Loki: Ibn Arabi and the Dance Between Time and Free-Will

Once, a bedouin came to Imam Ali, the cousin of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, and asked him about free-will and predestination. Imam Ali famously instructed the man: “Lift one foot”, which the man did, “now lift the other”, which the man couldn’t. “Such is free-will and destiny”, Imam Ali responded, ”somethings we have the ability to control, others we do not.”

One should not take this moral lesson at face value, for all the statements by Imam Ali are multi-layered and contain an abundance of meaning. In this case, it is the very imagery of free-will and predestination that deserves our focus: the twin acts of lifting two legs in the human body.

Imam Ali is drawing our attention to the fact that free-will and predestination are forces not diametrically opposed to one another. Rather, they are harmonious frequencies forming an organic whole. Just as our two legs coordinate our movement in a symbiotic dance, so does free-will and predestination choreograph the procession of time.

In the TV show Loki, this paradox between our ability to make choices that nevertheless seem to dissipate in the ultimate resoluteness of the universe is performed brilliantly. The protagonist, Loki, finds himself under arrest by the TVA (Time Variance Authority), a policing force that tries to make sure that no one ‘branches’ out from the timeline that is prescribed for them. If they do, they are regarded as a variant-fugitive who must be pruned (sent to a void at the end of time).

After the god of mischief and trickery comes to terms with the fact that he is not — in fact — being tricked, rather actually imprisoned by an organization that controls time and space, where even the infinity stones are powerless and are being used as paperweights by the staff in the TVA, Loki teams with variants of his own self, including a femme-fatale version named Sylvie, in order to escape the clutches of this temporal nightmare.

Loki is not the first — nor last — TV show to engage with this theme. For decades now, film and television has struggled with our paradoxical existence in this universe, all in hopes of arriving at a semblance of hope from beyond the veil of reason, in the vale of art and creativity.

One of the best stories in this genre is that of John and Sarah Connor’s attempts to stop the impending apocalypse in the Terminator series. Despite being assisted by the T2 machine, in Terminator 3, John Connor realizes that it “ was never our destiny to stop Judgment Day, it was merely to survive it, together. The Terminator knew; he tried to tell us, but I didn’t want to hear it. Maybe the future has been written, I don’t know.”

In a more recent engagement with this theme, The Tomorrow War, Dan forester, portrayed by Chris Pratt, is a soldier who must travel to the future to stop an impending alien invasion that will take place decades later. He is met with the humbling realization that this apocalyptic future affects his own family. He meets his grown up children who inform him that he died — in their timeline — years prior. Forester later returns to the past not only determined to stop the alien invasion before it begins, but also his own demise and tragedy.

As I watched The Tomorrow War, I could not but think of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ who foresaw the demise of his grandson, Imam Hussain, in a dream while the latter was still an infant. Like Forester, Loki is also shown the various trajectories of his life by the TVA, witnessing the death of his mother and his own self, at the hands of Thanos.

What the Prophet tried to teach us through his tears, I believe, is the lens through which we must approach productions like Loki, Terminator and The Tomorrow War: not as an attempt by humans to play God, but rather an expression of our weakness and attempt to negotiate one’s place in a universe that is expansive beyond perception and the order of which is beyond comprehension.

I find myself, time and again, returning to Shakespeare’s brilliant lifting of the curtain on the power of drama as a mirror of reality. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, As You Like It and many other works, the playwright turns our attention to this fifth wall of theater, one that transcends the fourth wall separating the actors on stage from the audience; rather, this is a dissipation of the boundary between the world of the stage and stage of the world, between the reality of theater and theater of reality.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

Ibn al-Arabi, the famed Muslim mystic who lived in the 12th and 13th centuries, provides us with a much needed metaphysic to understand and appreciate the importance of engaging with this paradox precisely through storytelling mediums like film and television.

Time, Ibn al-Arabi tells us, is an illusion of procession that inevitably appears when the infinite reality permeates a finite universe. Images and forms incessantly enter this universe only to leave it immediately to a void of no return, much like the destination of variants that are pruned in Loki. However, this marriage between the infinite and finite is not only external to us, but also represents more intimately — and importantly — our internal reality as well.

A statement attributed to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ puts this in a beautiful perspective: “The sickness is within you, and cure is within you. You assume yourself to be something small, when — in truth — the entire universe is enfolded within you.” Loki brilliantly performs this dance between the macrocosm at large and the protagonist Loki, as the mirroring microcosm, whereby he must not only confront his demons and shortcomings within, but actually see and contend with these variants of himself externally.

“Surely, We have been cloning whatever it is you have done” (45:29), God states in the Qur’an, which Loki finds a manifest reality during his trials with the TVA. But through all his attempts to conquer the keepers of the TVA, alongside his female counterpart Sylvie, Loki is humbled. He learns how to befriend, love, trust and most importantly, admit his weaknesses.

A final point that must be made is that shows like Loki or films like The Tomorrow War can only be regarded as a feeble attempt to play God when the Divine is approached solely through tanzih (transcendence), whereby He is regarded as absolutely unknowable and distant from creation. As Ibn al-Arabi tells us, however, that is only half of the truth. Life cannot continue on this earth — or universe — without the necessary complement of tashbih (immanence), whereby God is witnessed as intimately present and with His creation.

Here we must emphasize that Ibn al-’Arabi wants us to perceive God, as immanent, not merely with His creation in space and time, for He is beyond both; rather, He is unfolding within and through both. He is humanity knowing itself through the paradox of time and its humble place in the vastness of space. Just as Loki comes to know himself in mirrors of his own self, we are mirrors of Him in the hymns and messiness of life.

If, as John Caputo states in On Religion, that “God is not the answer, but the opening of the question”, then Loki shows that this brilliant definition of God is the very breath of redemption within our suffering. We journey in the darkness of paradox hoping for an answer in the distance, but discover that it is ultimately naught but developing the ability to listen attentively and witness, in body and spirit, whose voice spoke and choice strode at every moment of our journey.

We will show them Our Signs in the horizons and their own selves, until it is clear to them that He is the Truth. (41:53)

I am at My Servant’s opinion of Me. So let them think of Me well.

Reality is perplexity. Perplexity is anxiety and movement, and movement is life.

-Ibn al-Arabi

Creative writer, aspiring musician and educator on the sacred dimensions of the creative process