Farnham, Burlington: Ashgate. Google Scholar

Devellioğlu, F. (2011). Tarîk. InA. Sami Güneyçal & M. Çiçekler (Eds.). Osmanlıca-Türkçe Ansiklopedik Lûgat. (28th ed.). Ankara: Aydın Kitabevi. Google Scholar

Direk, Z. (2005). Felsefenin Başlangıcı Sorunu. In Başkalık Deneyimi Kıta Avrupası Felsefesi Üzerine Denemeler. (pp. 11–32). İstanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınları. Google Scholar

Duggan, Anne. E. (2008). Khemir, Nacer (1948-) In Donald Haase (Ed.) The Greenwood Encyclopedia of Folktales and Fairy Tales; Volume 2: G-P Westport: Greenwood Press. Google Scholar

El-Hakim, Suad. (2005). Kalb. In İbnü’l Arabi Sözlüğü. (E. Demirli, Trans.) İstanbul: Kabalcı. Google Scholar

El-Hakim, Suad. (2005). Yakîn In İbnü’l Arabi Sözlüğü. (E. Demirli, Trans) İstanbul: Kabalcı. Google Scholar

Grene, M. (1974). The Knower and the Known. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press. Google Scholar

Hadot, P. (1999). Philosophy as a Way of Life, Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault.A. I. Davidson. (Ed.). (M. Chase, Trans.). (6th ed.). Oxford, Malden: Blackwell. Google Scholar

Hadot, P. (2002). What is Ancient Philosophy? (M. Chase, Trans.). Cambridge, London: Harvard University Press. Google Scholar

Kaşani, I. (2010). Tasavvufun Ana Esasları; Misbâhu’l-Hidâye Ve Miftâhu’l-Kifâye.E. Güngör (Ed.). (Hakkı Uygur, Trans.). İstanbul: Kurtuba Kitap. Google Scholar

Khemir, Nacer, interviewed by Nawara Omarbacha. (2006) Interview with Nacer Khemir Director of “Bab’Aziz – The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul” Scholar

Kılıç, M. E. (1996). Mysticism. In O. Leaman & S. H. Nasr (Eds.). Routledge History of World Philosophies Volume I, History of Islamic Philosophy Part II. (pp. 1693–1712). London, New York: Routledge. Google Scholar

Konevi, S. (2007). Fâtiha Suresi Tefsiri. (E. Demirli, Trans.). (3rd. ed.) İstanbul: İz Yayıncılık. Google Scholar

Konevi, S. (2012). İlâhî Nefhalar; En-Nefehâtü’l-İlâhiyye. (E. Demirli, Trans.). (3rd ed.). İstanbul: İz Yayıncılık. Google Scholar

Laliwala, J. I. (2005). Islamic Philosophy of Religion, Synthesis of Science Religion and Philosophy. New Delhi: Sarup and Sons. Google Scholar

Lings, M. (1986). Tasavvuf Nedir? (H. Şencan, Trans.). İstanbul: Akabe. Google Scholar

Maddrey, J. (2009). The Making of T.S. Eliot: A Study of the Literary Influences. Jefferson, North Carolina, London: McFarland. Google Scholar

Mısrî, Niyazî-i. (n.d). İrfan Sofraları; Mawâidu’l-İrfan. (S. Ateş, Trans.). İstanbul: Yeni Ufuklar Neşriyat. Google Scholar

Morris, T. V. (1994). Introduction. InT. V. Morris (Ed.). God and the Philosophers: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. Google Scholar

Ocak, A. Y. (2010). Kültür Tarihi Kaynağı Olarak Menâkıbnâmeler; Metodolojik Bir Yaklaşım. Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu. Google Scholar

Russell, B. (2010). Mysticism and Logic and Other Essays. Auckland, NZ: Floating Press. Google Scholar

Shaheen, J. (1997). Arab and Muslim Stereotyping in American Popular Culture. Washington: Georgetown University. Google Scholar

Shaheen, J. (2001) Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Villifies a People. Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press. Google Scholar

Shah-Kazemi, R. (2006). Paths to Transcendence; According to Shankara, Ibn Arabi, and Meister Eckhart. Indiana: World Wisdom. Google Scholar

Siddiqui, A. R. (2010) Qur’anic Keywords: A Reference Guide. (2nd ed.) İstanbul: Kube Publishing. Google Scholar

Solovyov, V. S. (1996). The Crisis of Western Philosophy: Against the Positivists. (B. J. Hudson, Trans). Hudson, N.Y.: Lindisfarne Press. Google Scholar

Sunar, C. (1978). Ana Hatlarıyla İslâm Tasavvufu Tarihi. Ankara: Ankara Üniversitesi Basımevi. Google Scholar

Vanhala, H. (2011). The Depiction of Terrorists in Blockbuster Hollywood Films, 1980–2001: An Analytical Study. North Carolina: McFarland. Google Scholar

Wood, A. W. (2009). Kant. (A. Kovanlıkaya, Trans.). Ankara: Dost Kitabevi. Google Scholar

Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi (Encyclopedia of Islam) Google Scholar

Şahin, H. (2004). Menâkıbnâme. In Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi. (Vol: 29, pp 112–114). İstanbul: Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı Yayınları. Google Scholar

Uludağ, S. (1997). Halvet. In Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi. (Vol: 15, pp. 86–387). İstanbul: Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı Yayınları. Google Scholar

Yılmaz, Y. Ş. (2000). İlme’l-Yakîn. In Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi. (Vol: 22, pp. 137–138) İstanbul: Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı Yayınları. Google Scholar

Share This!