A number of movies in recent years like Dune, Interstellar, and The Martian thrust science fiction back into the media-consumer American consciousness. Andy Weir, the author of The Martian (which the movie was based on) has become a household name for more ardent fans, and duly so. The Martian and his recent Project Hail Mary are excellent science fiction stories of a man’s last efforts to survive against all odds. Both feature a tight plotline epitomizing the struggle against the forces of nature and humorous narrators. He writes with wit and weaves these tales with remarkable fluidity by contrasting humor with impending doom, and the vast swathes of space and nature with man’s frailty against a backdrop of highly technical ingenuity. In comparison, his 2017 novel Artemis fell short. However, the addition of a Muslim character warrants further analysis and the potential of Muslim science-fiction.
The plot of Artemis takes place in the titular lone lunar city Artemis, established by a Kenyan corporation. The main character Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara and her father migrated there from Saudi Arabia when she was young. While her estranged father is portrayed as an observant Muslim, she herself is not, working as a smuggler. One day a wealthy businessman offers her an exorbitant amount of money to damage a different company’s ore-collecting harvesters, so he can then rope the city into a profitable contract with his own harvesters. This sets off a chain of events featuring a rag tag team, a criminal syndicate, and a race to save the city.
Combined with science-fiction elements, the synopsis initially sounds engaging. But quickly, the technical elements of the story become unnecessary. Unlike in The Martian or Project Hail Mary where the experimentation and technology is vital to the story and the characters must engage in to survive, the elaboration on the science and mechanics here detract from the story from moving along.
Additionally, Jazz is written in a way that her libertine sexual behaviors and sardonic attitude seem more reminiscent of a stereotypical teenage boy (an issue applicable broadly – some authors struggle with writing female characters that aren’t simply male characters but with an added, hyperfocus on sexuality). In one interview, he characterizes his choice of her heritage as an “on the spot” decision: “I’m like, what’s a country I haven’t used yet?—Saudi Arabia.”1 Maybe it was a well-intentioned decision by Weir to diversify the science-fiction genre, but in doing so, just as Artemis is American in every way but name, Jazz is the typical embodiment of Western secular-modernity in every way but name (actually, her nickname too). At one point, she wonders why a male friend is uncomfortable with her recommendation to fornicate with hookers and almost every interaction is heavy-handed with unnecessarily vulgar language or mentions of her previous sexual exploits.
Unlike the protagonist in The Martian, who’s attitude at times is too fanciful but arguably makes sense in the context of a lone man millions of miles from home, Jazz’s humor and attitude is overbearing, and this makes her an unsympathetic protagonist. It’s not a stretch to analyze her character as the idealization of the ‘strong woman trope’, a supposed corrective to stereotypical female characters but ironically a stereotype itself: a caricature with an impatient, rancorous personality.2 Ultimately, a science-fiction story is not simply the technical elements, and understanding Artemis through Jazz proved intolerable.
Islam, Muslims, and Science Fiction
While I do not recommend the book, there are unique touches of Weir’s world-building that warrants additional analysis. Rather than theorizing on how religions will evolve decades from now through an anthropological lens, he adds little touches of how living in a moon colony might affect day-to-day life. For example, this exchange between Jazz and her father showcasing both their engineering skills:
“Correct,” he said. “I call it a prayer wall.”
The moon always points the same face toward Earth. So, even though we’re in orbit, from our point of view, Earth doesn’t move. Well, technically, it wobbles a bit because of lunar liberation, but don’t worry your pretty little head about that. Point is: Earth is fixed in the sky. It rotates in place and goes through phases, but it doesn’t move.
The ramp pointed at Earth so Dad could face Mecca while praying. Most Muslims here just faced west—that’s what Dad had done all my life.
