Islam, Science Fiction, and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World
by Jörg Matthias Determann
I.B.Tauris, Bloomsbury Publishing (269 pages, $115.00 in hardcover/$103.50 digital, September 17, 2020)
Science fiction and ETs in the Muslim world? Why, yes. Ask Professor Jörg Matthias Determann, a faculty member in the Liberal Arts & Sciences program at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (the world’s richest country), and Associate Editor, Arabian Peninsula, of the Review of Middle East Studies. He is a historian who worked at Zentrum Moderner Orient, Freie Universität Berlin, the University of London, King Saud University in Saudi Arabia, and was a visiting scholar at the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. He is fluent in Arabic, making him a useful guide to the sciences and mythologies of what are called “Muslim-majority countries,” which includes far-flung territories such as Indonesia and Pakistan, plus Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, etc. — in all, a quarter of the world’s population. These in turn are torn by often ferocious enmity between Sunni (about 90%) and Shi’a (about 10%). A bit like Catholics versus Protestants five centuries ago — and they didn’t even have sf to worry about.
I’m fairly sure hardly anyone native to the western centers of science fiction, especially North America, UK, France, Germany, Australia, has a clue about sf or fantastika in those Islamic lands. Perhaps it’s assumed that reading or writing the usually godless worlds of sf imagination is forbidden or even attracts death threats (p. 148) by excessively devout Muslims. To some extent, as Determann shows, this is so. In 1999, a Syrian-born scholar “issued a fatwa about the permissibility of reading science fiction… ‘If these stories contain lies, such as Darwin’s theory (evolution), and other things that are contrary to the facts stated by Islam… then the Muslim should avoid them” (p. 7). Darwin’s lies, eh? Sigh.
Surprisingly, though, opprobrium is far from universal, and some states have embraced sf as an enticement to study and exploit real science and technology, even funded its publication. And numerous “sci-fi” movies, generally crude and in effect plagiarized from Star Trek, Star Wars, UFO mythos and the like do moderately well in many Islamic states. The book’s cover shows three large rather 1950ish saucers, hovering over several blocks of apartment buildings, with more heading their way through banks of clouds. Here to slay us all, set up trade, or teach us their impious faiths (or perhaps learn from the devout)?
If there actually are such craft that have cruised our skies since the start of the Common Era, or even long before that, what could they tell us about the aerial attainments of history’s prime levitators, prophets, Sons or Daughters of a variety of Gods, and others tethered in a beam of light for the trip? Consider the Christian water-walking and flights of Jesus. Resurrected from a cruel death,
After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the Kingdom of God. […He] was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (Acts 1, New International Version)
During the rise of Islam, and to even more astounding effect, the Moon was briefly and divinely split in two, and the portions separated in the sight of the Islamic warrior-prophet Muhammad’s witnesses. Some of the faithful today compare this miracle with an unusual episode recorded by the Bible: “The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day” (Joshua 10:12-14). Others consider the event a precognitive vision of the Final Days yet to torment humankind.
Muhammad also ascended with the aid of the Archangel Gabriel, outfitted with an internal garment proof against the chill and airlessness of space. He visited seven extraterrestrial heavens, or embedded universes, according to the Qur’an and related commentaries, carried by a winged mare made of light, the Buraq.
As Determann notes, these sacred voyages somewhat resemble claims of ancient alien abductions in UFOs, a proposition advanced in the style of Erich von Däniken by certain Islamic pop theologians and science fiction writers. One of them is Abdul Aziz Khan, a former journalist with Voice of America and author of UFOs in the Quran (2008). He notes that during Muhammad’s flight on the Buraq a brilliant light or “jet of flame” might have been afterburners that helped propel a Satanic flying saucer pursuing the prophet across the dimensions (p. 133). And so on.
Determann wraps these fairy stories in a larger and intriguing history, or perhaps vice versa. In the second chapter, he looks at the emergence of “astrobiology,” a discipline that weds the astronomical novelties first revealed by telescopes and the physiological wonders seem under the lens of the microscope and more recent aides to human limitations. With the galaxy and then the endless universe burst open by the tools of science and well-governed imaginations, it was inevitable that some would guess that thousands, millions, billions and billions of stars would have their own planets, and those might birth life. Not only Europeans fought repressive and scandalized faiths to propose extraterrestrial habitats, perhaps outfitted with stellar explorers of worlds beyond their own. Arab Muslims had recovered the lost discoveries of Rome and Greece, and invented their own advances, gifting the world with Arabic-derived words and the knowledge they encapsulated: from algebra and algorithm to zero.
“Despite the influence of conservatives,” Determann declares at the outset, “I argue that the Islamic tradition has been generally supportive of conceptions of extraterrestrial life. For example, the Qur’an repeatedly refers to God as ‘lord of the worlds’, and Muslims have combined such notions with global astrobiological research and science fiction” (p. x).
The book is half over before his chapter on “Trips to the Moon” turns to “Islamic UFO Religions,” and from there to “Building Nations and Worlds” and finally to “Islamic Futurisms.” Many of the names cited, perhaps all of them, are the Muslim equivalent of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Hugo Gernsback, and promoters and editorial shapers of sf such as John W. Campbell (now often reviled for his defense of slavery and other unpleasant opinions, but historically important for all that). In the American tradition, women’s names are less often cited in such catalogs. But Determann makes sure to reference women contributors not only to Islamic sf but also in important exploratory work in astrobiology and astrobotany. Granted, these disciplines are still almost entirely theoretical. Soon, though, sf’s classic location for life and intelligence beyond Earth — the red, desolate planet Mars — might bring us the first knowledge of a new, distinct biology, even if it is primitive and barely alive.
Meanwhile, some Islamic writers are persuaded that UFOs are not merely real and frequently seen, but malign in the tradition of both awful science fiction and American-fostered conspiracy “theories.” (These are not theories, of course, which are systematic and testable models extending what is already known; at best, they are conspiracy narratives, at worst, conspiracy damnable lies.) Consider the revelation by Egyptian lawyer Mansoor Abdul Hakim (pp. 130-1), who wrote more than 100 books on political and other topics, including Women Who Deserve to Go to Hell. His most exciting news is that “ ‘the owners of the flying saucers are the soldiers of the devil and the Antichrist… the demons of [sex between] the jinn and humans… [UFOs] are the air force’ of the Antichrist and ‘under his personal command.’”
This vicious nonsense is not unlike the endlessly revised doctrines of the American QAnon conspiracy which, oddly enough, blames Islam for just such perfidies. Professor Determann rarely shakes his head or rolls his eyes at such extremist drivel, but one can detect a suppressed grin behind his scholarly stocktaking. For a book laden, perhaps overladen, with names and places wreathed in diacritical marks testing one’s memory and imagined pronunciation, it has the singular merit of displaying little-known times — past, present, futures — and domains where preposterous dreams meet the raw edges of reality. Which is, after all, the landscape and ambition of science fiction at its best and most challenging.
Australian Damien Broderick holds a Ph.D. in literary theory applied to science and sf. He lives with his American lawyer and horticulturalist wife and sometime collaborator in San Antonio, Texas. His forthcoming novel Kingdom of the Worlds (Orion/SF Gateway) revises and extends work by the late John Brunner. His last review for Black Gate was Robert A. Heinlein’s The Pursuit of the Pankera.