‘Those people don’t read!’ I heard an administrator at Texas A&M University blurt out. He was speaking about people in Qatar. He was wrong of course; Qatar has a literacy rate of over 96 per cent, above Australia, but below the Gaza Strip.
The administrator may not have known this. So what was the reasoning behind this opinion? Where did the idea that ‘those people don’t read’ come from? What the administrator was actually referring to is the reading of fictional literature or reading for pleasure. This is where you most often find a discrepancy between what is viewed as literacy and what is read. For the administrator the acquisition of knowledge was embedded in the act of reading fictional literature and from that perspective he concluded that the Qatari population just does not read.
In the traditional Islamic perspective the universal concepts of knowledge are viewed in terms of the sacred versus the profane. The weight of any acquisition of knowledge is measured against these two values. For some Muslims, sacred knowledge – Qur’an, hadith, and religious text – allows one to maintain a connection with the Creator. By contrast, profane knowledge in the form of fiction, in particular speculative literature, such as science fiction, fantasy and comic book literature, moves one away from the Creator and towards worldly pursuits. Of course, there is no religious basis for such a separation, unless you conflate fiction with the act of lying. Fiction, particularly science fiction, fantasy and comic books, represents a concrete way to encourage reading, writing, and imagination that can spur creativity and innovation in all areas of learning for Muslims. Through fiction, the reader and the writer can also bridge and strengthen both branches of knowledge. As an educator whose research and teaching is grounded in American Islam, I use what I refer to as fictional Islam in much of my pedagogical work.
So how do we encourage Muslims to acquire not just sacred knowledge but all knowledge? The Prophetic tradition is the ideal starting point. The injunction to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave is a common saying you hear from Muslims all over the world. The Prophet Muhammad enjoined his followers to ‘seek knowledge even if it is in China’, thus encouraging the seeking of knowledge beyond the spiritual realm. Muslims are told to contemplate, think, learn, comprehend, and examine everything around them. As the social scientist Anas Al-Shaikh argues, knowledge, education, and the acquisition of learning for Muslims, reinforce ‘the values of humanitarianism, morality, citizenship, peaceful coexistence, revulsion of racism and discrimination, acceptance of the “other”, and is married to actively taught skills of critical thinking and awareness’. So how does that square with the reluctance to read fiction we have seen in Muslim countries?
As with most problems in the world, one can view this particular issue as one of power. Unsurprisingly, the imagination is seen as a challenge to those whose authority lies in religious dogma, the power of interpretation, and understanding. The notion of sacred versus profane knowledge can and is being used to stifle any attempts to read ‘for pleasure.’ In many Muslim societies, reading science fiction and fantasy are seen as profane and therefore not only useless but harmful to those trying to elevate their understanding of the Creator. In some Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, this literature is regularly banned; in others it is heavily censored.
Yet the scientific invention and innovation of Muslim civilisation serve as literary tropes in much of contemporary science fiction and fantasy literature. Many of the instruments created by Muslims such as the astrolabe, the quadrant, and the detailed navigational maps have helped in the expansion of the literary heritage of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative writing as a whole. The astrolabe and the quadrant have been staples within popular science fiction television shows and movies such as Star Wars, Star Trek, and Dune. The use of the astrolabe and the Alpha, Beta, Delta, and Gamma Quadrants as spaceship monikers demonstrate the longevity of these early inventions and their importance as tools of discovery.
Another science fiction trope, time travel, also has roots in Islam. One of the greatest examples of such paranormal travel is the account of the Prophet’s ascension from Jerusalem to Paradise while sitting in the Great Mosque in Jerusalem. For Muslims, these ideas were neither strange nor foreign. Yusuf Nuruddin, who teaches African Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston, suggests that the Prophet’s ascension is an example of what he calls the science fiction motif – a belief system that stimulates the imagination. Nuruddin also argues that some of the stories in Arabian Nights, for example, ‘The City of Brass’ and ‘The Ebony Horse,’ are early examples of science fiction mixed with fantasy elements.
