Click below to listen to Superman theme music
All that I have, all that I've learned, everything I feel... all this, and more I... I bequeath you, my son. You will carry me inside you... all the days of your life. You will make my strength your own. You will see my life through your eyes, as your life will be seen through mine. The son becomes the father, and the father becomes the son.
—Jor-El to Superman
in Superman 1 (1978);
Superman to his son
in Superman Returns (2006)
My servant keeps coming closer to Me through optional [additional] worship. In the end he attains My Love. And when I love him I become the ears that he hears with; I become the eyes he sees with, I become the hands that he holds with, I become the feet that he walks with... When he seeks refuge in Me, I safeguard him.
in a Holy Tradition
This essay is about the Superman of comic books and motion pictures. My study of philosopher Nietzsche’s Superman can be found in The Station of No Station: Open Secrets of the Sufis (2001) and in the last chapter of Weaver Santaniello (ed.), Nietzsche and the Gods (2001). It is also available on the Internet.
Superman is the archetypal superhero, the model for all other superheroes. Why does he attract so much attention, above and beyond all the others? Because the saga of Superman tells us something very profound about ourselves. Yet we can’t quite put our finger on it, for the allusions are veiled.
We mostly think of Superman’s defining characteristic as having superpowers. My long association with Sufis taught me, in the end, that a Superman is an ethically superior human being. S/he is committed to superior moral behavior, even in the face of adversity. Of course, the Superman of comics and movies also has superior ethics. But we never stop to consider that, perhaps, his superpowers are the result of those ethics.
For nonordinary powers to manifest themselves, one’s self has to be purified of all inferior conduct. After all, there has to be certainty that those powers will not be abused or misused. According to the Sufis, when a sufficient level of self-purification is achieved, a metamorphosis occurs. Darkness is transmuted into light. This is no conjecture, but established fact.
This is a spiritual transformation, not a physical one. I was going to give the example of “lead being transmuted into gold,” were it not for the danger that this may be misunderstood as physically changing lead into gold.
In real life, then, the extraordinary powers of Superman would not be due to Earth’s yellow sun, but to moral perfection. And yet, one must not fixate on obtaining these powers in and for themselves. They are merely the side-effects of a much more profound transmutation. So much so, that Sufis are actually ashamed when paranormal abilities are attributed to them.
Luthor is Superman’s principal adversary. He is the personification of evil. From a superficial viewpoint, Luthor represents Satan, the external principle of evil, as opposed to Superman’s symbolism of good. So do all the other monsters and villains Superman fights. From a deeper, Sufic level of interpretation, Superman symbolizes Spirit, while Luthor stands for the internal principle which is complementary to Satan, the Base Self that always incites to evil (Koran, 12:53). This is our inner demon that we are seldom aware of. Because of this, we are all the more vulnerable to its attacks. As the Buddha said in his first sermon: “You suffer from yourselves. None else compels...” So many souls could with remorse say: “So many things I would have done, but the Base Self got in my way.”
Sometimes, the struggle against the Base Self is depicted in a more obvious fashion. For instance, red kryptonite, which has unpredictable effects on Superman, causes him to split into two, a good side and an evil side, who then fight each other, as in Superman 3 (1983). A similar situation can be observed in Spiderman 3 (2007):
Other examples are the talks with one’s mirror image, as in Spiderman 1 (2002) or the TV series Falling Skies (S03E04, 28:00-30:00, 2013). In these, the mirror image represents the Base Self, which subsequently “possesses” the being of the person:
It would seem this all goes back to The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde, where Dorian’s misdeeds directly disfigure his portrait. That portrait reflects the true face of his Base Self.
This brings to mind what Jonah said while in the belly of the whale (or more properly “fish,” since this is how both the Bible and the Koran state it): “I have been of the wrong-doers (zalimeen)” (21:87). But what kind of wrong-doing is this? We find the answer in 4:97 and 16:28, where the expression is “sinned against their souls” or “wronged themselves” (zalimee anfusihim). But what does this, in turn, mean? Both “oppression” and “darkness” derive from the Arabic root ZLM. So we arrive at “darkened their selves.” In the belly of the whale, dark, damp and constricted, Jonah realizes: “I have darkened (blackened or defiled) my self.”
