Star Wars and Sufism

 

YOUR CHOICE

 

Click below to listen to
Star Wars theme music

(Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra)


 

Introduction

The phenomenal success of the Star Wars movies goes without saying. It is well-known that George Lucas was influenced, among other things, by Akira Kurosawa’s film The Hidden Fortress and Joseph Campbell’s study of myth, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Lucas draws from various myths and religions in weaving his saga, so that everyone can find something familiar in it. Lucas is quite conscious of what he’s doing: “I’m telling an old myth in a new way,” he says. Here, we shall be concerned to unpack his work from a Sufic perspective. This, of course, is not intended to invalidate other approaches to the series of films.

A note about the order of the movies. Originally, the movies in the first Star Wars trilogy were numbered as 1, 2, and 3. After the prequels were released, these became 4, 5, and 6, and the prequels began to be counted as 1, 2, 3. It is this latter, updated numbering that we will use below. The order in the storyline rather than the order in which the films were made will be used. In other words, the very first Star Wars movie (1977), later referred to as A New Hope, will count as number 4.

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The Force

 

“I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken…a belief in God… I think it’s important to have a belief system and to have faith. … I think there is a God. No question. … Ultimately the Force is the larger mystery of the universe. … I would hesitate to call the Force God. It’s designed primarily to make young people think about the mystery.”—George Lucas

 

Indeed, the Force, as it emerges throughout the series, is more akin to the Chinese conception of the Tao. If it is a Deity, it is an impersonal one. Obi-wan Kenobi describes the Force as “an energy field created by all living things” which “binds the galaxy together.” This sounds much like the Chinese life-force, Qi or Chi. Its parallels can be found in other cultures as well. Furthermore, the “Dark Side” and the “Light Side” of the Force are very similar to the Chinese concepts of Yin and Yang. But then, the concepts of good and evil—or correlates thereof—exist in all cultures.

Viewed from a Sufic standpoint, the Force represents not only God, but also baraka, the spiritual power bestowed by God on a Sufi Saint or “Friend of God,” by which s/he is enabled to perform miraculous deeds (karamat). “Use the Force, Luke!” says Obi-wan Kenobi. (In Sufism it is important to distinguish between miraculous deeds and outright miracles (mujiza), which are considered to be granted exclusively to prophets.)

 

Lightsabers

Lightsabers are the weapons of choice for Jedi knights. They can be seen in combat scenes all through the Star Wars series of movies. Contrary to some opinions, these swords are not laser beams, but swords of plasma. Quick refresh: plasma is the fourth state of matter after liquid, solid and gas, and consists of a soup of subatomic particles at superhigh temperatures, where they cannot exist in the bound form of atoms or nuclei. It is this intense heat which gives a lightsaber its “cutting edge,” so to speak.

(Actually, if real lightsabers are made one day, they will probably employ both. A laser beam may be used to open an ionized path for keeping the plasma beam straight. See also this recent article, original here. If this becomes further feasible, lightsabers may really be made of light someday.)

Plasmas are notoriously difficult things to contain in a stable form, so one of the solutions proposed for creating and maintaining them has been the Tokamak design. This is basically a hollow doughnut where heavy-duty magnets are used to keep the ionized particles trapped in a “magnetic bottle.”

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Conceptual design of a Tokamak; experimental realization of a plasma beam

 

Although the plasma is white (because it’s white-hot), the lightsabers we see in the movies are variously colored, mostly blue (for friendly forces), red (for evil or “Dark Side” forces) and green (Yoda’s). These are the three primary colors for light. Other colors are used for lightsabers as well in the Star Wars expanded universe (SWEU), which includes video games, cartoons, toys, comic books, and other storylines. So let’s continue our subject with light.

Here we shall be concerned with lightsabers primarily for their symbolic value. According to Martin Lings, a symbol is “a reflection or shadow of a higher reality” (Symbol and Archetype, p. 1). In the Imaginal World, for instance, milk is a symbol for Knowledge, because like milk, spiritual knowledge nourishes us, gives us life, and helps us grow. The lightsaber is a very good example of a symbol, both because it is a sword and because it is made of light. It is a symbol for the Axis of the Universe, which is the axis of spirituality or the axis of consciousness. (For this, see Superheroes and Sufism.)

