By Adnan Mahmud
From 1850 onwards, the dawn of modernity cast many Muslims in non-European regions into an existential quandary. This historical phase ushered in rapid technological, economic, and social transformations worldwide. For many Muslims, modernity became synonymous with Westernization, a shift towards Western cultural values and lifestyles. This evoked mixed reactions: while some retreated into nostalgic visions of a supposed bygone era to escape the surging tides of change, others eagerly adopted Western paradigms of individualism, consumerism, and cultural norms, occasionally at the expense of their indigenous cultural identities. This upheaval was particularly palpable in traditional Muslim societies that had, for centuries, been anchored in Islamic law and Islamicate traditions. The 19th century intensified this challenge as Western military and political ascendancy introduced Muslims to novel, secularized systems of governance, education, and societal organization. This restructuring valued technical rationality, often side lining some of the essence and authority of Islamic religious scholarship.
Renowned for his work, “Restating Orientalism,” Hallaq highlights how the emergent nation-state paradigm marginalized the once-pervasive sharia law that governed both public and private aspects of Muslim life. The conventional madrasa education, which produced jurists well-versed in Fiqh, Quranic exegesis, and hadith, saw its prominence wane, replaced by secular academia. Such shifts, as Hallaq emphasizes, led to a profound epistemic rupture. The communal spirit, ethics, and daily routines that once revolved around mosques and sharia courts began to erode, giving way to the centralized state and modern bureaucracies. Even as modern technologies found acceptance, the deeper ethos of modernity remained somewhat alien.
Enter Abbas Kiarostami. An often-overlooked Islamicate figure, his cinematic creations from twentieth-century Iran promise to shed light on lesser-trodden paths. In the heart of Kiarostami’s cinematic creations lies a poetic perspective that invites Muslims to not only comprehend but also navigate the intricate landscape of modernity — a landscape marked by challenges, ambiguities, and potential reconciliations between past and present.
Born in 1940 in Tehran, Abbas Kiarostami emerged during a transformative period in Iran’s history, witnessing a series of sociopolitical upheavals, from the last years of the Pahlavi dynasty to the 1979 Islamic Revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq War. This tumultuous backdrop deeply influenced Iranian art and cinema. Kiarostami, as a seminal figure in the Iranian New Wave movement, was no exception. His avant-garde approach to filmmaking, characterized by a profound blend of fiction and non-fiction, minimalist narratives, use of non-professional actors, and intricate long takes, marked a distinct departure from conventional storytelling. Amidst a nation grappling with identity, tradition, and modernity, Kiarostami’s films became introspective reflections on these very challenges. Over his prolific career, he cultivated a style that was both introspective and observational, often blurring the lines between reality and cinematic construct.
In Taste Of Cherry, the protagonist, Mr. Badii, traverses the undulating outskirts of Tehran. Throughout this journey, Badii’s car metamorphoses into a space of intimate revelations as he converses sequentially with three diverse individuals: a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminarian, and an Azerbaijani taxidermist. Each of these encounters provides a layered contemplation on life, death, and the profound complexities of the human condition.
Firstly, Badii’s interaction with the young Kurdish soldier offers a pragmatic and relatively detached viewpoint. Uncomfortable with Badii’s intentions and unfamiliar with the gravity of such matters, the soldier’s perspective acts as an initial, somewhat naïve exploration of the film’s central themes. This is followed by Badii’s conversation with the Afghan seminarian, who reacts with alarm and distress upon understanding Badii’s plans. Steeped in his Islamic beliefs, the seminarian tries fervently to guide Badii away from his path, drawing from the religious and moral tenets of Islam, emphasizing the value of life and the sinfulness of suicide. Lastly, Badii’s engagement with the Azerbaijani taxidermist introduces an intimate, life-affirming perspective. Having once grappled with the spectre of suicide himself, the taxidermist recounts personal anecdotes of rediscovering joy, particularly highlighting the beauty of simple experiences like tasting wild cherries.
Abbas Kiarostami beautifully orchestrates these series of conversations, reflecting a myriad of beliefs, values, and emotional states. As the film unfolds, it becomes evident that the true catalyst for change often isn’t just miraculous signs, but the profound touch of human compassion. While the young seminarian adheres to strict, literal interpretations of Islamic tenets, arguing against despair and suicide, it’s the taxidermist’s compassionate, personal approach that leaves the most lasting impact on Badii. The seminarian’s literal approach, though grounded in scripture, does not resonate as deeply as the genuine empathy of the taxidermist. Through his shared experiences and sincere compassion, the taxidermist reaches into Badii’s soul. This juxtaposition between literalism and compassion speaks to the challenges many Muslims face in navigating the complexities of modernity. As societies evolve and adapt, interpretations of faith must also be re-examined and contextualized. The movie suggests that while tradition provides guiding principles, it’s the ability to connect on a human level that offers a bridge to understanding in contemporary settings.
Moreover, the backdrop against which these profound dialogues unravel is itself a character in the narrative. The terrains surrounding Tehran are vast and arid, with rolling hills extending into the horizon, embodying Badii’s internal void. The serpentine roads, weaving their way amidst these hills, reflect Badii’s tumultuous internal journey. This sprawling isolation, juxtaposed with the bustling urbanity of Tehran, provides commentary on the solitude one might feel amidst rapid modernization. These seemingly barren landscapes, bathed in the melancholic glow of twilight, offer silent observations on the evolving tides of time, underscoring the tension between a disappearing past and an encroaching future dictated by relentless modernity. By placing Badii’s introspective journey against this striking backdrop, Kiarostami poignantly delves into the multifaceted nuances of human existence within the modern world, especially resonating with the profound existential search that many, particularly Muslims, undergo in reconciling with the changing tides of modernity.
