Science fiction is a genre of progress: SF writers offer alternative modes of existence through imagining speculative worlds, technologies, and cultures. SF allows us to imagine what humanity might look like in the distant future, or visualise the myriad possibilities of space travel, biological modification, and extraterrestrial life. In the hands of creators who skilfully balance worldbuilding and allegorical rhetoric, SF becomes a powerfully political medium for criticising authoritarian regimes, questioning dominant ideologies, and using speculative settings to evaluate the present.
Science fiction is broadly regarded to have origins in the West and is considered by many the natural product of developments in the post-Enlightenment Industrial Revolution. H. G. Wells and Jules Verne—or in some cases, Mary Shelley—are often credited as the first SF writers. Classic “Golden Age” SF is dominated by the work of British and American Writers. That is not to say that the genre is not multicultural—many works of SF integrate multicultural elements in their worldbuilding or space opera ensemble cast. In western SF, however, representations of Islam and the Middle East are often limited to broad appropriations of language and culture. Frank Herbert’s Dune saga and George Lucas’ Original Star Wars Trilogy, for example, draw upon Arabic language and Islamic imagery in their portrayal of alien races and cultures. In these and other works, Islamic aesthetics function as a symbolic shorthand to convey otherness, savagery, and hedonistic excess.
In his monograph Islam, Science Fiction & Extraterrestrial Life: A Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World, Dr. Jörg Matthias Determann’s points out that the Muslim world itself is not commonly associated with science fiction despite its “futuristic architecture and a tradition of fantastical tales […] Religion, repression and rote learning have often been blamed for a perceived lack of creativity, imagination and future-oriented thought” (p. x). The book is a multidisciplinary exploration into the relationship between astrobiology, science fiction, and Islam. Early on, Determann quotes the British journalist Brian Whitaker, who argues that, in the Middle East, “the traditional family structure, the authoritarianism of the state and the dogmatism of religion all meet, discouraging critical thought and analysis, stifling creativity and instilling submissiveness” (p. 5). Arguing against such broad takes—which tend to reduce “the Islamic world” into a homogenous setting of authoritarianism and submission—Determann challenges the Orientalist narrative that the Muslim world is inherently opposed to the speculative possibilities offered by science fiction.
Determann explores the work of Muslim SF writers, as well as scientists whose work is influenced by SF. He defines Islamic science fiction as works of SF not necessarily about Islam, but which are produced in Islamic contexts, and have varying levels of integration of Islamic thought. Islamic SF imagines Muslim planets and states, societies organised according to Islamic principles, or aliens, jihad, spacecraft, and planets named after Islamic myths. It represents a resistance to global Westernisation, and aesthetically positions itself in relation to the West, and to Western speculation about the future. In the same way that Western SF draws upon Greek, Roman, and Nordic mythology in creating alien worlds, Islamic SF may draw upon the Abbasid and Ottoman empires. The speculative setting of SF is well suited to allegorically exploring the impact of globalisation and imperialism—Islamic SF additionally and particularly draws upon Muslim experiences of religious oppression, diaspora, and colonisation.
Determann discusses the enormous range of attitudes towards SF in the Islamic world, which range from governmental sponsorship—as in the case of the 2007 Lucian the Syrian Symposium held in Damascus (p. 4) —to fatwas declared against reading SF—as issued by the Syrian-born scholar al-Munajjid, who condemned the genre for its blasphemous depiction of Darwinian evolution as factual (p. 7). Arguing against these religious conservatives, Determann proposes that “even strictly literal readings of scripture seem to support the idea of the plurality of worlds, which has been the basis of much science fiction” (p. 10). In his first chapter, “Lord of the Worlds,” Determann proposes that this epithet—used multiple times in the Qur’an—can be interpreted as notional support for the existence of other planes of existence and of conceptions of extraterrestrial life. Determann goes further still, and considers SF elements in the Qur’an itself and suggests that SF can be a tool for interpreting scripture. He questions how religious texts have shaped Islamic astrobiology and how the possibility of extraterrestrial life manifests in fiction.
Islam, Determann therefore insists, is open to the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, and many works of Islamic SF explore the questions that arise from such possibilities: do aliens have souls? Are aliens Muslim? Similarly, the speculative technologies of SF also pave the way for broader questions about life and existence: if future technologies allow us to extend or even create life, are we defying God’s will? How much can we modify our bodies? Determann also considers how the more practical questions of extraplanetary living are approached not just by SF writers, but by the astronauts, scientists, and engineers of Islamic countries who have determined new guidelines for their Space Programs. How does one determine the direction of the Kaaba from space? Is pilgrimage to Mecca compulsory from those who are lightyears away? How does one fast if the sun never sets, or there is no sun at all? Islamic SF explores these questions in a rapidly changing world.
Determann acknowledges the ways in which Islam has both shaped and repressed Muslim SF. Censorship is an interesting influence on Islamic SF: it is a repressive force in the production of new texts generally, especially for those writers with political intentions, but “arguably encourages authors to disguise criticism of contemporary politics by setting plots in future times and on distant planets” (p. x). Censorship, therefore, may actually result in the proliferation of speculative texts. Determann’s Chapter 5, “Building Nations and Worlds,” meanwhile, discusses another recent proliferation: the role that SF plays in nation-building, especially during times of political upheaval. He discusses a number of twenty-first-century dystopian texts set in near-future Cairo, such as Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (2013) and Jamil Nasir’s Tower of Dreams (1999). Dystopian novels are “a form of literary resistance against authoritarian governments” (p. 142). The imaginative distance offered by SF, therefore, both allows writers to disseminate powerful political critique through the SF tropes of struggle and oppression while simultaneously avoiding censorship by affording plausible deniability.
Political critique in Islamic SF is not limited to Islamic governments: for example, Iraq+100: Stories from a Century after the Invasion (ed. Hassan Blasim, 2017) is a critique of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and a “form of creative resistance against stereotypes that had fed Western interventions in the Middle East” (p. 192). One of this anthology’s stories, “Kuszib,” by Hassan Abdulrazzak, reimagines the American occupying force as cannibalistic extraterrestrial invaders who derive sexual pleasure from killing Iraqis (p. 192). Equally, the speculative technology of SF also allows Muslim creatives to imagine utopian futures and resolutions to real-world political problems. Comma Press’s Palestine+100: Stories from a Century after the Nakba (ed. Basma Ghalayini, 2019)—inspired by Blasim’s Iraq+100—imagines a solution to Israeli occupation in Palestine by having two parallel worlds exist in the same geographic area (p. 193).
For its own part, Islam, Science Fiction & Extraterrestrial Life blends together theology, history, cultural studies, and literary studies to arrive at a comprehensive vision of its chosen field. Determann’s writing is clear, articulate, and accessible to non-academics without specialist knowledge, and appropriate for anyone interested in expanding their horizons. It is a thoroughly edifying read which addresses a gap in the existing literature, and will be essential reading to anyone wishing to do further work in the evidently very promising field of Islamic science fiction.