Let’s begin with the famous “Light Verse” of the Koran: “God is the light of the heavens and the earth… Light upon light” (24:35). This light, we must not forget, is divine light,  spiritual light (Arabic Nur, Latin lux), not physical light (Ar. ziya, Lat. lumen) made up of photons. So whenever we speak about light, it’s always in this sense, unless indicated otherwise. Examples from physical light are meant as analogies.

The prism block of a Foveon digital camera splits white light into its primary colors: green, red, and blue (below, far left). A prism disperses a white light beam into the colors of the rainbow. However, if the colored beam is refocused with a lens onto another prism, it can recombine the colors to yield the original white beam (far right):

 

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In terms of Sufism, this is very much like the creation of the universe. According to the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, there exist “immutable entities” (ayan al-thabita). These are the ways in which God knows Himself. When God’s Light illuminates God’s Knowledge (the realm of the Immutable Entities), this is very similar to a beam of white light striking a prism (or prisms). The universe is created in a way that is analogous to white light producing the colors of the rainbow.

In a similar way, the various colors of lightsabers can be recombined to obtain white (at right):

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And indeed, from the SWEU it appears that the lightsabers of the Old Republic were originally white. (The color of the sun, too, is actually white when seen from outer space. It is because the atmosphere scatters its light that the sun is seen as yellow and the sky as blue.)

Combining the various colored lights together to again obtain the one white light is called Unification (tawhid). That is when one may perceive the spiritual sun.

 

Just as a beam of white light can be split into millions of hues when it passes through a prism, the light created at the beginning of the universe, laden with infinite possibilities, engendered the countless beings (indeed, countless worlds) we observe around us today. Similarly, white-hot plasma, containing energy of all frequencies, can be viewed as the originator of rays covering the entire electromagnetic spectrum. It, too, can be compared in analogy to the original light that engendered creation at the origin of the universe.

Hugh Everett III (famous for the Everett-Wheeler-Graham (EWG) or “many-worlds” interpretation of quantum physics) once said that it made sense to talk about a wave function for the entire universe. In that case, and again by analogy, the First Light could spawn dizzying infinities upon infinities of possible universes—though not haphazardly, but ordered in accordance with the infinite wisdom of God (His Attribute of Omniscience (ilm)).

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I keep saying that we are not going to understand the Koran unless we use the tools made available to us by Sufism. Now here is a good example: “The Compassionate established Himself upon the Throne” (20:5). What do you make of that? We are not going to understand it unless we remember that istiwa also means “straightened,” and Arsh, the Throne, also means the Highest Heaven (Empyrean). What does the verse’s interpretation then become? “The Compassionate straightened (stood erect) upon the Highest Heaven.” And this has something to do with the Axis of the Universe, hence also with the genesis of the universe. We would not be able to reach this conclusion if we had stuck with the customary interpretation. But of course, one should also beware of making arbitrary interpretations.

D.T. Suzuki, who was instrumental in introducing Zen and Zen swordsmanship to the West, spoke of “the Sword of No-Abode” (Zen and Japanese Culture, pp. 170-182). In The Black Pearl, I have already indicated that this is a reference to a key Sufic concept: Nonspace, la makaan, which is the domain of Divinity (pp. 35-6). (“The Sword of No-Abode” would then translate as al-sayf al-la makaan.)

René Guénon tells us that the sword and the lance (and by extension the arrow and the staff) are symbols for the World Axis (Symbols of Sacred Science, p. 183). The sword, the World Axis, and the World Tree are interchangeable symbols in the Chinese tradition, as indeed in all traditions:

The World Tree is described in several Chinese mythical narratives under two distinct names:

Kien Mu, the Erect Tree, naturally evokes the World Axis;

Jian Mu, the Builder Tree (of the World), also refers to the World Axis, for Jian equally means the sword, the Axis symbol par excellence. [Emphases added.]

In his treatise on Cosmic Unification (al-Ittihad al-Kawn, translated as The Universal Tree and the Four Birds), the famous Sufi, Ibn Arabi, equates the Universal Tree (al-shajara al-kulli) or World Axis with the Perfect Human Being. (Ibn Arabi’s other “tree,” the World Tree or Cosmic Tree (Shajarat al-Kawn), also symbolizes the Universal Human.) In addition, the Tree stands for eternal life, and is called the Tree of Life in some traditions. Another name for it is the Tree of Light (A. J. Wensinck, Tree and Bird as Cosmological Symbols in Western Asia (1921)). That light beam (also called the Ray of Creation) is, in Sufism, the first-created light, the First Intellect (Universal Mind) or the Light of Mohammed (these occur in the Prophet’s own Sayings). This is the light that is referred to in Genesis: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen. 1:3).

