THE INFINITY STONES AND SUFISM
With the movie Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 (2018) coming up, this seems like a good time to take a closer look at one of the main elements of that saga.
In an earlier article (“Superheroes and Sufism”), I wrote about the Sufic concept of the Imaginal World (âlam al-mithal). This is not an imaginary or illusory world, but a very real one that acts as a bridge between Descartes’ res cogitans (mind) and res extensa (matter)—a third realm in which “thoughts are things.” I also said that comic-book and science-fiction writers may access the Imaginal World in some of their flights of imagination. Hence, we can profitably explore some of the concepts coming from these sources.
In the 18 or so Marvel movies to date, one thread has run through them all, binding them together. This thematic unity was a conscious decision on the part of the moviemakers, and is provided by what have become known as the “infinity stones.”
(Important note: What follows should not be construed as a blanket endorsement of all ideas or entities in the Marvel world.)
The Infinity Stones
The infinity stones first made their appearance in 1972. They were initially called “soul gems,” and then “infinity gems.” Also, the colors ascribed to each have changed over time. Probably the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) version will come to be the one finally accepted.
But what is their origin and their nature?
“Before creation itself, there were six singularities. Then, the universe exploded into existence and the remnants of this system were forged into concentrated ingots... Infinity Stones.”
— The Collector, in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Let’s unpack this. A “singularity” is a region where the ordinary laws of physics do not apply. Since all physics pertains to post-Big-Bang circumstances, the stones are symbols for those pre-physical singularities.
“They were once a single unit, a lone entity. They were a sentient being of limitless power. At the time, this being was the only living thing that existed within any and all realities. It was all that was and all that was was it. This being was infinity and forever. No one would fault you if you were to call it God. ... The core of this being's might was reincarnated in the form of the six infinity gems. They are the ultimate in power...” (Thanos Quest #2 ff.)
Here we see the pages of a comic book directly tackling abstruse matters of theology and cosmogony.
The six primary Gems are the Space Gem, the Time Gem, the Mind Gem, the Soul Gem, the Power Gem and the Reality Gem; a seventh Gem (Ego) is sometimes added. When the six gems are combined in a specially designed glove (the “infinity gauntlet”), the owner has access to the combined and mutually-enhancing powers of them all.
The main characteristics of the stones are as follows.
Space Stone: Its owner can be in multiple places in the universe, or even nowhere. It teleports anything from one point in the universe to the other. (This is known as “Spacefolding” (tayy al-maqân) in Sufism. Some Sufis, such as Somunju Baba, are known to have implemented multiple location.)
Time Stone: From the beginning to the end of time, any moment is accessible or visible to its owner. It can also speed up, slow down, or locally reverse the passage of time. (In Sufism, this is known as “time dilation” (bast al-zaman) or opening a pocket of “time within time.”)
In Doctor Strange (2016), the “Sorcerer Supreme” uses the Time Stone to reconstitute an apple.
Similarly, Khidr uses the waters of immortality to reconstitute a fish (see story below).
Mind Stone: Lets the owner control the minds of others, allows the use of telepathy and telekinesis. At the limit, it encompasses the collective consciousness of the universe.
Soul Stone: Allows the user to control all life in the universe.
Power Stone: Gives its owner incredible power—superhuman strength.
Reality Stone: Allows the user to alter reality, to implement alternate realities, to make one’s wishes come true.
At their limits, these are all powers of God. Although not figuring as yet in the MCU, the Marvel world even has a concept of God: The One-Above-All is the supreme being within the Multiverse, omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, and is above all other cosmic powers and abstract entities.
The Attributes and Names of God
In a recent Marvel publication, the “soul stones” have been called the “source code” of the multiverse:
All-New Guardians of the Galaxy v1 #10 (Nov. 2017). “Hard drive” apparently refers to DNA.
This is where the divine attributes or qualities of God come in. These constitute an important element in Sufic discourse.
Before creation itself, there were God’s Names (corresponding to His Attributes). They are the heavenly—even pre-heavenly—archetypes of the omniverse (similar to Platonic archetypes). In pretty much the same sense as that used for the Marvel stones, they are its “source code.” Various combinations and intersections of the Names that correspond to these Attributes give rise to the phenomenal world we witness.
God has many positive attributes (sifat al-subutiyya), paramount among which are eight. These are possessed to a far lesser degree by human beings. The eighth, Creation (out of nothing), is not possessed by human beings in a literal sense.
1. Life (Hayah)—“God, ... the Living, the Everlasting” (2:255).
2. Knowledge (‘Ilm)—“He has knowledge of all things” (57:3).
3. Will (Iradah)—“Doer of whatever He wills” (85:16).
4. Power (Qudrah)—“You have power over all things” (3:26).
5. Hearing (Sam‘)—“He is the All-Hearing” (42:11).
6. Sight (Basar)—“He is the All-Seeing” (42:11).
7. Speech (Kalâm)—“He spoke directly to Moses” (4:164).
8. Creation (Takwin)—“He is the Creator of all things” (6:102).
The Names vs. the Stones
Let us now see how the infinity stones measure up with respect to these Attributes/Names.
