Transcendence and TikTok
Published in Renovatio, The Journal of Zaytuna College.
What does it mean to “manifest” something, or for something to “become manifest”? For those familiar with Islamic mystical terminology, the concept of tajallī may come to mind. Often rendered into English as “manifestation,” tajallī denotes the appearance or disclosure of the divine names in physical forms. Similar to the notion of “theophany” in other religious traditions (with the philosopher Henry Corbin taking tajallī to be a synonym of just that),1 it means passively experiencing God “manifesting” Himself in the world. But “manifestation” has come to mean something rather different in the realm of contemporary popular spirituality—especially on its digital interfaces. Most prominently on the social media app TikTok, it refers to a popular trend consisting of supposedly supernatural means of attracting money, good grades, more followers, or even a wholesale “dream life.” A semantic inversion of tajallī, this kind of manifestation is the pursuit of bringing one’s own desires into the world.
With over twelve billion views to date, the hashtag “manifestation” on TikTok offers various methods for turning one’s dreams into reality. These range from simple “visualization” activities to complex rituals such as “scribing” or “scripting” (that is, writing out) a desired outcome on paper, which is later destroyed, sometimes with the aid of symbols or sigils. The practitioners of these manifestation techniques believe that, with the aid of unseen supernatural forces (the nature of which they seldom explicate), what they seek will become “manifested” in their lives. Many claim to have yielded, among other things, large sums of money through such techniques, in turn often attracting hundreds of thousands of followers. In one video, for example, a young serial manifester delineates how to scribe as follows: “[P]lay pretend and write a journal entry from the perspective of you living your dream life… go into this as if you have already created all of what you want to create in your life and how happy and how grateful you are.”
The performance of manifestation rituals on TikTok usually commences with a stated intention. At first glance, this procedure might appear to resemble another concept within Islam—namely, the niyyah, the declaration of one’s intention to worship God before commencing daily prayers or pilgrimage. The nature of this intention contrasts sharply with that of the average TikTok manifester, and the difference between the two is telling; while the niyyah signifies a submission of the self to God and His will, the TikTok manifester’s intention is a commitment to actualizing one’s personal will. The manifester, wishing to be free from the predestined and unpredictable conditions of life, intends to subvert the powers that be, redirecting them toward the end of self-servitude.
This sort of “manifestation” perfectly represents the reign of the nafs: the temperament exhibited by contemporary spirituality whereby attempts to rekindle a sense of transcendence revolve solely around the ego (the nafs in the Islamic tradition). The ideological seeds for this spiritual individualism were sown during the Protestant Reformation and the European Enlightenment, were developed through the psychoanalytic movement, and bore fruit in the more recent New Age movement. This genealogy represents the gradual demise of a shared metaphysical aspiration toward the objective in favor of that which is relative and ultimately subjective; thus, self-manifestation can be thought to mirror the developments of modern and postmodern Western philosophy between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.
These subjective tendencies have been exacerbated by what can be called “digital spirituality,” the latest wave of the New Age that has, thanks to the tidal forces of TikTok algorithms, arrived on the shores of internet subcultures. As the popularity of the “manifestation” hashtag shows, the defining characteristic of such spirituality is that it is driven by servitude to the ego as well as to personal desires for material possessions and popularity. In light of this, we ought to understand why the digital environment in particular appears to be so conducive to these tendencies and how the very wiring of technology enables nafs-oriented spirituality.
At a first glance, social media seems to represent a new phase in the reign of the nafs. After all, the devices hosting it—smartphones—mark the apex of privatized technology, which was itself conceived as a means of liberating the individual from the confines of society (and ultimately reality itself). This technology was, from the very beginning, imbued with quasi-spiritual undertones. The pioneers of cyberculture in the 1980s, such as Timothy Leary and Douglas Rushkoff, embraced the personal computer as a vessel for self-liberation to the point of transcendence. Their project “opened the way for an affinity between high-tech and spiritual empowerment.”2 The early “cyberpunk” culture spawned from their optimism that the PC could facilitate the exploration of boundless new horizons in the virtual realm. As it turned out, the privatization of technology paved the way for something more profane: an intensification of the same individualism that capitalist modernity has always thrived on.3 Moreover, much like psychoanalysis, privatized technology helped reintroduce notions of transcendence within an egocentric framework. It fed the modern appetite for self-gratification rather than the hunger for transcendence. Social science, through quantitative research, has shown how the personal device both creates and consolidates a sense of (worldly) self. For the majority of participants in a 2019 study, researchers found that smartphones serve as “ontological extensions of the self.”4 In providing an accessible archive of our personal photographs, calendar entries, and other memories, smartphones help craft a coherent narrative encapsulating our temporal life and identity. Far from engendering a transcendent version of the self as Leary and the other cyberculture pioneers envisioned, smartphones do little more than affirm the self as it exists “in the world.” Plugging the 2019 study in to the current analysis, it seems that smartphones essentially ontologize the nafs. This is especially so with social media, which both bolsters the ego through the desire to be “liked” and normalizes the submission to the lower self; for example, exposure to advertisements for instant delivery of food and carnal hedonism are commonplace.