“How will you use it?” I asked. “Special straps or something? I mean—it’s almost vertical.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” He put both hands on the prayer wall and leaned forward onto it. “Like this. Simple and easy. And it’s more in keeping with Qiblah than facing west on the moon.”3
Keeping in mind the fiqhi (Islamic jurisprudence) problems jeopardizing the validity of salah by praying in the way her father indicates he will in the end of the passage, the snippet offers a glimpse into a potential Muslim future. How would Muslims actualize divine reality in the movement of ruku’ in a zero or low gravity environment? How would they live, organize into communities, and govern themselves? Shaykh Musa Furber writes about science fiction potentially serving as a vehicle to explore possible such futures:
Thinking about hypothetical issues benefits specialists in Islamic disciplines since it gives them a playground to apply their knowledge and to develop it to fit new issues. Sometimes what they gain when thinking about a far-fetched hypothetical issue has practical applications in present or emerging issues. In Al-Ghiyāthī, Imām al-Ḥaramayn al-Juwaynī wrote about possible future scenarios where Muslims have diminished access to the Shariʿah and its sources. His scenarios were far-fetched in his day. Some of them are now part of our everyday reality. Thanks to Imām al-Juwaynī’s forethought, Al-Ghiyāthī is one of the sources for developing abstract legal frameworks (including maqāṣid) and for political philosophy…
Someone pointed out that many scholars frown at speculative and hypothetical issues. While it is true that it is typically discouraged to ask for and answer fatwas about far-fetched or impossible issues, this tends to be less of a concern when it [comes] to fiqh.4
While discerning how one would pray on the moon falls is likely the lowest issue of concern for ‘ulema, it’s pertinent to note there is already scholarship concerning Muslims in space. For example, a council in Malaysia in preparation for the launch of their astronaut into space, released ‘A Guideline of Performing Ibadah at the International Space Station (ISS)’ in 2007.5 In 2014, there had been uproar in Western media regarding United Arab Emirates’ supposed disavowal to voyage to Mars likely due to dangers associated with it in light of Islam’s emphasis on preservation of life (for interested readers, Shaykh Musa has a post contextualizing the controversy).6
Regardless, as these matters move from the realm of imagination to reality, we understand the importance of careful deliberation by ‘ulema. Traveling to Mars is actually a possibility in our lifetime. Astronauts now live for months at a time in the International Space Station. Back on Earth, technology companies are further developing science-fiction-like technologies like cryopreservation, virtual reality, and nanotechnology. They are not as pervasive in common society as fictional stories would have us believe, but just as previously thought impossible technologies like gene editing are now possible at a rudimentary level, we have to be prepared for the benefits and costs of toying with the human body and nature at such an invasive level. This is where the realm of the imagination has the potential to explore such issues before they come to fruition.
Additionally, as the effort is in its infancy (and non-existent in the English language), Muslim writers and critics can begin to define what constitutes an Islamic science-fiction literary genre, as opposed to science-fiction novels featuring Muslim characters. One place such a definition can begin is to return to the purpose of fiction beyond mere enjoyment and distraction. More books are published a year than ever, and people spend increasing amounts of time plugged into fictional tales from a variety of mediums.7 This time can be made valuable if both writers and readers reorient their mindset in producing/consuming nourishing tales. Dr. Samir Mahmoud, Lecturer at Cambridge Muslim College, starts such a discussion year by introducing valuable fiction as follows:
What [Eastern and Western cultures] have in common is number one, the imagination and number two, a genuine desire to explore beyond the visible world in many ways. The Islamic tradition is one of the richest traditions on the planet. It developed one of the most sophisticated theories of the imagination ever produced. [In] its exploration of the realm of the beyond and…alam al-mithal, the world of imagination…Islam provides a remarkable framework for understanding nature of imagination and essential role in understanding the beyond, including God.8
He goes on to mention the works of Tolkein and CS Lewis, who’s works attempted “to recover the importance of the spiritual dimension of our existence by drawing on the role of the imagination” in a context where many Christian youth were struggling with faith. Storytelling can be and is one way to invigorate a reader’s sense of faith, virtue, and submission to God. Our job, then, is to provide the criteria between literature that is beneficial and harmful to our souls, and to produce works built on this fundamental criteria.
While a number of authors in recent years have emerged to broaden the presence of Muslims in fiction, many stories are still written for and using the language of a largely secular-liberal audience. While they may occupy a necessary niche, there still remains a dearth of unique and creative stories rooted in an Islamic worldview, with creative use of literary techniques and themes. Talented Muslim writers should take this to task, Insha’Allah.
Disclaimer: Material published by Traversing Tradition is meant to foster scholarly inquiry and rich discussion. The views, opinions, beliefs, or strategies represented in published articles and subsequent comments do not necessarily represent the views of Traversing Tradition or any employee thereof.Endnotes
- Greenemeier, L. (2017, Nov. 14). A Saudi heroine, a big score and the first city on the Moon, Scientific American.
- Weir, A. (2018). Artemis, chapter 4. Random House UK.
- Ibid. at chapter 3.
- Furber, M. (2014, Mar. 5). Science fiction as a vehicle for Islamic didacticism and Better Futures.
- Garis panduan pelaksanaan ibadah di International Space Station, ISS (Stesen Angkasa Antarabangsa). English translation available here.
- Furber, M. (2014, Mar. 4). The Mars One Fatwa that Never Was.
- U.S. book market – statistics & facts, https://www.statista.com/topics/1177/book-market/
- Mahmoud, S. (guest). “Episode 22 – Aesthetic Islam | Dr. Samer Mahmoud”, starting from 7:01
Hashmi is best known for her project, Muslims Condemn. She is a law student based in the US with a background in Molecular, Cellular, & Developmental Biology and Linguistics. Her interests include the Islamic sciences, cognitive linguistics, and bioethics.