Islam, Science Fiction, and Extraterrestrial Life

Jörg Matthias Determann’s Islam, Science Fiction, and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2021). 270pp.

Reviewed by Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute

Anyone susceptible to believing stereotypes depicting the religious views of Muslims as violent variations of Christian fundamentalism would expect a book subtitled “The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World” to be a very short book indeed, featuring a fatwa against the notion of extraterrestrial life as blasphemy contrasted with a couple ex-Muslim writers of bad fan sci-fi fiction. Instead, Jörg Matthias Determann has produced a fascinating collection of numerous examples of a wide variety of men and women from Muslim majority countries or of Muslim persuasion engaged in an almost equally wide variety of activities ranging from serious science to flying saucer cults, along with a panoply of sometimes profound and sometimes silly, sometimes derivative (or outright plagiarized) and sometimes ingenious (even original) science fiction. Suitable for use in a university level course the book is downright pleasant read for anyone with any curiosity about Muslim interest in astrobiology and science fiction.

The opening chapter, “The Lord of the Worlds” is named after the opening verse of the Qur’an which praises God as the Lord of a multiplicity of universes. This places the notions of multiple planets or even the “multiverse” comfortably within the most sacred text of Islam. While early Muslim commentators understood this notion of multiple worlds to include the multiplicity of creations across a wide variety of dimensions (material, spiritual, intellectual, animal, vegetable, mineral, etc.) they would not have been inclined to exclude any conception of multiple worldliness as beyond the Divine dominion. Even the notion of space travel was not new to the Arabs as the second century Syrian writer Lucian of Samosata had written “A True Story about a trip to the Moon” (p. 4) fourteen hundred years before Cyrano de Bergerac’s fantasy on the same theme. The notion of extra-terrestrial life is not problematic for a religion in which God is Lord of all the worlds in the way it is for a religion that conditions salvation on the sacrifice of the Divinity’s “only begotten Son” for the redemption of the dominant species on a single world. Determann notes that “much science fiction from Egypt, Malaysia, Turkey and other countries reflected and promoted dreams of a united Islamic world.” It is no surprise then to learn that Muslim science fiction writers have imagined both believing and disbelieving aliens.

Chapter 2, entitled “Missions and Mars” looks at scientific journals and popular magazines. In the West, the notion of “panspermia” (that the seeds of life are spread throughout the cosmos) is associated with Enlightenment writers like Benoît de Maillet (pp. 39-40). Determann notes their debt to Muslim predecessors such as Zakariya al-Qazwini, the thirteenth century author of Marvels and Strange Creatures Existing (p. 40). Gustave Flaubert called de Maillet’s Telliamed an ‘Arabic book’” (p. 40). The reciprocal influence of such works on later Muslims took a while to emerge, but a couple of centuries later Christians and Muslims were seriously debating extraterrestrial life” (p. 41).

Rather than threaten Muslim religious sensibilities, the spread of the Copernican paradigm moved the Bengali physician and poet Mir Muhammad Husayn to argue, “each of the fixed stars along with its planets and satellites is a universe by itself” and that “the existence of an infinite number of worlds demonstrates God’s omnipotence” (pp. 43-44). The attempt of “colonial administrators and missionaries to equate European astronomy with Christianity largely failed” (p. 45). Reformers such as Obeidallah Ubedi and Syed Ahmad Khan strongly urged Muslims to embrace science, feeling it poses no threat to Islam (pp. 45-46). Khan said, “The Work of God and the Word of God can never be antagonistic to each other.” Court official Mohamad Abul Hasan Siddiqi boasted that although “[t]he first chapter of the Book of Genesis has always been a puzzle to the church commentators … the Last Book of God , the Quran, has saved its believers from such a labour-lost task” (p. 47). While some tried to argue for heliocentricity from the Qur’an, most felt it to be a matter religiously indifferent, although one Syrian translation of Jérôme de Lalande’s Treatise of Astronomy “transformed the text into a geocentric one” in which “Uranus and the asteroids … all rotate around the earth” (p. 49).

