Remona Aly
Sunday 01 April 2007 emel

BBC’s The Retreat

A wise man once said, “The longest journey is the journey inwards”.

The most profound and the most difficult of journeys are always those concerned with the self, as Prophet Muhammad said, purifying your inner core is “the greater jihad”. Along the way, it is warned though, you may encounter some darker truths.

In an age where spirituality is seemingly at odds with modern society, the BBC sought to marry the two through a reality TV show with a difference. Following on from the success of The Convent and The Monastery, The Retreat is the third offering of its kind, where volunteers are invited to undergo a deeply spiritual and intensely personal journey.

While creating what is, in effect, a reality TV show themed around God, the BBC approached Muslim documentary maker, Navid Akhtar, to undertake the challenge with The Retreat. After being in the production business for almost 12 years, Navid is no stranger to ‘spiritual reality TV’, having produced, among others, a documentary about Hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage. Yet, The Retreat threw open more complicated considerations. While its predecessors featured monastic traditions in Christianity, and kept to gender-specific volunteers, The Retreat broke new ground.

For Navid, this was not a venture to be taken lightly. My suggestion that some might view such a programme as nothing more than meddling in people’s spiritual lives is quickly met with disagreement. “We spent seven months solidly researching this before filming. Everything was taken into account: the aim and theme for the programme, the reasons for which people would undergo the experience.”

Yet, is it not a dangerous path to tread by broadcasting a deeply personal relationship on a television programme open for all to judge? “It was never our intention to ‘meddle’ in these people’s lives,” asserts Navid. “They were made fully aware that this would be seen by the nation. An intelligent person watching it will weigh up what they see. A spiritual person judges no one; that right only belongs to God.”

Navid admits he had certain characters in his head who he thought would be right for The Retreat, to reflect a variety of personalities. With a ‘cast’ in place, how does he react to criticisms of the potential to ‘sensationalise spirituality’? “We were never looking for sensationalism,” he insists, “It was essential that the people we chose for the programme were sincere. We didn’t want to go down the road of ‘Big Brother does spiritual’. If I wanted it to be sensational I would have included someone who was a hardcore strict Muslim. I would have taken someone who was a drug-addict. But we took people who were truly searching for the truth.” He adds, “The purpose was not to gain greater Islamic knowledge, the purpose was to use Islam and its teachings to understand yourself.”

Reactions to The Retreat have been varied, but what comes up more often than not is the discomfort with what, to many critics, seem religious innovation. Abdullah Trevathan, who has been involved with the retreat location in Rosales, Spain for 25 years and was The Retreat mentor, is keen to clarify, “We are not advocating the qasidahs [Arabic oral poems] and the communal dhikr [remembrance] sessions. We’re not saying you have to do that to be a Muslim. The things we did were supplementary acts that we do voluntarily of our own free will. It is not incumbent; it is just for those who want a little more. We feel it imbues the five pillars with meaning.”

“We were hesitant to use the word ‘Sufi’,” Abdullah continues, “not because we are ashamed of it, but because it is a word that is often misunderstood.” Abdullah speaks of tasawwaf, the word from which Sufi is derived and which literally means, ‘one who adopts wool’. During the 8th century, in response to a laxity of faith displayed around them, some Muslims adopted a more ascetic approach to their faith. There were renowned for wearing simple woollen garments, being extremely humble, and spending long hours engaging in dhikr. Tasawwuf, Abdullah asserts, is “central to the orthodoxy of Islam”.

When I refer to Abdullah as the spiritual guide, he is quick to denounce the title, “I don’t claim that at all,” he stresses; yet for 24 year old Muddassar, Abdullah’s support and insight were important ingredients for his own spiritual change. “Abdullah is a great inspiration, he is phenomenal,” Muddassar tells me as he cancels a call on his mobile. “At first, I really was a fish out of water, but some wonderfully strange things happened to me out there. We were all given Moroccan cloaks, and I walked around in mine for ten days. There was something about that cloak that made me feel more present, more aware of my existence. I can’t explain it. One great thing I learned from Abdullah is that you can’t rationalise God.”

Whilst Simon, scuba diving instructor and self-described “questioning agnostic”, is remembered for his continual probing of faith, he entered the journey with an open mind. “I am totally open, which is sometimes very difficult for people to understand. I despise materialism and the warped culture we live in that dictates money is the most important thing. To get away to Rosales to talk about spirituality, philosophy and knowledge was an opportunity I was eager to take.”

As a person sincerely searching for the truth, being ‘filmed’ 24/7 proved to have its challenges. “I definitely thought first about what I would say,” Simon confesses, “The cameras definitely changed the dynamics. I believe they contributed to the head-butting between Abdullah and Aisha. In a different climate I think they would have got on better. However, I do believe the programme reflected us all very well and I didn’t feel it was set up in the slightest.”

For Aisha, however, sentiments are different. “I didn’t feel the programme reflected me fairly. I have been portrayed as someone obsessed with rules and regulations, but sincerity, spirituality and reflecting on God are part and parcel of my everyday life. I don’t need to sit in a room and chant for an hour to reach taqwa [God-consciousness]. How can they claim to have insight into my spirituality?”

Though unknown to the rest of the volunteers, Aisha admits she was the only one who knew it would be a ‘Sufi’ retreat. She went willingly, but only as long as she was not forced to do what she was not comfortable with. Aisha feels it an unfair comment that the Islam she prescribes to was accused of being ‘dry’ and ‘formulaic’. “There was subtle finger-pointing saying ‘Aisha’s kind of Muslim’,” she bemoans. “When I was asking questions, I was seen as being a threat. The irony is that while I was accused of intolerance, it is exactly what was displayed to me.”