By normalizing the precedence of the nafs,smartphones and especially social media are fortifying individualism at both the societal and spiritual levels. “Manifestation” on TikTok, it can be said, represents the convergence of the cultural preoccupation with subjectivity and a New Age emphasis on self-actualization through the use of technologies. This signifies yet another inversion of traditional mysticism, especially that of Islam, which is concerned with quite the opposite of self-actualization (if “self” can be deemed as referring to the nafs and not the rūĥ, the spiritual dimension of the human being). Indeed, central to taśawwuf or Sufism is the pursuit of purifying and ultimately overcoming the self; this is encapsulated in the concept of tazkiyah, often translated as “purification” and asserted in a Qur’anic verse regarding the soul: “Indeed he prospers who purifies [zakkāhā] it. And indeed he fails who obscures it” (91:9–10).
The Islamic mystical tradition abounds with literature alluding to tazkiyah and its exegeses. In Sufi poetry, for example, the motif of “polishing the mirror”—that is, purifying one’s internal constitution so it may reflect the light of God—can serve as a metaphor for tazkiyah, since it conveys the mystic’s ambition to rectify the impurities inflicted by the lower self and instead embody the divine attributes. Many instances of this path of purification can be found cloaked in the poetic lexicon of Rumi, with others appearing in more practical and prescriptive formats; the eleventh-century Persian Sufi Khwājah ¢Abd Allāh Anśārī, for example, provided a systematic account of the one hundred stages or waystations (al-manāzil) through which one must progress to purify the self, beginning with self-awareness and ending with self-annihilation (fanā’).
Perhaps the richest resources on overcoming the self can be found in the works of the eleventh-century mystical theologian al-Ghazālī. Several passages in his magnum opus, Revival of the Religious Sciences, allude to tazkiyah and the internal struggle against the sensory and appetitive faculties (jihād al-nafs), which constitutes a prerequisite to spiritual purification. According to his account, the self must be disciplined via the development of an equilibrium: “Goodness of character proceeds from an equilibrium in the rational faculty brought about through sound wisdom, and in the irascible and appetitive faculties through their submission to the intellect and the Law.”5
Some believe that such submission is at the very essence of Sufism. The mystic Ja'far b. Muĥammad al-Khuldī, for example, asserted that “Sufism is to throw the ego into slavery, emerge from human nature, and gaze wholly upon God.”6
Egocentrism, a defining characteristic of digital spirituality, runs contrary to the Islamic mystical pursuit of tazkiyah. Viewed through the lens of Sufism, which perceives authentic spirituality as that which overcomes the self, the notion of “spiritual empowerment” as practiced through smartphones and social media appears not so spiritual—after all, such digital spirituality seeks to edify that which traditional mysticism seeks to “throw into slavery” or, at least for al-Ghazālī, subvert through a balanced equilibrium.
The overcoming of the nafs, it should be said, is not tantamount to the absolute denial of the self or its subjective dispositions; rather, it signifies the beginning of one’s spiritual progression. As Khwājah 'Abd Allāh Anśārī affirms in his treatise on the one hundred waystations or maqāmāt (Manāzil al-sā’irīn ilā al-Ĥaqq), developing self-awareness—through the processes of awakening (al-yaqażah), repentance (al-tawbah), self-accounting (al-muĥāsabah), penitence (al-inābah), and contemplation (al-tafakkur), to name the first five waystations in his schema7—is a prerequisite for ascending to the stage of self-loss and ultimately to mystical union with God (fanā’). The first five waystations are part of the ten called “The Preliminaries” (al-bidāyāt); the ultimate goal is the annihilation of the self, but prior to this, an awareness of the self is indeed essential. The predicament of most forms of digital spirituality lies in the fact that they do not go beyond this stage of self-awareness—in such “spirituality,” self-awareness is the end, imbued with a quasi-mystical status, and not simply an early stage, a means to the mystical union with God.