In conclusion, then, Dorian was “darkening” his self (mutilating his own portrait). Every time he willfully committed a sin, his self sank deeper into a morass of darkness. The opposite of this would be purifying one’s self, about which the Koran says: “God loves those who purify themselves” (9:108) and “Success belongs to one who purifies one’s self” (91:9).
As the Spiderman 3 poster aptly points out, “the greatest battle lies within.” This is an almost exact paraphrase of the Prophet’s saying: “The greatest battle is the struggle against the (Base) Self.”
Kryptonite is the one thing that can harm Superman. It can even kill him. The least it can do is rob him of his powers. In the hands of a Luthor, it can be a lethal weapon. In the same way, there are two tools in the hands of the Base Self that it can use to destroy a human being. One is Illicit Gain, the other is Illicit Sex. So from a Sufic perspective, kryptonite symbolizes the Unclean (or sinful: haram). (In the Ten Commandments, these are summarized as “Thou shalt not steal” and “Thou shalt not covet your neighbor’s wife,” respectively.) The antidote for the first is a job, where you earn your livelihood by the sweat of your brow. The antidote for the second is a legally wedded wife for a man, or husband for a woman (marriage is between opposite sexes). To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, marriage combines the maximum of opportunity with the minimum of interference.
God says in the Koran: “Do not approach fornication” (17:32). Notice that He does not say “do not engage in” or “do not commit.” Why not? Because this is such a slippery slope that you find yourself at the bottom before you know it.
Those who indulge in Unclean Sex (and/or Gain), I was told, cannot learn the secrets of the universe. It's that simple.
What of those who, not knowing this, have already sullied their selves, their hands and/or their private parts? For them, the road of repentance lies wide open. God says in a Holy Tradition: “My mercy exceeds My wrath.” To repent with a contrite heart, to start afresh with a clean slate—God is All-forgiving, All-merciful, provided you refrain from erring again.
In the TV series Smallville, part of the second season (S02E17 and S02E22) was devoted to Kryptonese. Especially the sequence 5:34-6:32 in S02E17 (“Rosetta”) is interesting in this respect. When Clark fits an octagonal key in the cave wall, the whole sequence of letters, arranged in concentric circles, begins rotating, finally shooting out a beam that “teaches” Clark how to read Kryptonian.
The sequence can be found below, at 3:24-4:22 (comments have been muted).
To the untrained eye and mind, the Arabic of the Koran might as well be written in Kryptonese. The Koran seems incomprehensible to us in its original Arabic, and even in translation it is a difficult read. And yet, just as Kryptonian is supposed to encode knowledge far superior to ours, the Koran must somehow embody hidden knowledge, since it is revelation from God. Of special interest are the “isolated letters” that precede each chapter, the meanings of which remain a mystery to this day—though not for lack of speculation. I’m reminded of that episode sequence whenever I think of them.
Even when you have read the Koran, do not suppose you have understood it. The example given above about “darkening one’s self” is a good illustration of this. We need a skeleton key to make sense of it all. That key is Sufism. The Koran itself states: “It is He who has sent down to you the Book. In it are clear/precise verses that are the Essence of the Book, and others ambiguous/allegorical ... None understands them save God, and those firmly rooted in knowledge” (3:7). Those well-grounded in knowledge are the greatest among the Sufis. Although there are other ways of reading it as well, a Sufic perspective unlocks the secrets of the Koran.
Unfortunately, one can easily lose the delicate balance necessary for this, just as it is easy to go overboard in all things. This is why the Divine Law is necessary at all times. The Divine Law keeps one steadily anchored in ethics, and prevents one from straying into dangerous waters. (The Divine Law comprises the injunctions of the Koran plus the Sayings of the Prophet.)
Fortress of Solitude
Similar to a hermit’s cave or meditation retreat, Superman’s private sanctuary at the North Pole is called the Fortress of Solitude. He goes there to take time off from his heavy duties of protecting the Earth and humanity. It also contains equipment connecting him with his legacy, and a museum where artifacts from his past adventures are displayed.
Throughout history, people who have desired solitude have taken refuge in caves in order to meditate and/or approach God. This is often accompanied by fasting and other forms of worship. Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai (twice). Jesus spent forty days fasting in the desert, from which is derived the period of Lent. In Islam, the Prophet retreated to a cave near Mecca for a long period before receiving God’s revelation. (Besides the Prophet himself, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus are considered the greatest prophets in the Koran. They are called “steadfast,” endowed with constancy (46:35).) The corresponding period of fasting in Islam is a period of thirty days during the month of Ramadan. The forty-day retreat of the Sufis (called arba'in, “forty”) exactly parallels the times for Moses and Jesus.
