Science fiction from culture’s besides one’s own is not a topic commonly considered by westerners, and especially not science fiction from the Muslim world. But since his undergraduate years, Sinai and Synapses Fellow Dr. Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, though his Islam and Science Fiction initiative, has been amassing a treasure trove of speculative fiction from all over the Islamicate world, some of it centuries old and anticipating concepts such as automatons, artificial life, extraterrestrials and space travel, and how such things could create a different and better (or worse) society. He is particularly interested in utopias or dystopias, which vividly reflect present-day society’s imagination of itself and what could be different, or better.
Dr. Aurangzeb recently held a webinar with the American Pakistani Foundation on this topic, hosted by APF President Shamila Chaudhary. A transcript of the talk follows.Read Transcript
Shamila Chaudhary: So welcome to our guests, and to our speaker Dr. Aurangzeb Ahmad. I’m Shamila Chaudhary, I’m the president of the American Pakistan Foundation, this is one of our APF webinars we’ve been hosting. And for the past few months we’ve been doing a lot on the pandemic and kind of the issues surrounding that, but we thought that we would give everyone a treat by hosting something that is not as depressing, but that could be, I guess – depending on what kind of science fiction you like. But I thought that this would be a great opportunity to focus on the arts and culture aspect of APF’s mission. And Aurangzeb is part of our Leadership Council. And one of the things I thought was so interesting about him is his background and profile is so dynamic and cross-disciplinary. That, you know, he’s as someone who is an academic in computer science, and at the same time he runs the Islam and Science Fiction blog, which is fascinating. If some of you haven’t seen it please do visit it, we will link to it on our website after this event. But it’s just that the kind of work that you’ve been doing, Aurangzeb, and both in your professional and in your personal capacity, is a good example for all of us to follow. And so we like to elevate leaders such as yourself.
So in his day job, he’s Affiliate Associate Professor in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Washington. He’s also had numerous academic appointments, and as I mentioned, he runs the blog Islam in Science Fiction, and he’s also the co-editor of the first anthology of short stories on Islam and science fiction called “A Mosque Among the Stars.” And he’s really interested in the topic of science fiction, his focus is – he appreciates how it’s used to illuminate the relationships between technology and humankind. That’s something that I also find very appealing in the genre. And I’ve been a student of science fiction for a long time myself, and for me, it was something that triggered my interest in international relations and learning about global cultures. So it had a very personal impact in my career choices.
So with that, let me just quickly explain the format for today, folks. Aurangzeb will give a presentation, take some time to talk through his slides, and then we’ll open it up for discussion. I may have a few questions, but we’ll open it up for discussion with the audience. And we’d like to have you submit your questions through the Q&A box at the bottom of your screen, just so that we can be efficient in using our time. So Aurangzeb, thank you for giving us your time, and please go ahead.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: All right, thank you Shamila, and thank you for the invite and the introduction. So in the interest of time, I will just get right into it.
So in today’s talk, I’ll mainly be focusing on science fiction coming out from the Islamic World, and from predominantly Muslim cultures, and how that has historically informed, and how that can inform positive futures for the Muslim world as a whole. So before I talk about science fiction per se in the contemporary sense, it’s important to talk about proto-science fiction, or prehistory of science fiction in the Islamic World, in the form of fantasy, also in the form of elements of science fiction that predate sci-fi, but examples of which we do encounter throughout history.
So there are a couple of pieces of art, pieces of work that come to mind. So for example, Arabian nights. And in the Indian subcontinent, where a lot of us come from, we have the Dastan-e-Amir Hamza, which is part of a larger work of fantasy known as Tilism-e Hoshruba, or “mind-blowing magic.” It is considered to be the largest work of fantasy ever written, being made up of more than – the completed work is supposed to be more than 100,000 pages. So for example, my father, when I was growing up, had an abridged version of Tilism-e Hoshruba, and the abridged version had 100 volumes. So I’m sure there’s no one alive who has read that.
So that’s said, we go on to proto-sci-fi, premodern fantasy stories which have elements of sci-fi in them. And the Arabian Nights came out approximately in the ninth and tenth centuries. So there are stories which have robotic people, robotic horses, there is talk of interplanetary travel, talk of machines that can fly.
