The Vatican Observatory Faith and Science web resource contains hundreds of entries on the broad topic of faith and science. I am Editor of this resource, and my more recent efforts in this regard have tended toward trying to find a wide variety of different material to add to the resource. And one new entry that really is “something completely different” is on the book Islam, Science Fiction and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World by Jörg Matthias Determann.
The chances are good that readers of Sacred Space Astronomy know something about science fiction. After all, with Marvel and Star Wars so popular now, the person who knows nothing about science fiction is pretty rare these days. But chances are also good that even those readers who know a good deal about science fiction will not be familiar with the material discussed in Determann’s book (which, as its title says, straddles both science fiction and science—and of course religion).
As Determann portrays things, Islam and the idea of life on other worlds go together pretty well. He writes, “Qur’an 1:2 translates as ‘praise to God, lord of the worlds’. In total, the expression ‘lord of the worlds’ (rabb al-ʿālamīn) occurs forty-two times in the scripture.” He continues:
Of course, before the Copernican Revolution, most Muslims would not have understood the Qur’anic ‘worlds’ as planets. The combined influence of Aristotle and Ptolemy would have precluded a view of Earth as a sibling of Venus or Mars, all orbiting the same star. Instead, many Muslim scholars differentiated between an inferior, terrestrial and a superior, celestial world. They also distinguished a sphere of sensory perception from one of ideas. The intelligent inhabitants of these realms include jinn and angels in addition to humans. Despite much exegetical effort, however, the word ‘world’ remained vague enough to allow for almost infinite interpretations. The philosophers al-Biruni and Ibn Sina and the poet Nizami Ganjavi were among many medieval figures who discussed the plurality of worlds. Yet, they hardly exhausted the concept. Later writers thus found it easy to apply ʿālam to modern cosmology.
Elsewhere Determann notes that the jinn (“genies”) have been connected to UFOs and the like. As Determann sees it, Islam allows plenty of room for other worlds, and for intelligent beings from them.
Plenty of room indeed. I used to read a lot of science fiction, and I remain a big fan of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine to this day. But long ago the time came when I read one too many really bad, or really gory, science fiction stories. Well, there apparently is plenty of bad, gross science fiction in the Islamic world. While Determann’s book does deal with serious scholarly work on the concept of God and other worlds, much of Islamic science-fiction output fits time-honored sophomoric, sexist, gory science fiction tropes. Islam has plenty of room for all the worst and the cheesiest that comes with science fiction and the idea of life on other worlds: stories of beautiful women in capes with ray guns, or of creatures from underground worlds, or extraterrestrials who hunt and devour humans; speculations on whether Adam and Eve came here from outer space; weird UFO religions, headed by people who claim to be extraterrestrials themselves; and, of course, lots and lots of conspiracy theories.
Of course, what is so good about this is that, even if you know nothing about Islam, Determann’s book gives you a fresh look at the dominant “global science fiction culture” (that being Marvel, Star Wars, Star Trek, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Isaac Azimov, etc.). If you think that cults run by people claiming to have been brought here by UFOs are the sort of thing that can happen “only in the USA” (or other country of your choice, but we have Roswell in the USA!), think again—it happens in the Islamic world, too. If you think kooky conspiracy theories involving space aliens is sign of a certain sickness unique to modern “western” culture, think again—according to Determann, even certain Al-Qaeda leaders are hung up on these theories. The fact that we can see the weirdness that is so common in our own culture reflected back to us, but reflected through the lens of Islamic culture, is part of what makes this whole topic so interesting.
And while sometimes the weirdness is just typical science fiction stuff, meant to sell books and make money, at other times the authors are making a point. Those extraterrestrials who devour humans muse, as they munch, on whether humans have feelings, despite their technological and scientific inferiority. The author seems to be obviously referencing the actions of modern humans here, just as H. G. Wells did in his War of the Worlds. At other times the authors may live in countries where criticism of the government is not permitted, and science fiction provides a way to comment on the state of things.
Interest in extraterrestrials helps to drive interest in science regarding extraterrestrials, so the same forces that sustain science fiction in the Islamic world also help sustain an interest in SETI, astrobiology, and space travel. As Determann writes in concluding his book,
Muslim-majority countries and their diasporas have established solid bases for the production of speculative texts and images of all kinds. Free thinking flourished even in very repressive and conservative contexts. More than that, authoritarian governments and Islamists were often themselves highly creative producers of futuristic visions. Lack of censorship can be helpful for movie industries and UFO religions alike. However, constraints have also been enabling in many cases too…. Products of the scientific imagination are in turn likely to feed into concrete space programmes that various Muslim-majority countries have been setting up…. Whether more ambitious projects, like the UAE’s city on Mars, will be realized remains to be seen. However, the combination of immense wealth, technological ambitions, and almost limitless imagination makes many missions conceivable. Taleb Omran’s novel The Search for Other Worlds, with its Arab spaceship heading for Alpha Centauri, could one day be more than fiction.
Click here for the Faith and Science entry for this book.