Chale Nafus
Director of Programming, Austin Film Society

Be careful not to limit God to the form of your belief. – Muhyiddin

In his earlier films, Tunisian director Nacer Khemir explored the mystical version of Islam, Sufism, especially in his Desert Trilogy.i  In his latest film, a documentary, Khemir goes on a journey at the request of his father to search for a man named Muhammed Ibn ‘Ali Ibn ‘Arabi, or more generally, Muhyiddin (“Revivifier of Religion”). This journey will take the filmmaker (with his shock of grey hair and rolling red suitcase) from Tunisia to France, the US, England, Spain, Morocco, Turkey, the United Arab Emirate, Yemen, and Syria. 

Receiving instructions from a Sufi teacher (via telephone or ESP), Khemir visits scholars who have studied the life and works of Muhyiddin – a poet/philosopher born in 1165 C.E. in Murcia, Andalusia, when southern Spain was under Islamic rule. That was apparently a time and place when poets and philosophers of the three Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam could often talk freely with one another, discuss the finer points of interpretations of passages in their holy books and perhaps (warning – a moment of naiveté and hope on my part) find commonalities in their beliefs and ethics. If the writings of Muhyiddin are any indication, such exchanges of ideas were possible and quite fruitful.

But Muhyiddin felt the need to travel and learn from people outside his known world of Andalusia, so like many Sufi masters before him, he took to the road, which meant following the desert caravans across North Africa to the Arabic peninsula. A keen observer of all that he saw and an open-minded listener to all that he heard, he wrote and wrote until, some say, he completed “700 books, treatises and poetry collections out of which an estimated 400 survive.” A new translation his Meccan Openings runs to 17,000 pages, so prolific is insufficient in describing his outpouring of ideas. 

Seeming to emulate Muhyiddin as a good listener, the filmmaker never says a word (except in a few voice-overs) throughout his entire journey, but instead listens to each person as he/she discusses their understanding of Muhyiddin. Thus, this three-hour film becomes not a dialogue but a wonderful seminar about one of the most important thinkers of the Islamic world, one whose words could make such a difference in the entire world, if only his thoughts were better known.

Khemir first comes to America to visit James Morris, Professor of Islamic Studies, Boston College. Morris speaks of Muhyiddin’s thoughts about walaya as divine proximity or divine presence and his belief that God’s manifestations, the tajaliyat, are always different at each moment. As Morris speaks, we see a mysterious hooded figure sitting on a distant park bench – perhaps Muhyiddin’s spirit taking corporeal form, to be met only through other people’s interpretations.

In England, specifically at Oxford, Cecilia Twinch and Richard Twinch, both research fellows at the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society, seem almost stunned by their experiences with Muhyiddin – her visit to the Church of El Salvador (Seville) which may have been attended by the Sufi master when portions were a mosque and Richard’s bedazzled experiences in the vast Saharan Desert. Both speak of being “touched” by Muhyiddin or even “looked at.” Sweet and kind as they are, the Twinches are a bit too ethereal for my understanding, so I am relieved when Khemir next goes to visit Jane Clark, likewise involved with the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society at Oxford.

As happens in many scenes in this film, Khemir must first pass through a cemetery to get to the location of his next scholar. Through factual or metaphoric editing, the filmmaker may be suggesting that only in the presence of death can one learn of these deeper thoughts about life. Only later do we discover that after his mother’s burial, Khemir was visited by his father in a dream, not in reality as we earlier thought. His father had died when Nacer was 13, but now with both parents gone, the filmmaker was given the filial task, the duty really (amana) of searching for Muhyiddin. The father’s spirit was guiding his son’s continued spiritual growth.  

Jane Clark is much more down-to-earth than the Twinches and I find myself breathing freely again. She discusses Muhyiddin’s emphasis on love and compassion. More interestingly Clark reveals that Sheikh Muhyiddin gave “equality in the intellectual and spiritual realm to women and men.” He had several women teachers and wrote about them in his works; likewise he welcomed women into his lectures. In fact, he believed that the complete human being was “beyond gender.” I would definitely like to spend more time listening to Jane Clark. 