It has often been remarked about Sufis that they are “in the world but not of it.” When one is outwardly with people but inwardly with God, and cannot be shaken from this state by the vicissitudes of life, one no longer needs to retreat to a cave. In fact, spiritual progress achieved in the seclusion of a cave may sometimes be inferior to that achieved in the thick of life. This is illustrated by a Sufi story:
Several hundred years ago in Anatolia, on Hasan Mountain, there lived a lone mystic called Hasan Baba (Baba means “Father”). There he devoted himself to prayer and meditation. He lived off the milk of deers, which let him milk them. After some years of living in a cave, Hasan decided to visit his old friend, Stoker Ali Baba. (Ali worked at a Turkish bath, and “stoker” is the person who tends the fire that heats water in a public bath.)
As a gift for Ali, Hasan Baba milked a deer, collecting the milk in his handkerchief. Because of his spiritual power (baraka), the milk did not run through the cloth. He tied it up at its corners, and went down to the town where Stoker Ali lived.
Arriving at the public bath, Hasan Baba hung the kerchief on a nail outside and waited for Stoker Ali to come out. Now it was the women’s hour at the bath, and ladies who had just finished bathing were leaving. Hasan caught sight of a few ankles.
Milk began dripping from the bottom of the kerchief.
Stoker Ali, who was coming out just then, noticed this. “Hasan Baba,” he said wrily, “your milk is dripping!”
Then he took out a flat case from his breast pocket. He opened it and showed it to Hasan Baba. Inside were a red-hot ember on one side and gunpowder on the other, separated only by a wedge of cotton.
If the ember were to ignite the cotton, he would be blown to bits.
“If my attention were to waver for even an instant,” said Stoker Ali Baba, “that would be the end of me. As you can see, I’m still alive after all these years!”
This version of the story may be exaggerated, but you get the idea. Achievements in seclusion may be weak compared to those in the bustling, blooming, busy world.
Let me begin by relating an anecdote of a friend of mine. Back in 1999, when the movie The Matrix hit theaters, he watched it at a movie theater in Turkey. Seated behind him were a couple of Turkish youths. At the end of the movie, the hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves) is seen flying off at great speed. When the lights came back on, there was a moment of stunned silence (the film even spawned an underground cult). Then one youth said to the other, “I guess it’s time we started performing the Prayer (namaz).”
Of course, Neo was the Matrix version of Superman, and one of Superman’s outstanding abilities is flight. Now flight has to do, above all else, with vertical elevation. And as discussed in the companion article, “Superheroes and Sufism,” this immediately brings to mind the Ascension (miraj) of the Prophet. Moreover, every human being who does the Prayer is enabled to participate in that Ascension, because the Prophet proclaimed: “Prayer is the Ascension of the faithful.” The difference is that this elevation takes place in the spiritual realm, not the physical, and it is rarely perceived consciously. But the subconscious knows. In fact, if it were possible to make the subconscious conscious, we would perceive this elevation in the waking state. Both the postures and recited prayers aid in this exaltation during Prayer. So the youth overheard by my friend was more right than he himself could have realized.
In the 10-year Smallville TV series, flight is the last superpower that Clark gains (series Finale, S10E22). Likewise, it is to be hoped that the long struggles of a Sufi will be crowned by a conscious Ascension.
A symbolic depiction of an Ascension is given below:
If one works on the Base Self long enough, it passes through various stages (outlined elsewhere on this site), finally achieving the Purified Self. The Koran says: “God wishes to purify you completely,” “to lead you out of darkness into light” (33:33, 33:43).
When that happens, one casts off human attributes like a snake sheds its skin, and becomes clothed in divine attributes. In a metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly, the Clark Kent gives way to the Superman. Yet the external appearance remains that of a Clark Kent, for this transmutation occurs spiritually, not physically.
The Purified Self is free of all selfishness and egotism. It always looks out for the greater good. This, and this alone, is the level of selfhood that can be entrusted with nonordinary knowledge and nonordinary power. The person who has achieved this stage can be given the keys to the Kingdom, and it is the duty of that person to protect the world and human beings. Truly a job for a Superman!