London, The Arab Weekly – 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.”