But the “master’s voice” sends Khemir onward to another Oxford scholar, Stephen Hirtenstein, who explains how he came to learn about Muhyiddin. Reading a book on Sufi mystics of Islam, he was struck by a poem of the philosopher/poet:

My heart has become capable of every form.
It is a pasture for gazelles.
It is a monastery for Christian monks.
It is a temple for idols.
It is the pilgrim’s Kaaba.ii 
It is the pages of the Torah and the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of love.

This amazing poem includes references to Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, as well as nature and even idolatry – as all somehow equal elements, simply various forms of the one true religion – that of love. No wonder Hirtenstein was struck by the poem’s simplicity and idealism. Those would have been unusually hopeful words for anyone writing in the 12th century or even the 21st century. The British scholar sums it up nicely: “To love is to come into life.” He adds that in his journeys, Muhyiddin found answers which initially satisfied his heart only to lead him on to new questions and new vistas elsewhere. But the unity of harmony, love, and beauty provided the pillars of his learning and teaching.

The next teacher is Pablo Beneito, a professor in Murcia, Spain. As with each new person, we hear music appropriate to his/her locale. Dr. Beneito has studied and written about the 99 names of God as explained by Muhyiddin. Each name is, in a sense, a different element of the divine. Moving through those names and understanding them becomes a journey into a deeper knowledge of life and reality, as well as the spiritual. Fortunately, as we listen to the tsunami waves of Beneito over-explaining his ideas, Khemir walks through the remains of a stunningly constructed mosque with arches of red and white stones. But finally Beneito says something that I can (almost) understand: Muhyiddin contemplated woman as the “highest level of theophanic manifestation.” In effect, if I understand this correctly, if God were to appear in a human form, it would most likely be that of a woman. [That idea should strike terror into the hearts of Islamists. Thus, Muhyiddin was and is dangerous.]  

Pablo Beneito refers to Nidham, an actual young woman to whom Muhyiddin dedicated the verses of The Interpreter of Yearnings. He explains that the young woman’s name implies “harmony, order, a vision, an experience of the cosmic order.” Despite his barrage of words and concepts, Beneito adds a great deal to Jane Clark’s ideas about the mystic’s attitudes toward women. If only Islam had followed the path of Muhyiddin. For that matter it wasn’t until the 20th century that Christianity amplified its beliefs about women. Don’t even get me started on ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who delay flights because they refuse to sit next to women on airplanes. 

Next up is Professor Mahmud Erol Kılıç in Turkey, who speaks of the two versions of Muhyiddin’s The Meccan Opening, which contains 560 chapters in 37 volumes, written “automatically” over a period of 23 years. Unlike his Andalusian predecessor Averroes, Muhyiddin was often more inclined toward inspiration and spiritually received knowledge than Aristotelian logic.

Perhaps to illustrate inspirational understanding, Khemir visits a mosque which shows the stunning beauty of the Arabic script “writ large” on the walls. A guide explains the gigantic two-letter word for God, very mundanely represented in the Roman alphabet as HU. The equivalent of the H is silent (non-existence) and the U is pronounced as if it were “uuuuuuu” and means being or existence. Thus, yin/yang, being and non-being all rolled into one. God is everything and nothing, which somehow makes me think of quantum physics. We also see some dervishes whirling their prayers to God – prayer through movement, eradication of the ego, existence of only the present moment (all that we “have” anyway). Nacer Khemir knows better than to let his film be all verbal. 

After passing through another cemetery, Khemir seems to be finding his own path as he says he had to meet Gabriel, even though his telephonic/telepathic master had not mentioned him. And Gabriel, who sits on a wall, tells us a story (as Sufis are wont to do). Five pilgrims, probably on their way to Mecca, mention the thing they would like the most. Five men, five different words, all incomprehensible to one another. Only when they meet a Sufi mystic do they learn that each man wanted grapes. Their distinct languages had different words for the same thing. Then Gabriel draws the conclusion: “Why do human beings fight among themselves when they are all talking about God but with different words.” 

