Islam and Science Fiction

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My novel An Unproductive Woman can be categorized as literary or contemporary fiction.  Some might even call it religious fiction, though personally I would reject that term.  Over the past couple of years my reading and writing tastes and have changed.  I am currently on my own little Heinlein odyssey book tour.  I’m reading some of his earliest works and re-enjoying some of his stories that I’ve already read.  I’ve always loved SFF, but as a spectator.  I’ve developed an even greater interest and love for SFF and now, I am actively writing in this genre.  As such, naturally, I’m interested in finding other authors who, like me, are Muslim and who write SFF.  Guess how many there are?  No.  Don’t guess.  Just know that there are few.  Very few.

I know this because I’ve done some research.  While doing my research, I stumbled upon an interesting website, Islam and Science Fiction.

Muhammad Ahmad, the editor of Islam and Science Fiction was good enough to agree to an interview.  See what he says:

1.  Is there a specific term that you would use for science fiction by Muslims?  What I mean to ask actually is this: Is Islamic Science Fiction a valid term?  If so, how exactly is this defined and how is it unique?  Is it exclusive to a Muslim audience?

One should distinguish between Science Fiction produced by Muslims and Science Fiction with Islamic themes. The content of the former may or may not be religious and the later may have been produced by non-Muslims. The analogy that I like to use is that of Islamic Science in the classical age of Islam. Many of the scientists who worked and produced breakthroughs in the Islamic world were not even Muslims and yet their works are considered to be part of Islamic Science because of they were part of the Islamic cultural milieu. Thus any piece of Science Fiction literature which has some Islamic influence (not necessarily religious but cultural) is considered to fall under this category. A more appropriate term which is used in the academia is Islamicate which refers to the cultural output of the Muslim majority world.

2.  As a Muslim author, a woman, and a POC, it is important to me that I create fiction that is representative.  My argument being that I am the best person to write these representations as they are my experiences.  What are your thoughts about this?  How important do you believe it is to create representations of Muslims or work by Muslims in not only sci-fi, but other types of fiction.

I think there is some truth to this statement since the person embedded in a certain cultural context may be best positioned to do so. However I would add that a person who is not necessarily part of the group that he or she is writing about may still do a great job if he/she does their homework properly and gains an internal understanding of that culture.

A Mosque Among the Stars

3.  Tell me about your website Islam and Science Fiction and what you hope to achieve through this medium?  What made you develop this website?  Did you feel there was a particular need or is science fiction a special love of yours?

I have always been fascinated by Science Fiction as far back as I can remember. I especially like the aspects of Science Fiction which can be used to illuminate the human condition. I have been running the website since 2005 and it has its origin in my initial curiosity in trying to explore intersections of religion and Science Fiction. I was familiar with some excellent pieces of Science Fiction which rely heavily on Buddhist themes and I was looking for something similar with respect to Islam. After searching online and in libraries I realized that there was literally no material on this subject and thus this was a glaring omission that had to be fixed. This is how the idea for the website was born and it has greatly expanded since then.

4.  As a religion, Islam is one of few that clearly supports science even in its modern forms and understandings.  Do you think that there is something special about Islam that lends itself to science fiction?

Science and religion represent different ways of looking at phenomenon of the world. Philosophers of Science have described Science as an empirical system to understand the world. Thus given more evidence of some phenomenon Scientists will not ideally hesitate to change their minds with respect to an earlier theory. On the other hand religious claims are usually universal and timeless in nature. Thus the question of support is mute with respect to comparing two different systems of looking at the world. That said Islam can provide a source of inspiration to people, Muslims or even Muslims, with respect to themes that may inform their fiction. The rich tradition of fantasy in many Muslim cultures is a testament to this fact. In fact the largest fantasy book ever written (Tilsm-Hoshruba) actually comes from a Muslim culture.

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Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad

(As borrowed from his webaite): Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad is a Computer Science researcher at the Data Mining Lab in the Department of Computer Science at the University of Minnesota as well as Senior Scientist at Ninja Metrics. His research is primarily focused on analysis of clandestine behaviors and networks, application of social science theories to generative models of social phenomenon and models of human behavior in Massively Mutliplayer Online Games (MMOs). He has authored or co-authored around 30 research papers related to these subjects including two best paper awards. Currently he is working on a book on the Analysis of Clandestine Networks and Behaviors with Brian Keegan which builds upon their extensive collaboration in this area.

