Nat Muller, an independent curator and critic, reviews a book “Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life. The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World” by Jörg Matthias Determann, Associate Professor at QF partner university Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar, that throws light on how extraterrestrial life is perceived in Muslim majority countries
How, where, and in which geo-political and historical contexts do Islam, science fiction, aliens, and science come together? This is the strange, yet utterly compelling, question historian Jörg Matthias Determann seeks to answer in his new book Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life. The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World.
Islamic science fiction, the book shows, has its roots in the writings of medieval Muslim scholars, but science fiction produced in Muslim majority countries need not address Islamic topics per se
Looking at how extraterrestrial life is perceived in Muslim majority countries, Determann takes the reader on a journey from Syria, Egypt, Kuwait, to Turkey, Pakistan, and Indonesia, and covers a wide range of subjects that comprise scripture, scientific and cultural periodicals, science fiction novels and films, visual art, pseudoscience, and ufology (the study of UFOs).
Similar to his 2018 publication Space Science and the Arab World: Astronauts, Observatories and Nationalism in the Middle East, Determann tells history through the characters that have shaped it, in this case a motley crew of scientists, Qu’ranic scholars, medieval philosophers, political ideologues, novelists, filmmakers, and artists.
Under the rubric of what he calls the “scientific imagination”, he explores how extraterrestrial life has been, and continues to be, imagined in fact and fiction. It makes for a fascinating read. Determann seamlessly leaps from the Qu’ran, in which, part of the scripture mentions the realms of humans, angels and jinns and therefore hints at the plurality of worlds, to modern cosmology and theories of multiple universes.
What becomes apparent throughout the book is that representation of extraterrestrials is never monolithic
Islamic science fiction, the book shows, has its roots in the writings of medieval Muslim scholars, but science fiction produced in Muslim majority countries need not address Islamic topics per se. In fact, Determann’s most important contribution is highlighting the breadth and diversity of the scientific imagination in Muslim majority countries and debunking the idea that science fiction is a Western genre.
In late nineteenth and early twentieth century Ottoman science journals like Al-Muktataf and Al-Machriq, rooted in missionary milieus, religious, scientific, and technological topics were fervently discussed, as was the possibility of life on other planets. The well-known Egyptian cultural monthly Al-Hilal, founded in 1892 and still in distribution, has over the course of its publication addressed the question of alien life and space travel.
This fascination with all things extraterrestrial also translated to the silver screen and Egypt’s renowned Studio Misr produced a series of speculative films during its golden age, which lasted from the late 1940s till the 1960s, with as its most iconic release Hamada Abdel Wahab’s 1959 Journey to the Moon. However, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s policy of nationalization, including Studio Misr and Al-Hilal Magazine, meant a profound change of editorial direction. As a result, Egyptian cinema suffered a decline since the 1970s. Theatre, per contra, thrived. Several plays imagined alien Islamic worlds as an alternative to Nasser’s Egypt and Cold War politics.
Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life. The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World makes an indispensable and rich reference for interdisciplinary scholars and fans of science fiction alike
What becomes apparent throughout the book is that representation of extraterrestrials is never monolithic. Alien Others are depicted as exotic seductresses, devout beings from other planets, evil inter-galactic villains, or as messianic saviors, depending on their creators’ worldview or national context. Determann demonstrates how Kemalist Turkey and Assad’s Syria encouraged the genre of science fiction as a means to showcase science and modernity as national achievements. Since the 1950s Turkey produced a range of science fiction films drawing inspiration from Hollywood, rather than from Islamic tradition. Often these were cheaply made Turkish adaptations, or parodies of Western blockbusters like Star Wars, E.T., The Matrix and series like Star Trek.
The chapter on ufology takes a different tack and offers a genealogy of Muslim UFO religions. For example, the section on the African American movement Nation of Islam. Founded by Wallace Fard Muhammad in 1930, his successor Elijah Muhammad developed a mythology based on eugenics, Judaism, Islam, ancient Egypt, and more outlandish, UFOs and aliens. Malcolm X moved Nation of Islam more into the mainstream and away from cosmology, but after his assassination in 1965 Louis Farrakhan attempted to restore Nation of Islam to Elijah Muhammad’s original teachings.
As the book progresses Determann’s organizing principle of the scientific imagination becomes quite broad. Maybe too much so to evaluate the complex dynamics of political and religious movements, spiritualist pseudoscience conspiracy theories, or the many incarnations of the alien imaginary in popular culture. While there are undoubtedly grey zones and crossovers between these phenomena, these could have been signposted more clearly in the study.
The final two chapters look respectively at science fiction in literary productions such as novels or short stories, and in visual art. The wealth of primary texts Determann catalogues is, as in the rest of the publication, impressive. Examples come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine and the GCC, and Determann introduces novelists like Zafar Iqbal; Nehad Sherif; Nabil Farouk; Raouf Wasfi; Ahmed Khaled Towfik, Dee Lestari, Djokolelono, Eliza Vitri Handayani. And artists like Cevdet Mehmet Kösemen; Sophia Al-Maria; Monira Al Qadiri; Saks Afridi; and Riya Jama amongst many others.
This is a treasure trove of information. However, the focus on the minutiae of biographical detail and the many plot summaries tend to obfuscate the larger argument and critical framework of the book and risk overwhelming the reader. In spite of this, Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life. The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World makes an indispensable and rich reference for interdisciplinary scholars and fans of science fiction alike.
Nat Muller is an independent curator and writer with an expertise in contemporary art from the Middle East. Recent projects include: the Danish Pavilion with Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour for the 58th Venice Biennale in 2019 and Kurdish-Iraqi artist Walid Siti’s first monograph, published by Kehrer Verlag in 2020. She is completing an AHRC-funded PhD on science fiction in contemporary visual practices in the Middle East at Birmingham City University. Her latest exhibition Trembling Landscapes: Between Reality and Fiction is currently on view at Amsterdam’s Eye Filmmuseum.