I was approached some time ago to make a film about the Senegalese community of Sussex. At least that’s how I read it. I was surprised that there was such a thing, so I thought it’d be both useful publicly and interesting privately.
When I arrived to meet them at an event they’d organised I realised that it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I’d had some inkling that it was religiously-related but that hadn’t quite bloomed into a full scale realisation of what that meant.
As usual with my film making I arrived completely unprepared and with no significant prejudice about who I was to encounter or what I was to witness. Now, I should pause to note that it was not exactly that something dramatic was to happen but rather that I found myself, an atheist, in the midst of a fervent religious celebration with the view to filming it.
Looking around the venue (the first of many ironies – it was a church hall) I realised that I would never have expected these people to be devout Muslims, had I passed them on the street. Some looked straight out of a 1980s hip hop crew – a Tribe Called Quest or suchlike. African men with dreadlocks, baggy colourful clothes and beads around the neck, albeit made of wooden beads.
The day progressed – coffee, chanting, prayer, coffee, poetry, coffee, food, coffee, prayer, chanting, the arrival of an important person, prayer, coffee and so on. It was indeed a wonderful experience. I couldn’t help but finding myself uplifted by it, and drawn to the kindness and hospitality of the subjects of the film: Sengalese Baye Fall, the Mouride Brotherhood, disciples of Ibrahima Fall.
You can see the day in the film here, alongside the interviews that drove it along. The point is that I was left, as an atheist, charged with marking a film about Muslims. Moreover, I had no idea about West African religion. I had a friend as a kid who was a Gambian Muslim but knew little about the faith. On the other hand I’d studied the sociology of religion – and of the Sufi form of Islam practiced here – at university and teach a number of courses in which we critically investigate the representation of Islam in the media. So something to go on.
In one sense the principles by which I make films suffice – the interviewees and subjects should drive the focus. Therefore the account of Islam and the account of the Baye Fall are driven by the subjects, with the strength of all their faith. A Spanish female, an Italian man and a local agnostic join the Senegalese, demonstrating the “ethnic” and cultural openness of the Baye Fall.
It is indeed an interesting experience to mediate claims of angels and miracles as one who believes in neither. How ought such a claim be framed? Part of the answer is given by a subtle nod to what appears to a philosophical rationalist to be an absurd question – the analogy of a belief in one’s parents with a belief in God. Both, it is claimed, are based on faith. Philosophy, it is said, clouds one’s mind and creates doubts. Very good, says the rationalist, but one can touch one’s parents, conduct DNA tests. Science shows the way. But that’s not the point. This is faith. One is left to make up one’s mind about the status of this faith.
It the social significance of this faith and the sense made of it that I hope to have foregrounded. Of course the notion that Islam is intrinsically violent is dealt with at the outset, but any doubt is destroyed by the account given of the campaign for Senegalese independence from the French.
We are told that the founder of the Mouride Brotherhood, Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke, led a pacifist struggle against the French. Despite the fact that he commanded a following of tens of thousands he refused to undertake violence against the French. Indeed he retained this position even during appalling treatment by the French.
The significance of the Cheikh is in the faith followers invest in him. His example guides conduct – to be peaceful, kind hardworking and pious.
Of course the issue of gender must be addressed as one of the interviewees explains the role of women. To reflect this adequately was perhaps the most difficult task that was faced. Her account is clear – she states that the women work in the kitchen. Indeed, as the film shows, women did work in the kitchen at the event. However, from when I arrived to the end of the day the men we in the kitchen also, and until around midday it was only men who were in the kitchen. Unfortunately, beside the introduction to the Baye Fall in the kitchen, there is no footage of them working there.
It is on such occasions that one has to make a decision in a context that one has analysed over time. The interviewee’s comments play into a conception of Muslim communities as ones in which gender relations are inferior to those in Christian communities. Yet she did indeed say that and there were women in the kitchen. What she didn’t add was that this was little different in Christian and non-religious communities as well. Neither did she say that (apparently) men seemed quite happy to do their bit.
Given that I had no footage of men working in the kitchen I instead turned to a fair amount of footage of men serving food, and one in which a man is serving drinks to a woman. This in a sense disrupts the account of the role of women but hopefully not in a way that either rejects the account or affirms it. It simply complicates it. And this is the point, these things are complicated.
Perhaps the most interesting interviewee comes toward the end. I interject in an interview with a thought from my interpretation of the work of the German sociologist Max Weber – his account of the Christian Reformation, in which Protestant sects were founded on the principle that believers ought to read the bible themselves rather than listen to a priest. I always found it odd that people believed that an English translation of a book originally written in Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek, compiled three hundred years after the event, before various interpretations resulted in the modern versions to be the words of God. In the very first instance did the mediators really understand God? Might not there be a limit to a linguistic understanding of divinity? This is why Sufis tend to chant and dance, to feel God. And that was the consensus – the rituals are those in which one gets closer to God.
Despite the prejudices of some, we ought not think such people to be unreflective. Indeed the same interviewee remarks on how Islam is interpreted, acculturated and practiced in a variety of forms that reflect their cultural circumstances. Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran, Sengal, they all have their different interpretations and cultural transformations. Human understanding is contextual, fallible. We try to understand but do so on the basis that we will never do so fully. The point is to try.
Of course all this belies a sociological and ethical understanding of religion. Of course the faith is believed, and this is essential. Yet the ways in which the spiritual leaders are venerated and in which that veneration leads to a life practice that is aimed ultimately at being a good person is beneficial to all.
And so we return to appearances. Just as with the representation of Islam as violent, so with its association with the Middle East and Asia, the Baye Fall undermine assumptions. As with anything else, appearances do not immediately reflect significance. The dread locks of the Baye Fall remind them that Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacke was too busy doing good works to spend time on his appearance. The brightly coloured patchwork clothing reminds them that he was humble enough and simple enough to make his own clothes from bits of material.
The understandings of these practices neither naïve nor unreasonable. Despite the misgivings of some, what we see is intelligent, thoughtful people realising a way of living that makes them good, ethical beings.
To press the point, we have a media in which the mere utterance of “Muslim” instils dread, yet when a British Prime Minister, hundreds of pundits and almost every newspaper editor in the country cheers on the slaughter of a million people with not even a hint of responsibility they are rewarded. When millions of Palestinians are punished for the crimes of German Nazis, it is normalised. When a nation has presided over slavery, bonded labour and the domination of a quarter of the globe, it is celebrated. It is considered honourable to become a member or the British Empire. It is considered patriotic to celebrate the psychopaths who sent millions of people to their deaths over a dispute within an extended royal family between 1914 and 1918.
But to be a Muslim? Unforgivable. I hope I’ve done something that counters this and I hope the film is adequate to the people and the event.