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]