While Muslims, appalled by his hostility to the Prophet (pbuh), demonstrated against the historical work of H. G. Wells, they had no objections to his science fiction (p. 47). Yet, a perception that Christians and materialists were using Western science to challenge Islam provoked the Egyptian physician Muhammad Tawfiq Sidqi to publish articles in which he claimed the Qur’an contained allusions to scientific facts “unknown during the time of the prophet Muhammad” including terrestrial “rotation and the common origin of all planets in ‘smoke’” (i.e, gas and dust, p. 56) and that the stars move independently from one another rather than being embedded in a fixed sphere” (p. 57). He also claimed the Qur’an referred to the creation of animals in the heavens as well as on earth (p. 57). Allusions to extraterrestrial life in Arab periodicals was so frequent that the “scientific imagination then shaped important books on Qur’anic exegesis” (p. 62). The al-Azhar trained religious scholar Tantawi Jawhari incorporated some elements of modern cosmology both in his multi-volume exegesis The Jewels and into a work of utopian fiction published in 1935 (p. 62). Even professional astronomers got into the game. Helwan Observatory’s Abdel Hamid Samaha lectured “on cosmological ideas in the Qur’an at the Lund Observatory in Sweden,” informing his Western audience that his understanding that Qur’anic statements indicated “the existence of life either identical, similar or probably different from ours in the outer space” came both from his Muslim religious beliefs and that “also as a scientist I am inclined to believe that such is at least very probable” (p. 62).

Chapter 3, “Trips to the Moon,” focuses on science fiction films, from which we learn such interesting tidbits of jurisprudence as that a “Pakistani woman may marry an alien as long as he is a Muslim” (p. 71). Determann rejects attributing the rarity of Pakistani sci-fi films to Islamic cultural bias since there are plenty of Muslim contributors to sci-fi films coming out of India (p.74). The difference, he concludes, is that while Islam per se does not inhibit the creation of science fiction films, a secular political environment seems more conducive to their production (p. 75). He notes, for example, that although Saudi Arabia “is comparable in its authoritarianism to” its socialist neighbor states, it started banning cinemas in the 1950s (just as science fiction films were gaining popularity) on the grounds that public theatres brought “unrelated men and women together” (p. 75). This hostility is directed at the medium films rather than the genre of sci-fi. The Saudi grand mufti’s 2017 denunciation of cinema as venues for of depravity that “might show movies that are libertine, lewd, immoral and atheist, because they rely on films imported to change our culture” (p. 75) may reflect the cultural climate of Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan as well (p. 77).

Determann finds, however, that “[i]nterest in space and its creatures only increased over the course of the 1950s” in the broader Muslim world (p. 84). Dystopian stories then appearing, like those of Egyptian Tawfiq al-Hakim “could be interpreted as critiques of the modernizing projects that governments like his own were engaged in” (p. 85). The growing number of literary and stage sci-fi pieces in Egypt spilled onto the silver screen in 1959 with the release of “Journey to the Moon,” but (p. 86) there was no sequel or imitation once Nasser’s socialist regime nationalized the major media companies including the entire film industry (p. 87). State repression quashed “scientific imagination” even as it inadvertently inspired it (p. 88). With the movie industry in state control, that inspiration erupted on the stage (pp. 88ff). One explicit example of Islamic science fiction was The Fifth Dimension, a story in which German physicist repentant of past work for the Nazis, his niece, and her journalist fiancé escape an earth fated for nuclear annihilation to discover a utopia on Mars. The author, Ahmed Raef, was a protégé of his fellow prisoner Muhammad Qutb (p. 89). Following the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideals, the freely elected ruler of the Martian utopia has sworn “to follow the laws of God, not to be unjust, and not to follow personal interests that may cause him to deviate from divine guidance.” Further he is subordinate to “a council of 100 wise people” and subject to a recall process that may be initiated by any citizen.

The influence of Western science fiction is pronounced, and the Turkish film “Tourist Omer in Star Trek” could easily be argued to be a violation of copyright (p. 96). Although Determann focuses on science fiction by Muslims he does not ignore the influence of Islamic culture, people, and landscapes on non-Muslim science fiction such as Frank Herbert’s Dune and George Lucas’s “Star Wars” (pp. 96ff). However, he does not mention Daniel Moffit’s Mechanical Sky trilogy.

