Esoteric chemistry

Imposters, authenticity and transmutation. Zaheer Kazmi on an alchemical approach to our understanding of Islam

Tankaut 15_46_cropLeft, Alchemy: The Telenomic Process of the Universe, Paul Laffoley (1973). Subject: The Alchemical Process. Symbol Evocation: Traditional Western Magic. Right, The Parturient Blessed Morality Of Physiological Dimensionality: Aleph-Null Number, Paul Laffoley (2004-06) Subject: The Connection between Human. Physiology and Dimensionality. Symbol Evocation: The Mystery of Light as Consciousness without the Brilliance.

The anonymously published early Enlightenment polemic, The Treatise of the Three Impostors (1719), describes revealed religion as a hoax manufactured by Moses, Jesus and Mohammad – the “impostors” of its title. The book claimed they had deliberately misrepresented the reality of their own experiences: in a divine trompe l’œil, the Prophets had tricked people into believing a fictive unreality contrived to enchant and control the masses. Its title was lifted later by Arthur Machen, the decadent spiritualist and progenitor of weird fiction, for his novel The Three Impostors (1895). Machen’s wider preoccupations with Christian mysticism and the occult turned the aggressively secular message of the 18th-century Treatise on its head. Subverting its central theme of imposture standing in for reality, Machen’s own conception of reality was not to reason or scientifically observe but an alchemical creation, forever transmuting, experienced in the arms of mystical union with the One.

The curious saga of the Imposters and its afterlives suggests that a hyper-rational search for authenticity in the face of spiritual ineffability can itself bewilder truth – and that the propagation of those truths only heightens this circular process of mystification. It is as if the rational world appears more magically real the more it tries to discipline religion out of its occult imaginings. This rational enchantment of reality is nowhere more apparent today than in the search for an authentic Islam in the face of the contending authenticity of the jihadi militancy of ISIS and al-Qaeda. While, in the West, returning to a more authentic “reality” has come to signal a way to depart from artifice, mediation and the alienating technologies of modernity, attempts to recover a sense of the real have given rise to precisely the opposite tendency in parts of the Muslim world – an almost entirely manufactured, controlled and disciplined global aesthetic, both liberal and militant in content. But this current search for a more “real” or representatively “true” Islam – consciously positioned in opposition to the spiritually vacant, materialist “spectacle” of the late-modern Western capitalist world – seems destined only to mirror or replicate that very world from which it seeks escape.

The media and new forms of technology play their part in accelerating this paradoxical process. The more Muslim liberals and militants strive to delineate their versions of an “authentic” Islam from the West’s capitalist modernity, the more their efforts reflect its modalities – be it in aesthetic ways (through dress, music and language channelled through a Western gaze, as in the case of Muslim liberals and their “lifestyle” choices) or political ones (assimilating to states, markets and their rationalistic bureaucratic machineries, as ISIS’s practices exemplify). In effect, both are paring down and commodifying the aesthetic choices open to Muslims in the name of a return to a more “real” Islam – be it grounded in a lost Golden Age of Islamic civilisation or a puritanical Salafi past. Preoccupied with constructing a spectacle or veneer of authenticity as an ideological tool via the global media, the return to “authentic Islam” comes to function more like a business model than a spiritual enterprise.

The London-based global media company Alchemiya launched earlier this year, describing itself as the Muslim Netflix. Crowdfunded and harnessing the latest technology, its video-on-demand platform provides positive content about Muslim culture to what it calls the “Global Urban Muslim”. As a consumer strategy, this rather vapid term has been coined to promote an ideal of young, slick, well-heeled professional Muslims whose aspirations, ironically, mirror the conspicuous consumption of their secular counterparts. In this respect, Alchemiya functions much like Ogilvy Noor – “the world’s first bespoke Islamic branding practice” for the “halal consumer”, which was founded by one of the world’s largest marketing and communications companies, Ogilvy & Mather. Perhaps it is not entirely coincidental in light of their neoliberal tendencies that such media platforms can also harbour laissez-faire attitudes towards intolerance: for example, despite its growing conservatism and increasing persecution of religious minorities, some of which has now been institutionalised in law, Malaysia often looms large in these projections of progressive Muslim empowerment, largely, of course, as it is a hub of global capital and Islamic banking and finance. For all their talk of flexibility, cultured sophistication and feeling at ease in the modern world, these platforms remain remarkably reactionary in outlook while peddling the classical liberal fallacy that free markets are shorthand for civilisation.

