Review: This Book Tells You How Muslim Societies And Islamic Theology Around The World Have Interacted With Science Fiction – Swarajya

‘Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life’ looks at the interaction of Muslim society in various cultures—as well as that of Islamic theology—with science, through the lens of science fiction.
Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World. Jörg Matthias Determann. I.B. Tauris. Pages 288. Rs 7741 (Kindle edition).
Imagine a distant future where the cooling of sun threatens life on Earth with an inevitable new Ice Age. Hamza, a scientist, tries to save humanity by decoding an extraterrestrial message that is embedded in Holy Quran.
That is the subject of a science fiction work written by Jamshed Akhtar, an Indian engineer, in 1996.
A space ship has been chosen for an important mission. It does not belong to NASA or the European Union. This spaceship, which is representative of all humanity, is launched by the Space Commission of the Islamic Union in Aleppo, which itself is headed by a scientist called Müsebbih.
Müsebbih is also an Islamic scholar.
The space travellers have special watches with prayer timings and purified sand for ablutions. The spaceship itself has 99 sub-sections corresponding to the sacred names of Allah.
Welcome to the world of Islamic science fiction.
The book Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World by historian of art and science, Jörg Matthias Determann, is a must-read to understand the churning that is happening in the Muslim world and the educated Islamic psyche. The space for this churn is the interaction of science with Islamic worldview in particular, and Muslim society in general.
The book does a good job of bringing out the history as well as the current status of the genre while also bringing to attention the historical factors which shape the science fiction produced in the Islamic world.
Astrobiology or the search for life (including intelligent life in the vastness of space) has serious theological consequences for both Christianity and Islam. The book gives a detailed view of how Islam from early modern age engaged with the question.
It is quite interesting to see the way Islam interacted with science in a missionary context in the late 19th century Ottoman empire. The defeat of the Ottoman empire at the hands of Russia in a naval battle made Mustafa III turn to Europe to get the best scientific knowledge available to them. The missionaries were in the forefront of taking European knowledge to the Arab world – quite an irony in a wider historical sense.
The Protestant and Jesuit missionaries brought in English classics and Jules Verne novels respectively. They ran magazines which brought scientific subjects as well to the Arab readers.
Naturally, they used this for proselytizing as well. Determann remarks, ‘Similar to the colonial and missionary efforts in India, American evangelists promoted the natural sciences in order to fight perceived ‘superstitions’ and demonstrate the ‘power of truth’.’
In 1876, Al-Muktataf (The Selection) was started by Protestant missionaries from their Syrian Protestant College (SPC), within the Ottoman empire. Jesuits too had established ‘Université Saint-Joseph’ (USJ). In 1898, Jesuits started Al-Machriq (The Orient).
Protestants and Catholics also attacked each other using the scientific knowledge as a weapon. For example, Al-Muktataf, run by Protestant missionaries, reported harmful microbes in the holy water kept in some churches for blessing, indirectly attacking Catholicism. Catholics responded saying that while the holiness of the water comes not from presence or absence of microbes, whose population depended more on the well from which water was drawn, but from the sacredness of the holy water.
Incidentally, in all these, the primary target for both the groups were the Eastern Christians and not the Muslims, though Islamic religionists soon started their own magazines for doing the same propaganda.
Soon, Islamic preachers too started their own propaganda magazine, the same year the Jesuits started theirs. Rashid Rida, a Muslim scholar, who sought a reconciliation between Islam and science started Al-Manaaar (The Watchtower) the same year Jesuits started their magazine. In 1908, an Egyptian physician named Muhammad Tawfiq Sidqi wrote a series in this magazine on the scientific nature of Quran and argued that the same confirmed its divine origin.
Among the topics he chose to write on was also the origin of extra-terrestrial life. He argued that while Adam was a favoured creation of Allah, he was only the most favoured among all creations. The plurality of worlds in the salutation of Allah as ‘the lord of the worlds’ actually suggested that there were many life forms in many worlds etc.
The reach of Al-Manaar extended beyond the boundaries of Ottoman empire and included British India as well. Thus, the Muslim world started engaging with the discoveries of science like modern cosmology, astronomy, evolution and possibilities of life on other planets etc.
Later, the Soviet Union also played a role in making the Muslim world familiar with astrobiology. With the close engagement of the USSR with the scientists of the Arab world and also with the rich Muslim population it had in the Soviet states like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, another comfortable channel of interaction with science was opened for the Muslims.
Of particular interest here is the work of Gavriil Tikhov. Tikhov was interested in what he called ‘astro-botany’ – search for plant life on other planets, including Mars. He looked for signatures of plant life in Mars; signatures which were not the same as that of common earth plants but were similar to plants that grew up in extreme conditions. Quite ahead of his times, the fact that he had to adhere to the Lysenko-Michurianism, then the state biological dogma, made the mainstream scientific world outside the USSR dismiss his work.