At the Turkish mausoleum of the great 13th century Persian poet/Sufi mystic Mawlana Jalal Al Din Rumi, Khemir hears of truth as a “mirror fallen from the sky, broken into a thousand fragments, with each person holding only a tiny fragment which he believes to hold all truth.” Once more, poetic language overwhelms with its simplicity and its grasp of reality.

Gabriel seems to have taken control of Khemir’s journey as he advises him to return to Granada, Spain to visit José Miguel Puerta Vílchez at the university. The kindly professor talks about Muhyiddin’s emphasis on beauty, as others have also, but he adds a new element: majesty, something which inspires awe and even fear. God is beautiful and loves beauty but He also embodies majesty, perhaps for ultimately being unknowable. Puerta Vílchez also says that the “I” (one’s sense of self) is not something stable, but is constantly transforming. Buddha described the human being in the same way. If we think of the spinning atoms which compose our bodies, this becomes even scientifically understandable. The Spanish professor discusses Muhyiddin’s fascination with the world of “tangible reality” coexisting with the “hidden world.”

Back in America, the filmmaker confesses to no longer remembering where he is “in his story.” When he first agreed to do what his dream-father asked, he thought he would go no farther than his native Tunis and its suburbs. Somehow disconnected from his telepathic master and even from Gabriel, he now has to rely on a cab driver to turn and say, “I know what you’re looking for.” Has Muhyiddin entered the minds of strangers to help Khemir on his journey? Or are they a divine manifestation leading the filmmaker onward. 

At this time he is led to Riverside Church, initially an unexpected destination. But the New York Open Centre and the Ibn Arabi Society have organized a seminar on Sheikh Muhyiddin’s works under the title of “Islam, Sufism and the Heart of Compassion.” As admirable as this event is and as much as Khemir hopes he will at last find Muhyiddin there, nothing much happens. It seems not to matter than the sound of the speakers is garbled.

Pushing cab drivers and Gabriel aside, the Master’s voice takes over once again and instructs Khemir to look for Mohamed Ali Haj Yousef. Naturally the filmmaker first passes through Central Park, as the scenes of nature throughout the film are as important as those of cemeteries. The trees, bushes, and flowers are all life forms co-existing with humanity.

Mohamed Ali Haj Yousef, Professor of Physics, United Arab Emirates University, describes the operation of creation as continuous, that the world must vanish at every instant, only to be recreated – a kind of continuous Big Bang taking place every second. My sense of stability and self is beginning to dissolve as I type these words. Just a minute while I go drink some iced tea… 

…Back, I think. Even the phrase “I think” is looking suspect, all apologies due to Descartes. Anyway, getting a grasp on myself, I continue on Khemir’s cinematic journey, this time to Yemen (before its most recent disasters). He is in Sanaa to meet Abdul Aziz Al-Mansoub, who has just completed the most complete revision of the enormous Al-Futuhat al-Makkyya (The Meccan Openings). But as might have happened in centuries gone by, Aziz does not show up, so Khemir goes in search of the scholar. We follow him through the narrow passages of the marketplace (souq) until finally reaching the writer’s home. 

Abdel Aziz says that, though born in Andalusia, Muhyiddin could trace his lineage back to Yemen, a place he often recalled in his writings. Unintentionally providing another explanation for the film’s many shots of cemeteries, Aziz reveals that the Sufi poet loved to meditate in cemeteries. The scholar talks some about his labor of love to provide the most accurate translation of 17,000 pages of The Meccan Openings. So many mistranslations and outright lies had appeared in various editions – sometimes through sloppiness or ignorance, other times as intentional misrepresentations to discredit Muhyiddin and his open-minded discussions, which flew in the face of various stricter schools of Islam. Some even tried to make Muhyiddin appear to see himself “superior” to the Prophet Mohammed.   

