Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad is the founder and editor of the Islam and Science Fiction project which he has been running since 2005. He is an Affiliate Assistant Professor at the University of Washington in the Department of Computer Science. He has written on the subject of Science Fiction in the Islamic world and has been on many panels at conventions. His academic research on creating a simulation of his father that straddles the line between Cyberppunk in sci-fi and the real world has been widely covered in the media.
When Gravity Succeeds: Imagining Islamic(ate) Futures in Cyberpunk and Beyond
This discussion has been copied from the Discord server, names have been reduced to first name, discussion threads have been grouped and edited for better readability.
Sumeyra: I am also working on Islam and science fiction, mostly near eastern. I liked your presentation a lot. My session is about a Muslim cyberpunk author on queertopia. Paşazade is a good one on alternate cyberpunk history. Do you think that Islamicate cyberpunk focus on new or alternate historicism? Have you watched the Turkish Netflix series, Atiye which is on Gobeklitepe (the oldest place in the history of mankind, the world’s first temple dates back to the 10th BCE)?
Muhammad: Excellent, I will incorporate your work in the next version of the presentation. I think its both in terms of focus. I say that because there is a lot of room to explore in alt history but also good work coming out in this area already since many of us already live in a cyberpunk world I have not watch Atiye yet, that said I saw ads for it everywhere in Istanbul when I was there early this year. I will add it to my list of things to watch
Larisa: Would you say a few words on Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt in the context of your research? It seems a relevant text to consider
Muhammad: Years of Rice and Salt would fall under the larger rubric of Islamicate Sci-Fi and not necessarily Islamic Cyberpunk Here is an interview of Robinson that I did a few years ago on the subject Islam and Science Fiction
Larisa: Thanks for the link to the interview I would certainly read it.
mlex: loved this talk! wow, thanks for that interview link with KSR. do you have any thoughts about other aspects of “middle east” SF, such as the Arabic SF discussions held by Yasmin Khan at the British Library (in 2015)? I learned about Ahmed Towfik from that interview, and there seems to be a whole sub-genre of fantastika in Islamic and Arabic realms that we (here in USA) know very little about… Also, can you explain the “earliest” sf novel story about ibn al nafis. 12th century botanist? that sounds interesting!
Muhammad: Yes, here is a talk that I gave 2 weeks ago that addresses exactly that – a (very) brief history of Islamicate sci-fi from the lens of utopias and dystopias
Muhammad: Ibn Al-Nafees was a Syrian Arab polymath who is most famous for being the first person to describe the pulmonary circulation of the blood. His novel is titled Theologus Autodidactus (Self Taught theologian). the story is of a spontaneously generated feral child, who lives in a cave on an island far away from civilization. And how he deduces the reality of the world via reason.
mlex: thanks, will follow up on Theologus Autodidactus.
Alexander: I loved the way you covered so many aspects of this under-represented area in a very limited time throughout your talk. Looking forward to reading more a extensive history put out in the future
Muhammad: Thank you, I think I should write a longer article on this subject
Graham: You should absolutely write an article on this subject matter.
Alexander: Your talk reminded me of the use of the reductive ‘mad arab’ (a la Lovecraft) tropes in some Western Cyberpunk. A history of exoticism, different from the more common Japanese one, but equally reductive, unfortunately endemic to the literary genre. Even Gibson in Neuromancer employs it.
Katherine: Hi Muhammad! Thank you for this fabulous presentation: I will be consulting it again as I pull together a reading list for my SF course this winter! The limitations of ten minutes meant you had to go rapidly through this, so I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on how gulf futurism is connected to the real world (i.e. Dubai) and to fiction?
Ana: Seconding Katherine’s question on Gulf Futurism – I too am fascinated by it. Also, an excellent presentation, and I look forward to reading more on this if/when you publish it in the future!
Muhammad: Dubai is of course the example par excellence of this idea. Think about a mix of hyper-consumerism, world building as a real world exercise vs. a theoretical discourse since the city itself is conjured by the rulers P.S: sorry for the slow response, my 2 year old is sitting on my lap
Sumeyra: Do you think there is a interrelation between Sufi futurism and Gulf Futurism?