I would have been more comfortable if Chapter 4 had it been called “Muslim UFO Cults” instead of “Islamic UFO Religions.”  The previous chapter ends with a segue asserting that in contrast to the “light entertainment” of Muslim sci-fi films, the publications of these cults often drew large audiences by “promoting dark and complex conspiracy theories” that sometimes “combined Middle East politics with Qur’anic exegesis and space research” (p. 104). A Kuwaiti UFO sighting in 1978 (p. 105) is the first of “a wave of sightings over the Gulf countries” around the time of the fall of the shah of Iran. Determann notes differences in the reports of sightings in different parts of the Muslim world. Malaysians reported space aliens as tiny humanoids, only “three to six inches” in size (p. 109). More broadly, Muslims were quick to identify aliens with the jinn mentioned in the Qur’an (p. 109), non-human entities made of smokeless fire but which Muslim traditions hold can assume other shapes.

In America, a mother ship played a significant role in the mythology of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam. In their mythology the white race, itself the product of a eugenics program initiated by a mad scientist name “Yakub,” had enslaved the naturally black people of Earth. They would be rescued from their oppression by the Mother Plane, “a wheel-shaped wonder under the control of black Muslim scientists … able to defy Earth’s gravity, lift up mountains and generate its own oxygen and hydrogen.” (p. 112). With the rising popularity of flying saucer theories “some scientists and officials felt obliged to counter them with more cautionary accounts” (p. 119). Yet Determann suspects that one balanced account by a scholar trained in both religion and science may “have inadvertently lent legitimacy to the topic,” despite the author’s boldfaced declaration denying any “evidence for the existence of any life like on Earth” (pp. 119-20). A character in the Turkish Sci-fi film “Buddy” seems to suffer from UFO envy when he asks, “Why do they always come to the Americans? Let them come to us once” (p. 122).

Not all Muslims enamored of flying saucers see them as mechanical objects from outer space. The influential Jordanian professor of Islamic Law Umar al-Ashqar identified them as jinn who reside on Earth (p. 129). The Egyptian journalist `Isa Dawud also rejected an extra-terrestrial origin for UFOs, offering a conspiracy theory explaining “that their owners were humans with ‘dreams to rule the world’” (p. 130). Determann suggests that Virginia-based Voice of America journalist Abdul Aziz Khan drew so many parallels between 20th century UFO sightings and stories in the Qur’an and went so far as to imply “Muslims … must believe in UFOs” (p. 133). He even argues that the word for “covering up” truth, kufr, in the Qur’an refers is the conspiracy to cover up the truth about UFOs (p. 134). On the secular side, an extremist Kamalist who billed herself as “Turkey’s first female UFO researcher” (p. 134) hailed Ataturk as “the first world leader to see the extraterrestrial origin of his own people” (p. 135).

A reference to Begum Roqeya’s 1905 utopian story Sultana’s Dream, about a technologically advanced future society called Ladyland, where women dominate the public space and “men live in seclusion” (p. 139), paves the way for the examination of literary science fiction in Chapter 5, “Building Nations and Worlds.” A century after Roqeya’s groundbreaking work, Arab sci-fi was so underdeveloped that UAE sci-fi pioneer Noura al Noman “actually believed that there was none” (p. 141). She blamed the Arab educational system for ignoring the sciences, unaware that in Syria, where sciences were taught in the schools, magazines published hundreds of such stories (p. 141).

Dystopias are critically respectable given the prevalence of authoritarian governments in Arab world and were especially popular in the wake of the collapse of the Arab spring, though they were just a small part of the genre in the Muslim world (p.142). “Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt and Indonesia stood out through the sheer quantity of novels and short stories they churned out” (p. 142). Often the subject matter in sci-fi produced in the former colonies was as “concerned with nation-building as it was with world building” (p. 143). Pakistan’s writer Asrar Ahmad, writing under the name Ibne Safi (“Son of the Pure One”), combines a commitment to religious purity with an enthusiasm for religious pluralism and “an excitement about technological futures (pp. 1413-4). The work of Bengali author Zafar Iqbal shows his” hostility towards political Islam” yet “occasionally employs his religious imagination” (p. 147), and will even (albeit rarely) feature personal piety (p.148). His wife argued that his reputation as “anti-Islamic” was undeserved, insisting “that none of his books contained ‘anything that goes against Islamic sentiment’” (p. 148).