Meeting the poet Abdul Aziz Al-Makaleh in a bookstore in Sanaa at night, Khemir hears of this man’s first encounter with Muhyiddin at the University of Cairo. He discovered that the Sufi mystic wrote poetry from the heart, not in traditional ways. The poet believes that Muhyiddin moved Sufism from mastery of the self to mastery of perception. It is in Muhyiddin’s poetry and ideas that this man finds solace in the difficult times the Middle East is experiencing. He embraces Muhyiddin’s philosophy of co-existence and the unity of all humanity to off-set the all-too-prevalent “state of frustration and sadness.”   

Leaving Yemen, Khemir next goes to see Bakri Aladdin, a Syrian university professor and researcher in Arab philosophy and Sufism. Stating himself to be very busy, Aladdin hands Khemir one of his books and tells him to come back after reading it. I might have impetuously decided to leave Damascus in a huff, but Nacer leaves to walk around past beautiful buildings, walls, and columns. He sits on the steps of a mosque and then goes inside where he reads the book, perhaps.

Then back in Aladdin’s study, Khemir listens to the scholar discuss Muhyiddin himself. Although the mystic did talk a lot about himself, there are still gaps in the known biography. He did read everything he could get his hands on (manuscripts, of course). One of his greatest gifts to thought was his desire and attempt to bring together European philosophy (Aristotle) and Sufism: reason/rationalism/insight joining sensibility/inspiration/discovery. East does meet West in his comprehensive mind.  

Echoing what other scholars had said earlier in the film, Aladdin adds that Muhyiddin believed that a “woman’s face is the most appropriate place for Divine Being to manifest itself.” In many ways Muhyiddin placed women even above men. No wonder some of his teachings have been suppressed, ignored, or misrepresented by various other schools of Islamic thought. The social order in many of those theocratic communities would collapse if Muhyiddin’s views on women were accepted. The Sufi would doubtlessly be very proud of Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai, who embodies Muhyiddin’s outlook perfectly. 

Finally, after a long but enlightening journey, Nacer Khemir reaches the mausoleum of Sheikh Muhyiddin, surrounded by pilgrims. At the venerated tomb of Muhyiddin the filmmaker is finally able to complete the task, Al-Amana, given him by his father. He places a book wrapped in cloth on a spot near the poet/philosopher’s resting place and lets us know that he feels at peace. Then we hear a woman singing the lines of the beautiful poem uniting all religious belief and manifestations.

During this scene we hear Professor Aladdin indicate that this revived interest in Muhyiddin is considered by some a Western plot against Islam and the Arabs. But he counters this view with the warning that if Muslims “abandon the Sheik and his writings, it is as though we were burying ourselves alive.” 

Adding to that warning, Khemir says in an interview about LOOKING FOR MUHYIDDIN, “What really worries me is the hatred that is taking root everywhere: the Islamists' hatred of the West; the left wing's hatred of the Islamists. It is as if hate is at present the only motor that will propel us forward even a little. My film is about the very opposite: it is calming and satisfying. It shows Islam as a culture of reconciliation, as a reconciliation with oneself and with others. And it shows that people have to work to develop an understanding of each other.”iii

I have many hopes that LOOKING FOR MUHYIDDIN will be seen by millions of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, but just as many fears that it will be seen by only a relative handful of people. Without fear of exaggeration, I can honestly say that this is one of those rare films which could change the course of history if only its ideas were studied and taken to heart. Nacer Khemir has made a major contribution to humanity by reawakening an interest in and understanding of one of the great thinkers of all time, but sadly this will probably be yet another humane voice blown away by desert winds.

iiThe most holy site in Mecca
iiiChristina Omlin, “Islam as a Culture of Reconciliation, an Interview with Nacer Khemir,”, 2013,


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