And fast-forwarding a few hundred years, there’s also some work by the famous Muslim physician Ibn Al-Nafees, who also wrote this novel, which has been translated as Theologus Autodidactus. It’s the story of a child who was brought up in isolation from civilization, in seclusion on a deserted island, and how he grows up and reasons about the world.
And there are a few academic articles which argue that that may actually have been the first science fiction novel. So because the topic of sci-fi from the Islamic World is extremely vast – to begin with, Islamic civilization itself covers 1,400 years and 57 countries where either Muslims are a majority or have a substantial plurality. So for today’s lecture, what I have in mind is to focus on one very specific aspect of sci-fi coming from the Islamic world, especially in the last hundred years, and through the lens of dystopias and utopias. So because of that, there are certain, especially contemporary sci-fi, like “Frankenstein in Baghdad,” or “Utopia,” which came out in Egypt, that I will just briefly touch upon but not really go into detail – but again, it’s just not possible due to time. But just to give everyone a flavor of how things have changed and progressed over the last 30 years.
And lastly, I should mention the terminology. If you notice that I’m using – it’s not “Islamic,” but it’s “Islamicate.” So the term “Islamic” is mainly academic in nature, it’s less than 70 years old. And it refers to the cultural production of the Muslim World. So for example, in the medieval era, people used to use the term “Christendom” to refer to – we no longer use that, we use the term “West”. So anything that comes from the West is Western, and anything that comes out of the Islamic world is “Islamicate”. It’s important to make that distinction.
All right. So with that framing in mind that is mainly focusing around sci-fi but through the lens of utopia and dystopia, this is where we can start our journey.
So any discussion of utopias or dystopias, sci-fi or not, coming out from the Muslim world, has to start with Al-Farabi. So Al-Farabi is considered the greatest of the early Muslim philosophers, though this is way before the age of Avicenna. And so he wrote a book which was inspired by Plato’s Republic that was known as “The Virtuous City.” So in the text, he describes a perfect society ruled by enlightened philosophers based on Islamic principles. So basically he describes how a perfect society should be run, and not just that, but if all these perfect elements are not present, what is the second best system, the third best, and so on.
Very interesting side historical note, because Al-Farabi’s thoughts and ideas are directly inspired from Plato’s Republic. I should mention, is that throughout the last 2,300 years or so, there’s technically only been one state which was explicitly inspired from Plato’s Republic, and it’s extremely difficult to guess for most people. But if you look at the earlier writings and the inspirations of the revolution in Iran, and regardless of whether one agrees with this event, the form of their Republic, or not, it is actually directly inspired from his work which in turn, is inspired from Plato’s Republic. So it’s interesting to note that his ideas have consequences, even 2,000 years after the fact.
So with that foundation text, we might fast forward approximately 1,300 years to British India. So the earliest work of feminist science fiction in general – so I’m talking not just in the Muslim world, not just in a particular language, but in any language – was actually written by a Bengali Muslim woman, Ruqaiya Sakhawat Hussain, in 1905. What is really fascinating is that she was actively involved in the affairs of the time, uplifting not just Muslim women, women in general, so she founded a number of schools in Bengal. So that’s the social background in which this text written. You can actually find it online and just read it in one sitting.
So this text describes this alternate world in which the roles between men and women are reversed – so it’s a world which is run by women. The society is focused on gaining knowledge and improving everyone’s social conditions, and it’s because when men are in power, then they resort to violence. And so there are other ways to keep men busy which is, basically, in this world, sort of taking care of the house. And it’s women who are running the society. So another interesting thing is that the society as depicted in Sultana’s Dream is based on nonviolence, and war is actually outlawed. It’s a very interesting turn of the 20th century work.
So now from that, we skip a couple of decades and we land in Kemalist Turkey. So in the 1930’s and 1940’s, there were actually a few, not just one, but multiple, utopias that came out of Turkey. So if you locate these texts in their timeframe and in their social setting, it’s a time when Turkey had been declared a secular state, and the ruling ideology was Kemalist in nature. And so this text, “The Celestial Passions,” describes a future Turkey which is secular, which is republican. There are several Nobel Prize-winning Turkish authors, men and women, and women in general have much more freedom, even as compared to the contemporary West, if you consider the status of women’s rights in the 1930’s and 40’s. It talks about a future at the end of the century where people are traveling in private jets, and they can go anywhere in the word, and religion loses its appeal and hold over the masses. Again, it’s a reflection of its times.
