Recently reproduced in theaters, The Lion King is a movie that the average child who grew up in the 90’s Disney era can recall almost from memory. The movie is almost unanimously held in high esteem by adults and children alike. The Lion King even sees praise from critics of the Disney model as a whole–and there is something to be said about this. It seems as if every new Disney movie communicates distasteful lessons to the audience, often targeted at children. One such example is the recent Toy Story 4, which communicates a general message of loss of meaning in life as well as the pursuit of whims and the glorification of anarchy. Why does the movie culminate in Bo convincing Woody to abandon his sole responsibility as a toy just to purposelessly live a life of thrill and rampancy? In any case, The Lion King stands out as a beacon of principle amongst other movies, and watching it can be quite a spiritual experience.
The narrative begins with Mufasa presenting his son, Simba, to the inhabitants of the savanna as his future heir. As he raises him, Mufasa repeatedly expresses messages of balance and restraint to his son. One such maxim, in response to Simba characterizing the right of a king as to “take whatever he wants,” communicated that a good king seeks to give rather than take. Mufasa further explains the importance of respecting the natural balance of the world, and asserts that a king does not own anything, but merely protects his dominion. After a scare, Mufasa explains to Simba that even he feels fear. The principles that can be derived from these events are in contrast with the zeitgeist, as hedonism, overindulgence, and narcissism are now sought, rather than fought. We are constantly told to do and take whatever we want, and let nothing stand in our way. Life has become about pursuing what we feel, rather than respecting an established natural law that merely seeks to maintain balance in the structure of society down to the smallest family unit. Children are often flooded with super-human affirmations, with incessant praises that launch them onto a pedestal that ultimately leads to a self-destructing narcissistic personality disorder. In contrast with this, Mufasa softens his son’s ego, demonstrating his own fallibility to show him that it’s completely normal to be flawed. He attempts to temper his son’s paradigm by teaching him that he exists for a purpose, and that purpose is greater than his own self–a lesson that would do wonders for contemporary society.
The plot of The Lion King is accelerated by the death of Mufasa. Mufasa, the beacon of order, balance, wisdom, and purpose is killed by a vengeful, jealous Scar. Scar plots against and kills the one entity that, for him, represents the barrier withholding the honor that he deserves. He causes social upheaval by manipulating the subjects of the kingdom. Scar lures Simba into a valley, spooks a herd of wildebeests, and then pushes Mufasa into the stampede. Once Scar removes Mufasa from Simba’s life, he misguides Simba by presenting his twisted advice detailing that he should run away. This particular segment of the plot is powerful, as it mirrors the process of secularization befalling the torchbearers of principle to misguide their progeny. If Mufasa is viewed as the apparatus establishing justice and meaning in the kingdom as well as the gateway through which Simba acquires his metaphysical calling, then Mufasa can be understood as a metaphor for religious tradition. Scar, the hand by which Mufasa is destroyed and the facilitator of the pillaging of balance and community in the kingdom, is akin to the process of secularization. Proponents of secularization garner supporters by promising that they will achieve what they seek by way of religion, often “ringing in the promise of peace where too often across history there had been strife” . The process of secularization is presented, however, as a shortcut to the ideal communal manifestations of adherence to religious tradition, which is what makes it so appealing. Similarly, Scar lures Simba into the valley, promising him that following his instructions will quicken the achievement of his dream to make Mufasa proud. Professor Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas writes in his Islam and Secularism that, “Secularization is defined as the deliverance of man ‘first from religious and then from metaphysical control over his reason and his language’” . Al-Attas’s definition of secularization encompasses Simba’s experience and the tribulations that befall his kingdom. Scar’s meddling in the order of Simba’s kingdom is also congruent with the telos of secularization under al-Attas’s definition. Mufasa’s death at the hands of Scar symbolizes the deliverance of Simba from religious natural law’s control over his entire life. Simba lost his medium of access into understanding his place in the world, and thus he strayed. The plot further unfolds to indicate a spiral into meaninglessness followed by the total loss of metaphysical control in Simba’s life, accompanied by the introduction of new language and lines of reasoning to verbalize Simba’s meaninglessness.
