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The Islamic Roots Of Science Fiction

Illustration for article titled The Islamic Roots Of Science Fiction

You probably already knew that Islam was having a scientific golden age during Europe's middle ages, and making tons of scientific and medical discoveries. (Which is why we use words like "algebra.") But you might not know that some of the earliest proto-science fiction came from the Islamic world.


Top image: Cover detail of Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by Ibn Tufail

Of course, Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein is widely recognized as the first real work of science fiction, because it's a novel of speculation based on the scientific discoveries of her day. But there were a number of works before Frankenstein that feature a lot of what we'd consider the defining characteristics of SF.


The first of these is widely considered to be A True History by Lucian of Samosata, a Syrian author. This 2nd century novel follows a traveler who is transported via water spout to the Moon, where he encounters strange societies and bizarre life forms. But there are also a number of early claimants to the "proto science fiction" label coming out of the Islamic world. Notably:

Hayy ibn Yaqdhan by Ibn Tufail. This 12th century work isn't speculative, per se, but it does have a heavy scientific component, and was an influence on Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which in turn influenced tons of SF creators. In Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, a boy is raised alone on an island by a gazelle, and he develops empiricism and the scientific method of inquiry through pure observation. This book, with its emphasis on deriving knowledge from observation, became popular in Europe in the 17th century and probably helped spur the Scientific Revolution.

al-Risala al-Kamiliyya fil-Sira al-Nabawiyya by Ibn al-Nafis. Written in response to Ibn Tufail's story, this 12th century text also sees someone living alone on a desert island — but this story's character is created by "spontaneous generation," a process which is described in some detail. This character also has a journey of figuring out the world empirically and creating a scientific view of reality based on experience — but it leads him to otherworldly, spiritual revelations. And the book ends with possibly the first ever fictional description of the apocalypse. The author of this novel was also the discoverer of pulmonary circulation.


The Man in the Moone by Francis Godwin. This 17th century book is a strong contender to be the earliest work of proto-SF in English — it's the tale of a man who visits the Moon on a platform carried by geese. And he finds intelligent life there. But as James A. Herrick argues in the book Scientific Mythologies, Godwin was almost certainly influenced by the Italian scientist and philosopher Giordano Bruno, who lectured about the likelihood of life on other worlds in the 16th century, who in turn borrowed extensively from Nicholas of Cusa, who traveled the Islamic world and studied "medieval Islamic philosophy, with its roots in even earlier Zoroastrianism and Persian astrology."


Sultana's Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain And finally, here's one of the first feminist science fiction books ever written, published in 1905. The Guardian describes it as "a sort of gender-based Planet of the Apes where the roles are reversed and the men are locked away in a technologically advanced future." Female scientists have discovered how to exploit solar power and create flying cars.


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Chip Overclock®

At the recent WorldCon in London (as you may know, since we saw one another there), there was a panel on science fiction in Arabic. The participants were writers, editors and translators from a variety of Middle Eastern countries. It was pretty interesting, and included anecdotes like getting in, and then out of, trouble with the religious authorities over publishing a translation of the Harry Potter books (which were apparently immensely popular in the Middle East).

Somewhat to my surprise, there were also a lot of Muslim women (and perhaps Muslim men, but that's a tougher call) attending the convention. This may be somewhat of a coincidence of timing of the WorldCon with the period after Ramadan during which (I was told) it's common for well-to-do Middle Eastern families to visit London for shopping and vacation. Certainly we saw many Muslim families (and Jewish families as well) clearly vacationing during the days after the Con that we spent in London proper (the Con having been at a complex some distance from central London).

That's one of the things I like about big urban cities: lots of interesting diversity. (The other is easy public mass transportation.) Mrs. O and I ate at a crepe restaurant near our hotel in the Marylebone district in which we may have been the only non-Muslims. It was interesting as there was a wide variety of levels of orthodoxy in terms of dress and protocols. Similar experience during a meal we ate at Harrods.