I’m trying my hand at something new today. As always, I rush in where angels fear to tread, so I hope my readers will forgive me for this latest misadventure! Introduction Consider Jules Verne, who may properly be called the father of modern science fiction. In 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, published in 1870, Monsieur Verne conceived of an underwater vessel driven by a power that was “almost infinite.” He called it “the Nautilus.” In 1954, the United States Navy commissioned the first nuclear submarine. It was called the “USS Nautilus.” This was, of course, in honor of Verne’s initial conception. Now consider the case of the Titanic, which sank in 1912. The disaster was foretold in not one, but four novels published prior to the shipwreck:
The most striking and prophetic example is The Sinking of a Modern Liner, written in 1886 by English journalist W.T. Stead. The story is eerily similar to the actual Titanic‘s ill-fated demise. In Stead’s book, an ocean liner leaves Liverpool and while on a journey to New York City, becomes involved in a collision. In the ensuing panic, many passengers drown because there are too few lifeboats. In a strange twist of fate, Stead inadvertently foretold his own death in the book: he was onboard the Titanic when it sank in April 1912.
How about the next one? That was Futility: The Wreck of the Titan (1898).
Name: In Futility, the boat is described as the largest ship of its day and was called the Titan. Size: The ships were practically the same size, with the Titanic measuring only 25 meters longer. Date: Both ships, described as “unsinkable,” hit an iceberg and went under in mid-April. Speed: Both were capable of speeds over 20 knots. Safety: Despite having thousands of passengers on board, both ships carried the bare legal minimum number of lifeboats. Sinking Location: Titan is also deemed “unsinkable” but hits an iceberg and sinks off the coast of Newfoundland, just like the Titanic.
Paranormal events suggest that there are phenomena that do not easily fit into our present worldview. Actually, many of us have had the experience of intuiting the occurence of a distant event as it occurs, or even before it happens. This is a faculty granted by God to all human beings, including atheists, just like our liver or our mind. But because it is a neglected faculty, we perceive its operation only intermittently or sporadically. An entire apple tree is hidden in a tiny apple seed. But it will blossom and bear fruit only if you plant and cultivate it.
A case in point is telepathy. As defined by Wikipedia, telepathy “is the transmission of information from one person to another without using any of our known sensory channels or physical interaction.” (For this, see also “quantum teleportation” below.) After years of study, the philosopher H. H. Price observed: “We must conclude, I think, that there is no room for telepathy in a Materialistic universe. Telepathy is something which ought not to happen at all, if the Materialistic theory were true. But it does happen. So there must be something seriously wrong with the Materialistic theory, however numerous and imposing the normal facts which support it may be.” In that case, we must be open to possibilities beyond those that “are dreamt of in our philosophy.”
The facts about the Titanic mentioned above seem to make sense, and to be possible, only if we make the following conjecture: there exists a mental space whereby we are able to access the future, even if only rarely.
Comic Books and the Imagination
Readers familiar with my writing already know that I attempt to present Sufism in novel and radically different ways. Well, when I look back on my childhood and my experience with comics, I realize that certain concepts I later encountered in Sufism were already heralded in… stories of superheroes!
How can this be? How can deeply esoteric concepts emerge from the minds of comics and science-fiction writers? The answer lies in the IMAGINAL WORLD—not the imaginary world, but the Imaginal World (alam al-mithal).
Contrary to first impressions, the Imaginal World is real, though not physical. Just as the world of numbers, of mathematics, is not physically real: you don’t encounter the number 3 as an object in the physical world, except perhaps on children’s blocks, and yet it is very real. Some mathematicians even believe that the world of mathematical objects exists independently of our human existence. They conceive of an “intelligible world,” which we are able to access mentally. This is called mathematical platonism. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, it “is the metaphysical view that there are abstract mathematical objects whose existence is independent of us and our language, thought, and practices.” In the cases of the Nautilus and the Titanic, we had a passage from-concrete-to-concrete. Here, we have a bridge from-concrete-to-abstract. So we are able to reach a further conclusion: that mental space we conjectured probably has an abstraction level.
Like the World of Mathematics, things of the Imaginal World are very real, even if they do not have a physical existence. It was Henry Corbin (who also coined the Latin term Mundus Imaginalis for the alam al-mithal of the Sufis) who best described it: in this world, abstract ideas have forms. They have extensity. And because of this, they occupy a world in-between mind and matter. Hence, this region resolves the mind-matter dichotomy of Descartes!
Example: in the Imaginal World, milk represents Knowledge.