Mmhm, so again, let’s fast-forward a few decades. So in the 1960’s, actually late 60’s, 70’s, and going as late as the 80’s, members of jama at al-Ihwan al-Muslimin, or the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, actually wrote short plays or stories, which can be described as science-fiction utopias. One of the more well-known ones is a “al-Bu’d al-Khamis.” It was written in the 70’s, but it wasn’t published until 1987. The premise is that – so it’s a group of people, so mainly Arabs, who just get fed up by the problems and conflicts in Iraq, and they build a rocket and they go to Mars. And what they discover is that Martian society is a society which is ruled by just rulers, and they follow a legal and moral system which is very similar to the legal and moral system in Islam, although they don’t explicitly say that it’s Islam, but given the cultural context, one can look for that. And what this ideal society lets the al-Ihwan, the brotherhood, envision a just society, so that they take a rare top-down approach to governance, even in this fictional Martian society. But even in this top-down approach, people have internalized what this system, this moral system, is.
Let’s keep that in mind and let’s look at what was going on in Turkey approximately at the same time, which is geographically next door. So a text that came out around the same time, it’s a novel by Ali Nar. One could see that it’s definitely and clearly inspired from Sufi ideas. It’s also set on a different planet, [with] a very similar idea of where people from Earth, they go on this planet, this planet which had been settled by the Sufis earlier, And again, this society is run by Islamic principles, but here the approach which is taken is, in contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood, it’s very bottom up. So it’s people who internalize this idea of brotherhood and mysticism which creates this society, and not the other way, where it is top-down, and which also reflects a very contrasting nature, with respect to how these different groups conceptualize what a perfect society may look like.
So this brings us to one of the most famous or well-known contemporary works of sci-fi fiction which has come out of the Middle East, which is Ahmad Tawfik’s Utopia. So the novel’s titled Utopia, but it actually describes a near-future dystopian Egyptian society where there are deep social and class divisions, and the economy has collapsed for all practical purposes, not just in Egypt but in the wider Middle East. And that’s mainly spurred by the invention of a super-fuel in the US. And because of that, oil becomes worthless overnight. And because there’s no middle class, there’s a very small, less than 1%, of extremely rich people, and the majority of the people live in poverty. So think about the movie “Elysium,” that would be a very good reflection of the kind of society that Utopia creates. So if you don’t like post-apocalyptic fiction which does not end on a positive note, I would not recommend it, but that said, it is considered to be a modern classic.
So what Utopia does is it extrapolates the downward spiral of Egyptian society in recent decades and and just extrapolates that into the future.
Along very similar lines came another novel just a few years after Ahmad Tawfik’s work – The Queue by Basma Aziz. This is actually a reflection on the failure of the Arab Spring. So it has definite influences from Kafka and Orwell’s 1984. It is set in the aftermath of an event which is not which is not discussed, just called “the disgraceful event.” So the queue, which is in the title of the novel, refers to an extremely long line in front of a government office where people have lined up to basically hear their pleas heard, and the queue just keeps on growing and growing and growing, and a whole community springs up around that. And so just like the other novel, “The Queue” is also supposed to be a representation of a near future, an extrapolation of what has happened in the Arab spring and what the future might hold.
Okay, so that was what I would like to call an extremely brief overview of some of the representative texts in terms of utopias, and utopias and dystopias, that have come out of the Islamic world. And although they may talk about things which are very different, and it may seem that they don’t have much in common, upon closer reflection, one can gauge that although they’re talking about the future, it’s actually not the future which they discuss, but it’s the present. Because in general, imaginings of ideal societies or societies in cases of dystopias which represent things which have gone really wrong, they actually reflect our hopes, our aspirations and even our fears. So in this way I would say that these texts, although they come from the sci-fi tradition, and one could argue that maybe sci-fi is not as big of a genre in the Muslim world as it is here in the US, in particular, and in the West in general. But even in that very narrow field, one could still see glimpses of the idea that the literature of the future is about the present, and it is reflective of what the society is.
Why is this important? So I’ll switch gears and talk about why it is important to engage in sci-fi and imagining futures. So firstly, representation matters. I don’t have to emphasize this enough, given what has been going on even in the US over the last couple of months. So this is a particularly offensive image from the internet which has gone through the rounds on many blogs and forums. “Why are there no Muslims in Star Trek? Because, well, it’s set in the future.”