Muhammad Aurangzeb received bachelors in Computer Science from the Rochester Institute of Technology, and master and PhD in Computer Science from the University of Minnesota (UMN). He is also part of the Virtual Worlds Observatory (VWO) project, the leading project on the analysis of human behavior and socialization patterns in online virtual environments. Previously he was also a research assistant at the Minnesota Population Center where he worked on the IPUMS project on the application of machine learning to population studies. During his undergraduate years at the Rochester Institute of Technology he was also research assistant at the Center for Advancing the Study of Cyberinfrastructure and received honorable mention for the best research by an undergraduate at the national level by the Computing Research Association (CRA).

Muhammad Aurangzeb’s source of inspiration are the Renaissance men and he aspires to be one in the at least the domains that he is interested in. His motivation in life is to understand how the world works and the recognition that one needs multiple perspectives to understand how the world work. He is also an artist who has exhibited his work. He works in a variety of mediums including calligraphy, graphic arts and photography. He also invented a new form of Calligraphy, Kordu, based on the Hangul and the Arabic script.

He is also the founder and editor of Islam and Science Fiction, which is the most comprehensive resource on this subject and has been widely cited in the relevant media. He has presented his work on this subject at various conferences and avenues. Muhammad co-edited the first anthology of short Science Fiction stories with Muslim characters called A Mosque Amongst the Stars.

Muhammad is also fascinated with the theological, anthropological, societal and naturalistic aspects of religion. He is also the editor of the website Islam in China and its companion blog of the same name. The later is a multi-award winning blog which has garnered more than half a million web hits. He has worked on two projects related to the oral history of Muslims in Minnesota.

Divergent Artist: Rohina Malik Talks About Writing Unveiled After 9-11

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I was very happy when Rohina Malik agreed to this interview.  A wife, mother, and playwright, I knew she’d be busy, but she didn’t disappoint.  Rohina grew up in London but moved to the U.S. at the age of 15.  She says that she loves the theater both as a practitioner and a viewer.

1.  I am particularly intrigued by your play Unveiled.  The play focuses on five Muslim women as they navigate the post 9-11 landscape, their experiences and understandings. 

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Was there a specific event in your life that precipitated your writing and ultimately performing this one woman play?  If not a particular event, was there something particular on your mind that you wanted to relate that caused you to write this?

Growing up in London, racism was a part of life.  But nothing prepared me for the backlash after 9/11 in the US.  It seemed like everyone I knew had a story, that ranged from silly to bone chilling.  An incident at my best friend’s wedding that inspired me to write Unveiled.  There were two weddings taking place at this particular venue, and a man began to swear at me.  He had a very strong reaction to my veil.  The incident took place in front of my children and so quickly almost became violent.

When I started to write Unveiled, I began from a very personal place, and told the story of the wedding.  Once that was complete, someone commented on the Chai mentioned in the story.  I then framed each story with a tea from the Muslim world.

2.  Who is your favorite of the five women that you represent in Unveiled?  Tell me why?

I love all five of the women in my play.  They represent the diversity of the Muslim community.  If I had to choose, I would say Shabana, the London rapper.  I love hip hop and find it very powerful.  It’s always fun for me to transform into a rapper because she’s so different from me.

3.  Where and when did Unveiled show? 

Unveiled had its World Premiere in May 2009 at the 16th Street Theater, directed by Ann Filmer, where it received critical acclaim, and the entire run and extension was sold out. Unveiled received a second production at Victory Gardens Theater, a third production at Next Theater, and a fourth production at Brava Theater, San Francisco.  There will be a fifth production in April 2013 at Crossroads Theater, NJ.

4.  There is a video on YouTube which shows a young man in tears after seeing your play.  He talks about how wrong some of his misconceived notions about Muslims were.  Knowing that you have touched someone so deeply and possibly changed someone’s heart must be an awesome feeling.  Relate some of the most curious (whether good or bad) reactions Unveiled has received.  Do you believe that your message was successful?

 

I can’t tell you how often people have broken down into sobs after seeing Unveiled.  It reminds me of the power of Art and the power of theater.

5.  You have two other plays, Mecca Tales and Yasmina’s Necklace.  Please share a brief explanation of these plays, where they are (or have) showing.

Yasmina’s Necklace deals with the war in Iraq, and is still in development.

The Mecca Tales was a play commissioned by The Goodman Theater.  It was inspired by Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales.  The plays deals with pilgrims who share stories of why they are going to Mecca for the Hajj.

6.  Are you working on anything else?  If yes, please tell me about it.

I’m writing a graphic novel with my illustrator friend and brother-in-law Michael Klaus Schmidt.  The book is called “Layla and the Red Winged Blackbird.”

7.  Do you have plans to branch out in the future to film or do you prefer to stay on the stage?

At the moment I’m focused on plays, but yes, I would love to write a sceenplay one day, inshallah…

If you are interested in having Rohina Malik perform where you live, she can be contacted at: [email protected]