Contemporary Muslim writers often draw on these early prophetic parables and religious stories in developing their science fiction and fantasy narratives. Donald Moffitt’s Crescent in the Sky (1990) and A Gathering of Stars (1990) are early examples of science fiction about Muslims where a longing for the glory of Islam undergirds the plot. Moffitt’s novels portray an Islam that has spread throughout the known universe, but lacks a single leader, a Caliph. In order to claim leadership of this interplanetary empire, the person must travel to Mecca, a venture fraught with danger and intrigue. The journey from the planet Mars to Mecca represents the obligation that all able-bodied Muslims must accomplish at least once in their lifetime. Another interesting, and earlier, example is The Book of Strangers (1972) by Ian Dallas, who later transformed into the Sheikh Abdul Qadir as-Sufi. Dallas’s story is set in a technologically advanced world where the distribution of information is controlled by a computer. The main character is a university librarian who has control of the information and discovers a series of Sufi/religious writings that sets him off on a journey to find what is missing in his life. His travels eventually take him to North Africa where he meets the former university librarian who provided the impetus for his inner transformation. Dallas incorporates his personal journey to Islam in this story, while noting that technology and spiritual enlightenment are not conflicting but offer mutual benefit.
How can educators use science fiction, fantasy, and comics as a pedagogical method? What can this method offer in terms of new approaches to the study of Islam? The answers are multiple. Science fiction (SF) provides a means for the telling of stories from perspectives that confront our assumptions and stereotypes, and push for a new dialogue about race, privilege, and power. SF, like its sister literature of fantasy, can engage readers with its foundational use of imagination, nightmares, dreams, the unexplainable and the impossible. Fictional Islam offers opportunities for educators to expand pedagogies and skills that encourage critical thinking, communication, and innovation; and for exploring themes within the human condition that allow others to ‘walk a mile in my shoes’ without judgment. As a device for thought-experiments, it offers fertile opportunities for cultural study and understanding. Literature, films, music, and games inspired by Islam can challenge students to revise old assumptions, discuss controversial topics, voice their opinions, and to write fearlessly. Students can develop critical thinking by exploring the variety of perspectives and the complexities of Islam, an act possible only if students understand that no complex issue can be understood thoroughly in a binary framework. Knowing how to research the diverse Islamic practices in Muslim societies requires, among other things, that students identify authentic resources, understand search strategies that go beyond Google, develop analytical and interpretive skills that can also provide valuable and enduring proficiencies. A unique and creative way for students to develop cross-cultural understanding within the framework of science fiction would be to create their own characters and dialogue in the genre.
Indeed, educators have begun to take advantage of science fiction, fantasy, and comics as pedagogical tools in the Muslim world. A number of workshops and conferences have been held both in the West and the Muslim world to promote the idea. The Middle East Film & Comic Con in Dubai and the Sindbad SciFi conference at the British Museum in London are good examples of the acknowledgement that this genre has transnational opportunities for education, collaboration and conversations.
Another example is Yatakhayaloon – or the League of Arabic SciFiers – set up by the Saudi Arabian computer engineer, writer, and entrepreneur, Yasser Bahjatt. Yatakhayaloon (‘They are imagining’) is based on the belief that science fiction and science are intrinsically linked. As the renowned science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said, ‘true science fiction could not really exist until people understood the rationalism of science and began to use it with respect in their stories’. In collaboration with another Saudi writer, Ibraheem Abbas, Bahjatt has written a wonderful science fiction romance novel called HWJN (Hawjan). It tells the story of the relationship between a jinn and a human being and the numerous obstacles they face. The human society of HWJN has abandoned the teachings of Islam and is mired in magic and sorcery while the Jinns follow the Qur’an and are much more rational. All this has been too much for the Saudi authorities. In 2013 the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice halted sales of HWJN, while they decided whether or not to ban it for blasphemy and promoting devil worship. The investigation may have been spurred by rumours that the book was ‘leading teenage girls to experiment with Ouija boards’. Although the Saudi authorities stopped short of banning HWJN, the Kuwaitis and Qataris announced they would do so. The success of HWJN shows that despite the presumption of our Texan administrator, there is a thirst for fiction in the Muslim world. Before the book came to the attention of the Saudi religious authorities, it had sold 25,000 copies and shot to the top of the Saudi bestsellers’ list. As Bahjatt said of the official reaction to HWJN, ‘I expected the noise, as we realized from monitoring Saudi social media that schools started complaining from the fact that students are reading HWJN all the time at school. So I did expect that schools would start banning the book as it was disturbing the class day. But we never expected that teachers and schools would start rumours about the content of the book without even reading it. And, unfortunately, it is still banned in Kuwait and Qatar, and most bookstores are still afraid to put it back on shelf in Saudi”.