Now we have become accustomed to thinking of the imagination (khayal) as dealing with unreal things. We associate it with illusion. And yet, this is not entirely accurate. The imagination does, of course, deal with unreal things some—perhaps even most—of the time, but not always. As Neville Goddard once observed: “Imagination is the creative power which can cause that which was not, to be! It can also cause that which is, not to be” (Lecture on William Blake: “Fourfold Vision,” 01.26.1968). The famous psychologist C.G. Jung employed what he termed the “Active Imagination” to explore the depths of the psyche. And a title of one of Henry Corbin’s books is “Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi.” So we must not dismiss the imagination too summarily.
In our age, comics and sci-fi writers are among those who have delved deepest into the realms of the imagination. It is not too improbable, then, that in their excursions into imaginary worlds, they have from time to time tapped into the Imaginal World.
Of course, the insights they bring back are, in Sufic terms, veiled. They are not outright expositions of Sufic concepts, but rather analogues, parallels. And perhaps it would be unfair to expect anything more—although the movie The Matrix (1999), for example, did go further in a few respects. This is because, if these writers do access the Imaginal World, this access is sporadic and tangential at best. They surf on the outskirts of visionary experience. They are also constrained by the requirements of a viable storyline, which mosttimes involves a battle between good and evil and the eventual triumph of good.
In what follows, I shall outline some similarities between superhero stories and Sufis. Superman deserves a treatment all his own, and so is dealt with separately (in a companion article). I shall also pass over the whole gamut of paranormal phenomena and ESP abilities, such as telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition and psychokinesis, ascribed to superheroes and Sufis alike.
Green Lantern – Power Battery
Green Lantern possesses a power ring given by the Guardians of the Universe. It is capable of creating solid constructs, materializing the thought forms of its owner, provided the owner has sufficient willpower and concentration. When the power of the ring runs low, it can be recharged by connecting it to a power battery in the shape of a green lantern.
Visiting the Master and participating in [his] discussions were very important. A leaflet or pamphlet distributed by the Master might be read, which he might interrupt at any time in order to clarify or emphasize a certain point. Even this might not be necessary, as the baraka (spiritual action or power) of the Master could work even in total silence. When one’s spiritual “battery” was “discharged,” one could go back to the Master for a “recharge.”
I might add that this analogy does not belong exclusively to me. Here is how Master Kayhan himself described this effect:
Human beings are good, originally good. But they soil themselves like children. And the grownups? They cleanse them. Finally, humans become clean.
You, I, anyone. When we’re in filth, we hesitate to go to a master – ‘How am I going to face him?’ You go, he lifts you out of that dirt and cleanses you. Aha – when we’re in filth, we’re still going to go. With God’s permission, he will clean us. That’s how you should act. (The Teachings of a Perfect Master, 2012.)
Here, we can see that the Master conceives of spiritual recharge as a “cleansing.” As one is immersed in this world, one becomes encumbered with unclean things without even realizing it. Paramount among these is Illicit Sex and Illicit Gain. One should, however, oneself undertake to stay free of at least these two. One should try not to face a master while burdened with these two sins. Though a master can purify us, it is our own responsibility to try and stay as pure as possible.
The Flash – Cosmic Treadmill
As probably everyone who has read this far knows, the Flash is a police scientist who can move at super-speed. The cosmic treadmill is a device constructed by the Flash. It allows any being with super-speed to precisely travel through time—backwards into the past, or forwards into the future.
The utility of a space-time diagram is that it represents spacetime in two dimensions. The three dimensions of space, x, y and z, are telescoped into a single dimension, and the other dimension is t (for time). The world line of an object can then be traced. This allows us to add a fifth dimension in graphic representation as a third dimension.
Introducing this fifth dimension allows us to avoid a common mistake. The Upper World is not in the physical sky, among the stars and galaxies, and the Lower World is not beneath the surface of the physical earth. They are parallel continuums.
We can now return to the Flash’s Cosmic Treadmill. As I said, it does not correspond directly to something in Sufism, but is an analogue, a simile, for one. That thing is the Sufi’s Prayer mat.
Why and how am I able to make such a claim?
The Cosmic Treadmill enables time travel, that is, movement along the t axis in the diagrams.
The Prayer mat allows one to travel upwards along the S – C axis.
Two things need to be pointed out. First, the performer of the Prayer (namaz, salat) is seldom aware of the elevation s/he is undergoing. But as the Prophet said, “Prayer is the Ascension (miraj) of the faithful,” and it was bestowed on humanity as a gift from God on the occasion of the Prophet’s own Ascension. In fact, this is the true origin of the term “flying carpet” that we know from the Arabian Nights. So even if the Pray-ing person is not conscious of the escalation, it is present nevertheless.
