Islam Sci-Fi Interview of Yakoub Islam

Image: Yakoub Islam

Background: Yakoub Islam in a British Muslim writer who also runs the Tasneem Project and Steampunk Islam project. He also created the Muslim Aracrchist Charter. He is working on the first Muslim Steampunk novel which is set in the 11-12th centuries. Yakoub defines the project as follows: “Muslim Steampunk combines the aesthetics of the 12th century Middle East and Mediterranean and pre-modern Islamic science, with an imagined steam technology developed from the Greek Hero engine.” His notes and background research on the novel is available on his website. In addition to the subject being interesting in itself, the web archive also serves a fascinating look into the process of writing a novel. He also blogs at Steampunk Shariah.

M. Aurangzeb: Being of British, Muslim, Anarchist, how much your various identities inform your work?
Y. Islam: I’m currently reading Arrowsmith, by Sinclair Lewis, a fictional character-sketch of the title’s namesake. Lewis’ novel is considered one of the most credible portrayals of a scientist in modern fiction. I identify strongly with the book’s central character, Martin Arrowsmith, in respect of his central attitude towards science. Martin is a shoot-‘em-down kind of guy when it comes to scientific theories, metaphorically speaking; likewise, I’m a deconstruct-‘em kind of dude when it comes to social concepts. And the mere sight of a social concept like “identity” sees me reaching for my intellectual derringer! That attitude is one that I attempt to examine in The Muslim Age of Steam, my novel-in-progress.

I suppose my novel is informed by all three ideas – British, Muslim, and Anarchist, but I’m reluctant to define them in terms of identity or identity politics. Most of the debates surrounding British and Muslim in the mass media and online are formulated in terms of conflict and contradiction.  My novel is set within the period and culture that is often described as the convivencia – that meeting of faiths and cultures in Spain, Sicily, and elsewhere in the Islamicate that took place during the Early Middle Period (945-1258). On the whole, nationalistic, “religious” and ideological tensions are relatively marginal to my book. The real bitch-fights take place in respect of knowledge and power.

The question raised in the twelfth century that interests me was cosmological: what kind of Universe do we live in? With the exception of a minority of literalists, there was a tendency to grab hold of Aristotle and Ptolemy as the answer to the physical shape of things. The problem was, premodern Muslim Astronomers in particular were increasingly sceptical of these old masters. And although they didn’t suddenly reinvent the cosmos in heliocentric terms, it’s now becoming clear Muslim astronomers were but a surprisingly short step from the Copernican revolution.  What history now strongly indicates, and what I try to imagine more fully in fiction, is that some premodern Muslim scientists realised their understanding of the Universe was simply incomplete, and that Science is always the process of trying to find out.

That is actually an extremely radical notion – anarchistic even – and arguably far in advance of the scientism that surrounds much contemporary public scientific discourses. The problem, as in the novel, is that people mistake science for technological progress.

M. Aurangzeb: You are working on the Muslim Steampunk project can you please tell us something about this project?
Y. Islam: I started researching and writing my novel in Summer 2009, centred around the re-imagining of a journey to England made by Muslim geographer Muhammad al-Idrisi in the twelfth century. However, my initial efforts lacked coherence, and I grappled with the problems of potential readership. The idea of Muslim Steampunk came about as a rather mercenary attempt to re-locate the novel within a specific genre, with the exception of “Islamic Fiction”, which I loathe with a vengeance. In evaluating steampunk, I proposed a series of questions which led me to imagine steam power being invented in the Middle East in the twelfth century. It wasn’t mainstream steampunk, I realised, so I proposed the genre-stretching idea of Muslim Steampunk. Given the negative image of Islam in the world right now, I expected the idea to be machine-gunned down by all and sundry. But the response to my blog Steampunk Shariah, which is the novel’s research journal, has been almost entirely positive.

M. Aurangzeb: What inspired you to undertake this project?
Y. Islam: A novel felt like the perfect solution to a difficult and demanding decade, which had largely centred around caring for my hyperactive autistic son. Creative writing is an old passion, and I was searching for a therapeutic outlet following a period of illness. Writing a novel also raised the prospect of drawing together my eclectic reading of the last 20-odd years, which has covered everything from The Qur’an to Foucault. Finally, I was looking for an excuse to explore Islamicate history in greater depth. Whether my book is eventually successful or not, the process of reading for a specific purpose has proved far more productive as an aide to learning than reading to follow an intellectual thread or out of general interest.

M. Aurangzeb: Do you think there is a general lack of interest in Science Fiction in the Muslim community?
Y. Islam: That’s not a question I feel able to answer. I simply don’t know.

M. Aurangzeb: Are Muslims and Arabs type casted in Science Fiction stories in general?
Y. Islam: Again, I don’t know. I’ve come to creative writing from a reading background predominantly in academic social science, social theory and religious studies.

M. Aurangzeb: Has the current political climate effected portrayal of Muslims in Science Fiction and related genres like Alternative History?
Y. Islam: Again, that’s a question I can’t answer.

M. Aurangzeb: Who is your favorite Science Fiction author?
Y. Islam: Although I’ve already alluded to it, I should state it plainly: probably less than 10% of my reading has ever been concerned with novels. Even in my more literary phases, especially during my early twenties, my head was often seen buried in works of social science and religion as much as fiction. The Hebrew Bible and New Testament include some of the greatest stories ever told, and there is great emotional and psychological drama in Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet. It’s not that I consider fiction to be second best – it’s just I’m fussy!

I grew up adoring John Wyndham’s novels. He was probably the first adult novelist I encountered. However, my long-standing fascination for religion quickly marked out The Chrysalids as my favourite of all his novels, which uses the idea of post-nuclear mutations as a means of exploring religious intolerance. Both my brother and my best-friend at school were huge Sci-Fi fans, and although I enjoyed some of the Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein books they lent me, I have always preferred the “oldies” like H G Wells. The one exception is Michael Moorcock. The imaginative scope of Dancers at the Edge of Time is truly majestic!

M. Aurangzeb: Muslim Steampunk represents a blending and mixing of cultures, what prospects do you see of such endeavours in the future?
Y. Islam: If anything, I don’t think Muslim Steampunk is a blending of cultures. I’d prefer to see it as a rescuing of one from the misrepresentation of the other. One of the interesting things the historian of premodern Islamicate science Ahmed Dallal points out is that premodern Muslim scientists were scientists. Premodern Muslim engineers were engineers. They were not isolated polymaths or purveyors of Greek learning or courtly entertainers or hobbyists. They were members of scientific communities who made a huge contribution to the development of the sum of human knowledge. A modern scientist travelling back to the twelfth century Islamicate would find much in common with his professional kin of 850-odd years past.

At the same time, premodern Muslim science (and scientists) were a crucial and integral part of Islamicate culture. Hence, Muslim steampunk is not simply steampunk starring Muslims. Rather, what I am trying to create is a recognisably premodern Muslim world, accessible to readers of all faiths and none, which includes scientists and technologists doing what they have always done – looking, thinking, hypothesising, exploring, experimenting, building, arguing, doubting, and especially being fragile and foolish human beings, albeit with Islam (and Christianity and Judaism) as a prevailing guide to their own hearts and spirits.

M. Aurangzeb: What advice do you have you young and burgeoning Muslim authors who may be interested in writing Science Fiction?
Y. Islam: I live in Yorkshire in the North of England, a region renowned for its straight talking folk. My advise to Muslim authors interested in writing Sci-Fi is this: get on with it!

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