Science fiction as a vehicle for Islamic didacticism and better futures

Over the weekend I mused that science fiction would be a great vehicle for contemplating possible Muslim futures, and for exploring and introducing ideas related to Islamic theology, law, and ethics. The first time I thought about the possibility of didactic Islamic fiction was when I was a guest of Knoxville’s Muslim community during Ramadan in (I think) 2004. Someone asked about didactic fiction. We were able to find books like Kalila wa Dimna and Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, but we could not think of anything where points relevant to Islamic disciplines were taught or explored in fictional form. I started thinking again about the possibility of fiction where Islamic civilization or disciplines play a central role after reading G. Willow Wilson’s Alif the Unseen, Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow with its Jesuit philosophy, and George Alec Effinger‘s Marîd Audran series. Others have written about Islamic fiction and science fiction. Here are a few thoughts from me.

Many of my colleagues and friends would consider me crazy if I wrote a research piece about teleportation. Given that our being includes non-physical components (e.g., nafs, rūḥ, and ʿaql), it is fair to muse about the theological issues raised by the various types of teleportation mentioned in science finction. Even if teleportation and space colonization are unlikely to be possible in the near future, thinking about hypothetical issues before they actually occur can be beneficial.

Thinking about hypothetical issues benefits specialists in Islamic disciplines since it gives them a playground to apply their knowledge and to develop it to fit new issues. Sometimes what they gain when thinking about a far-fetched hypothetical issue has practical applications in present or emerging issues. In Al-Ghiyāthī, Imām al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī wrote about possible future scenarios where Muslims have diminished access to the Shariʿah and its sources. His scenarios were far-fetched in his day. Some of them are now part of our everyday reality. Thanks to Imām al-Juwaynī’s forethought, Al-Ghiyāthī is one of the sources for developing abstract legal frameworks (including maqāṣid) and for political philosophy.

In addition to thinking about specific issues, an author could follow the example of Imām al-Juwaynī and write about future worlds. In the Marîd Audran series, George Alec Effinger created an alternative future world where Muslim lands prospered and western lands went into decline. An author could situate their story in a world where Islamic culture and values are dominant. Quran reciters and ḥadīth narrators could replace rock and film stars. Instead of live rap battles, scholars from different legal schools could engage in extemporaneous battles to present evidence. A story written around a well-functioning society is an opportunity to explore and encourage people to dream about – and work towards – better Muslim tomorrows instead of being stuck trapped by the past or current events.

Many thanks to @softchaos on Twitter, and to @la and @kdfrawg on ADN for the numerous conversations related to these topics.

UPDATE: This piece has prompted comments in addition to the mentioned at the bottom of this page.

There have been requests for more examples of Islamic science fiction and recommendations. Goodreads has a list. None of the books I mentioned should be taken as examples of orthodox Muslim beliefs or praxis. Some of the books include heterodox beliefs and describe immoral behavior – not out of malice or advocacy, but often out of poor research or as part of a flawed character.

Someone pointed out that many scholars frown at speculative and hypothetical issues. While it is true that it is typically discouraged to ask for and answer fatwas about far-fetched or impossible issues, this tends to be less of a concern when it coms to fiqh. The Ḥanafīs have a reputation for being the only school to entertain speculative and hypothetical issues. So do the Shāfiʿīs. The legal scholars and muftis I studied with encouraged me to look at issues that are present or imminent. The old fiqh books I read present many scenarios that were purely speculative during their age which are now becoming realities. Fifth century AH jurists wrote of cross-species offspring and sheep born in the form of humans. Neither of those were practical possibilities or expected occurrences during their age. Today their fiqh discussions are of practical relevance to genetic chimeras and hybrids.

There is a need to develop guidelines and parameters to help observant Muslim content creators carry out their work in ways that are harmonious with īmān, islām, and iḥsān. I touched on some of these issues in my Tabah piece about virtual worlds. Unfortunately, I did not then and still do not have many definite answers.

The growth of e-book and self-publishing options makes it very easy and inexpensive for creative individuals to test whether there’s a market for their wares. Even a cursory look at Islamic websites, message boards, and social media, shows that we have a decent number of Muslims who write, do it well, and have the time for it. Some of this talent could be spent writing fiction that leaves readers with a positive impression of Islam and Muslims. Larry’s comment below was offered as sincere advice [naṣīḥah] and should be taken to heart:

Islamic science fiction of the type you describe could be a vehicle for spreading Islam in the West. Science fiction at its best describes what could be, and a positive Islamic future would go far towards counteracting the negativity so often encountered in the press.

Allah knows best, and success is only through Him.

  • Reul Mcg

    AsSalamu ‘alaykum,
    Two things:
    I’ve longed for books, fiction, or history that read like a novel, that took place in the Islamic heyday – there are TOO many adventures with Muslim heros, scholars, warriors, scholar-warriors, that could take place in the Ottoman times, Spain, Pirates, etc. Done well enough, and the movie/da’wa could follow, insha’Allah.

    Also, I wanted to note, that there are things I’ve seen in fiction, like the green crescent being the universal health care symbol in Doctor Who, and the Islamic motif (and names like New Mecca) in the movie Chronicles of Riddick. The movie is a future, space bounty hunter film, and I don’t know the back story (it’s part of a series I haven’t seen), but it suggests SOMETHING Islamic.

    • musafurber

      wa alaykum al-salam

      Indeed. Some of these were mentioned here or on another comment thread on a related post. Along with lots of other examples. I have been thinking about trying to use short stories as a vehicle for presenting maxims.

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