Focusing on dhikr (remembrance of God) and other spiritual and contemplative practices, Sufism aims to purify hearts and bring people closer to God. Here are five inspiring Sufi films from this long-established and widely-practiced spiritual tradition.
With deep roots in the Islamic world, Sufism focuses on the inward dimension of Islam. From the early Sufis, like Rabia al-Adawiyya and Hasan al-Basri in Iraq, Sufism has spread through formal tariqas across the Muslim world reaching from Morocco, across Africa, through the Middle East and as far as Malaysia. Celebrated Sufi poets such as Rumi, ‘Attar and Yunus Emre have given expression to its essence and their work remains ever popular today. Maligned by some due to the excesses of some groups who have pushed the bounds of Islamic law in their ecstatic approaches, the majority of Sufi groups lie firmly within the mainstream Muslim tradition. Focusing on dhikr (remembrance of God) and other spiritual and contemplative practices, it aims to purify hearts and bring people closer to God. Here are five inspiring Sufi films from this long-established and widely-practiced spiritual tradition.
1. Somunco Baba
Somuncu Baba – The Secret of Love is a beautiful cinematic depiction of the life of the 14th century Sufi master Hamid-i Veli, known as Somuncu Baba, the Master Baker, highlighting the spiritual value of sincerity, humility and service. On his journey of the soul Somoncu Baba also meets Beyazid Bestami in a dream, visits other spiritual guides, and undergoes a spiritual seclusion (khalwa). After some time he becomes a spiritual master in his own right.
The film also depicts the close bond of the master-disciple relationship between Somuncu Baba and the novice who was to become the Sufi saint Haji Bayram Veli. Haji Bayram Veli, considered one of the most important Anatolian spiritual figures, was the teacher of Akshamsaddin, who became the mentor of Mehmed the Conqueror. The film thus situates Somuncu Baba within a lineage of Sufi masters with an enduring legacy reaching to the present day.
Somuncu Baba – The Secret of Love is a spiritually refreshing film that you may want to watch more than once due to its mesmerisingly beautiful scenes, set in 14th century Sufi lodges and against the backdrop of sweeping vistas of the Anatolian countryside and Golden Age cities.
2. Camino A La Paz
Camino a la Paz (Road to La Paz) tells the unexpected story of a hot-headed, inconsiderate taxi driver who makes a 3000 mile road trip across Argentina and Bolivia for an elderly Muslim man to make his way to Mecca. On the way is his own spiritual journey finding meaning and faith.
On the way they stop to visit a Sufi Halveti Jerrahi group who are friends of Jalil’s. Sebastian finds himself in the midst of a Sufi gathering with prayers, dhikr and spiritual advice being given, which touches something deeper in him despite himself, so that he soon finds himself enthusiastically taking part in the ceremony.
Camino a La Paz (Road to La Paz) is a heart-warming tale of an unlikely friendship and a journey towards a deeper meaning in life. It shows a deep bond develop between the main protagonists on their 3000 mile journey across South America, despite their differences. To this heart-warming story, the scenes set in a Sufi ceremony, filmed in a real gathering, add a powerful spiritual element.
3. Rumi: The Animated Biography
Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi is one of the greatest Sufi poets of the Islamic world. His ecstatic poetry and spiritual message of love touch hearts worldwide. Rumi: The Animated Biography follows his eventful life in the 13th century under the shadow of the Mongol invasion through the great cities of Muslim lands.
Rumi has produced spiritual poetry that has touched hearts beyond borders and achieved worldwide recognition, first within the Muslim world, and more recently in the West, where he has been described not just as a great poet, but as the most popular and best-selling poet in the United States. Some more popular interpretations and translations have been criticised for being too free and leaving out references to Islam. The Mevlevi order, with its easily identifiable whirling dervishes, was founded by Rumi’s followers and his son Sultan Veled.
This animated feature film gives us insight not only into the life of Rumi, but also into the life of a 13th century family of respected Sufi scholars fleeing the Mongol threat. A unique glimpse of Islamic history, it evokes the terror of the Mongol attacks, the splendour of the mosques and palaces of the medieval Islamic world, and the extraordinary life and ecstatic poetry of Rumi himself.
For more films and documentaries on Rumi read Who Was the Real Rumi?
4. Yunus Emre – The Voice of Love
The Sufi poet Yunus Emre sets out as a wandering dervish on a journey to understand the meaning of divine love, meeting pivotal historical spiritual figures on his way in the feature film Yunus Emre – The Voice of Love.
Celebrated for his simple and direct verse composed in the Turkish of his day, rather than in Persian or Arabic, the Sufi poet Yunus Emre, born in 1238, has left an enduring mark on Turkish literature and culture. The 2014 feature film Yunus Emre, the Voice of Love is based around what is known about his life, and explores his quest to understand divine love.
The film takes us through a dreamscape of steppe landscapes, sometimes deep in snow, with visions of Hallaj and visits to spiritually important figures including Rumi. In his wanderings there are also meditative moments of reflection in which he spontaneously recites his verses.
5. The Last Seljuk Hero
An action-filled historical feature film with epic battle scenes, a fearsome enemy and a strong emotional undercurrent, The Last Seljuk Hero vividly portrays the fall of the Seljuk Empire to the Mongols and the resistance of Emir Karatay and the residents of Konya to their rule.
The Last Seljuk Hero focuses around a historical Sufi guild in Konya, called the Ahi, and their resistance to the forces of the Mongols. They would later become the Ahi Beylik, which unlike other Beyliks of the time was not ruled by a dynasty, but was instead a religious and commercial fraternity. At the beginning of The Last Seljuk Hero a disciple is initiated into the brotherhood by Ahi Evran, the Sufi saint, poet and leader of the Ahi brotherhood.
“From now on you are a member of the Ahi brotherhood. You will show respect and compassion to every living being… every animal, flower, bug or tree. You’ll not depart from the principles of our founder Ahmet Yesevi.” Interestingly both Rumi and Yunus Emre make brief appearances in the film and would have been in Konya at around the same time as the events depicted, providing some dramatic historical background to their lives.
The Last Seljuk Hero is a heady mix of warriors, scholars and dervishes, with fictionalised elements in the film adding human interest to dates and facts available about the historical period. The personal dilemmas in the film introduce heart-wrenching drama to the portrayal of the characters, bringing their stories to life. With revenge, a long lost son, tragic love, betrayal and personal sacrifices, there is plenty to stir up the emotions.
You may also enjoy Dervish – A Spiritual Sojourn about Sufism in India, Al-Ghazali – The Alchemist of Happiness, and Blessed are the Strangers.
Sufism has inspired spiritual devotional songs and music around the Muslim world from the Gnawa to Qawwali, Ottoman spiritual hymns and the sacred music of Syria. For a documentary about Ottoman sacred music set in Istanbul watch Breath of the Beloved. To find out about the tradition of sacred music in Syria watch Wajd, and read about more spiritual music from the Muslim world in A Global Tour of Muslim Music.