But to ban such works of science fiction is appallingly short sighted. It is also being totally blind to their utility as a pedagogical tool that can further discussions about real world issues and assist in finding concrete solutions to problems of racism and xenophobia that plague our societies. Consider, for example, Steven Barnes’s two novels Lions Blood and Zulu Heart from his Insha’Allah series. These novels confront the issues of racism head on – but by inverting the convention. Set on an alternative world where the Africans and Asians are the enslavers and the slaves are from Europe, these novels are uncanny in their reflections on current events throughout the Muslim world. The stories main characters are two children, one a Muslim and the son of the most powerful leader of Bilalistan, Kai ibn Rashid, and the other an Irish slave boy, Aidan O’Dere who has lost his village and most of his family to the slave trade. Barnes’s stories are particularly concerned with what was once called Ancient Africa, an Africa that encompassed the regions that in our postcolonial world are now considered part of the Middle East. The overarching desire to find relief from constant strife, patronage, and dependence on an inhumane enterprise forces readers to confront and challenge assumptions about the systems of slavery. Barnes uses Islam to mitigate some of the harsh realities of race and racism, power and privilege that underpin our twenty-first century knowledge of slavery. He pushes this ‘so called’ humane characteristic throughout the storylines and emphasises that Islam’s view of slavery was not race-based nor was it an impediment to advancement within society. The slaves on Dar Kush are treated well, families remain intact, and not only are they allowed to practice their religion, the plantation maintains a grove that the slaves use as their sacred ground. The whites are given their freedom in Bilalistan when they fight for their masters, as did many blacks who fought on the Union side of the American Civil War. The struggle for the freed fictional slaves is how to find their place, recover their culture, and establish communities that prosper in a black dominated world. As Kai and Aidan mature they discuss the need to abolish slavery, the humanity of whites, and the religion of Islam and Christianity; they speak as equals. Aidan forces Kai to understand what slavery does to people who are enslaved and to the slave owners, speeches that could have come from the mouth of Frederick Douglass or any anti-slavery advocate. His views on Islam mirror Douglass’s statements on the Christianity of slave traders. Aidan, Kai, and Babatunde’s characters recreate many of the discussions and debates regarding the legitimacy, ethical and moral aspects of slavery and the slave trade that were ongoing within the Muslim and non-Muslim communities in this alternative world, and mirror the debates that occurred in the Americas. Their discussions echo the words spoken by abolitionists, pro-slavery figures, and former slaves. The novels straddle both the world of fantasy and science fiction literature, employing both genres in ways that push us to rethink commonly held beliefs, makes us uncomfortable, to think critically about slavery and question the long term impact of slavery and the systemic effects of the peculiar institution.
These issues are central to countries throughout the Middle East and Africa, but are not discussed, not least in Egypt, with its dual identity – African and Arab. What Barnes’s novels and the current state of affairs throughout the world impress upon us is the time-honoured truism that it is often the actions of individuals rather than groups that provide the spark for change, impacting and altering the lives of thousands. Instructors can use these two works to confront notions of identity and oppression, issues that are connected to current world events. What is the impact of colonialism and imperialism on the conquerors and conquered in this alternate universe? The novels offer multiple conversations about gender roles, polygamy, colonial and postcolonial impacts on societies, religious tolerance, and even maritime laws!
G. Willow Wilson’s graphic novel Cairo, which speaks to and advocates tolerance, and recent work on the new Pakistani American superhero Ms Marvel which seeks to ‘normalise’ the Muslim experience in a pluralistic view of America, can also serve as excellent educational tools. Both stories introduce the public to the diversity of characters, plots, and storylines within Islamic traditions. Studying Cairo can provide an excellent opportunity to discuss current events and controversial subjects such as Muslim/Jewish relations as well as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict from a historical and contemporary point of view. Interestingly, the novel offers insights that speak to the Europeans, Americans, and Arabs currently travelling to Syria and Iraq to become fighters with ISIS, in the character of Shaheed, a Lebanese-American who travels to Egypt to become a suicide bomber. Cairo attempts to present these ideas wrapped up in a story that includes fantasy elements including a Jinn who is key to the storyline. This lively book can provoke difficult but necessary conversations that require someone who can lead these discussions with an understanding of history, economics, and the ideas of ‘nation building’ within Islam.
