The "Star Wars" epic is at least as Islamic as the militant group ISIS, writes H.A. Hellyer
Hellyer argues that the films reflect the notion of religious authority in Sufi Islam
He says the character of Yoda, for example, is a Sufi master or guide for Luke Skywalker
Editor’s Note: H.A. Hellyer is a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institution’s Centre for Middle East Policy, and International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. Follow him on Twitter @hahellyer. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer, who is not so secretly a Jedi, but also moonlights as a Trekkie.
On Monday, the UK government formally announced that “Star Wars, Episode VIII,” would begin shooting at Pinewood Studios.
Being May 4th, it was “Star Wars Day.” But May 4th, 2015, was also the 15th of Rajab, 1436 – and Rajab is one of the most noted months in the Islamic calendar, with the middle of the month being a particularly auspicious occasion.
Indeed, the 15th of Rajab is also the anniversary of the birth of Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, a deeply significant spiritual figure for Muslims. The confluence of these days should not be underestimated – as “Star Wars” is discreetly, very Islamic. (OK, kind of.)
A recent article by Graeme Wood argued that ISIS “is Islamic – very Islamic” – but actually, the “Star Wars” epic of films is at least as Islamic as the radical extremist group, if not more so. Of course, unlike ISIS, the films’ creator George Lucas doesn’t actually cite Islamic vocabulary, which makes the connections between the world of Jedis and Islam rather inconspicuous.
This probably serves to protect Lucas – who sold production company Lucasfilm to Disney and is not himself overseeing the new “Star Wars” movie – from claims of #CreepingShariah. More than that, “Star Wars” gets something very right – the notion of religious authority in Islam.
Take Obi Wan Kenobi, for example, and his relationship with Luke Skywalker – as well as Skywalker’s relationship with Yoda. (Ignore, if you must, the filming of the most pertinent Jedi scenes in Tunisia, an Arab-Muslim country with a very long tradition of Islamic spirituality, or Sufism). The notion of the “Jedi Knights” is built very much on the quintessentially Muslim phenomenon of tariqah Sufism – or the spirituality of the Sufi order.
Put aside the fact that all the Jedi nights have a garb that is basically a North African djellaba, which became popularized by Western adepts of Sufism in the 70s and onwards – actually, let’s not put that aside. But in any case – it is abundantly clear that the small, green, Yoda is the Sufi master – the murshid, or guide, that takes young Skywalker through the different levels of spiritual advancement, as he pursues the Absolute, al-Samad – one of the attributes and “Names” of God in Islam. Or, if you prefer, “the Force.”
The relationship between Skywalker and his master progresses, and we must ask if Master Yoda’s residence in a cave is an accident or not – it was in the Quranic chapter of “the Cave” where one of the greatest inspirations of Islamic spirituality, the Prophet Moses, encounters the Al-Khidr.
Al-Khidr, a mysterious character that many argue is the subject of a Quranic story, is one who the Prophet Moses is meant to learn from and follow – but owing to what appears to be erratic behavior, the latter neglects to do so. “Khidr” is also the Arabic word for “green”– and Yoda, surprise, surprise, is green.
The code that the Jedi upholds in these films is clear – it is one of absolute chivalry to the outside world on the one side, and one of complete and total control over one’s own self on the other.
That dual responsibility of awareness to oneself and ones surroundings is, again, a repeated theme in Islamic spirituality – centuries ago, Abu-l-Qasim al-Qushayri wrote “Risala al-Qushayriyya,” the “Qushayri Epistle,” where the author goes into a good deal of depth of what “futuwwah” or chivalry is meant to be for the serious believer.
Muslims in Sufi orders have often written commentaries on that work – and it is at the bedrock of the genre of secondary Islamic spiritual texts, including ones written by al-Sulami and many others.
When it comes to control and command over one’s own self, that is mentioned as one of the primary tasks of the Sufi adept – to conquer one’s ego (nafs), so that it may be in service only to the One. As al-Qushayri notes: “The root of chivalry is that the servant strive constantly for the sake of others. Chivalry is that you do not see yourself as superior to others. The one who has chivalry is the one who has no enemies. Chivalry is that you be an enemy of your own soul for the sake of your Lord. Chivalry is that you act justly without demanding justice for yourself. Chivalry is [having] … beautiful character.”
Indeed, in the 12th century, a Muslim leader, Nasir al-Din, created an order of Muslim knights – indelibly connected to Sufi orders, and honour bound to follow the instructions of spiritual sages. They were famed for hospitality to travelers – but also harshness against oppressors – how Jedi, indeed! It is perhaps unsurprising that al-Qushayri notes a spiritual station that comes – which is “firasah” or “insight.” What, precisely, was it that Master Yoda is trying to get the young Skywalker to achieve – if not “firasah?”
But we also see in the “Star Wars” epic what happens to one who chooses the “Dark Side” – and certainly, Darth Vader bears a strong resemblance to the self-proclaimed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Or perhaps he may be the Sith Lord – one who seeks to tap into the power of spiritual prowess for debase and devastating ends.
On the other hand – it might just be that George Lucas liked North African hoods, and got told a few tales while filming in Tunisia.
Or … “Star Wars” might not be a story based in a galaxy so far away … certainly far closer to Islam, if only in spirit, than ISIS’s myth of a “state.”