The BBC will be running a 3 part series starting tomorrow Monday called The Retreat, which follows in the footsteps of two previous shows, The Monastery and The Convent. The idea is to take a few people out on a spiritual quest in the context of a Muslim spiritual centre, and see how things unfold. The setting appears to be a most beautiful place in Spain, with glorious light and an authentic back to nature feeling.
I’m curious to see how the programme develops. Our era is one which leaves precious little time or energy for reflection (you’ll have read my posts bemoaning our constant need to be busy, and how we fear quiet and solitude). So all attempts to take people out of their routines and look for that mysterious yet precious quality of spirituality can only be a good thing. And audiences are clearly fascinated by the search for this quality and the very human experiences that lie beneath it, and which are unveiled by the devoted seeker. That is why shows such as The Monastery and The Convent were so popular.
The human experience of reflection, self-discovery and reassessment and change are the elements that will make or break this programme. And the relevance of these is much more significant than the fact that this is an ‘Islamic’ setting. The Muslim characters simply give the words different names, but the fundamental humanity will be the same. In this we will all share.
There are two points about the structure of such a programme however that make me scratch my head. Islam has no equivalent of a monastery or convent. There is no concept of locking yourself away from the world for long periods of time. The search from spirituality can only be through solitude and personal reflection when set in the context of being part of society. For example, fasting and Ramadhan are about re-connecting the self to the Creator, but the whole month is one of communal activity, set in a community atmosphere. The longest that I’ve really heard about as ‘going away from the world’ is something like I’tikaaf, which is usually a period spent residing in the mosque, lasting between one and ten nights. Without a pre-existing community, I don’t know whether this will just be ‘staged’ and if it can have the same impact? On top of this, the participants are a mixture of Muslims and non-Muslims, which is different to the two preceding shows where all the participants hailed from similar doctrines but were not practising Christians.
More curiosity on my part still is whether the producers will play the usual Reality TV tricks and create characters and stories about the participants.
Finally, given the mix of Muslim beliefs and practices that will be seen, I wonder how the Muslim community themselves will react? Will we embrace our multi-flavoured heritage, or will there be criticisms about the ‘wrong’ way of doing things? The Retreat is founded on sufi practices…. will the more orthodox be able to accept some of their practices? Will those of more sufi persuasion be able to accept the more conservative amongst the community? And can spirituality be found hidden in all these different approaches? This is, of course, one of the great debates withing Islam today.
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