Eventually, it was Carl Sagan who brought the pioneering work of these Soviet astro-biologists into focus and made it part of the science textbooks – even during the Cold War. Tikhov and his co-workers were not Muslims. But they had to move their base to the Central Asian Soviet region, which had a significant Muslim population.
The book also reveals an Islamic cult in Turkey that combines Sufi theosophy with socialism with liberal inputs from Western Ufology. Indonesian government invited the famous Ufologist Allen Hynek and recommended officially that UN set up a UFO study centre.
Thus, there is quite a fertile substratum for Islamic and Muslim science fiction.
The Islamic societies across the globe also experienced colonialism and liberation from it. Determann sees the global north versus global south as another common theme that one might expect to see in science fiction from the Muslim world.
Sci-fi in Indonesia
What the book reveals about science fiction in Indonesia is important. To the author ‘Indonesian women of Muslim backgrounds enjoyed great success as writers of science fiction as well.’
One was Dee Lestari, a Christian, and another was Eliza Vitri Handayani, a Muslim who was born on Eid al-Fitr in 1982.
The science fiction of Lestari defies conventional morality. Her novel Supernova, is ‘about a brilliant gay couple creating their own novel centred on a high-class prostitute named Diva.’ Her own life-style is unconventional as her fiction. ‘Alarmed by the effects of the livestock industry on global warming, she became a vegetarian‘, the author informs us, and also that ‘she further nurtured her spirituality through meditation, yoga and marriage to a holistic healer.’
Handayani initially submitted herself to censorship.
But later she rebelled. She was criticised and warned for writing about the anti-Chinese riots and mass murders and rape during the 1998 political developments. In 2017 she wrote Islam and I, where she provided an interesting personal vision of her God – that our universe and we may be simulations in a game in the computer of ‘a kid with blue furs and golden eye’: ‘why many of his rules seemed arbitrary or egocentric, why sometimes I felt the universe was watching over me and other times I felt completely alone. He is, after all, just a child.’
The Hindu concept of leela?
Determann rightly says that ‘the fantastic worlds that Muslim novelists and short story writers built were as diverse as the nations to which they belonged.‘ But what he misses out is perhaps in Indonesian science fiction is that the worldview of both the women writers gravitate towards a Hindu-Buddhist conceptualisation of the Divine and the universe.
But as we move to Pakistan, the author makes an unsubstantiated and unwanted remark on India. He states:
In reality, India has a thriving sci-fi world both in terms of literature and movies; rich in terms of linguistic diversity as well as quantity.
A scathing attack on Hinduism—with a superficial sci-fi theme—in which an alien finds social practices, particularly Hindu traditions funny, was released in 2014 with the lead role played by a Muslim actor. There were online criticisms, though the movie itself was a success.
There are many sci-fi themed movies in regional languages too. Then there science legends like Jayant Vishnu Narlikar who have penned down novels like Return of the Vaman (1989). In fact, more than state secularism, it is the dynamic nature of Hindu culture that has contributed to sci-fi generation in India.
Coming back to the main theme of the book, it takes us on a journey to every Muslim country including Indonesia.
If one expected Pakistani science fiction itself to be Islamist, then in a pleasant surprise, it turns out to be wrong. This is what the author reveals about the fiction realm of popular Pakistani techno-spy-thrillers writer Ibne Safi (pen name of Asrar Ahmed) :
Unlike the works of Ibne Safi, his Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) counterpart Qazi Anwar Hussain made modelled his hero after James Bond. His Masud Rana series invited the wrath of the religious censors. After 1971 though, the atmosphere in Bangladesh became more liberal for a few years before sliding back to Islamic theocracy.
Of course, the world of Islamic sci-fi has fatwas as well.
For example, in 1999, Muhammad al-Munajjid, a Syrian-born Salafi scholar, issued a fatwa that the faithful should avoid those sci-fi that ‘include lies, such as Darwin’s theory (evolution), and other things that are contrary to the facts stated by Islam and the facts of natural science‘.
In Bangladesh, Humayun Ahmed became the face of emerging science fiction. His is the kind of science fiction that should be considered more Muslim than Islamic. His brother, Zafar Iqbal, also writes science fiction and is also committed to secularism. Determann writes:
In 2018 Zafar Iqbal was stabbed by a madrassa student. Fortunately, he survived.
On the whole, the book is a must-read for understanding how interaction of a religious community with science, starting from the modern era to the present, creates a spectrum of responses. Even within the specific literary response to sci-fi, there is variety and not conformity. Interaction with science thus frees the dogmatic mind to the wonders of the universe, furthering a deeper, universal religious feeling. On the other hand, it can also make the religious mind reject the truth or seek validation for its belief from science and become more fundamentalist. Science fiction in the Islamic world, both Muslim sci-fi and Islamic sci-fi, shows all these varieties.
Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.
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