The other point is that which has been alluded to in a number of forums and academic conferences, and even in panels lately, that if these stories, these sci-fi narratives, if they’re not told from the perspective of Muslims or from societies which have historically been underrepresented, Muslim or otherwise – the idea is that if you don’t tell your stories, then, well, somebody else will tell your story. So that was actually one of the motivations behind the Islam and Sci-Fi Project, the website I mentioned in the beginning.
So I started this project around 2005, when I was still an undergrad at Rochester Institute of Technology. And the motivation was that, so I’ve been interested in sci-fi – I could say since forever, since childhood. And I particularly have been influenced by Buddhist themes in sci-fi, and so that got me interested in looking for resource resources written by Muslim, sci-fi inspired by cultures from the Muslim world. There was literally nothing on that subject. And so that’s how this project was born, and we have published two anthologies since then, we’re working on a magazine, so on and so forth.
So speaking of representation, so I just wanted to give some of these examples where we can, you know, take certain dominant conventions within pop cultures, in this case sci-fi, and change the narrative, and even culture jam it. And yes, the image on the extreme left is Spock at the monuments in Pakistan, if you’re wondering what that is.
So I mentioned a couple of anthologies. In the interest of time, the idea behind these anthologies is, again, to foster this community where we can talk about these narratives on how Muslim societies have not just evolved historically, but what the future may hold. And maybe use that opportunity to tell more positive narratives which are grounded in reality.
And then towards that, the other thing is that the world that we live in – I mean, this is 2020, which, given the external events which are going in terms of climate change, in terms of algorithmic discrimination, COVID-19 and so on and so forth, I mean – we live in a sci-fi world. So many of the things that we work on, they have sci-fi elements. So here’s an example of a project I worked on, where after my father passed away, I created this simulation of my father, which my kids, who are relatively young, they can interact with this simulation although he has passed away.
And I will end with this quote – let’s put things together – from Freeman Dyson. This is from a personal communication that I had with Professor Freeman: “I am aware that the Muslim world has not been so lucky. My confidence in the future comes mainly from taking a long view of human history. … We survived in the past by adapting well to the harsh conditions. I’m confident that we will survive future disasters because that was what nature designed us to do.”
So on that note, I’d like to say that sci-fi offers the idea that we don’t have to be limited by the past. And one way to creating the future actually requires imagining the future. And with that, I will end with this note, and open it up for discussion.
Shamila Chaudhary: Thank you so much. So you just made my summer reading list a lot longer. (laughs) There’s lots of good examples of work. And I have lots of questions, but I’m just gonna make a few points and then we’ll open it up. And I just want to tell the attendees to, you know, start submitting your questions in the chat box if you have them.
So it strikes me that – as you were mentioning that we live in a sci-fi world, it strikes me that sometimes we watch and read sci-fi as if it’s written by someone else who’s not human, and it’s like telling us of what could be, but it’s actually much more a representation of the present – it’s, in fact, created by us and it’s a representation of our reality, of our minds, and how we anticipate our lives playing out. And so it exists because we make it so. And so I think it’s interesting to see people talk about all of the technology in the present day and be surprised by it. It’s like, well of course it exists, it was being written about hundreds of years ago, robots were being written about hundreds of years ago. So there is a very human component that has led us to these kinds of stories. So that’s just one thing that I always think about, especially because so much of our pop culture now is exploring the relationship between technology and humanity.
The second point that came to mind as you were talking is just that, you know, the issue of representation, and if you don’t write your story, someone else will. And it got me thinking about the different representations of Eastern cultures in Western science fiction. So if you think of Star Wars, then there’s shows like Firefly and others, where there’s subtle kind of nods to Eastern clothing – mostly clothing, I think. Actually, I’m looking at my husband because he’s listening, he’s also [into] sci-fi. In Dune – my husband’s listening on the side here, there is this nod to Eastern cultures, but it’s not representation, and it’s not storytelling of the humanity of the experiences of people in Eastern cultures. And that’s always something I noticed growing up watching sci-fi in the United States, because I came from a Muslim culture and it made me feel a little bit happy, but as an adult, I’m thinking “Well, that wasn’t enough, right,” which makes your work all the more commendable.