Through the volunteers, The Retreat has certainly thrown open a few windows looking into the Muslim situation at present, as if the programme is a microcosm of what is happening in the wider community. With terms like ‘Sufi’ and ‘Wahhabi’ cropping up, it has opened up a debate, some parts of which seem to further propel the discussion towards polarised gradients of black and white. However, the larger debate at hand reflects shades of a nuanced Islam. “It has caused a debate, which is a good thing,” stresses Navid. “It is reflective of what is happening now. Debate is healthy when it is intelligent and you accept differences, but obstinate arguing is a pointless exercise when you reduce it to ‘I am right and you are wrong’. We need to spend less time worrying about other people’s practices and more time concentrating on ourselves.”

For Abdullah, focusing on oneself allows for a clear process to be followed through. “First there is process of stripping away until we find what I call the pure essential self: free of all the baggage, and negativity. As the hadith says, ‘He who knows himself knows his Lord’. Only then can you move on to the embellishment of character. What you saw on the screen was a result of the constant, relentless dhikr that was going on day in day out. It is a form of purification, and has a power that is misunderstood.” This purification process has been likened to the analogy of purifying gold: in order to get to the inner glistening core, impurities need to be identified and purged. “Unless we return to that spiritual basis, I feel there is no blessing,” Abdullah warns. “We are not using this wonderful vehicle that will bring us closer to God. Everyone needs their individuality, but there also needs to be a core which is united. As the Qur’an says, we are created from one soul.”

Each individual was clearly unique and the group dynamics was certainly interesting to observe. When asked if the group was affected by any one person, Muddassar is convinced this was the case. “If one person is not open, of course it affects the spirituality of the group. What right does anyone have to undermine another’s spirituality?” However, he resigns his frustration to the fact it adversely caused him to go deeper into his spiritual journey. “Though I was increasingly irritated by some of the intolerance displayed around me, it did propel me to look into what was happening even more.”

Though Aisha was subjected to what she describes as “a very trying time”, she points out that for her, the group dynamics rendered positive support. “The group worked well together as a team. Azim was a great support for me when Abdullah and the cameras were ambushing me. At one point he said, ‘She walks, I walk’. He did become a confidante in what was a very trying time for me.” In reaction to accusations that she was not “open” to engaging in the programme’s dhikr sessions, Aisha tells me, “There is all this talk of being open in Islam. Open to what?  If tomorrow a group of people link hands, dance around a fire and chant Allah-hu, should I be open? How can I be open to something that felt like a ‘cult’ with the word Islam thrown in?”

Though 31 year old Khadijah was not comfortable with the practices, she admits it undoubtedly calmed troubled waters at a personal level. “Before I went, I felt unworthy of being a Muslim. I felt as if I was letting my religion down. What was essential for me is that I learned about myself; now I am more at peace. Though I may not have agreed with certain practices on The Retreat, the overall experience has definitely turned my life on its head.”

For Pom, a 28 year old psychotherapist from London, the retreat provided a culmination of a journey she had already embarked upon and she savoured the opportunity to have certainty of direction. “The location was breathtakingly beautiful, the atmosphere at times sacred and profound. Having come straight from London, I felt there was space for my spirit to expand.”

Pom voices concerns of her conversion to Islam coming across as “rather whimsical and flippant”. She goes on, “Because of the nature of the storyline, any analytical discussion was generally coming from Aisha, which meant that there was very little time to document my articulation and explanation of conversion. It was as if I hadn’t grasped the fundamental basics of the faith. Only when I had firmly grasped Islam intellectually, did the understanding transcend into my heart and the spiritual floodgates open. I had the dream about the sheep after I had decided to take the Shahada, whereas in the programme it seems as if that dream was the deciding factor.”

Ultimately Pom is grateful for taking part in the retreat. “I simply feel full of gratitude for the experience. It has not changed my fundamental beliefs, because they were already in line with Islam. The experience has profoundly enriched my life. I feel reborn.”

Aisha’s steadfastness has earned positive feedback from people who congratulate her for “enduring the whole four weeks”. After facing challenges on The Retreat, Aisha keenly affirms she was glad of her decision to go on it. “I don’t regret going and I have learnt a lot. The place is amazing and I would like to go back, though I wouldn’t do that particular retreat programme.” For Aisha, at least, it has reaffirmed her conviction. “Faith is the cornerstone of my life,” she declares, “I am happy with who I am.”

While we witness each individual’s hopes, struggles or fears surfacing on the screen, it is also about self-revelation, as Navid reiterates, “When we are watching them, it is about us too.” There are those of us watching who will relate to any or all of them, whether we agree with them or not. Some of us will relate to Simon’s doubts, which however do not hold him back from searching for answers; there are those of us who will empathise with Khadijah’s vulnerability and her genuine desire to get closer to God; with Muddassar, we might share the same feeling of being overburdened with our lives while striving to uphold spirituality; with Aisha we recognise her strong conviction; through Azim, we may comprehend the return to faith; and with Pom, we will see the beauty of finding the Truth.

A wish to continue on the retreat for a further two weeks was one held amongst all the volunteers. Simon tells me he held hopes that some good would come out of the programme; that it would “provide a healing across society”. Though the final episode of The Retreat seemed to reconcile some of the differences, in the macrocosm of the wider world, there is still a long way to go.

The journey begins here.

This article originally appeared in emel magazine in April 2007, Issue 31.