Muhammad: I would say they are different, the originator of the term Sophia Al-Maria describes herself as Sci-Fi Wahabi, although that may be tongue in chic. but that does convey a reality since the Gulf is more salafi influenced
Sumeyra: salafi influences you are right but maybe in terms of transhumanity I thought there might be
Muhammad: True, you might be right; that said they are less likely to acknowledge the influences because of political reasons
Alexander: When I initally conceived of my talk I had just finished reading Sophia al-Maria’s Sad Sack (a collection of their writing from the last few years), and her notes on Gulf Futurism really inspired me. I think it’s arguably the most Cyberpunk conceptualisation of the present/near-future in a very long time
Muhammad: In KSA and in the Arabian Peninsula except Yemen and Oman, there is an obsession with purifying the past, hence the idea of erasing memory. And we can see that not just in terms of the destruction of physical artifacts but also rewriting memory of the past here is an interesting article on Gulf Futurism worth checking out
Sumeyra: Oh thank you so much for sharing this. I am focused on Gulf Futurism these days.
Alexander: I was also struck by the imagery of extreme parallels – towering massive skyscrapers and artificial islands vs. giant oil pits.
Ana: Thank you! I believe I have read a very similar article
Alexander: In Al-Maria’s reflections on Gulf Futurism they talk about how the fascinating and emboldening process of seeing other authors run with the concept (they specifically mention Bruce Sterling). Islamic work, SF or otherwise, is so sorely missing from the Western reading eye.
Ana: definitely missing from the western eye, and i’m looking forward to correcting this lacuna in my own knowledge. Muhammad, are there places you would suggest a western reading start (other than checking out your own project) – e.g. anthologies, etc?
Muhammad: There are a couple of anthologies that I have edited: A Mosque Among the Stars & Islamicates Volume 1. Additionally I am compiling a list of stories and books that will be out in August on the website. One of my friends in Egypt is also editing a book on this
Sumeyra: I liked your project of Silicon Arabic. Could you give some more examples to robo muslim philosophy?
Muhammad: re: Robo-Muslim philosophy, there was a Turkish academic who was working on the history of Automata in Islamic thought Ayan Aytes he and I had planned to do a project but he committed suicide unfortunately. So the project stalled, that said, he has done good work on history of Islamic Automata, even curated an exhibition in Berlin called Allah’s Automata
Sumeyra: oh I did not know you work together. Yes, Ayan Aytes is quite famous in his science but I am so sorry to read the news about his suicide. Yes, he would make a great contribution with Automata. Yeap, I know politic talks but in terms of academia it is good to observe some quite different points together. I liked your talk so much, Muhammad
DrFitz: Muhammad, is your work on Silicon Arabic ongoing? (There are so many projects!) Thank you for an engaging talk that covers so much–and, as others have expressed, introduces a lot more of Islamic(ate) SF to me.
Muhammad: Yes, it is still ongoing. There are many more examples that I did not cover
DrFitz: (there always are… I’m looking forward to checking out the Islam and Science Fiction project). Is the Silicon Arabic on display / accessible anywhere? (Thinking of my institution’s potential interest…) Also: Does your earlier posted history talk offer your thoughts about the slow learning curve of Islamic SF compared to the (slightly better) interest of other future imaginings by readers previously unfamiliar (thinking, here, of Africanfuturism interest by readers in the USA for example)
Muhammad: Re: Silicon Arabic. Not any more. It was at QBCC a few years ago. Re: Slow Learning curve of Islamicate Sci-Fi. I do not discuss this in the talk but there are different historical reasons for it. That said it is picking up a lot of pace these days
Graham: In his overview of Cuban cyberpunk for The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, Juan Toledano-Redondo provided an overview of how Cuban authors were deliberately and ‘straight-lined’ influenced by western cyberpunk and made those references clear in the fictions via place names, or tongue-in-cheek play with character names, etc. Is there anything comparable with Gulf Futurism or the Islamicate cyberpunk you’re studying? In other words, are these works trying to build on western cyberpunk in a deliberate fashion, or is there more of a clean break taking place?