Gender roles in Islam can be unpacked with the help of Wilson’s comic book superhero Ms Marvel and other works by Muslim and non-Muslim writers. For example, how many people know of Roquia Sakhawat Hussain (1880–1932)? Hussain was a prolific writer and social worker in undivided Bengal in the early twentieth century. Most famous for her efforts on behalf of gender equality and other social issues, she established the first school aimed primarily at Muslim girls, which still exists today. Her book, Sultana’s Dream is an early work of feminist science fiction, involving a utopian male/female role-reversal. Sultana’s Dream was first published in 1905 in a Madras-based, English language periodical the Indian Ladies Magazine, then as a book in 1908. Too often male and female writings that feature Muslim women characters tend to, unfortunately, perpetuate the stereotypes of submissive, oppressed, and ‘veiled/silenced’ persons, but many of the newer stories challenge that narrative, offering more nuanced and opposing views. Saladin Ahmad’s Throne of the Crescent Moon (2012) includes a female warrior/shape shifter as one of its main characters, Larissa Sansour’s experimental films and art installations such as Nation Estate feature female leads, and The 99, a comic book series created by Kuwaiti Naif Al-Mutawa, includes a number of heroic Muslim females. The work of writer, poet, and storyteller Pamela Taylor is also a valuable source for discussion of Muslim women, poetry writing, and activism. Taylor has written books for children and presents storytelling performances using stories from various Muslim communities including Palestinians, Americans, and Turkish cultures. Her 50 Fatwas for the Virtuous Vampire has been celebrated for its humour and imagination.
Fictional Islam can also give rise to interesting assignments to spur the writing of poetry. Using the effects of global warming as a backdrop, students can examine the African American poet and musician, Jalaluddin Nuriddin’s epic poem Beyonder. Nuriddin is one of the founding members of The Last Poets, an iconic group of poets and musicians that evolved out of the Harlem Writers’ Workshop in New York in the late 1960s. His poem is considered a masterpiece of art and spoken word poetry; ahead of its time in detailing an apocalypse brought on by man’s destruction of the environment. The notion that technology is the panacea for all our ills is proposed through the creation of an android called Sir Mankin (kin to man), but to no avail, the world is lost. Another poem worth tackling in the classroom is the Persian epic The Shahnameh, currently available as a series of comic books and graphic novels. Written by the poet Ferdowsi between c. 977 and 1010, and consisting of some 60,000 verses, it details the mythical and historical past of the Persian empire from the creation of the world until the Islamic conquest of Persia. Students can compare the stories throughout this poem with other works of fiction and poetry. For example the well-known children’s story Rapunzel (Rapunzel, Rapunzel let down your long hair) is actually from a story in The Shahnameh, the romance between Zal and Rudaba.
Numerous other subjects, such as politics and politicians, Sunni and Shia distinctions and similarities, can be studied with the help of fictional Islam. The choice of content must be determined in light of the desired outcomes of course, but there are countless ways in which supplemental works portraying Muslim peoples through film, comic books and graphic novels, literature, games, and other discourses can be integrated into many syllabi. Indeed, there is no shortage of resources and opportunities available to assist in teaching about Islam. There are websites, film festivals, book fairs, conventions, and conferences that now feature prominent Muslim science fiction/fantasy writers and critics. A recent celebrated work is Frankenstein in Baghdad by Iraqi novelist Ahmad Saadawi, which won the International Prize for Arab Fiction. The novel, a mixture of science fiction and horror, offers a fresh take on the Frankenstein story as well as a critique of the American invasion of Iraq. It tells the story of Hadi al-Attag, a man who stitches together body parts of those killed in explosions in the Iraqi capital. The monster thus created come to life and begins a revenge campaign against those responsible for the deaths. This is an excellent example of how fictional Islam can illuminate a subject from a very different but also deeply historical and multicultural perspective.
To truly appreciate the educational value of science fiction, fantasy, and comic book literature will take time and commitment. We must continue to emphasise the connection between science fiction and scientific inquiry in the Muslim world: an interest in science fiction will spark an interest in science, and vice versa. An education that exposes Muslim societies to fictional Islam can shape a positive and viable future for Muslim societies.