For Islam, the olive is the central tree, The World Axis, a symbol of Universal Man and of the Prophet. The ‘Blessed Tree’ is associated with light, since its oil is used as lamp fuel. (The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols, p. 716.)

And this brings us to another part of the Light Verse: “[The lamp] is lighted from a Blessed Tree, an olive neither of the East nor of the West [hence of the center], whose light would well-nigh shine out even if it were not lit by fire” [hence self-luminous] (24:35).

The first Arabic letter, the Alif, also represents the Cosmic Pillar because of its shape. I have already dealt with the relationship between the Alif and the ancient Egyptian Djedi or Djed Column, from which the Jedi take their name, elsewhere on this site. Here, I will merely recall that Alif is the first letter of God’s Name of Majesty, Allah.


… when God… wanted to create Muhammad, He made appear a light from His light… God created an immense crystal-like column of light, that was inwardly and outwardly translucent, and within it was the essence of Muhammad. (Re 7:172)

Sahl al-Tustari

(on the Light of Mohammed, in the first Sufi Commentary on the Koran)

To summarize, the following symbols are all equivalent:

Lightsaber/Sword ~ World Axis ~ World Tree (of Light) ~ Perfect Human ~ Alif ~ Djedi Column.

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Djedi Column with “cutaway” view showingmagic fluid” within; white lightsabers; Axis of the Universe: the Alif on a backdrop of 10,000 galaxies (courtesy NASA Hubble Ultra Deep Field)

 

Finally, it is this Column of Light that acts as a “tractor beam” or elevator that draws the Sufi “up” in his Ascension (miraj) towards God. And it is the Five Daily Prayers that, if properly performed, facilitate this action, for as the Prophet has said, the Prayer is Ascension. Since I have already dealt with this topic in “Superheroes and Sufism” (under the heading “Adam Strange”), I shall not repeat myself here.

 

The Jedi

The Jedi is an order comprised of warrior monks. Their pros can use psychokinesis (move material objects with their minds).

The excerpt below gives a good idea about the Order:

Where did Lucas get his idea for the Jedi?

In a Discovery Channel documentary entitled “The Science of Star Wars,” Lucas reveals…that his idea came from studying the Shao-Lin monks of China. The Shao-Lin monks are priests known for originating and becoming the masters of the martial arts. [The martial arts of East Asia are said to have come about when wandering monks found the need to protect themselves against bandits.] Their fighting skills were legendary throughout the land of China.

Not only are the Shao-Lin monks skillful fighters, they were also men who mastered the use of the Chi force. As previously mentioned, Chi is believed to be the cosmic energy that flows through all things including individuals. The Shao-Lin monks teach that through altering one’s consciousness in meditation and other exercises, one can tap into the power of the Chi resident in each individual and use it to perform superhuman feats. [It is also utilized in the Japanese Aikido and the Chinese Tai Ji Quan martial arts.]

Although Sufis are by and large a peaceable lot, there have been times in history when they were forced into combat. One example is the famous Shaykh Shamil, who was forced to defend his Caucasian people against Russian onslaught in the 19th century. Such examples are rare, however, and although comparisons have been drawn between the Jedi and Islamic chivalry (futuwwat), the Sufis did not develop independent martial arts techniques of their own. It’s not surprising that Sufism met with the martial arts in places like Indonesia and Malaysia, where Chinese influence is strongly felt, and Sufis developed a local form of martial art called silat.

Zen favors intuition over intellect, and not surprisingly, the Jedi exercises are also based on cessation of mental activities and greater reliance on sensory and intuitive cognition, which means minimizing the interference and disturbances created by the ego, the Base Self:


 

(In this connection, it may be useful to remember that some blind persons can navigate by clicking their tongues or tapping their canes and listening intently for subtle differences in the echos, just like bats do. It’s called echolocation. See this, for example.)

In addition to their martial arts, the Jedi have a philosophy of life. Their code of conduct is summarized in the two versions of the Jedi Code:

1. Jedi are the guardians of peace in the galaxy. Jedi use their powers to defend and to protect. Jedi respect all life, in any form. Jedi serve others rather than ruling over them, for the good of the galaxy. Jedi seek to improve themselves through knowledge and training.

 2.   There is no emotion, there is peace.

There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.