And I have just one question I wanted to ask you, because there’s such a large timeframe within which you’re looking at –the more recent examples of work you talked about alluded to politics, like the Arab Spring, and other identity issues and conflict. What about the older works? Do you find that they equally – did they give equal attention to those subjects? And I’m just thinking about like the different experiences all over the Muslim world with colonialism, nationalism, and conflict. And I know that’s a broad topic, and you could pick any country and it could be different, but I was just curious about that angle.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Interesting, yeah. So I’ll first comment on your idea on the point of representation. So we tend to think of this idea of representation as fairly recent, fairly modern, and that’s actually not the case. So at the beginning of the talks, I gave the example of this novel from the Indian subcontinent, Tilism-e hoshruba. So there are characters in that world which are from Arabia, which are from Iran, from Sri Lanka, from Central Asia, from Southeast Asia, people who are white, people who are Black, people who are brown, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Hindus.
And one would think that’s a very modern way of thinking in terms of creating a narrative which has a very broad representation, that’s actually not the case. So that’s a pretty good example of a premodern narrative which is very encompassing. The question regarding what other themes that are found in these narratives – once one starts looking at these examples from different parts of the Islamic world, one discovers some very interesting things. So for example, there’s a story from 1940’s – I believe it’s Nigeria, where this – it’s technically not sci-fi, but it’s a fantasy novel written where they describe an alternate world where people can harness the power of supernatural gems there, and people in Nigeria are using gems to fight the British colonial power. So that’s considered to be one of the earliest works of anti-colonial fantasy fiction. And I would not have thought that there were people in the 1940’s in Nigeria thinking about things like that.
The other thing I mentioned is that in my talk, I mainly focused on utopias and dystopias, but there’s a whole genre which is out there which talks about different themes, so for example – there are a few novels that have come out, mainly from Nigeria and Morocco, which talk about things like setting mortality, and then how did that affect society. And many other things that people were concerned about in the 60’s and 70’s, overpopulation, for example. so that’s also another prominent thing that that feature in the Islamic world.
Shamila Chaudhary: Thank you. We have lots of questions, so I’m just going to get started. So Mariam Mustafa is asking, “How has Muslim science fiction created new ways of thinking about time, space and history? Can science fiction be a tool for decolonial affinity-building between different communities?”
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Okay, that’s a very dense question. So I will now try to address different parts separately. The different ways of thinking about space, time and history – so in terms of ideas which are, I would say, very radical, emphasis on radical, I have not come across too many examples.
That said, in pre-modern times outside of sci-fi, there are certain ideas which stand out. So one is this idea of artificial life, in Arabic terms, the term that is used is “Takwin.” So there were Muslim alchemists, most famous among them being Jabir ibn Hayyan in the 9th century – who actually wanted to create artificial hide, creating artificial life in the lab. And that’s a very sci-fi idea, really, if you think about it, and maybe something that’ll become a reality in our lifetime.
And I actually use Jabir ibn Hayya as an example in my other talks to highlight that in effect, some people may be considered, frankly, to be vessels. You know you’re talking about creating life and yet, 100 years ago, there were theologians who were discussing ideas like these. So there’s definitely, I think, groundwork which is present, which is out there, but in terms of truly radical ideas in sci-fi coming out of the Islamic world, I have not come across such things.
So the second part, “Can science fiction be a tool for decolonial affinity-building between different communities?” The short answer is a resounding “yes.” The long answer is the one thing which has changed in the last 10 years, especially, is the coming of age of Chinese sci-fi. So I would say, 20 years ago, Chinese fought sci-fi on the international scene was just like a minor player. It has really come into its own, like Chinese sci-fi is being translated into multiple languages, winning awards internationally, and being recognized. It’s not just Chinese sci-fi, but more works are being translated, say, from Latin America, from Japanese.
So one thing that I would like to see, for example, is that when we are, say, discussing these cross-cultural affinities, then let’s not limit our focus to Western work. Some academics call it “West vs. the rest,” to erase the influence or collaboration between the Chinese, let’s say, African new writers, who would, say, take their inspiration from the Persian and the Indo-Islamic culture and, say, combines that with some Medieval Norman cultures. So definitely there is a lot that can be done over there.