It is in the political economy of the Global Urban Muslim as a lifestyle brand where its unreality becomes most apparent. It is odd that in these times of austerity – in which young Muslims often form part of a wider marginalised global socio-economic underclass – the Global Urban Muslim is identified with the bourgeois practices of a moneyed Muslim elite. (Or perhaps Alchemiya has simply confused the word urban with urbane?) In this sense, its semiotic meaning functions more as fantasy or parody than a reality. It hardly speaks to the everyday lives of the city-dwelling Muslims, from Bradford to Cairo, who are more often the victims rather than beneficiaries of globalisation, but surely also “global urban Muslims”. But for the Global Urban Muslim to mean anything more than a stylised vision of profitable religion would, of course, be commercial suicide. In this sense, the term is a reflection also of its political times. Even the language associated with the theologies it aligns itself with has a post-ideological ring, with their belaboured emphasis on a moderate but radical “middle path” sounding much like vacuous Third Way attempts at fashioning a radical centre in European left politics which have, of course, often proved to be little more than ever-closer approximations of unabashed capitalism. Europe is only now picking up the pieces, while further afield, not least in the Muslim world, revolutionary upheavals are being contained. Everywhere, it seems, the anarchy of social protest is managed while the anarchy of the market reigns.

It is in the ways that market practices have been embraced so readily by sections of the global Muslim media, both militant and liberal, that ISIS’s theatrical videos – like Alchemiya’s studied bourgeois aesthetic but targeted at the more numerous, disaffected urban Muslim underclass it seems uninterested in – are emptied of spiritual content and function more as artistic conceits or postmodern pastiches of Islamic tradition. For all its supposedly primeval barbarity and the shamanistic vitality this implies, ISIS’s brutal, but carefully staged, snuff films ultimately struggle to punch through the confected reality of what is essentially a ruthlessly managed business enterprise. While they may seem like dystopian versions of reality TV, in their cinematic language they are more akin to production-line pornography than Dogme 95. Like Alchemiya’s careful projections of a sanitised version of Islamic authenticity parading as radical chic (wheeling out hackneyed references to the “revolutionary” politics of the orthodox Malcolm X, the “Sufi spirit” of commercial world-music staple Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the “street cool” of Islamic hip-hop), ISIS videos are, in a theological respect, also strangely self-defeating. For if their aim is to awaken, in a Koranic sense, the discovery of God engraved on a believer’s heart – opening up a transcendent perception of reality beyond the cynicism and bigotry of the Godless post-industrial world – such strategies seem curiously misplaced.

The recruitment of young jihadis as if on some heroic adventure, preening in their religio-punk attire (with more than a casual nod to hipsterism), virginal brides and slaves awaiting them on arrival, keeps these self-proclaimed heroes doped with “religion, sex and TV” rather than awakening them from their materialist stupor. Perhaps this is also why jihadi “foot soldiers” so often appear as automatons, reeling out similarly pre-prepared sophistic homilies and primed, at any moment, to do their leaders’ brutal bidding that so often climaxes in the automatic annihilation and sacrifice of their corporeal selves (rather than of the inner self which the Sufis call fana’). Such suicidal actions are surely not stimulated by the rhythmic and spiritually liberating sonic beauty of Koranic verse but rather guided by the pulsing psychoacoustics of militant preachers’ voices, distilled into a kind of infectious pop for young minds to digitally consume as they go off to start new lives with their valuable hunting knives. But while this docility may fail to invoke any meaningful transcendent moment, the heady auto-erotic mix of sex, technology and violence manifest in the everyday lives of young jihadis opens windows onto an emotionally warped interior landscape – a Ballardian world of extreme psychological distortion induced by the madness of modernity and a mental deterioration that the author himself traced to the very Western urban and suburban centres to which many of these young jihadi tourists originally belonged.