Influences on the Egyptian writer Nehad Sherif range from Egypt’s Kamel Keilany to “medieval authors al-Ma`arri and IbnTufayl as well as … Jules Verne and H. G. Wells” (p. 149). With a nod to the debates over religion and science “in the context of competition between Christian and Muslim missionaries,” one of his characters contrasts scientific discoveries that were once “denounced as ‘unbelief’, ‘atheism’ or ‘apostasy’” with his prediction that humankind would soon stand on the moon and on other planets, adding, “Trust that all of this will only happen by the command of God and his perfect will” (pp. 150-1). In his novel The Time Conqueror he defends the permissibility of cryogenics by reminding us that “God, ‘who created us’, gave us the ability to discover.” His works on alien encounters were “framed in religious terms” that were inclusive while at the same time privileging Islam (p. 156). He died in 2011 hailed as “the dean of Arabic science fiction,” a favorable comparison to America’s Robert Heinlein (p. 157).

Determann includes authors skeptical of Islam such as Eliza Vitri Handayani. who conceived of our universe as “a game in an alien kid’s computer” which would explain “[w]hy many of his rules seemed arbitrary or egocentric…. He is, after all, just a child” (pp 173-4).

The final chapter, “Muslim Futurisms” turns to the Muslim world’s engagement with new technology in both research and fiction. The UAE planned “to establish a city on Mars by 2117” (p. 177) The discoverers of organic material on one of Saturn’s moons included two founders of the Astrobiology Network of Pakistan (p. 180). Although the Iranian nuclear agreement failed to thaw U.S.-Iranian relations, “[m]ajor American presses had long … published articles by Iran-based authors, citing freedom of speech in their defense” (pp. 183-4). One of them “detected at least nine planets between 2010 and 2018 alone (p. 184). Another co-authored a poster session at the American Physical Society session in Denver on “use of microlensing for exoplanet detection” (p. 185). Determann doubts sanctions can “stifle Iranian creativity.” (p. 191).

Further, he thinks “war has been productive in the Middle East even in cases where it has been devastating” otherwise (p. 192). Iraq+100 transforms Americans into” violent and hedonistic aliens.” Yet, a young student among the aliens “has doubts,” fearing divine retribution from the “Setter of the Cosmological Constant” (p. 193). Palestine+100 “won a PEN Translates award and NPR selected the volume as one of its favorite books of 2019+ (p. 194). Determann wonders if some Muslims’ aversion to the theory of evolution might inhibit the scientific imagination in ways that war and sanctions have failed to do (pp 194ff.) “While evolutionists in Iran and Pakistan enjoyed considerable influence,” Turkey has been victimized by con artist Adnan Oktar (a/k/a “Harun Yahya”) who, notwithstanding convictions for fraud and sexual abuse, was part of the campaigns that removed evolution from Turkish textbooks (p. 195). Nonetheless, there was an increase in serious sci-fi films in Turkey in the 2010s. Among them, “the psychological drama Ivy, … less successful at the box office” than more comical sci-fi, was “well received by critics and festival judges” (p. 200). Politically astute viewers could see the Turkish government in “the captain whose ship is going nowhere, … while his five crewmembers stand for different parts of society: workers, pious Muslims, young people, leftists and Kurds” (p. 200).

In 2017, Saudi Arabia “surprised critics of its human and women’s rights records by granting citizenship to a robot named Sophia” (p. 204) while planning “a new solar-powered city that relies on robots and self-driving cars (p. 205). In 2018 the Pakistani-born artist Saka Afridi created the art-form of Sci-fi Sufism that mixes “mysticism with technology” and draws on the influence of Afrofuturism, IslamoFuturism, “Arthur C. Clark’s novel Childhood’s End and art by Hiroshi Sugimoto, as well as Muhammad’s ascension into heaven” (pp. 205-207). There is now an “Islam and Science Fiction website (p. 208).

Determann closes his book with an acknowledgement of the controversy posed by the intersection of Islam and Western science fiction. On one side we have a biologist at Duke University protesting that the hijab has no place “on the bridge of the starship Enterprise [for it] would imply that Islam had survived to the 23rd century, while we have no reason to believe that any other modern human religion can claim similar” (p. 209). On the other side we have the actor leVar Burton who praised African American activist Blair Imani’s cosplay appearance as his character Geordi La Forge in a hijab at the 2017 Comicon in San Diego as the “best cosplay of Geordi, EVER” (pp. 209-10).

Given the broad geographical scope of Determann’s subject of study and the wide variety of languages involved, this book is an astonishing achievement. Anyone seeking an introduction to the intersection of science fiction and/or extraterrestrial life with Islam needs this book.






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