Shamila Chaudhary: So, Aurangzeb, just to make it easier for you, I’m happy to read the questions, but if there’s one that you want to take, you should also feel free to do so. But Christopher Nazul’s question on “What themes has Islamicate sci-fi touched on that other sci-fi hasn’t?” – That’s kind of intriguing.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. So in terms of things which I would say stand out, or which we don’t find too many examples of in other genres, nothing comes to mind which is, I would say, radically different. I mean, that’s not to say it’s not possible, but it’s just given the fact that other sci-fi has been around for a while but it’s just never been a dominant genre, for example. So that’s what I would say, that there’s not something which is really different.
That said, there are certain – how do I say this, political things which come to mind. So for example, in Western sci-fi in general, for example, just given the fact that in the future, barring a few exceptions, in Western sci-fi it’s taken as a given that everyone will be secular or nonreligious. But in sci-fi coming from the Muslim world, in Islamicate sci-fi, that is not a given fact. Because people who are writing the sci-fi in the West assume that people in the future are going to be similar to them. That’s why you have that bias. So you also see the opposite in the Islamic world, or sci-fi coming from the Muslim world, that people in the future are often [written] really similar to us in one way or another.
And then I would combine the answer with another question that Christopher has regarding sci-fi movies and TV shows. There’s actually an Egyptian – I believe it’s a movie that came out very recently – which made a lot of splash in the media. It’s actually a sci-fi TV series, it’s called “l-Nehaya” or “The End.” It imagines the Arab world in a post-apocalyptic world 100 years from now where the Arabs have been reunited, Palestine is free, and then despite all of these things that are going great, there’s still corruption in society, and, well, they do live in a police state. So that that’s very interesting [thing] to me recently that has come out.
Shamila Chaudhary: So, a lot of science fiction addresses the theme of – or challenges mainstream representations, if you will, whether it’s identity or otherwise. And so there’s a question of “Is there work around Islam and LGBTQ expression?” And I would extend that question to anything that’s kind of challenging societal norms. I mean, I think you already gave examples of women and women’s roles and capabilities in some of the older cases.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: So within sci-fi, I can’t really think of anything off the top of my head. That said, in the larger genre, in the fantasy genre, there are a few examples, and I can share that. But because fantasy is not my focus, I don’t have that off the top of my head.
Shamila Chaudhary: So just for some of us who are not as involved in sci-fi, could you explain the distinction between fantasy and sci-fi for folks?
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Sure. So sci-fi – so this is a very simplified definition, and there are many nuances, but sci-fi as a genre takes inspiration from science, our scientific inventions and technology, and extrapolates and imagines how these technologies would affect society to forward the narrative, whereas fantasy – this is a very simplified definition – instead of science, it takes its inspiration from, let’s say, magic, things which are fantastical.
Shamila Chaudhary: That’s good. I know it’s much more complex. That’s a good simplified explanation. So Myra is asking: “Where can I read and find more of Muslim-written or themed sci-fi?” I also had this question – some of the texts you presented on seem like they would be hard to find.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Yeah, so okay, there’s the obvious resource, not to blow my own horn, but you can check out islamscifi.com. The other thing that I’m currently working on, and this should be out in a few months or so – hopefully before the end of summer – I actually have a compendium of resources, of the main texts in this genre, and where one can find these texts. And then the other thing is if you want to start, the electronic copies of the anthologies that I’ve edited are available online, you can go and download those or buy them, whatever works for you.
Shamila Chaudhary: That’s great. And we’ll link to that too. So for the anthologies you edited, are those present-day writings, those are people who are living and currently writing?
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Yes, so those are, both of those are, present-day writers.
Shamila Chaudhary: So can you talk a little bit about that? I’m curious, like are the themes in line with kind of what you’ve presented on? And when you curate an anthology, there’s obviously an overarching theme. Like, what were you looking for in putting that together, given that it’s such an understudied topic?
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Right. So the first anthology was just getting something off the ground. So it was sci-fi which is either inspired from the religion of Islam or cultures where Muslims are the predominant majority, and the story has a sci-fi element. So that’s pretty much anything and everything under science fiction.
The second anthology was more focused in the sense that the theme was similar, but the way that we solicited contributions for that was we actually had a competition around that, and then the person who won the first prize was for example. And then there were other prizes. What is really interesting is that – so the person who – just to give an idea that you don’t have to be a Muslim or be a person with that background to write a good story about Muslims are inspired from cultures. So the person who won the competition, that’s also in the collection, is actually my favorite sci-fi story set in Muslim cultures. The author is actually Jewish. It’s a really nice story, it’s not even set in the modern era or in the future. The main protagonist of the story is actually al-Khwarizmi. Just to jog people’s memories about al-Khwarizmi, it’s the same person who came up with algebra and whose name inspired “algorithm.”