Simba, too young to know any better, heeds Scar’s malevolent command to run away. After wandering into the desert with no apparent direction and an obvious case of depression, Simba is saved from looming vultures by two other victims that were exiled from the pegs of social order: Timon and Pumbaa. Timon and Pumbaa almost immediately teach Simba a phrase, Hakuna Matata, explaining that it means ‘no worries.’ Timon and Pumbaa lead Simba to their own isolated oasis, with Timon explaining that “life is meaningless.” With al-Attas’s definition of ‘secularization’ in mind, it is clear that Timon’s statement marks Simba’s loss of metaphysical meaning in life. This expression of Nietzschean nihilism, essentially asserting that ‘everything means nothing,’ is completely antithetical to theistic philosophies. In Kitab al-Tamhid li-Qawa’id al-Tawhid, Imam Abul Thana al-Lamishi al-Maturidi opens his text by stating that, “Surely, the essences of things are immutable and established” . This is known as essentialism, which was the dominant belief since Plato and Aristotle until the modern period. It is so important that even the most advanced theological texts often open with this assertion. The wholesale denial of meaningfulness is simply incompatible with any belief in a greater purpose. At the borders of theism reside theistic existentialists such as Kierkegaard, who deny any divine teleology to the creation of the universe but accept that purpose can be found . Although Simba basks in the bliss that is nihilism for a period of time, he eventually comes to reject it and assumes his role as the destined king of the land.
The catalyst to Simba’s change of heart is a spiritual experience with the metaphysical. As Simba, Timon, and Pumbaa discuss what the stars might be, Simba responds to TImon and Pumbaa’s physical descriptions with a spiritual one. After stating that the stars are the kings of the past watching them from above, Simba is ridiculed, which prompts him to walk off into the night. Rafiki, a baboon that comes across as some kind of spiritual leader or shaman, locates Simba and leads him on a chase. Upon reaching a river, Simba hears Mufasa’s voice from above, commanding him to assume his role as king and assuring him that he never left. This confirms what Simba was told about the reality of a metaphysical realm wherein the former inhabitants of the world live on. Simba then sheds all apathy and aimlessness, having reacquired a sense of purpose in the world. He races back to his family with one goal in mind: to overthrow the agents of anarchy, restore balance, and fulfill his purpose in life for the sake of something greater than his own comfort.
Arguably the most powerful message in The Lion King is the emphasis on the ‘circle of life.’ Mufasa mentions that although lions eat other animals, the lions die and their biomass nurtures the vegetation, ultimately providing food for other animals. In conversation with Simba, Timon and Pumbaa suggest that life is linear, and state that if it was a circle, then nobody would be able to do whatever they wish without having to worry about how it affects others. Timon and Pumbaa, a duo that represents the embracing of meaninglessness and hedonism, effectively demonstrate that a rejection of traditional metaphysics results in an outlook that inevitably produces the concept that somebody can do whatever they want as long as it doesn’t immediately affect someone else. Social atomization–the reduction of the functional unit of society to the individual rather than the family, consequently holds the comfort of the individual above all else, which eliminates the concept of individual sacrifice for the sake of a functional communal unit .
Operationally, narcissism then becomes the dominant apparatus by which society functions, and humans are relegated to the most base of animals, competing with each other for gratification with no concern for the species at large. This is the status of contemporary society, with an example of the spoiled fruits of it being the individual prioritization of facilitating gratification of abnormal sexual desires at the expense of optimally functioning families. Because purpose, order, meaning, and value are always the most appealing choices at the end of the day, Timon and Pumbaa quickly abandon their values (or lack thereof) when they encounter an opportunity to risk their lives for the fulfillment of a valuable purpose greater than their own.
Simba’s journey from a life of principles, order, purpose, and selflessness to a blind bliss of hedonism, anarchy, narcissism, and aimlessness represents the slippery slope that victimizes most people in contemporary Western environments. Nevertheless, Simba’s journey back to his heritage of meaning is inspiring as a wake up call to become vigilant towards the deceptive whispers of secularization and the seductiveness of hedonistic anarchy. Many more lessons may be gleaned from The Lion King, without a doubt. There is not much benefit from what tends to appear on the television screen these days, but The Lion King is a trustworthy option for parents that want to reinforce a principled paradigm in their children without the baggage that most other works in the media industry sneak into our minds.
- Al-Attas, Syed Muhammad Naquib. Islam and Secularism. IBFIM, 2014.
- Al-Lamishi, Abul Thana Mahmoud bin Zayd. al-Tamhid li-Qawa’id al-Tawhid. Dar al-Gharb al-Islami, 1995.
- Franke W. (2009) Existentialism: An Atheistic or A Christian Philosophy?. In: Tymieniecka AT. (eds) Phenomenology and Existentialism in the Twentieth Century. Analecta Husserliana (The Yearbook of Phenomenological Research), vol 103. Springer, Dordrecht
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Wassim Hassan is currently a medical student as well as a student of traditional Islamic disciplines. He has focused his traditional training on the study of Kalam. His general interests include Islam, Western Philosophy, Bioethics, Translation Studies, the Arabic Language, and science.