The second thing is that Prayer is an inherently safe method of elevation. Other techniques come at a price and a loss. Some may even be dangerous. Prayer, on the other hand, has no such drawback.
The physical movements of Prayer enable its performer to travel in noetic space, to “swim,” as it were, towards God. (This is because the spiritual body or “consciousness body” is coupled to the physical body. The recitations enhance the effect.) These serve a function similar to the Flash’s superfast sprint on the Cosmic Treadmill when attempting to implement time travel.
Many of us are familiar with teleportation rays, transporting things and people from one location to another instantaneously. What sci-fi fan does not remember Captain Kirk’s memorable phrase from Star Trek? “Beam me up, Scotty!”
One of the early versions of a transport beam was the Zeta beam, encountered by Adam Strange, in the pages of “Strange Adventures.” The following collage gives a pretty good idea of his origin.
His name itself is interesting. Adam means “man, human,” so we are talking about a strange human being. The novel by Ian Dallas, titled The Book of Strangers (1972), has been described as a Sufi version of Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. Another name for accomplished Sufis is abdal (plural budala), which means both “transformed” and, in street parlance, “idiot.” The reason Transformed human beings are called idiots is because they frequently do things that appear contrary to common sense, the deeper meanings of which emerge only when their outcomes are realized. By common sense here I mean, in general, looking out for Number 1 (self-aggrandisement). Sufis, on the other hand, act for the greater good, not for their own selfish benefit.
But I digress. Teleportation has again attracted attention in recent times, not as a subject of science fiction this time, but of quantum physics. The concept of entanglement, by which two particles remain attached if once they have been associated, has led to the notion that information can be teleported across distances. (This used to be the basis of sympathetic magic! Can you believe it?)
Here is one description of a recent breakthrough:
“In Star Trek, it’s the idea of moving people from point A to B without having the person travel that distance. They disappear and then reappear.” Quantum teleportation is a little bit different. It does not actually transport objects from one point to another, but instead transfers information about the object and integrates that information into a new object.
Perhaps, then, it becomes a bit more conceivable that Sufis have achieved both teleportation and time travel in the past. (The Sufic terms for these are “spacefolding” and “timefolding,” respectively.) But much, much more important, Sufis have been able to approach God in a way quite similar to, though not identical with, the Zeta beam.
A Sacred Verse from the Koran states: “We have come from God, and we shall return to Him” (2:156). This verse does not refer only to physical death. The Prophet’s Ascension (miraj), referred to briefly above, is the model for all such approaches. The Sufis have a special name for the Beam of Divine Attraction, or “tractor beam”: jazba. If the love of the Sufi for God is strong enough, God will “pull” the Sufi up towards Himself. Depending on the circumstances, vast spiritual distances can be traversed in the twinkling of an eye.
The Prophet, too, made his Ascension in a similar way. First he was transported from Mecca to Jerusalem. Then from there, he began his Ascent into the Seven Heavens. Finally, he stepped beyond the Lote-tree of the Boundary, and was instantly plunged into Transfinity. It is a journey that the Sufis, too, hope to emulate someday.
I hardly need point out that the vertical direction in this picture is, again, the S – C axis. It is not the third dimension of space, nor even the fourth dimension (time).
Aquaman is the king of the seven seas and of Atlantis. He can command sea creatures and communicate with them “in their own language” as well as by telepathy.
Solomon was also a king. He was able to communicate with creatures in “the language of their state.” He understood birdsong. As for the seven seas, in Sufism, Unity (wahdah) has been compared to a vast ocean, and the greatest Sufis to divers who dive deep into that ocean. Its complement, Multiplicity (kasrah), comprises the waves on the surface of that ocean, and which is the ordinary world we live in.
One of those deep-sea divers, called “the Greatest Diver” or “Greatest Helper,” was the Grand Shaykh Abdulqader Geylani. In an inspiration, God told him: “Struggle [against the Base Self] is a sea of Observation [of Unity]. The fish of that sea are those who wait there. Therefore, whoever wants to enter the sea of Observation must like and choose struggle. For struggle is the same as Observation.”
Wonder Woman is an Amazon princess. She is gifted with a wide range of superhuman powers and superior combat and battle skills. In Sufic terms, Wonder Woman is symbolic of the woman Saint who can work miracles and keeps the honor of her gender high. Just as Wonder Woman is a warrior in the physical world, the female (as well as male) Sufi engages in spiritual warfare against the Base Self.
Perhaps the most well-known of lady Sufis was Rabia Adawiya of Basra. Her prayer was: “Dear God, If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell. If I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, do not begrudge me Your everlasting Beauty.” She was an embodiment of the notion that God should be loved for God’s own sake, rather than out of fear.