The second person, he comes from a Christian background, and the person won the third prize was actually Muslim, so just to emphasize, you don’t need to be a Muslim to write in this genre.
Shamila Chaudhary: That’s cool. So it makes me think of something that the writer Neil Diamond was saying in this master class on writing I’ve just been listening to in my free time. Neil Diamond is talking about “Why Write Fiction” and he’s describing how you’re basically thinking of lies to tell people, but there’s truth in there, and in that truth are – you have to make it truthy and believable. And that’s how people relate to each other. And so thinking about that, why write fiction vs. fact, right? Because fiction, it’s more relatable, it’s more interesting. Why in science fiction to tell the story of conflict or gender roles or the experience of being Muslim? Why not just regular fiction stories? Can you tell us what – and this is just your opinion, really – is special, what’s in science fiction that fiction doesn’t have in conveying stories?
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Sure. So there are a couple of things that come to mind. So one is that it can, and it does, help us think about the future, and not just the future, but contemporary society. The other thing is that with fiction, you’re constrained by the rules of the present, what is already out there. In science fiction, you can imagine alternate worlds, things which are not possible. So for example, even if we just limit ourselves to inventions which have come out because of inspiration from science fiction, the list is extremely long, from satellites to cell phones to GPS.
So I think that the definition of sci-fi that I gave earlier, that’s a relatively simplified definition of sci-fi that’s inspired from sci-fi. One place where sci-fi really shines is how it can help us think about what are the effects of science and technology on society, and how rapid social and technological change, how is that going to affect the individual?
So my favorite quote about science fiction that really encapsulates this philosophy is that – so think about how, if you were a person living in the late 19th century, and if you knew a thing or two about science and technology, you could easily have predicted that in 30 years’ time, we will have these horseless carriages (we call them cars now). It’s not very hard to predict that. But, and here’s the quote: “Good sci-fi is not what predicts the automobile, good sci-fi is what predicts the traffic jam.”
So basically, coming back to what I was saying earlier, it helps us conceptualize how – not just technology, but how is that technology going to affect the individual? So think about the people who created Twitter vs. people who are, even in sci-fi, who are thinking about the effects of these technologies. Like the technologists, the people in Silicon Valley, did not anticipate that 10 years after its introduction, it would be used to influence the US elections.
Shamila Chaudhary: Yeah. I think in that vein, so much of sci-fi helps to explain how disjointed the space is between technology and a lot of other trends and sectors that are impacted by it, but yet have no input into the process of technology creation and formation, but rather they’re the recipients of it. And it’s something that I struggle with, coming from the policy space, and your example of Twitter is a perfect example of that.
So Christopher is asking a question on “What mythic aspects of proto-sci-fi do you feel are powerful tools for us to use today? For example, jinn?”
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Excellent question. So jinn, that’s definitely one that comes to mind. The other thing is what I mentioned earlier – so this idea of takwin, creating artificial life, again, that’s not a modern idea.
The third one, something that I’m researching these days – the article will be out in a few months hopefully – is that in the West, we have precedents of, even before artificial intelligence and machine learning (that’s the area that I worked in), this idea of mechanical thinking and machines being able to think and act. So it turns out that even in the medieval Islamic eras, there were a number of scientists and inventors who worked on things which we now call automatons.
So for example, the world’s first programmable automaton was created by this Muslim scientist, Al-Jazari. So think of an automaton as a machine you can program. I’m using the term “programming” in a very loose way, not in terms of programming languages, but in terms of a set of instructions that you can pre-define. So a thousand years ago, he created this machine, these four mechanical musicians which were driven by water flowing through a boat. And these robotic musicians, they played four different mechanical instruments. So that’s definitely one example where you can reach into the past and use these elements for inspiration.
