From Star Wars to Islam, The Force Is With Nostalgia

What makes us who we are? In that question lies the key to understanding not only the past year, but the many troubled years to come.


This article contains spoilers about the Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens and Creed movies.

As another year eclipses our last, we begin to reminisce about our memories, moments, occasions and celebrations gone by. In this spirit, I recently went to see the latest version of two movies that captured my imagination as a child: Star Wars—revamped as Episode VII, and Rocky—retold as Creed.

That I went to see these two movies over the course of as many days, gave me pause to think. Was I seeking the lost enchantment of my youth on the silver screen? Did I really hope to relive that first moment I beheld in wonderment the X-wing Fighter, and revered Rocky’s resilience?

Ultimately, of course, nothing ever feels as good as the first time it is experienced, especially as a child, so I left the movie theater reasonably satisfied, but not blown away.

Despite near universal praise, by critics and consumers alike, the Star Wars plot was the biggest letdown. I found the story line to be an unimaginative rehash of Episode IV (the original movie), almost to the letter. It featured the same cat and mouse search for the last Jedi, complete with a droid that possessed a message to unlock the secret. And so on. No need to rehash the rehash.

Creed was also nothing but a repeat of Rocky I. The entire movie unimaginatively relived the best moments from the original movie we loved, when Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) was eye-of-the-tiger hungry.

So, why did I still leave both movies happy that I’d been to see them, and relatively pleased with my evening? Apart from the quality family time they afforded me, the makers of these two movies understood something essential to human nature: nostalgia is a powerful force.

I am known to be somebody who challenges Islamist extremism and applies a lens of introspection to my own Muslim communities and culture. Many of my non-Muslim supporters, surprised at the level of resistance I face, wonder why I don’t just quit Islam and give up on my fellow Muslims. Understanding the answer relies—in part—on understanding why I keep returning to disappointing movie prequel after movie sequel.

We humans are emotional creatures. And as there is something familiar with my fellow Brits, my fellow Englishmen, my fellow Essex Boys, in which I rejoice, there is something familiar with my fellow Muslims, my Arab friends, and my fellow Pakistanis.

Just like in movie sequels, nostalgia and a fondness for the familiar cannot be denied. There is something beautiful in the Arabic language of the Quran, its precise recitation being an art in which I excelled, and half of which I memorized. There is something intimate in knowing the Prophet Muhammad’s life inside out. There is something rooted in knowing one’s history and in understanding why your family and your friends think the way they do.

There is something logically satisfying in studying the scholastics and jurisprudence of medieval Muslim thought. Yet as the ancient Sufi mystic Ibn ‘Arabi taught, this path is not the only way to knowledge, for that would be incredibly arrogant to assert.

For me, this happens to be the path that I was bestowed, the road that I am familiar with, the way I know inside-out, and the trajectory that brought me to where I am today, and built the man presented before you. To know this man, you must accept how he was forged.

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To abandon this history would be to abandon myself, and my sense of self. For me that would mean extinction.

This may be a sentimental answer. Of course it is. As the Arthur Koestler wrote in his novel Darkness at Noon, sentimentality may be the only thing standing between us and absolute tyranny. Sentimentality may well be our saving grace.

I put it to my fellow liberals and my atheist supporters: This path of reforming Islam today from within may seem unrealistic to you; it may seem like a lost cause.

But what sounds more impractical to you? Reforming Islam from within? Or expecting 1.6 billion Muslims to apostatize en masse?

I can assure you that the latter will not happen.

We human beings cannot even give up our movie sequels, how could mass apostasy ever be a realistic option? No, what struck me this last week—and as I usher in the new year of 2016—is that nostalgia is a powerful thing. And for bloody good reason. It is quintessentially human. And if you care about humanity, that has to be taken into account.