Though they clearly have very different ends in their divergent reproductions of Islamic authenticity, the shared challenge for both Alchemiya and ISIS is their need to reproduce the speed, eclecticism and ephemeral nature of today’s Muslim media production and consumption. This has created an atomised religious reality, a global media landscape in which an assortment of Muslim “representatives” fire off divergent narratives for the instruction of the masses far more randomly than can ever now be controlled – from online jihadi fatwas urging kids in their bedrooms to go out and murder, to the inane inspirational quotes, now so common on social media, which Alchemiya issues for the Global Urban Muslim to ponder (“Don’t let small minds persuade you that your dreams are too big”, or “Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear”). The latter are pitched as timeless words of spiritual wisdom, but appear more like tranquilising sentiments, somewhere between a New Age self-help manual and Napoleon’s commandments in Animal Farm. But these intimacies between the technological propaganda of liberal and militant Islam may also reflect the phantom nature of current ideological conflicts that the global media and political elite have framed as being central. The conflict between Muslim militants and liberals, into which Western governments have ploughed unending amounts of money, can be seen, from this perspective at least, as an illusion, indeed a kind of alchemy – for framing this battle as a contest between projects for a fake Islam, on the one hand, and a genuine one, on the other, masks the ever deeper convergence between them as they accelerate into the mirror of modernity, leaving in their wake the shards of its fragmented legacy, violent and totalitarian, pacific and commercial.

Alchemy, in etymology as well as meaning, is defined by its transmutative quality. Brought down to the West by Muslim civilisation which, in turn, originally adapted the term from ancient Greek, it has always had a dual implication for perceiving the nature of reality: connoting either illusory magic or the beginnings of modern science. The latter was the purpose of the “Islamic Sciences” in Islam’s so-called Golden Age, which were charged with constructing religious orthodoxy and a rigid separation between authentic Islam and the false paths of both excessive mysticism and rationalism. It is no surprise that the mixed legacy of Al-Ghazali – the towering mediaeval Sufi scholar of the Seljuk Empire whose job at one time was to propagate such orthodoxy on the Sultan’s behalf by disarming the individual mystic impulse in the name of impersonal law or shari’a– looms so large in liberal projections of Islam today. (Alchemiya aired a hagiographic film about him named after his work, The Alchemy of Happiness.) In these ways, mysticism is rationalised and disciplined, making it a controllable asset, lending it a bourgeois respectability and divorcing it from any wayward associations with pagan “magick”.

In a passage in Machen’s The Secret Glory, the fabulously rich and powerful Caliph Harun Al Rashid, after whom the building said to house Ghazali’s mausoleum is also named, encounters a beggar with mysterious powers, an “Arab Alchemist” who claims he can squeeze the Caliph’s whole worldly universe into a ball – into “one drop no larger than a pearl” with which the famed leader could miraculously “heal all the sorrows of the universe”. In light of its own worldly obsessions with the affluence of its target audience, it is ironic that the promotional video for Alchemiya too begins with its co-founder, Ajmal Masroor – an imam, broadcaster and aspiring politician – similarly suggesting, “If the core of our being changes, the world would change… this is what we mean by Alchemiya.” But if the outward appearance of the world is no longer a viable site for projecting Islamic spirituality, if ever it was, perhaps it lies in something like the enigma of the quantum world which the beggar intimates and which not even science can yet fully explain. In this subterranean underground unruly dissent might still thrive.

For dissenters outside the highly controlled liberal and militant narratives of Islamic salvation today, these returns to “authentic” roots appear as a succession of media “spectacles” vying with each other in a spectral power play. As we turn our gaze instead to alternative, as yet uncolonised spaces to build reality – of the inchoate kind apparent during some of the Arab Spring, Gezi Park and Green Movement protests – might freer and more romantic worlds be created? There are emergent signs perhaps in these decentralised, loosely anarchistic social movements disillusioned with both party and state, religious and secular. Or perhaps endless similitude is the point after all. That Islam and the West are mutually constituted realities bonded in a chemical reaction like atoms that can never be pristinely extracted from one another in any authentic sense – while we all stand together, each of us projecting our own reality onto this no man’s land where everyone and no one is an impostor. §

Paul Laffolley: The Thought Structure of the Mystical Experience is at Kent Fine Art, New York, until 7th November 2015


  • Zaheer Kazmi