Negar Mottahedeh

“One Light: Cinema and Islamic Spirituality”

Abstract: The Light Verse of the Qur’an stands at the threshold of my meditations on the relationship between Islamic spirituality and cinema. It reads as follows: “God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the similitude of His Light is that of a lamp in a niche…” Luminous and present, recorded and mediated, its impression on the human sensorium is said in various readings of this verse to affect the very essence of that which is human, the human soul. Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes regarding our relation to light that, “…the soul of the Muslim, and in fact the primal man in every man, yearns for the light which is ultimately the symbol of Divine presence” ¹. To this, one Sufi commentator adds regarding the sensorial body and the soul, that “access to that by which our soul becomes knowing begins by way of the senses, so long as we do not perceive sensible things—the visible, the audible, the sapid, the odorous, and the tangible—knowledge is out of our reach” ². In sum, it is the human sensorium awash in light that facilitates the believer’s presence to the knowledge of Divine light. Cinema’s impact on the senses as a mediator of the luminous presence of the Divine in its play of light must be considered vital to any discussion of Islamic spirituality.

These first principles on light, the soul, and the senses stand at the threshold of my considerations of cinema as a play of light and shadow and the consequences of this play, clearly part of the design of sacred architecture, for an Islamic spirituality. My close reading of scenes from Dariush Mehrjui’s Pari (Iran, 1995) will delve into the intimacies of this human yearning for light in Islam and to cinema’s engagement with it.

[1] Seyyed Hossen Nasr. Islamic Art and Spirituality. Albany: State of New York Press, 1987, 50.
[2] Laleh Bakhtiar. Sufi: Expressions of the Mystic Quest. London: Thames & Hudson, 1976, 19.

Bio: Negar Mottahedeh is a cultural critic and film theorist specializing in interdisciplinary and feminist contributions to the fields of Middle Eastern Studies and Film Studies. She is known for her work on Iranian Cinema, but has also published on the history of reform and revolution, on Bábism, Qajar history, performance traditions in Iran, the history of technology, visual theory, and the role of social media in the 2009–2010 Iranian election protests. She received her PhD in 1998 from the University of Minnesota. She has taught at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, and in 2002 began teaching at Duke University, where she is Associate Professor in the Program in Literature and in the Women’s Studies Program. She has two monographs: Displaced Allegories: Iranian Post-Revolutionary Cinema and Representing the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Her edited volume `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Journey West: The Course of Human Solidarity was published April 2013.