Of the Mahdi and the Matrix

[ by Charles Cameron ]


There’s a book by Douglas Harding that I very much doubt Samir Khan has read, which may still be relevant to the ad in Inspire #4 that Jarret Brachman pointed to in this piece on Cronus Global — in which he notes the parallel between Inspire‘s ad featuring the choice between paradise and hell, and the choice featured in The Matrix between the blue and red pills…


That image, with its headless figure, put me in mind of another image that greatly interests me — a portrayal of the Imam Mahdi by Mahmud Farshchian — so I rescued it from my files to see if it was a good enough match with the ad for me to suggest a possible second graphic influence to Jarret:


Not surprisingly perhaps — considering that Samir Khan’s work is, putting it crudely, an advertising graphic, whereas Farshchian’s is a work of devotional art, and that furthermore Inspire is a Salafi-jihadist journal while Farshchian is a pious Shi’ite — the match isn’t close enough for me to argue influence…

But it did set me thinking.


The title of the Harding book to which I referred above is On Having no Head, and although it now carries the subtitle Zen and the Rediscovery of the Obvious it actually draws on Islamic traditions quite a bit, quoting Rumi:

Behead yourself! … Dissolve your whole body into Vision: become seeing, seeing, seeing!

and Attar:

Cover your breast with nothingness, and draw over your head the robe of non-existence.

and proposing — I’m putting this into my own words, now — the notion that the physical form of a human face is in some sense no more than a mask, veil or hijab over that light “which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (John 1.9) — a light too profound for the conventional gaze.

And it is this profundity, attributed in Islam to the prophets in general and superlatively to Muhammad, which makes their literal portrayal a matter of some controversy…


Farshchian’s Imam Mahdi, like Khan’s Islamist Morpheus, is headless, I’m suggesting, because, to speak figuratively, radiance has taken the place of the face.

Which is also why, in this image of what must be for Muslims one of the holiest nights in the history of the world, the Night of the Mi’raj, the Prophet is portrayed without a face — or veiled — in this Persian miniature:


and transfigured by his own fiery “halo” of illumination in this one:

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