Space: To the Grand Saint Abdulqader Geylani, God said: “There is no space for Me. I am the space of (all) spaces.”
Time: According to the Prophet, God said: “Human beings abuse (that is, speak badly of) Time (Dahr), but I am Time; in My Hands are the night and the day.” (Bukhari, 8.73.200, etc.) While this probably means that time is under the command of God, since God identifies with time, there is nothing more to be said about the matter.
Mind: Corresponds to God’s Names “the All-Knowing” (al-‘Alim, the Name belonging to His Attribute of Knowledge) plus “the All-Aware” (al-Khabeer) (66:3). (In Arabic, the word for mind, aql, is better rendered by reason, which is bound by the rules of logic. Hence, to attribute “Mind” to God would, in Arabic, be to limit the Illimitable. The English expression “the mind of God,” which seems perfectly sensible to us, would not have the same connotation in Arabic. Rather, God is the Creator of mind, along with all else. And one of the first things He creates is the Universal Intellect (aql al-kull).)
Soul: In the sense of Spirit, or the difference between life and death (that which animates the physical body), this falls under the divine Attribute of Life (Hayah) and the Name “the Living” (al-Hayy). The Soul Stone, too, pertains to life.
Power: This is directly one of the eight positive Attributes of God: Power (Qudrah). The corresponding Name is the All-Powerful (al-Qadir).
Reality: God is Absolute Reality, the Reality of realities; the Real (al-Haq) is one of the Beautiful Names of God.
We thus see that four of the six are Attributes of God (Power, Time, Reality and Soul/Life). Mind corresponds to two Names, while Time and Space are fields of action for the Sufis.
Finally, let us take up the rarely-discussed seventh stone. (The stages of selfhood in Sufism are also seven in number.)
Ego: the “I,” or the self (nafs), the locus of consciousness or awareness. We have already seen above that God is the All-Aware—He possesses infinite consciousness. In Sufism, the divine selfhood is referred to as “the Total Self” (nafs al-kull) and corresponds to God’s Essence (dhat). However, the Prophet discouraged discussion about the latter, since human beings haven’t the least idea what they’re talking about.
Thanos is “the Mad Titan” who wants all the stones and their powers for himself. His equivalent in the DC Comics world is Darkseid (left), and in Tolkien’s LOTR (Lord of the Rings) cycle, Sauron (right). He represents the Base Self (nafs al-ammara) at its rawest and most depraved: he wishes to subjugate all that exists. “The universe belongs to me!” he exclaims; “Infinity is clay waiting for me to mold it.” He starts saying things like: “All that is is slave to my whim. I am Reality. I am Infinity. I am the Almighty.” (Thanos Quest #2, Jan. 1990.) No wonder they call him insane.
Thanos wants power, but when he gets it, the only way he can think of using it is to kill off half the universe. This is not unlike Nimrod, the foe of the prophet Abraham: “I let live, and make to die.” Abraham replies: “Yes, but can you restore them to life once they are dead?” God later causes a tiniest creature, a mosquito, to enter Nimrod’s ear. It causes him such distress that he orders his henchmen to strike his head repeatedly. He does not survive the ordeal.
The Story of Khidr and Alexander the Great
Thanos might have learned some wisdom if he had come across the story of Khidr, the famous “Green One” of Sufism. Here is the story, as dictated by Master Ahmet Kayhan himself:
Alexander the Great searches for the fountain of life and passes by a cave, before which sit the prophets Khidr and Elias. Persian miniature, early 13th century. (Courtesy Walter Art Museum, manuscript W.607.)
According to legend, after gathering his entire army, Alexander the Great, with a sign from the Esoteric, started looking for the Elixir of Life in order to achieve immortality. After a considerable amount of exploration, two soldiers set out from the camp one day to continue the search, with the understanding that they would return and report if they happened to find the Elixir.
Around noon they arrived at a river. In order to have lunch, they took out some dried fishes and proceeded to eat. When they threw the remaining skeleton of a fish into the river, an amazing thing happened. The skeleton regained life, took on flesh and appeared to them in the form of a living fish.
The one known as Khidr peeled a fish, ate its meat and, holding the skeleton from its tail, immersed it in the water. The fish immediately reconstituted, regained life and started squirming in his hand. To his friend, Elias [Elijah], he said: ‘We have found the Elixir.’ They drank from the water, and also watered their horses. Their human attributes disappeared, and sublime, divine attributes came over them.
This is the story. Now for the truth:
This water was a flowing water, a river. Whoever drank from this water should have become like Khidr and Elias. However, since their goal was the Elixir, only these two ascended, only they could ascend by this water.
The story goes on:
The two friends returned to the army of Alexander the Great, but they did not tell Alexander about their discovery. Instead, they requested permission to leave the army and go back. Alexander did not grant their request, since he did not want his army to break ranks.
In spite of their leader’s ban, however, Khidr and Elias left the army and started off. Alexander sent his army after them, and ordered their capture. However, during a close pursuit, both of them were suddenly lost from sight.
Did the earth swallow them up, or were they raised to the sky?
All the attempts of Alexander’s men to find them met with failure.
So they went back, and reported to Alexander the Great.
