Sindbad the Sailor: Muslims and Science Fiction

December 7th, 2014 | by MuslimScience
Sindbad the Sailor: Muslims and Science Fiction

 By Paula Hammond

One Thousand and One Nights and Sindbad the Sailor evoke sensations of awe and wonder among those who grew up with such great works of science fiction, emanating from and reflecting, the strong cultural and historical association of the Muslim world with science fiction. The Arabian Nights, with its flying carpets, mystical jinn and intergalactic travel, has furthered human imagination, and inspired science fiction across the world. However, the genre has very much fallen out of fashion in the Muslim artistic circles and, according to Yasser Bahjatt, that loss has been more than just literary.

Inspiring Art

The Nour Festival of Arts is a month-long annual celebration of Middle Eastern and North African culture(s) in London. A panel of authors, scientists and thinkers gathered at the prestigious Science Museum to discuss the topic of Arab science fiction, in an event, appropriately titled, ‘From Imagination to Innovation.’

The talk was perhaps the Festival’s most eagerly anticipated event with a panel of guest speakers that included scientist and award-winning playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak, scientist and science fiction writer, Yasser Bahjatt, writer and editor of “Research Fortnight” Ehsan Masood, and Palestinian artist and filmmaker Larissa Sansour.

Very much in the spirit of the evening, the audience were drawn from a wide spectrum of London life from aspiring authors to sci-fi geeks, from Muslim meetup groups to facebook friends. Story readings and film screenings from the guests provided the backdrop to a lively and hugely entertaining Q&A, peppered with spontaneous laughter and applause.

However, behind the congenial chat was a serious intent. Placing the ordinary in an extraordinary environment, allows for speculation and analysis. In this context, sci-fi becomes a tool for not just exploring culture, belief, hopes, and fears, but inspiring imaginations and fueling innovation.


Arabian Tales

There’s been much talk in recent years about how – and why – Muslim nations lag behind in science. OIC[1] nations do very well in fields of research that have immediate, practical real world applications, such as engineering, agricultural science, and medicine. However, the problem is that, when money is tight, results matter. There has been little investment and patronage to support literary endeavors in the Muslim world, resulting in a shrinking of space for creativity and fantasy. How to create and thrive in such ‘spaces’ was precisely the topic explored during the “From Imagination to Innovation” event.

In an addition to being a best selling sci-fi author, Yasser Bahjatt is a professional engineer and the first Saudi Arabian to attend NASA’s Singularity University Graduate Study Program. He also founded Yatakhayaloon – The League of Arab Sci-Fiers. Illuminating the idea of re-introducing science fiction among the Muslim youth, Bahjatt explained:

“Yatakhayaloon was founded on very similar idea to today’s gathering. I’d been doing some research about science fiction – its cultural impact on scientific development. It started off with a challenge. Is there anything that we use today – any innovation that did not come out of science fiction? I gave [out] that challenge … and it turned out that nobody could give me a single example of … any technological development that did not appear in science fiction at least twenty years prior to its existence in reality. That got me thinking that science fiction is driving scientific development. So I did some research and I found that there is a very strong correlation … The more science fiction a single person gets exposed to in any culture, the more scientific development happens in that culture… When I plotted that data there was one spot that was totally dark… no science fiction, no science – I’m talking per capita, so it’s not an absolute zero – but divided by the population it was almost zero. And that spot is where I live! So I thought, voilà! I have a place to start my experiment. I can’t improve the scientific output of my region [on my own] but what I could do is increase its science fiction output.”


Fantasy Worlds, Real Worlds

Yasser believes fervently that genres like science fiction broaden mind and fuel imagination – encouraging people to think outside the box and to dream big.

And he may be onto something. Motorola’s Director of Research Martin Cooper, credited “Star Trek” communicators as the inspiration for the company’s first mobile phones. Taser is an acronym for Thomas A. Swift’s Electronic Rifle, based on a young adult sci-fi book of the same name. Philip K Dick’s story “The Variable Man” from 1953 features tablet devices very much like today’s iPads. Internet creator Tim Berners-Lee got youthful inspiration from an Arthur C Clarke’s short story “Dial F For Frankenstein.” Today there are scientists working on a vast array of gadgets out of popular sci-fi, including teleporters, warp drive, and artificial intelligence. The sci-fi world we see on TV, film or books, correlates positively with science and innovation.

For Yasser, though, it’s not enough to re-invigorate Arabic science fiction genre. It needs to reflect the traditions and culture of the region and its people.

“When I went back to my writing I realized that almost everything I wrote had very clear Western influences. I didn’t want to do that. … You wouldn’t fight to make someone else’s dream happen… You might appreciate that dream… But you wouldn’t fight [for it]… We need to have our own dreams and our own scientific development…. Every scientific development that is happening now in the Middle East … they’re throwing a lot of money at it … but they’re really trackers. They’re really just following what the West is doing, not starting from an original idea.”

Science fiction has long been inspiring Western scientists, so why not those in the Muslim world too? There may not have been a Muslim on the bridge of the star ship Enterprise but with the right inspiration, a new generation of scientists could well be setting the Muslim world off on their own journey towards the final frontier.

A Photo Feature




[1] The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation

Images: Credit © Mike Massaro |Nour Festival



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