As a corollary of their egocentric nature, many of the objectives of these digital spiritualities remain within the scope of the immediate physical experience rather than the longer-term, transpersonal aims of tazkiyah and, ultimately, salvation. Here the term “physical” applies not only to the body but also to the mental faculties, since the nafs—a product of the contingent material world—can itself be thought of as “physical” (distinct from the rūĥ, authentically spiritual). As Karim Douglas Crow succinctly put it, “the psyche [nafs] is sublimated matter [physical nature].”8 These physical objectives of digital spirituality practically manifest, as it were, in the form of rituals and practices performed to achieve wealth and other tangible rewards in the pursuit of pleasure. More subtly, however, they also manifest in the attempts to induce altered states of consciousness, a practice now known on TikTok as “reality shifting.” Not unlike the trances induced by shamanic rituals and psychedelic drugs, reality shifting has gained traction in the virtual realm. On TikTok, “shifters” attempt ways to transcend mundane perception and mentally migrate to other realms, be they the astral plane of shamanic cosmology or even the settings of films and television shows. Like manifestation, reality shifting can take forms that seem limitless, an attribute of their postmodern context, wherein individuals become the sole arbiters of their spirituality and the means of cultivating it. However, shifting is always oriented toward a sensory arousal of some kind. The videos, for example, often have a filter of hallucination-esque multicolored flashing lights that are designed to evoke a “mind-bending” experience. They provide an illusion of transcendence but merely tantalize the nafs. Curiously, several Islamic mystical theologians warned of the dangers posed by spiritual experiences that allure the mental and sensory faculties. They saw these experiences as deceptive because they engulf the individual in the illusion that they have transcended themselves and the world when they are merely experiencing an altered state of their own mind, which, being “sublimated matter,” remains corporeal and contingent. Another example can be found in the experiences attained through psychedelic drugs, which reality shifting seeks to emulate; in the New Age movement, especially in its 1960s countercultural context, the use of mind-altering intoxicants such as magic mushrooms and LSD was not uncommon. Under the influence, users felt they were transcending reality when really the sensations that the drugs produced were no more than projections of the mind and thus the nafs (albeit in an unrecognizable state, owing to the neurological disturbances caused by intoxication).
A remarkably detailed account of quasi-spiritual experiences and their power to deceive comes to us from the renowned Andalusian mystic Muĥyī al-Dīn b. ¢Arabī. His Book of Spiritual Advice (Kitāb al-naśā’iĥ) features a list of over one hundred “states” (aĥwāl) that imbue the subject with a feeling or sensation that may resemble divine encounters or instances of tajallī but are in fact purely mental and thus “not to be relied upon.” The list includes “the increase in a [subjective emotional] state [ĥāl] which doesn’t produce [spiritual] knowing”; “the ‘fresh inspiration’ [al-wārid] that results from a disorder of the bodily constitution”; “every affection/love [maĥabbah] which doesn’t cause the lover [the subject] to prefer the intention of the beloved [God] over his own intention”; and “the state of ecstasy [wajd] which occurs as a result of trying to achieve ecstasy [tawājud].”
Ibn 'Arabī invokes the concept of ightirār (deception) to encompass the illusory quality of these experiences, which many forms of digital spirituality resemble. One is the state in which the subject is drawn to “prefer his own intention” over that of God corresponds perfectly to the objectives of “manifestation” (in digital spirituality) that invert the Islamic ideal of the intention or niyyah. Another is that Ibn 'Arabī’s comments on altered states of consciousness sought for their own sake or those born out of “the disorder of the bodily constitution” apply to reality shifting on TikTok, which, despite appearing less worldly than manifestation (being oriented toward seemingly metaphysical realms rather than material rewards) is nonetheless mental and therefore mundane. Both practices (manifestation and reality shifting) fall into this category, tantalizing the nafs in a way that is characteristic not only of modernity, and specifically modern spirituality, but also of the nature of technology itself. Encoded in the interfaces of smartphones is the capacity to “ontologically extend” the very lower self that traditional Islamic spirituality seeks to overcome.
In 1990, the sociologist Thomas Luckmann remarked that “the span of transcendence is shrinking”;9 since then, it seems the parameters of the mystical or the magical have continued to shrink, at least where privatized, digitized spiritualities are concerned. Yet, this trajectory may not necessarily be fixed; it could be that, in other ways that have yet to be explored, technology could offer a means to re-enchant, though perhaps not in the way that the early pioneers of cyberspace envisioned.