#57 On Writing: A History of Muslim Steampunk–Guest Blog by Yakoub Islam

Note: Cross-posted with permission from Yakoub Islam from his website The Muslim Age of Steam on The Steampunk Shariah.

Middle Eastern Astrolobe. 1291.

Middle Eastern Astrolobe. 1291.

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.


Filed under Essays

10 responses to “#57 On Writing: A History of Muslim Steampunk–Guest Blog by Yakoub Islam

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  2. Jen

    I so look forward to reading this novel, and if I were still selling books, I’d hand sell the crap out of it.

  3. Nakia

    I’ve been reading about your novel on your website for some time and I too can’t wait to read it!

  4. A concern I sometimes have with “non-Western Steampunk” is that its alternate history revisions end up invalidating the very social issues it might otherwise address. The British Empire didn’t happen because of steam technology, steam technology happened because of capital accumulation facilitated by a trading empire. (I appreciate that this is a wild over-simplification – but I stand by the sentiment that the revolutions of the 19th century were not predominantly technological.) Likewise, the tendency to “do non-Western Steampunk” by crafting a non-Western state that just has sci-fi gadgets grafted onto it is no more interesting than “Steampunk Star Wars.” Pretty, but vapid in that it ignores the historical uniqueness that made things happen the way that they did. I’m barely a scholar of Europe, much less beyond, but it seems that to make one of the places that wasn’t “Western” in the 19th century steampunk would require such a dramatic rewriting of history that it would render the place disinteresting from the point of view of anyone who cares about how reality played out – and I ultimately read alternate history to better appreciate the present, not just for fantasy.

    Thus, it’s exciting to see an author stepping back a little further and looking at another trading empire – one with slaves and poets, religious fanaticism and impressive learning – and imagining how it might legitimately have blossomed into a state like (or at least analogous to) those seen hundreds of years later. Unlike its 19th century successor, the medieval Muslim world certainly could have reshaped the planet – well, even more than it did. Taking that premise the questions then become endless – but I find the most interesting to be whether a Muslim empire of airships would have been more benevolent with the Nordic natives than King Leopold was with those in the Congo? My own take on human nature (Western and otherwise) doubts it, but it will be interesting to see if my pessimism is shared.

    As a side note, I’ll plug Ornament of the World by Menocal – read the history before you read the alternate version.

    (And I’m not officially speaking as Parliament & Wake here – this is my own 4 am rambling untempered by my better half.)

  5. Cameron

    The muslim invasions of India were exceptionally bloody with low end estimates of 60 million dead Hindus and at the high end 120 million dead and enslaved at the hands of muslim imperialists. The ottoman Turks genocide of 1.5 million Armenians, the persecution of the native Copts in Egypt by muslims, treatment of religious minorities in Iran, and the on going slaughter of Christians in Iraq and many other atrocities make it a safe bet that a muslim empire would be worse for nordic natives than that scumbag the Belgian king in the Congo. Difference being the Westerner will admit it happened as opposed the muslim who would deny…deny…deny like the history of India and Turkey.

    • Thanks for the post Ayleen.

      “..a safe bet that a muslim empire would be worse for nordic natives than that scumbag the Belgian king in the Congo…”


      First, I don’t think you can essentialise the second largest faith group on the planet as a collective of historical amnesiacs. Turkey as a state is certainly in denial about Armenia, but then Turkey is probably the most secular Muslim state on the planet. Human beings, universally, have selective memories.

      Secondly, I’d read some history, Cameron, starting with Moore’s The Formation of a Persecuting Society. Europe wrote the book on xenophobic and anti-minority hatred, in a way which is simply unparralled elsewhere, and the avaricious racist violence it incited against the Native Americans (north and south), Africans, Indians, and eventually Jews (remembered more because it took place on European soil), is monsterously more grim than most plundering by past imperial conquerers.

      When Muslims invaded Sicily, Islamic lawyers repeatedly protested at the invaders’ lack of good governance and greed. The crusaders, who resorted to cannibalism at the siege of Ma’arrat al-Numan, were waved off by popes and monks!