Rabia may not have been Wonder Woman, but she was certainly a wondrous woman. Hasan of Basra, another famous Sufi, said: “Just as there are lions among men, so there are lions among women.” When asked who that was, he replied: “Rabia.”
Once, Hasan came upon Rabia. She was surrounded by animals, but when they saw Hasan, they all fled. Hasan asked, “Why did they run away?” Rabia retorted: “Do you eat meat?” “Yes,” said Hasan. Rabia replied: “They smell that in you. I myself have not eaten meat for many years.” On another occasion, Rabia was performing the Prayer. She and her mat had levitated into the air. Seeing this, Hasan laid his mat on water and performed his own Prayer. When they were finished, she said: “Hasan, what you did can be done by a fish. And flying in the air can be performed by a gnat. But one must apply oneself to the real task.”
One fine day in spring, Rabia was praying indoors. Her servant came and said: “Why don’t you come outside, and see the handiwork of God?” Rabia replied: “Why don’t you come inside, and see the Creator of that handiwork? The sight of the Creator has kept me from the sight of His creatures.” (By “inside,” Rabia means not simply “indoors” but inside the (purified) self.)
Green Arrow, Hawkeye, and other such comic-book marks(wo)men are, obviously, modern reincarnations of Robin Hood. Their distinctive characteristic is their extraordinary ability to score bull’s-eye. Below you can see Green Arrow in his various guises.
Green Arrow is an ordinary human being like you and me. He does not possess any superpowers. Nor are his bows and arrows magical, though clearly they are precision tools. What he does have, however, is an ability that we all potentially have. He has honed his concentration to focus perfectly, to coordinate body and mind in a unity that delivers results.
Green Arrow’s skills remind me of Eugen Herrigel’s Zen in the Art of Archery (1948, English edition 1953). Of course, it was only after the Second World War that Japanese archery (kyudo) became associated with Zen, perhaps even partly due to Herrigel.
In the method of Zen, the subject and the object become one. That is the meaning of the koan, “the sound of one hand clapping.” For instance, in Zen painting, the painter and the painted become one. In Zen music, the musician and the instrument become one. (Example: Peiwoh/Bo Ya the harpist, who “knew not truly whether the harp had been Peiwoh or Peiwoh were the harp.”)
Similarly, Zen archery is the art of becoming one with your target. As D.T. Suzuki explains in his Introduction to the book:
In the case of archery, the hitter and the hit are no longer two opposing objects, but are one reality. The archer ceases to be conscious of himself as the one who is engaged in hitting the bull’s-eye which confronts him.
This state of unconsciousness [or un-self-consciousness] is realized only when, completely empty and rid of the self, he becomes one with the perfecting of his technical skill, though there is in it something of a quite different order which cannot be attained by any progressive study of the art.” (Emphasis added.)
Now Herrigel was a philosophy professor who was interested in the mysticism of Meister Eckhart, and he explains how he came to the study of Japanese archery: “only the contemplative, who is completely empty and rid of the self, is ready to ‘become one’ with the ‘transcendent Deity‘.” (p. 13-14, emphasis added.)
From this we understand that Herrigel was looking for the practical experience of Oneness (wahdah in Sufism). The Base Self, the ego, is always trying to make things happen the way it wants them to. But only when one is freed of it can one’s aim be perfect. The ego creates ripples of erratic impulses that interfere with the motor coordination of the body-mind. The more it strives, the more it causes disruption. Hence, it takes a Perfect Human Being (the insan al-kaamil of the Sufis) to make the perfect shot. And for this, one must be rid of the Base Self. That is, one must purify the self until it reaches the stage of the Purified Self. As a Sufi expression has it,
Once you (the Base Self) get out from in between,
The Creator at once is seen
—that is, is manifested. Things fare very differently then. Everything one does is like a work of art.
What Sufism can add to the matter of the union of subject and object is that this is possible, or at least greatly eased and enhanced, with love. The Prophet said: “A person is together with the one s/he loves.” Indeed, one can scarcely succeed at a task one does not love.
During the Battle of Badr, the Prophet implored God to save them. The angel Gabriel told him to take a handful of earth and throw it at the enemy. When he did so, a wind came up that routed the foe. Later, God revealed in a Sacred Verse: ‘‘It was not you who threw when you threw, but it was God who threw” (8:17). Similarly, God helps the Perfect Human Being to achieve success, guiding one’s arrow (as well as one’s other affairs) with perfect aim. In such a case, it would not be too inaccurate to say: “God shoots,” even if one is not aware of this fact. For if God did not guide one’s faltering hand, how could success be assured?
