Islam and Science Fiction has been a resource in the SFF community for 10 years, and it’s with great pleasure that I got in touch with its founding editor, Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad. Since 2005, Islam and Science Fiction‘s goal has been to gather depictions of Islam and Islamic themes in science fiction and spotlight science fiction written by Muslims. Muhammad has even co-edited an anthology about the topic, A Mosque Among the Stars,with Ahmed A. Khan. In our interview we talk about the state of Islam in sci-fi, its global reach in speculative fiction, and much more.
What was your first experience with sci-fi?
I have been enamored with Science Fiction as far back as I can remember. Some of my earliest memories with Science Fiction is about watching the Original Star Trek series and the Next Generation on television. It was the optimism of the show and its vision of a future with human progress that captivated my imagination as a child. Later on when I started reading fiction it was through the classic works of Arthur C. Clarke and Asimov. Layer on my focus and fascination with Science Fiction shifted to seeing Science Fiction as a way to illuminate the human condition given that it allows one to explore possibilities which other genres of literature may not allow.
When did you first gain an interest in finding Islamic sci-fi?
It was around 2005 when I started thinking about religious themes in science fiction. Some of the best Science Fiction stories in my opinion have religious themes – “The Last Question” by Asimov, “9 Billion Names of God” by Arther C. Clarke, A Case of Conscience by James Blish especially come to mind. This got me interested in looking for Science Fiction literature with Islamic themes or with Muslim characters. I searched online, in library databases and cataloges etc but I was unable to find much information on this subject. After a couple of weeks of searching, the realization dawned on me that no one has written on this subject. Given my interest in this subject I concluded that someone should address this deficiency in literature and if someone is going to do it then it should be me. That is when this project was conceived and it has it grown into the definitive resource on Islam and Science Fiction both online and offline.
Science fiction, essentially, addresses the technological possibilities of the future (as well as the impossibilities). Why do you think there is such a Western bias in sci-fi today, when the Islamic world fostered so much of the technological, scientific, and mathematical progress we see today?
The reasons for the bias are mainly historical. While the Islamic world has a long history of high fantasy with works like One Thousand and One Nights in the Middle East and The Adventures of Amir Hamza in India, science fiction has been slow to catch on in the Muslim world. The bias that we see is just the reflection of the current state of affairs in the world as well as the fact that science fiction arose in the West. Secondly, Science Fiction as a phenomenon did arise in the West and hence it is almost expected that the authors would address Western concerns. The literature that has been produced in this genre is thus also reflective of the economic disparities between the various parts of the world. I think that this issue will be resolved as the economic disparities and relative power between the West and the rest of the world disappear in the coming decades, its a process which is well underway even now.
Your observation regarding the Islamic world is correct, I would add that the Islamic world did lag behind the West in Science and Technology and turned inward which partly explains the absence of Science Fiction as a major genre in most Muslim countries. This is despite the fact that some of the earliest works of Science Fiction do go back to the mid 19th century and in fact one of the first, if not the first, works of Feminist Science Fiction (“Sultana’s Dream“) was written by a Muslim woman (Rokeya Sakhawat) in 1905. Thus even though Science Fiction never really caught on as a genre in the Muslim world there has been a tradition of Science Fiction in some Muslim countries from almost its inception. With the rise of places like Dubai which feel like settings from Science Fiction novels, there is a surge of interest in the Muslim world with respect to this genre and also as the Muslim world again becomes more forward looking.
Can you give a personal assessment on the popularity of science fiction in Islamic countries today?
Given the size of the Muslim world it is very difficult to generalize but one can still identify some trends in various regions and countries. Just like many other regions of the world for many people in the Muslim world, their exposure to Science Fiction is through Hollywood, which most of us can agree that is not the best representative of Science Fiction. That said die hard fans of Science Fiction are to be found everywhere. Science Fiction conventions are finally making their appearance in the Muslim world. Places like Turkey and Malaysia are seeing a surge of interest but in general one can safely make the statement that Science Fiction is not a major genre of interest in the Muslim world. We are however seeing cases where at least some authors from the Muslim world are getting wider recognition outside of their home countries. The dystopian Science Fiction of Ahmed Tawfiq comes to mind.
Do you think fantasy is more popular nowadays (on a global perspective, and not just the West or non-West). If so, why?
The profile of fantasy literature, especially high fantasy has definitely arisen over the last decade or so, especially because of the success of the Lord of the Rings movie series which has brought into focus this genre to many people who were previously not familiar with even the Lord of the Rings books. At least in the Muslim world Fantasy has been a more popular genre historically and this is true even today. In general, people like to read about characters that they can identify with, which tells their stories but in different ways and I think that has been true for fantasy but not necessarily for science fiction. It is my hope that that will change in the future.