      • Cameron


        You make my point for me, denial of wrong doing and atrocities is a fundamental aspect of the culture created by islam. We see the same behaviors in ethnically differentiated peoples linked by only their common affiliation with the religion. Your assertion of of European supremacy in the fields of xenophobia and anti-minority hatred is not simply false and easily refutable, it smacks of again the denial and refusal to look in the mirror so common in muslims as to constitue a cultural trait.

        In terms of xenophobia, Western countries have accept immigration from other peoples do a degree unmatched by any others. Allowing them to settle in their formerly homogeneous countries, and granting the new arrival citizenship. In contrast, Japan has the same problem with an aging demographic yet hasn’t imported immigrant communities or the Gulf countries have for decades imported tens of millions guest workers never allowing them to settle or grant them citizenship. You have read some Western self- criticism, but have you read much in the way of muslim self-criticism for what has been described as the bloodiest conquest in history, the muslim invasion of India were muslim historians glory in the destruction of Hindu polytheists and there temples. If not I suggest you find something by Tarek Fatah, something of an exception to my muslim denial rule. In the Arab colonization of Egypt, with it’s replacement of the indigenous , the conquests of Persia, the invasion of Sicily you mentioned, of the Iberian peninsula, the genocides of Armenian and Pontic Greeks by Turkish and Kurdish muslims the cleansing of Hindu and Sikh minorities from pakistan and bangladesh by muslims, too the jihad against Christians and Animists in what was Sudan all point to the imperialist/colonialist nature of islam and the state of denial and self-reflection common to muslims is prevalent enough to be characteristic of the faith, and more than enough to give European history a run for it’s money in terms of xenophobia, mistreatment of minorities, expressible in the fact that people want to emigrate to the West not to the Islamic world. Though in terms of imperial success, I grant the West was far more successful than the Islamic world which stagnated and sank deeper and deeper into the shitholes we see today when the conquest and enslavement of other peoples came to an end. Even during the so-called “islamic golden age” territories ruled by muslims would still have huge non-islamic minorities and in some majorities. I would suggest that the inferiority of islamic civilization to Western has more to do with the minds created under an islamic yoke than any inherent superiority of the European.

  6. Pingback: Muslimischer Dampf « Clockworker – Steampunk

  7. Just a few comments:
    @ Cameron
    You state that ‘In terms of xenophobia, Western countries have accept immigration from other peoples do a degree unmatched by any others.’
    I live in a country called Australia, it’s pretty much the only country in the world to practice Mandatory Detention, that is the locking up of refugees fleeing oppression and war to Australia for however long the government deems necessary. The media here is filled with government sponsored diatribes spewing forth racist filth that arabs and muslims should be kicked out and the boats destroyed. More than that the government is actively seeking a policy of ignoring refugee boats that are in dangerous situations such as the one that crashed up against Christmas Island last December killing tons of people.
    For decades Australia had a White Australia policy- all the way until the 1960’s in fact- where the government used racism to attack migrants and make it harder for them to get into the country while making it easier for English migrants. After the gold rushes came to an end in the 1800’s many Chinese families where removed with force from the country.
    And Australia is only one example, all of the major western countries have committed similar crimes.
    I’m sure that non western countries have done shit things too but you are committing the very crime that you are (falsely) accusing Yakoub Islam of- downplaying the very real racism embedded in western culture and society and that is absolute disgrace.

    I can see some of your points but I think it is important to remember the root reasons of Europe’s development eventually overtaking that of the rest of the world. As Chris Harman, a Marxist historian, brilliantly argues in his Peoples History of the World, the reason lies in the backwardness of European society, that they were unencumbered by a massive bureaucracy that had developed in the Islamic and Chinese empires and which while at first had led to great advancements eventually became a block to further progress in China and the Middle East.
    So you could imagine for instance things developing differently so that other places could have industrial revolutions at the same time of Europe or even before, in fact there is now a lot of discussion about China in particular and a series of occasions when they were on the brink of moving towards something similar to an industrial revolution.

    Finally I just wanted to say to Yakoub Islam that you’re book sounds bloody fantastic, I can already see al-Idrisi’s steamship casting it’s shadow over the Thames.