A second issue closely connected with perfect accuracy is the total concentration of attention on a single point, as the following account of the Sufi sage Bayazid illustrates:
Bayazid of Bistam is a great man, he’s seeking. He was on his way to a friend. He’s passing by an empty lot. He saw a cat about to pounce. It waited for half an hour. A mouse came. Just as the cat is about to jump, the mouse retreats. Again it lies in wait. Finally, it seizes the mouse. Bayazid says, ‘Ah! A cat has enlightened me.’ (The Teachings of a Perfect Master, p. 226.)
This is also a good example of how patience yields results. Why did Bayazid say that? According to the Sufis, the beginning of the Chapter of the Star in the Koran refers to the Ascension of the Prophet. There it is mentioned: “His sight never swerved, nor did it go astray” (53:17). In other words, the Prophet was in such total focus that his concentration did not deviate for even an instant. And this is practically impossible to achieve as long as one is a prisoner of the Base Self, which is the human condition in its natural state. Only in a condition of selflessness, or self-transcendence, can the aim of the archer be perfect.
Batman is known as the world’s best detective. We may think of him as the successor to Sherlock Holmes. He is also a martial arts master, inventor, billionaire, and scientist, and has devoted his life to protecting the innocent.
Like Green Arrow, Batman does not have superhuman powers. He has, however, honed his human abilities to an extraordinary degree. He has pushed his human potentials to the limit.
Most of all, Batman is a Master Strategist & Tactician: he is able to lay out large-scale plans and use cunning tactics in their implementation. This bespeaks superior intellect. A bat uses its sonar to navigate in the darkness. In a similar way, Batman uses his intelligence to guide him to the truth where his senses alone cannot. A bat “sees” with its ears. Batman “sees” with his mind.
Like Batman, the Sufis also value intelligence highly. Ali, the fourth caliph and patron Saint of many a Sufi lineage, said: “God has given man nothing more valuable than the Intellect.” (Or: “God did not distribute to His servants anything more to be esteemed than Intelligence.”) Furthermore, the Prophet said: “The first thing that God created was my light,” and: “The first thing that God created was the Intellect.” The Sufis call this first light the “First Intellect” (aql al-awwal). It is also called Universal Intelligence or Universal Mind (aql al-kull). This is the first creation of God, out of which the universe was then created. In many verses, the Koran calls on human beings to use their intellect and to reflect, such as: “none remembers but men possessed of minds” (2:269, 3:7), “will you not use your reason?” (3:65, 6:32), or “there are signs for men possessed of minds” (3:190). And the Prophet said: “When you receive news of a well-mannered and appealing person, [you should] look rather at the beauty of his mind, … the level of his intellect.”
A Real-Life Superhero
Can there be a human superhero, one that is not a figment of the imagination but a living, breathing human being? Is such a thing even possible?
Barnaby Rogerson, a biographer of the Prophet of God, seems to think so.
Even when viewed in an entirely secular perspective he remains a superhero. He was founder of the Caliphate, one of the greatest empires of the world; creator of classical Arabic, a new literature and world language; founder of a new national identity, the Arab; and creator of Islam, a worldwide culture… Only by marrying the best qualities of certain characters from European civilization—a combination, say, of Alexander the Great, Diogenes and Aristotle, or the Emperor Constantine, St. Paul and St. Francis—can you begin to understand the measure of the man. [This brings to mind Nietzsche’s famous phrase: “Caesar—with the heart of Christ.”]
… He is the wise sage who despised the luxurious trappings of royalty, the halls, guards, courtiers, silks and gold that hitherto had always been associated with power. He is also the savant of the mystics, the guide who has led generations of dervishes, sufis, poets and lovers of God on their quest. He is the only man to have journeyed to heaven and back. He is the Hero of Heroes.
(Barnaby Rogerson, The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography, Mahwah, New Jersey: Hidden Springs Books, 2003, pp. 3-4.)
This is but a twenty-first century echo of the nineteenth-century writer, Alphonse de Lamartine:
Philosopher, orator, apostle, legislator, warrior, conqueror of ideas, restorer of rational dogmas, of a cult without images; the founder of twenty terrestrial empires and of one spiritual empire, that is Muhammad.
As regards all the standards by which human greatness may be measured, we may well ask: is there any man greater than he?
(Lamartine, Histoire de la Turquie, Paris, 1854, Vol. 2, pp. 276-277.)
Rogerson has access to all the up-to-date knowledge provided by modern scholarship, yet he reaches essentially the same conclusion—even more so, in fact. (It is he who calls the Prophet a “superhero.”)