There is no passion, there is serenity.

There is no chaos, there is harmony.

There is no death, there is the Force.

 

Replace “Jedi” with “Sufis” (and “the Force” with “God”) in the above, and you wouldn’t know the difference.

 

Darth Vader

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The whole Star Wars saga is based around the fall and eventual redemption of Anakin Skywalker. After he succumbs to the Dark Side, he becomes Darth Vader, the “dark father” (from the Dutch word for “father”). The Emperor Palpatine (formerly a Sith Lord named Darth Sidious—or should I say Dark Insidious), who subverts Anakin, represents the external principle of evil. But Anakin’s greatest foe lies within: his Base Self (12:53). And as Darth Vader, he becomes the Base Self personified.

The tragedy of Anakin/Darth Vader, especially as it unfolds through Episodes 2 and 3, ranks as a classic case study of the Base Self. Other villains in the movies are also of the same nature: for instance, Lucas has said of Darth Maul, the Satan-faced Sith in Episode 1, that “he’s the evil within us,” and that he and Darth Vader are “essentially the same.” But of course, the main story revolves around the latter.

Here are a few highlights:


 

The first major incident is Anakin’s revenge massacre of an entire village:

 

 

Here comes the Great Temptation from the Master of Deceit:

 

 

The external principle of evil, represented by the Chancellor/Emperor Dark Insidious, cunningly recruits Anakin for his designs (Anakin’s Base Self “makes a pact with the devil”). Anakin is now ready to massacre all the Jedis at the temple:

 

 

 

And now, “the birth of Darth Vader:”

 

 

Finally, “Darth Vader’s redemption:” the Base Self is redeemed only at the end of Episode 6, when it rebels against the devil and does the opposite of its bidding, casting it to the bottom of the Axial Pillar, as shown below. In the moment of his death, his mask is removed, his humanity is restored, and he says that he is “saved.”

 

 

There are lessons in this example for all human beings. The Master never tired of telling people that the Base Self has two tricks up its sleeve that it uses to trap even the best: Illicit Gain and Illicit Lust. He said:

The first is: if you know that the tea I offer you is bought with illicit earnings, don’t drink it.

Don’t touch what is prohibited. If you fall victim to hunger and thirst, and there is money by the thousands strewn on the street when you go out, and you’re hungry, still don’t take it.

The second is very dangerous. It is worse than the first. Lust is such a powerful drive that it can destroy a human being if not used properly. I call this ‘the two fire channels’ (in man and woman).

You’re single. Until you get married, until you marry a suitable woman [or vice versa], everything is ruled out. She can come and sit on your leg, she can arouse your lust beyond endurance, yet you should still see her as your mother or your sister. …

You can’t find this in books. You won’t find any of this in any book. … Whoever pulls in these two brakes—in terms of illicit eating and drinking, and lust—Sainthood will be yours immediately.

 

(The Teachings of a Perfect Master, pp. 123-4.)

 

This is valuable advice: neither total celibacy, nor wanton lust, but divinely ordained and socially approved marriage with the opposite sex. First you wed them, then you bed them. (And this calls for considerations beyond those of casual sex.)

Curb these two cravings (of Unclean Gain and Unclean Lust), said the Master a thousand times, and the Base Self will be at your mercy. You will be the victor, and it will be the vanquished.

 

Luke Skywalker

Anakin’s son, Luke (G. Lucas?) Skywalker is, by luck or by fate, everything his father isn’t. According to Lucas, Star Wars is “about how young Anakin Skywalker became evil and then was redeemed by his son.” Luke does not succumb to the Dark Side of the Force. Lucas: “it’s only in the last act—when he throws his sword down and says, ‘I’m not going to fight this’—that he makes a more conscious, rational decision. And he does it at the risk of his life because the Emperor is going to kill him. It’s only that way that he is able to redeem his father.”

Luke does not fall into the trap of the Great Temptation. When Darth Vader tries to tempt him in the same way he was once tempted by Darth Sidious, Luke refuses. Lucas again: “The film is ultimately about the dark side and the light side, and those sides are designed around compassion and greed. … These are the two sides—the good force and the bad force.” It is greed that causes the desire to obtain things in Unclean ways.