Muhammad: There are influences that are either implicit or in cases explicitly acknowledged by the creators e.g., the short movie that came out in Pakistan this year explicitly acknowledges Akira and Blade Runner as its influences. The same goes for the artist Omar Gilani who fuses Cyberpunk with Mughal Aesthetics And speaking of projects, here is a longer talk that I gave last year on my own simulation project
Graham: I remember the movie you mentioned in your presentation (will go back to track down the name) and it caught my eye, so … is it teachable in an Intro to SF course with students who have likely zero background in this material and may never have really thought about sf as a discipline before. I love the broad appeal of a global approach to sf in general, so if you think this is a teachable film I might add it to the list. (Yes, yes, yes, I could just watch it for myself and make up my own mind.)
Muhammad: Yes, it is teachable. One challenge may be the language but it is not an unsurmountable challenge. p.s: There are subtitles available. Here is the link to the short
Graham: OK…I just watched it. Very very cool (but in a frightening fashion). And the cyberpunk-ishness is certainly relevant along with the dystopia flavour of something like Brave New World. I was also struck by the towering building that was a cross of the monolith and HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey (although that could be my projection). I’ll definitely have to think about how to incorporate this into my course.
Steven: Thanks for your talk, I learned a lot from it. I wanted to ask about Egyptian and North African sf – I was very impressed by Towfiq’s Utopia.
Larisa: Perhaps you could give a short answer or give a link where you dwelled upon it in more detail – What is your opinion – is talking about Islamic SF feasible? I have doubts that religious inclinations add anything genre-specific to science fiction besides better understood cultural history of the countries in question. It would rather reflect beliefs of the author, but what may be the characteristics not met in texts by authors whose beliefs have nothing to do with Islam?
Larisa: That is why I prefer the term Islamicate as opposed to Islamic. The former corresponds to the cultural output of the Islamic world in the same way that the West corresponds to what was previously called Chirstiandom. The term is neutral in that sense, Islamicate may or may not be religious. e.g., one of the greatest physician-scientists of Islamic History Al-Razi was anti-religious but is part of the Islamic civilization and to this day there are hospital and schools named after him in at least Pakistan and Iran among other Muslim countries. so the cultural element in Islamicate is dominant but not necessarily the religious element
Sumeyra: Larisa, you asked the same question to me. Yes, I agree with Muhammad. An SF author from an İslamic country does not mean that he/she focuses on the ideology of Islam. The genre is beyond religion. Islamicate or Arap -Gulf futurism is not about islam itself but the culture.
Muhammad: Islam is not just the name of a religion but also a civilization and expression of (many) cultures which makes the term Islamic tricky and Islamicate is a term which has not become popular
Larisa: I see. Because for me Orthodox SF would be rather non-sensical. though there are some present time authors in Russia who create alternate imperial Russias all over the world according to their views. But it doesn’t place their texts into a special subgenre. I specially asked both you and Buran the same question interested in comparing your opinions. Thanks.
Muhammad: Another distinction is that the religion permeates in the cultures as away of life in the same way that Christianity did in Western Europe in the Medieval era. To emphasize, the Islamic in Islamic(ate) Cyberpunk is more cultural
Ana: I would say, based on my own perspective as an American, that christianity permeates our culture. We are technically a secular nation, but practically we are culturally christian, and that no doubt influences our sci-fi and the values within it. I would guess that’s equally true for Islamicate sci-fi.
Sumeyra: yes, you are right. I agree with you Muhammed. The terminology sometimes might mislead people. @Larisa, we should be careful about using some terms that might be understood as Islamiphobic or vice versa. @Ana, I would say, As Turkey, we are technically a secular nation but practically we are culturally Muslim. But there is no influence of religion in Turkish SF. Yes, you are right, that’s true for Islamicate sci-fi. Thanks for your good and clarifying expression.
Muhammad: Dune has Islamicate influences but is certainly not Islamic
Ana: well, and the Matrix definitely has Buddhist references. But I think that’s entirely different from fiction written by an author who comes from a particular culture, for whom that culture will be part of the subconscious when writing. It doesn’t have to be explicit; it can be about implicit values, assumptions, etc
Muhammad: yes and Dune actually uses many terminologies from Islamic theology hence the connection but I get your point
Ana: yes, I think we agree and just have different examples!
Sumeyra: again Seyda Aydın has Pagan and Scandinavian influences in her novels but she is from a Muslim country. So, as Barthes announces, we should remember the Death of the Author.