Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad is a senior data scientist at Groupon and teaches computer science at the University of Washington. In this op-ed, he makes the point that western readers often over look the historical impact of Muslim writers in the genre of speculative fiction (which encompasses science fiction, fantasy, horror and supernatural fiction).
Here are some snippets from the piece:
— As the Islamic empire expanded from the Arabian peninsula to capture territories spanning from Spain to India, literature addressed the problem of how to integrate such a vast array of cultures and people. The Virtuous City (al-Madina al-fadila), written in the 9th century by the scholar Al-Farabi, was one of the earliest great texts produced by the nascent Muslim civilization. It was written under the influence of Plato’s Republic, and envisioned a perfect society ruled by Muslim philosophers – a template for governance in the Islamic world.
— The first Arabic novel, The Self-Taught Philosopher (Hayy ibn Yaqzan, literally Alive, Son of Awake), was composed by Ibn Tufail, a Muslim physician from 12th-century Spain. The plot is a kind of Arabic Robinson Crusoe, and can be read as a thought experiment in how a rational being might learn about the universe with no outside influence.
— We also have the Muslim world to thank for one of the first works of feminist science fiction. The short story ‘Sultana’s Dream’ (1905) by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain, a Bengali writer and activist, takes place in the mythical realm of Ladyland. Gender roles are reversed and the world is run by women, following a revolution in which women used their scientific prowess to overpower men. (Foolishly, the men had dismissed the women’s learning as a ‘sentimental nightmare’.) The world is much more peaceful and pleasant as a result.
— By the early 20th century, speculative fiction from the Muslim world emerged as a form of resistance to the forces of Western colonialism. For example, Muhammadu Bello Kagara, a Nigerian Hausa author, wrote Ganďoki (1934), a novel set in an alternative West Africa; in the story, the natives are involved in a struggle against British colonialism, but in a world populated by jinns and other mystical creatures.
— An even darker brand of fiction has emerged from Muslim cultures today. Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2013) reimagines Frankenstein in modern-day Iraq, among the fallout from the 2001 invasion. In this retelling, the monster is created from body parts of different people who have died because of ethnic and religious violence – and eventually goes on a rampage of its own. In the process, the novel becomes an exploration of the senselessness of war and the deaths of innocent bystanders.