Luke’s name means “Light Ascension”—Luke is from Lux (see above). And who can walk in the sky other than the Ascended? He is trained, first by Obi-wan Kenobi and then by the grand master Yoda. After his death, Obi-wan’s spirit continues to guide him. In Sufism, likewise, it is not unheard-of for a disciple to be trained by the spirit of a dead (sometimes even long-deceased) master. These are called Uwaysi, after Uways al-Qarani, a contemporary of the Prophet who loved him very much, but never got to see him with earthly eyes.

 

Yoda

 

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Yoda is, apparently, far and away the grand master of all the Jedi. He conforms to the Jungian archetype of the Wise Old Man. In Sufism, his direct correlate is the Sufi master, while in other paths he fulfills the role of the guru or spiritual mentor.

Some aspirants in the spiritual path who cannot find a Sufi master in the flesh are trained by Khidr, “the Green One” (after the color of his garments). Long ago, the tradition goes, Khidr drank from the Water of Immortality and was stripped of his human attributes. Now, he wanders the earth and helps those in distress who call out to him. In addition, he trains eligible students who cannot otherwise find a living master.

Now Yoda, too, has green skin, and his lightsaber is colored green (the color of spring, of nature, and of Islam). And while he is not immortal like Khidr, he has lived hundreds of years. So from a Sufic point of view, Yoda can be considered as both: either as a model of a living master, or else as representing Khidr.

The following video emphasizes Yoda’s function as teacher:

 

 

On the other hand, the video below brings out his warrior aspect:

 

We do not have any records of Sufis engaging in remote weight-lifting (psychokinesis) in this manner. We do, however, have the following account concerning the Grand Shaykh Abdul-Qadir of Jilan (Abdulqader Gilani):

 

Sheikh Umru Osman Sairifini and Sheikh Abdul-Haq Harini deposed as follows:

 

On the third day of the month of Safar, in the year 555 of the Flight [02/13/1160 AD], we were in the presence of our Master [Sayed Abdul-Qadir] in his school. He rose and put on wooden sandals, and performed an ablution. Then he performed two [cycles of] prayers and gave a loud shout, throwing one sandal into the air, when it seemed to disappear. With a further cry the Master threw the second sandal into the air and this also vanished from our sight. None of those who were present dared to question him about the event.

Thirty days after this incident a caravan arrived in Baghdad from the East. Its members said that they had some gifts for the Master. We consulted him, and he allowed us to accept the presents. The members of the caravan gave us some silken and some other cloth and a pair of sandals which were the same ones which the Master had hurled from him. Their account was as follows:

 

On the third day of the month of Safar, that day being a Sunday, we were on the road with our caravan when there was a sudden Arab attack, under two chiefs. The robbers killed some of our number and plundered the caravan. They immediately entered a nearby forest for the purpose of distributing the loot. We survivors reassembled at the edge of the forest. It occurred to us that we could invoke the aid of the Sayed in our calamity, for we had no recourse and no means wherewith to continue our journey. We resolved to offer him presents in token of thanksgiving, should we at least arrive safely in Baghdad—an improbability as the situation then seemed to be.

As soon as we had made this decision, we were alarmed by one, and then another, cry which echoed through the glades. We concluded that the first band of Arabs had been attacked by a second one, and that a fight between them would now follow. Soon afterward a party from the bandits came to us and said that there had been a disaster. They begged us to accept our property back. We proceeded to the place at which our merchandise had been collected by the Arabs, and found that their two captains were lying dead—each with a wooden sandal near his head.

 

It appears to us indubitable that the Master, having perceived the calamity of the caravaneers, moved by a desire to aid them, had been able to project his sandals in such a way that the leaders of the band, the ultimately guilty parties, were killed.

 

Preserved by us as a matter of record and committed to writing in the presence of Almighty God, the Distinguisher and Requiter of truth and falsehood.

 

(Idries Shah, The Sufis, pp. 369-70.)

 

Perhaps, then, such a person does not need to levitate objects.

 

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Sources

I am indebted to the many sources, mentioned or unmentioned, that I made use of in preparing this article. In terms of Islamic articles, two stand out:

– Mahmoud Shelton,”Star Wars: a Tale of Spiritual Chivalry,” The Muslim Magazine, Summer 1999 (Vol. 2, No. 3), pp. 30-34.

– Irfan M. Rydhan, “Saints, Sufis and Star Wars,” Q-News, June 2005, pp. 36-38.

Quotes from George Lucas are taken from “Bill Moyers interviews George Lucas,” Time, April 26, 1999 (Vol. 153, Issue 16), pp. 92-94.

 

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