Other than that, I would say if you look at even individual Muslim regions and cultures, let’s say Southeast Asia and South Asia, you’ll see examples of ideas in fantasy which could be described as proto-sci-fi. So again, going back to look at things which are mechanical in nature, there is a very famous – I alluded to one sci-fi novel inspired by Sufi ideas. And so in Sufi geographic books, the idea of – the rough English translation would be “The falling of the Earth, where the Earth falls.” And you’re in one place, and you get transformed and you’ll be at another place. So this idea of wormholes, for example – so there’s precedent regarding that. And then even within – especially within Sufi literature, there are many ideas that I would say one can find.
Shamila Chaudhary: So we just have a few minutes left, but I just wanted to spend a few minutes on Pakistan and science fiction, because we are the American Pakistan Association, and I’m really interested in just your take on this genre in the context of Pakistan today. Is it a big space, or is it a growing space, what have you observed in terms of the themes, if so?
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: So let me preface my answer by saying that as a significant genre, or genre of importance, technically it does not exist. That said, there are many stories which historically have been popular, which have been popular even now, which can be described as having elements of science fiction. So for example, the works of Ibn-e-Safi, technically it’s not sci-fi, but stories of spies and espionage and whatnot. So they do have elements of mystery, and they do have elements of sci-fi, so we should definitely acknowledge that.
The oldest example of sci-fi that I have been able to find – it’s possible that there are examples which are older than that – is from 1930, where there’s a novel by Munshi Nadim Ferozpuri, a detective novel where the sci-fi element is that there’s this idea of brain transplanting, where one brain gets transferred into another person’s body. That’s the earliest I’ve been able to find in a novel, per se, by itself.
Other than that, there’s another author, Izhar Asar, and then there are things which are somewhat comical, which are technically not sci-fi, but then they have an element of alternate history. I’ll just mention this, because there was a question about Turkish Star Trek, so it falls into the same Star Trek genre. There’s a movie from the 1980’s in Punjabi, I keep forgetting the name, with Sultan Rahi. For some reason, Hitler does not commit suicide in the Second World War, and he flees to Pakistan, and he marries a local Pakistani woman, and his son is no longer evil.
Shamila Chaudhary: Wow! (laughs) That’s insane. (laughter)
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: And it gets even better! So Joseph Goebbels, he converts to Islam, and he’s now known as “Malatam.”
Shamila Chaudhary: Wow. So for folks who don’t know, Sultan Rahi is like an iconic strongman in Pakistani films from – what decade was he around, I don’t even know?
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: I think 70’s and 80’s.
Shamila Chaudhary: 70’s and 80’s, yeah. That’s a good one. That’s a gem. We’re going to have to find that one and share it.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: I have not seen it myself, so if you find it, please do share it.
And one more thing that I should mention is that – so there is actually an award that has been given every year. One of my friends, Usman Malik, he is involved in that. He was actually responsible for creating the main driving force behind creating what is called the Salam Award for speculative fiction. So it’s given to a person, from Pakistan or of Pakistani descent, anywhere in the world, for sci-fi stories and stories of fantasy or other related genres, or philosophy. So if you have a story which is laying around, you can submit this. The great thing about it is that the judges of the award, they are pretty well renowned people, many renowned authors, editors, agents in the international sci-fi scene. So that’s something I would definitely say is worth checking out.
And just to end, in Karachi there’s a blogger/author, Magash Murad, she has edited a couple of anthologies. One is focused on jinns, that’s another thing that comes to mind. And lastly, Usman himself. He also writes in the horror genre, and he is the first and only Pakistani to have won the Bram Stoker Award, which is considered to be one of the biggest awards in the horror genre.
Shamila Chaudhary: Wonderful. So it sounds like there’s a lot more for us to explore. Maybe, Aurangzeb, we could have you back to run a conversation with some of those folks on just Pakistan, and science fiction? That would be really interesting.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: That would be great.
Shamila Chaudhary: Sounds good. So just for our guests, thank you so much for your rich questions and participation. We are going to make this video available in a couple of days, if not sooner, but our Arts and Culture Coordinator at APF is also going to be writing up a profile and blogpost on Aurangzeb’s work, and in that we will be sure to include some resources for finding some of the material he mentioned. And obviously, you should go to his website.
Aurangzeb, you just want to give the address of the website really quick? I don’t remember it myself.
Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad: Yes, it’s islamscifi.com.
Shamila Chaudhary: Ok, wonderful, wonderful. So with that, Aurangzeb, thank you so much for giving us your time, I know everyone’s time is in demand these days, so we really appreciate it.