A scholar of Rumi once told me that if Rumi had never met Shams he would have never found the pearl of deep spiritual insight. The function of Shams was that he possessed a certain knowledge, but Shams lacked the means to retrieve this knowledge and bring it up from the deep to allow it to alter the world. This view is supported by the aphorism that Rumi was a diver in the ocean searching for a pearl, while Shams was a merchant or guide that knew the location of the pearl but could not himself dive to receive it. When the two men met they turned away all their followers and for one year they lived in a house together in relative isolation. Thus, if Rumi had not met Shams, he would have been just another mystic, just another teacher, but not the Mawlana.
The Netflix series Messiah presents a similar structure. In the series *spoilers* the Al-Masih character is presented from the first episode as a Messianic figure who appears in Syria to defeat ISIS by bringing on a sandstorm. This act gains him a following of local villagers and he leads them to the border of Israel where he is arrested and the followers are then left to starve in the desert. The abandonment of the followers leads to an interminable desperation and a faction ends up committing a terrorist act out of sheer desperation and hopelessness. The portrayal of the suicide bomber is thus an Islamophobic cliche but the motivations of the act are driven by Palestinian suffering, not necessarily by Islamic scripture etc.
Al-Masih ends up escaping the Israeli prison to perform a miracle in front of the Al-Aqsa mosque. He then appears in a small Texas town where he saves a church from destruction by a tornado. Al-Masih then adopts the Preacher’s family of that church and they then become the agents of his movement and he gains a following and leads a caravan to Washington, DC where he walks on water on the reflecting pool.
Throughout all of this an aspirational CIA agent Eva Geller concocts a theory that Al-Masih can be discredited because intel shows that he is in fact a trickster magician from Iran whose real name is Payam Golshiri. Most damning in her theory is that Golshiri is acting as an agent of a radical “anti-capitalist” professor named Oscar Wallace. Golshiri attended Wallace’s small college and ended up befriending Wallace and we are left to imagine that the two are like a contemporary Rumi and Shams.
The radical professor (the Shams to the Messiah) apparently has a history of terroristic violence and preaches an obscure social disruption praxis. Wallace is questioned by Geller and he admits being friends with Golshiri but claims unequivocally that Al-Masih is acting on his own agency. Golshiri similarly confesses to Geller that Wallace is an intellectual inspiration to him, but unlike Wallace, he does not say that Wallace’s ideas are not the driving force of his own actions in bringing about the messianic events he is at the helm of bringing about.
Geller’s conspiracy theory is adopted by opportunistic members of the US President’s administration and they leak this information to the press and Al-Masih is discredited by the public. Simultaneously, the Israeli’s kidnap Golshiri and fly him back to Israel. The US shoots down the Israeli plane and Golshiri brings everyone on board that died back to life. The series ends on this note leaving wide open a second season.
What I like about the staging of this conspiracy fantasy of the CIA agent is that the Shams figure to the Messiah is an “anti-capitalist” professor. Anti-capitalism is the possible master signifier for the agency of Al-Masih’s message and movement to become realized. The other possible master signifier is God as such. But there is a parallax between the two master signifiers, a transcendent-immanent split. The conspiracy is thus formed around the traumatic possibility that the spiritual authenticity of Al-Masih is a total fake and his plans are truly secularized, i.e. inspired by anti-capitalism and thus inauthentic or not mediated by God.
The point this opens up is a materialist theory of terrorism because the true terrorism is not the spiritually insane figure acting as an agent of God’s will. The true terrorist is the secular revolutionary acting on behalf of anti-capitalism. So despite the Islamophobic tropes the series works in there are deeper, and more penetrating insights into the discourse on terrorism in the series.