Continuing this introspective trend, Kiarostami’s films frequently unearth beauty in everyday mundane moments. In Where Is The Friend’s House?, he celebrates the world as seen through a child’s eyes. The film follows a boy searching for his friend’s home to return a notebook, capturing the nuances of daily life in an Iranian village, like the simple act of a man picking mulberries. Kiarostami’s use of prolonged shots of rural landscapes in his films serves a deeper purpose beyond aesthetics. These lingering shots are deliberate directorial decisions intended to immerse the viewer completely in the environment.
By extending these scenes, Kiarostami compels the audience to observe, reflect, and engage with the intricate details of the landscape — the subtle interplay of nature’s sounds, the gentle movements of flora, and the changing hues of the sky. This approach contrasts starkly with the rapid-paced stimuli of modern cinema and, by extension, modern life. In a world where modernity often feels overwhelming, fractured, and accelerated, Kiarostami’s decision to slow down, to focus, becomes a poignant reminder of the need for mindfulness and presence. For many Muslims grappling with the contradictions of modernity — the tension between tradition and the encroachments of a rapidly changing world — Kiarostami’s meditative style offers a means of grounding. It suggests a way to find balance, to anchor oneself in the timeless and universal, even amidst the relentless flux of contemporary life.
Yet, Kiarostami doesn’t shy away from deconstructing cinematic reality; in fact, he challenges our perceptions of cinematic reality, blending documentary and fiction rather than simply romanticizing rural life. This mastery is most evident in Close-Up, where the tale of Hossain Sabzian unfolds. An unemployed film aficionado, Sabzian impersonates the famed filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf to earn the trust of Tehran’s Ahankhah family, driven by a deep-seated admiration for cinema and a yearning for societal validation. As his deception unravels, Kiarostami brilliantly blurs conventional storytelling, interweaving Sabzian’s real trial footage with reenactments. This metatextual narrative embodies the concept of Caméra-Stylo—coined by French film theorist Alexandre Astruc—which postulates cinema’s potential for introspection and personal expression, akin to literature. Through Close-Up, Kiarostami critiques not just the authenticity of cinema but also ponders over its fabricated realities and their influence on our convictions.
Moreover, this film can be interpreted as a metaphorical exploration of the challenges Muslims face in a globalized world marked by dominant Western values. Sabzian’s decision to adopt the persona of a celebrated filmmaker reflects the dilemmas some Muslims grapple with—whether to adopt Western norms for societal acceptance. However, Sabzian’s eventual revelation is emblematic of the precarious nature of such identity compromises. The blend of reality and fiction in Kiarostami’s narrative accentuates the tension between genuine selfhood and constructed facades, resonating with the Muslim endeavor to balance age-old traditions with modern influences. Consequently, Close-Up emerges as a profound contemplation for Muslims, emphasizing the significance of genuine self-expression, the perils of yielding to external pressures, and the pivotal need to harmonize intrinsic Islamic values with the encroaching tides of modernity.
His characters seem to wander aimlessly but are actually on existential quests. They are not searching for material goals but rather meaning, connection, and virtue amid isolation and uncertainty. In Taste Of Cherry, the protagonist searches for reasons to embrace life; in Close-Up, for human understanding and validation, while in Where Is The Friend’s House?, for a simple yet profound quest to return a friend’s notebook, illustrating a journey of responsibility and moral duty. But can these filmic journeys provide any real-world lessons for Muslims who may feel overwhelmed by the famous question of modernity? While some Muslims view modernity as an unmitigated threat to their traditional lifeways, Kiarostami responds by energetically accepting modern Iran’s sociocultural contradictions. Kiarostami thus provides a model for engaging with what we may call the “modern Muslim condition.”
When overwhelmed by societies increasingly ruptured from their past traditions, one must choose neither regression to a putatively pristine past nor unreflective assimilation to the imperatives of the present. Instead, like the winding roads in Kiarostami’s films, many Muslims must embark courageously on open-ended journeys, seeking provisional meanings in the here and now, even as they trust in the transcendental unity that underpins the multiplicity of these circuitous meanings. His films suggest that while modernity has indeed disrupted certain traditions, there remain new opportunities for Muslims to find spiritual meaning even in the modest experiences of quotidian settings. However, this path of finding or cultivating virtue within the modern is complex, with no definitive solutions. Kiarostami embraces modern Iran’s ambiguities rather than retreating to an imagined purified past. The unity that the Prophet preached must encompass all human spaces, including those secularised arenas seemingly devoid of the touch of the spiritual.
Kiarostami’s art provides no categorical prescriptions or straightforward templates. Instead, as postulated, his films serve as poetic compasses, guiding Muslims through the intricacies of modern life, reminding them of the potential for reconciliation and rediscovery within the dynamic interplay of tradition and change. His cinematographic aesthetic teaches Muslims to boldly embrace paradox, dialectic, and even brokenness, and find virtue in the modern while remaining rooted in tradition. Only by poetically accepting the very present along with its contradictions can Muslims avoid both regressive nostalgia and rootless assimilation.
Adnan Mahmud read Engineering at the University of Cambridge and has a keen interest in the Indo-Persian-Islamic aesthetic. He deeply admires Hindustani poetry and passionately delves into the works of esteemed poets such as Allama Iqbal, Rabindranath Tagore, and Kazi Nazrul. Moreover, he translates sub-continental languages, primarily Bengali and Urdu, as a dedicated hobbyist. This article is dedicated to my Mother, dearest. May your prayers and sacrifices keep on being the north star of my life.
Edited by Thomas Furse
Featured Image: Roads and Trees by Abbas Kiarostami [WikiArt]