by Ahmed A. Khan
Religious or spiritual SF is an established sub-genre of speculative fiction but Islamic SF as a sub-genre has been coming to prominence only of late, predominantly through the existence of websites such as islamscifi.com and islamonline.org, etc. At the risk of sounding immodest, I like to think that the publication of the anthology A Mosque Among the Stars (edited by Aurangzeb Ahmad and yours truly) contributed to more awareness of Islamic SF and planted seeds for fresh discourses.
In view of this rising awareness, it is the right time to come up with a definition for Islamic SF.
So what is Islamic SF? Let us consider the ‘SF’ part first. By SF we mean speculative fiction and not just science fiction. Thus we are including the broader field of fantasy in this definition.
Coming to the ‘Islamic’ part of this expression: Islam, like other religions, is a combination of beliefs and practices. The most fundamental belief is the Unity of God. God in Islam is Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscient, unknowable. The other fundamental belief is the existence of divine guides, sent by God to guide His servants. These divine guides and God’s messengers include names that are well-known among other Abrahamic religions like Judaism and Christianity: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Ismael, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus and many others. The important difference is the addition of the name of Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) to this list as the last and the greatest of the Messengers of God.
As far as practices are concerned, other than ritual practices like salat, fasting, Hajj, etc, almost all other practices would fall under acts controlled by ethical and moral codes and these ethical and moral codes are universal and can be found in almost all world religions.
Islamic SF would be any speculative story that is positively informed by Islamic beliefs and practices.
Keeping the above outlined beliefs and practices in mind, below is a partial list of what we could consider as Islamic SF:
1.Any speculative story that strives to state the existence of the One God as described above.
2.Any speculative story that deals in a positive way with any aspect of Islamic practices, like hijab, fasting, etc.
3.Any speculative story that features a Muslim as one of its main characters and if the actions of this Muslim in the story reflect Islamic values.
4.Any speculative story which takes on one or more elements from the Qur’an or the teachings of the Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah (Peace Be Upon Him) in a positive way.
Analyzing the above list in detail, some may be surprised at what the list includes and what it excludes.
As an illustration, my story, ‘The Maker Myth’ would fall squarely within the boundaries of item (1) above.
The field of item (2) is quite wide and should be inviting to future writers who plan to write Islamic SF.
I can present almost all of the stories included in ‘A Mosque Among the Stars’ as illustrations of item (3). Going further back in time, the fantasy stories of ‘Tilism Hoshruba’ from India and ‘Shahnama’ from Persia could be considered Islamic SF. However – and this may come as a surprise to many of the readers of this article – in spite of the fact that it was written by Muslims, originates from a Muslim culture and features Muslim characters, I don’t consider ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ as Islamic SF. I plan to write a more detailed paper on ‘A Thousand and One Nights’ in the near future but let it suffice that in my opinion, the sayings and doings of the characters in this book do not reflect Islamic values.
Item (4) once again offers a wide field of speculation for writers. For instance, a story featuring a Jinn would classify as Islamic SF provided the Jinn is not some ridiculous figure such as the genie depicted in Disney’s Aladdin.
Islam provides a fertile ground for science fiction.
Science fiction has been described as a literature of ideas. Knowledge and reflection are the source springs of ideas. As far as I know, no other religion in the world puts more emphasis on seeking knowledge and pondering and reflecting, than Islam does. There are several well known sayings of the Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) about seeking knowledge:
“Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.”
“Seek knowledge even if you have to travel to China for it.”
Referring to his son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad said: “I am the City of Knowledge and Ali is its gate.”
Several verses of the Qur’an urge humanity to think and ponder on the world around them. Below are just a few examples:
Verily, in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the alternation of the night and the day, there are signs for men who possess wisdom; those who remember God standing and sitting and reclining on their sides and think in the creation of the heavens and the earth… (Aale-Imran: 190-191)
There comes out from within it (the honey bee) a drink of diverse colors, in it is healing for men; verily in this is a sign for the people who reflect. (An-Nahl: 69)
Say, “I exhort you only to one thing; that you rise up for God’s sake, in twos and singly, then ponder…” (As-Saba: 46)
Hence – keeping the above in mind – what religion could provide a better platform for the literature of ideas than Islam?
The proof is – as they say – in the pudding. Let us see what SF tropes can be triggered and what ideas generated by just a very, very cursory glance at the holy Qur’an.
The very first Sura (Chapter) of the Qur’an – Al-Fateha – states: “All praise is God’s, the Lord of the worlds.” The plural “worlds” should be noted. Obviously, ours is not the only world with intelligent life. There are other worlds out there – extra-terrestrial life, ripe for the imaginations of science fiction writers.
Verse 33 of Ar-Rahman (Chapter 55) says: O’ you people of Jinns and humans, if you can penetrate the bounds of the heavens and the earth, then do penetrate through; but you cannot penetrate except with Our Authority. This verse, revealed 14 centuries ago, clearly showed the possibility of space travel. With God’s Authority you can penetrate the heavens and the earth. And what is God’s Authority? Knowledge.
Incidentally, the above verse also talks of Jinn, mentioned earlier in this article. There is also a complete chapter in the Qur’an titled ‘Jinn’. Jinn are considered to be sentient beings made of pure energy. And that brings us to more than one of the well-known science fiction tropes: sentience in a form different from us; beings of energy; a whole race hidden from our eyes, etc.
Al-Kahaf (Chapter 18) also provides glimpses into multiple science fictional tropes. The first part of the Sura talks about the people of the cave – seven people and a dog from a time before Christ – to whom God granted a very long sleep to escape from the atrocities of their times. After sleeping for over three hundred years, they wake up and go out into the world to find it completely changed. Right here are four common themes of science fiction: suspended animation, longevity, temporal displacement and alienation. As an interesting aside, the place where the people of Kahaf slept provides a great spark to the imagination. The location of the cave is a mystery. Qur’an offers very interesting and fascinating hints, but that is all.
An-Naml (Chapter 27) and As-Saba (Chapter 34) talk about Prophet Solomon speaking to insects, birds and animals. Themes of multilingualism and animal consciousness could be explored through these Suras.
These are just some of the themes and ideas that a writer could use to write Islamic science fiction. And these ideas were brought to light by a superficial and perfunctory glance at just five of the hundred and fourteen chapters of the holy Qur’an. Imagine the marvels writers could find if they took a look at the rest of the hundred and nine chapters!
Copyright © 2011 by Ahmed A. Khan
Ahmed A. Khan is a Canadian writer with Indian origins. He published stories in Interzone, HP Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror, Anotherealm and several anthologies. He edited Fall and Rise, an anthology of post-apocalyptic stories with a difference, SF Waxes Philosophical and A Mosque Among the Stars, an anthology of Islamic sf stories. He recently published a collection of short stories. His blog is at http://ahmedakhan.livejournal.com/
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