Islamicates: A new chapter in the intersection between Islam and sci-fi

First of several planned an­thologies, Islamicates hopes to increase Muslim represen­tation in science fiction.

2016/09/18 Issue: 73 Page: 19

The Arab Weekly
Mahmud el-Shafey

London - The intersection of Islam and science fiction goes back centuries but, at a time when Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world with more than 1.5 billion followers, representation of Muslims in the genre is in short supply, a point one project is trying to reverse.

The first of several planned an­thologies, Islamicates is a free-to-download release of 12 short stories inspired by Islamic culture. Edited by Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, it is the culmination of the Islam and Science Fiction project.

Ahmad highlighted the impor­tance of Muslims engaging with science fiction, a genre that has never been more mainstream than in 2016. “The representation of Muslims [in sci-fi] has gradually in­creased but it is still nowhere close to representative of their global population… [but] in the last few years, we are also seeing some great science fiction and fantasy being produced by Muslims,” he said.

“With respect to the characteri­sation of Muslims, there isn’t any single way to describe how Mus­lims are portrayed in science fic­tion. There are many cases in which Muslims are cast in somewhat neg­ative light in sci-fi stories that are set in the near future. On the other hand, stories set in the distant fu­ture have rather positive portrayal of Muslims,” he added.

The stories in Islamicates were chosen from more than 70 submis­sions to the Islamicate Science Fic­tion Short Story Contest organised by the Islam and Science Fiction website. The offerings include tales of alien invasions, time travel and mathematical algorithms that allow humans to predict the future. “The response has been quite good. The anthology was downloaded 4,000 times in the first three days,” Ah­mad said. “Its release was covered by Tor and io9, which are the pre­mier science fiction websites.

“The best thing, of course, is to see the fan reactions when we re­ceive e-mail from people who love the stories and commend us for the effort.”

“Awesome! I really want to read the book. In the north of my coun­try, there is an Islamic population,” commented Colombian Sebastian Quintero Santacruz in the news story announcing Islamicates’ pub­lication. “Excited about the grow­ing diversity in science fiction,” tweeted Anand Madhvani.

Islamicates is billed as volume one in a series.

“This volume had a broad focus on science fiction in general that is set or inspired from Muslim cul­tures or the Islamic civilisation,” Ahmad said. “Future volumes will be more thematic in nature, e.g. al­ternate history, distant future, bio­tech. As with the first volume, they will have a cash prize competition for inclusion in the anthology.”

Despite being under-represented in the genre, there is a long history of intersection between Islam and science fiction. True History, writ­ten by Syrian satirist Lucian of Sa­mosata in the 2nd century, is con­sidered one of the first examples of science fiction, dealing with travel­ling to outer space, meeting alien lifeforms and interplanetary war­fare, staples of what would become the sci-fi genre.

Hayy ibn Yaqhdan by Ibn Tufail and Al-Risala Al-Kamiliyya fil-Sira Al-Nabawiyya by Ibn al-Nafis, both written in the 12th century, deal with science fiction themes.

As for criticism of Islam’s treat­ment of women, one of the first feminist sci-fi books, published in 1906, was written by a Muslim. Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakha­wat Hossain has been described as a “gender-based Planet of the Apes” and has influenced many subse­quent female sci-fi writers.

Islamicates, a term that refers to the cultural output of predomi­nantly Islamic cultures or polity, hopes to increase Muslim represen­tation in science fiction.

“I deliberately chose the term ‘Islamicates’ to highlight the fact that the Muslim world is a vast col­lection of people and cultures of varying backgrounds and beliefs. While the core of these cultures is Islamic, people regardless of their religion are part of this civilisation and everyone should be celebrated as such,” Ahmad said.

“I think science fiction can help the Muslim world reimagine its fu­ture and provide hope in an other­wise abysmal environment.”

Mahmud el-Shafey is an Arab Weekly correspondent in London.

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