In Summer 2009, I made the bold decision to write a full-length novel. It seemed like the perfect solution to a troubled and difficult decade, which had largely centred around caring for my autistic son: a return to an old passion – creative writing; a therapeutic outlet following a period of mental and physical illness; and perhaps a means of drawing together the various intellectual and spiritual threads that have informed my faith and eclectic reading over the last 20-odd years. I began by exploring the imaginative possibilities surrounding the first recorded Muslim visit to England, allegedly made by the twelfth century geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi. A small cast of characters was assembled, along with possible subplots, themes and a couple of draft chapters. Yet after twelve months of research and writing, the various elements of my intended novel remained disparate, and I almost gave it up.
I wondered whether the problem wasn’t down to a contradiction that I’m sure many writers have experienced – between creative and publishing ambitions. I wanted to write a one of a kind book, but who would want to read it?
With this concern in mind, I considered reconceptualising my novel-in-progress as a work of a genre fiction. It was a short trip from there to the world of steampunk, about which I knew – and probably still know – precious little, beyond flying dirigibles in Second Life. The possibility of “steampunking” my writing posed a series of questions: What if al-Idrisi were to make the journey to England in a steamship? What if steam power had been invented in the Middle East in the twelfth century? It wasn’t quite steampunk, to my mind, with its near-fetishistic love of Victoriana. So I came up with the genre-stretching idea of Muslim Steampunk. And a new sub-genre was born. Maybe.
As research recommenced, I soon discovered the idea of twelfth century maritime steam power was not such a far-fetched notion as I first imagined. Moreover, the steam concept drew together the diverse fictional elements that had emerged during my research, and pulled them into a coherent whole, combining Allohistory, Sci-Fi, and Fantasy, in what I hope will turn out to be an exciting narrative. Thus, what began as a relatively mercenary act turned out to be something of an epiphany. Crucial to this endeavour is that I locate fictional events in a credible twelfth century universe, as far away from Orientalist and medieval romance as possible. That is something I would demand of anyone who decides to write under this sub-genre. We live in a world where Muslims and Arabs are frequently misrepresented by Hollywood and the media as a threat to “The West”. The history of the premodern Islamicate is a reparative jewel I invite anyone and everyone to mindfully appreciate.
Given how Islam and the Middle Ages are seen by many non-Muslims, it’s understandable that Muslim Steampunk might conjure up mirages of turbans, scimitars (they weren’t around in the mid-twelfth century, by the way), and camel trains undulating slowly through the sun-baked desert. It hasn’t been particularly hard for my hope2be novel, The Muslim Age of Steam, to challenge these well-worn cultural stereotypes. To begin with, members of all three Abrahamic faiths are central to the novel. Just as in real-life, al-Idrisi works for Roger II of Sicily, a Christian whose family originated in France, but who was enamoured by Arab and Greek learning. Two central characters are English, both former employees of the Byzantines. In short, unlike the Jabberwocky satire of medieval insularity and feudalism, the Islamicate of the Middle Ages saw itself as part of a dynamic global civilization, stretching from Central Asia to the Atlantic. Such a world presents a boundless canvas for the human imagination.
On the whole, I dislike the idea of imaginative borders, but there is one thing I would prefer Muslim Steampunk to be not – escapist. Escapism is like bad sex. It helps you forget who you are for a short while, but at the end of it, you remain unchanged – still as uncomfortable with your own flesh, and probably feeling a little tawdry to boot. The steampunk equivalent to great sex is mythopoesis: the act of sharing an imaginary universe where the geography and inhabitants and civilization are almost tangible, and where entry transforms both reader and writer — emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. I certainly don’t desire Muslim Steampunk to match the literary heights of Tolkien, a writer I personally find exceptionally tedious. Good fictional art doesn’t need to be dressed in high-minded language and sweeping themes to transport and transform us. Rather, what is required by writers is that we use our passion for language to ensure our own inner imaginative world is as real to others as it is to ourselves. That’s probably setting the bar high. Pray we sail right over it, insha Allah.
Yakoub Islam hopes to have completed the final draft for his novel in Summer 2012. You can follow his writing on his blog.