Alexander then said:
‘I overexerted myself and my army in order to achieve immortality, yet the Elixir fell to their lot. Mine was only a rebellion against the will of God.’
(Henry Bayman, The Teachings of a Perfect Master (2012), pp. 40-41.)
And this is exactly the predicament of Thanos, whose name is the diminutive form of the Greek athanasius, “immortal.” He wishes to achieve immortality, which his name promises, but his insane quest for infinite power only amounts to a rebellion against God.
In the second part of the story related by Master Kayhan, Khidr teleports (“spacefolds”) the prophet Moses back home, exercising the power attributed to the Space Stone.
The Fisher King
Thanos’s quest for the infinity stones is not too different from the quest for the Holy Grail. So let us take a closer look at that legend, as expressed through the tale of the Fisher King:
Once there was a boy who wanted to be king, and in a trial of ordeals he spent a night alone in a forest. Lucky boy that he was, the holy vision of the Grail, the symbol of Grace, appeared to him. A voice told the child: ‘You will be the Grail’s Guardian. It will heal men’s hearts.’ But the boy, blinded by the prospect of a life full of power, beauty and glory, could only think of the omnipotence the Grail would confer on him. In this state of mind he touched the Grail, which seared his hand and disappeared.
From that day the boy is wounded, both materially and spiritually. He grows to be a young man, a king, but he is sullen and listless; life has no meaning, no purpose. His knights return empty-handed from every search for the Grail. One day, as he lies dying, he is offered a drink by another person. His wound is healed. He looks at the cup, and recognizes it as the Holy Grail. He asks: ‘How were you able to find the Grail, which neither I as king, nor my knights have ever been able to?’ The person replies: ‘I did not know you were a king. I only saw your suffering.’ It is he who has become Guardian of the Grail.
Thus the Grail will not be found by those who search for it out of selfish desire. It is again compassion, the urge to help others in need, that will cap our spiritual quest. Such power is entrusted only to those who are willing and able to give, not those who will block or misappropriate it.
(Henry Bayman, The Teachings of a Perfect Master (2012), p. 20.)
As I have written elsewhere, only the Purified Self (nafs al-safiyya or nafs al-zakiyya) can be trusted and entrusted with boundless power and knowledge, because only that Self is able to act with justice and love. The Purified Self
contemplates knowledge as divine truth solely out of its love for
Truth, not out of lust for the power that knowledge will give.
Only the Purified Self is worthy of possessing knowledge, and
deserves Truth, because it will never misappropriate, misuse, or
(Henry Bayman, The Station of No Station (2001), p. 63.)
As with knowledge, so too with power. One who attains the Purified Self, the seventh and last level of selfhood, becomes a Perfect Human (insan al-kâmil).
APPENDIX: NEGATIVE AND ESSENTIAL ATTRIBUTES
While we’re at it, let’s take a brief look at the Negative Attributes (sifat al-salbiya) and Essential Attributes (sifat al-dhatiya) of God.
These are attributes that cannot posited of God, since they are not worthy of His perfection. Hence, we deny them of God, we negate them for God.
1. Associate (shareek). God has neither a colleague nor a partner.
2. Compound (murakkab). God is neither made, nor composed, of any material(s). God is One (112:1) and cannot be divided, even in the imagination.
3. Space or place (makân). God cannot be confined to a place, for He has no body (jism).
4. Interpenetration (hulûl). This implies the entering of two separate things into each other. But God’s absolute unity precludes the existence of anything else. Even heaven and hell would cease to exist if God manifested in them.
5. Locus of variation (mahall al-hawadith). God is not subject to change.
6. Visible (mar’i). God is not visible; He cannot be seen because He has no physical body. “Eyesight cannot comprehend Him” (6:103).
7. Need (ihtiyaj). God is not dependent on or in need of anything. Rather, He is the All-Sufficient (as-Samad, 112:2), on which all other things depend.
8. Added attributes (sifat al-zâ’id). The attributes of God are not separate from His Being. For example, we say that God is All-Knowing (‘Alim), but this does not mean that His Knowledge is something separate added onto Him. All His attributes belong to His Own Being.
These are attributes that belong solely to God’s Essence (dhat or zat). They are six in number.
1. Eternal pre-existence (qidam). Before anything else, God was; nothing antedated Him (qidam literally means “predating”).
2. Eternal post-existence (baqa). God will have no end in time. After all else has passed away, He alone will be (baqa literally means “survival”).
3. Existence, or Being (wujud). God is infinite Being; true being belongs only to Him.
4. Unity or Oneness (wahdaniyah). God is nondual, nonmultiple, indivisible. This is not a mathematical enumerability, such as the number “1” constitutes among an endless sequence of numbers, but an all-comprehensive unity beside which nothing else exists. God is One without a second.
5. God is unlike anything else that He has created subsequently (muhalafah lil-hawadith).
6. God stands by His own Self; He exists self-sufficiently, without need of anything else (qiyam bi-nafsihi).
(Henry Bayman, The Meaning of the Four Books.)
These too can be called negative attributes, since they belong to none except the Essence of God. There are also overlaps with the eight negative attributes listed above.