When thinking about the use of Islam in sci-fi, readers by be most familiar with the Dune series. Care to share any thoughts about how you think the books addressed Islamic culture in a space opera setting?
Dune has a lot of references to Islamic theology and practices. There are many concepts which are the same as the religious beliefs of Muslims e.g., Ramadan is the month of fasting and prayer, Fiqh is the knowledge of religious law. There are other terms which are derived from Islam but have a different meaning in Dune e.g., Sharia is about ritualism in Dune but in Islam it is mainly about religious law. The main character Paul Atreides is inspired from a number of Middle Eastern prophets including Prophet Muhammad and there are obvious influences from the Hebrew prophets.
Overall, Frank Herbert got the Freeman culture right which was based off of desert culture from the Middle East. The religion of the Freeman is Zensunni which is supposed to be a blend of Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam. One major difference is the Freeman belief in the physical manifestation of God which is considered to be antithetical to the teachings of Islam. It would be better to say that Dune is a good adaptation of a desert culture inspired by Islam as most Muslim cultures do not follow the traditional template of Arab desert cultures.
Cory Doctorow once said that our world today is a cyberpunk one. I have also seen a school of African science fiction that uses the themes of cyberpunk to address how readers and writers can imagine that continent’s cultures and its peoples in new futuristic ways. Have you seen any modern Muslim writers or works that share this similar view of the Muslim world and speculative futures?
Stories that explicitly employ cyberpunk troupes in an Islamic settings are relatively rare. One exception is G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen or Ian MacDonald’s The Dervish House. That said the real world is indeed becoming more and more cyberpunk and that is showing up on how Muslims imagine themselves and their future. One can see that in Muslims trying to figure out how to pray in outer space, apps that help Muslims find a prayer space when they are traveling, computer systems that can give fatwas on religious matters, people speculating on the permissibility of using Robots to perform Hajj (obligatory religious pilgrimage for Muslims) for them etc. That said, these very real questions that people from Muslim backgrounds have been asking have not coalesced in some coherent or even semi coherent view regarding the future of the Muslim world. One area where I have seen a lot of creativity is that of reimaging traditional sci-fi and fantasy troupes in an Islamic setting.
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr., science fiction scholar, gave a wonderful speech “Science Fiction and the Imperial Audience” at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts 35, where he comments that SF is an interesting measure of globalization, since SF often envisions one-world government systems. Given how many political occurrences in the Muslim world address the ramifications of globalization that are connected with various histories of European imperialism — from the Egyptian protests to ISIS — how do you think current SF can or does see different alternatives to how to address these violent pasts and reactions to them?
When Science Fiction was emerging in the 19th century in many Muslim lands the overall tone in then contemporary Science Fiction futures was optimistic where many authors imagined future Utopias or other planets where colonialism had ended and people were living their lives according to their religion and culture. Authors even wrote social critiques of their cultures e.g., Ruqaiya Sakhawat Hussein’s Feminist utopia. This optimism was not to last as decolonization did not bring the perceived benefits that independence was supposed to bring. The Science Fiction that was produced in the post-independence reflected the realities and concerns of the local cultures e.g., ranging from Socialist utopias in the Arab world in the 1960s and 70s to more recent imaginings of bleak futures like Ahmad Taufiq’s Utopia, a political and socially conscious Frankenstein’s story etc.
Going forward, I have big hopes for what Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction can illuminate about the realities of life in the Muslim world. Organizing protests over the internet, Consumerist utopia existing side by side proletarian dystopia in the Gulf, ISIS as a global distributed terrorist organization, megaprojects in the Gulf etc are some of the concepts that sound like Science Fiction but in reality are part of daily life in the Middle East. There are a lot of themes that can be mined here and it will be a matter of time before that happens.
What current books (fiction or non-fiction) would you recommend to people interested in learning more about Islam in speculative fiction?
One can start with the classics like the Arabian nights or the recent translation The Adventures of Amir Hamza by Musharaf Ali Farooqi. Ahmad Tawfiq’s Dystopian novel Utopia was translated into English a few years ago, Ahmad Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad. The Book of Madness by Levent Senyurek is a good piece of speculative fiction. Dawood Kringle’s Quantum Hijra is an interesting take on the role of Islam in speculative fiction where the protagonist is a Muslim musician who is in search of the ultimate music.
Thanks for your time here on Beyond Victoriana, Muhammad! Readers can check out Islam and Science Fiction and additional resources below.