Islamic science fiction: a prediction for the future?

Islamic science fiction: a prediction for the future?

Desirée Custers

Desirée Custers

25-year old from the Netherlands. Master student of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the KU Leuven. Holds an MA in International Politics and Conflict Studies, University of Leiden and Utrecht.

Islam and science fiction? How? Islam emphasizes the past, such as time of the prophet and Medina while sci-fi focuses on the future, so how do these go together?

So, first off, let me define sci-fi using the definition of The Penguin Dictionary Literary Terms and Literary Theory as a literary genre containing: “a narrative which is set in an alternative or altered reality. This can either contain topics that go beyond the confines of the normal human (…) but also changes to the familiar human world.” This definition includes utopias and dystopias, life on other planets, time travel, future war. But what makes it different from other literary genres such as fantasy, is the role of technological in altering the reality of the narrative. Now how does Islam fit in to this definition?

First of all, Islam lays at the foundation of modern Arabic science fiction. The first Arabic proto-science fiction was written with the idea of an Islamic ‘utopia’ in mind. Islamic/Arabic scholars in the Islamic ‘scientific golden Age’, (between the 6th and the 12th century) under the expansion of the Islamic empire, reflected on religion and science in their imagination of the ideal society. Take for example the 9th century al- Madīna al-fāḍila (“The Virtuous City”) written the philosopher and logician Al- Fārā (872-950/951 CE). This book describes a perfect society ruled by Muslim philosophers influenced by Plato’s Republic (dated around 380 B.C.). In the virtuous city, it is the structure and development of each of the inhabitants’ happiness that is key. Reference to this utopia is Medina, the city in which the first Muslim community of the prophet.

This theme remained when modern Arabic literature was first published. See for example Rajul taḥt as-Sifr (‘The man with a temperature below zero’, 1965) by the Egyptian philosopher, journalist and author Muṣṭafā Maḥmūd who is considered as the “father of Arabic SF”. In it, the main character, a professor, predicts Egypt’s future as one in which the human life controlled by materialistic interests and forecasts that people will only be able to turn to God for redemption.

Reuven Snir has described Rajul taḥt as-Sifr as ‘Islamic sci-fi’, a genre which he defines as promoting Islamic concepts through sci-fi. These concepts can be certain religious views and terms common to Islamic theology, two things that were/are viewed as an alternative to nationalism, liberalism and other dominant political discourses in Arab politics.

Some of the superheroes from ‘the 99’
 

But Islamic sci-fi has also taken on other forms than utopian narratives. Nāyyif al-Muṭṭuwaʿ’s comic series for young adults titled al-tisʿah wa tisʿūn (‘The 99’) takes place in the alternative universe of the 99 superheroes. Each of them is from a different part of the world and embodies one of Allah’s 99 characteristics which are mentioned in the Qurʾan (such as generosity, wisdom and strength) in the series that ran from 2007 until 2014.

Islamic sci-fi is not limited to the Arabic world. The Ethiopian Muslim sci-fi writer Mäkonnen Endalkaččäw, for example, portrays “reality” in his stories as both terrifying (cosmic horror) and awe inspiring (the workings of Allah). Endalkaččäw works were mostly published in the mid of the previous century in the Amharic language. For those reading English, the anthology A Mosque Among the Stars (2008) which is edited by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad and Ahmed Khan can be downloaded on the website www.islamscifi.com.

     Cover of A Mosque Among the Stars

Islamic sci-fi has not been positively accepted by everyone. al-Muṭṭuwaʿ has for example been called a heretic and pawn of the West. Furthermore, Islam is not only ‘utopian’. Islam in Europe is for example displayed in French writer Michel Houllebecq’s

dystopian novel Soumission (2015, English trans. Submission, 2015). The novel is set in France in 2022, when the national election is won by a Muslim party (supported by a Socialist Party) which upholds traditionalist and patriarchal values.

     Cover of Soumission

Sci-fi has often been described as a genre predicting the future, not just what technology will look like, but also how it will affect the human kind. The same claim could be made about sci-fi’s take on Islam in a future that is increasingly dominated by technology: will it become a spiritual resort, a cling to the past, or both?

For more articles written by this author visit her blog at: https://issabramil.wordpress.com/