Original article by: Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad
Think invisible men, time travel, flying machines and journeys to other planets are the product of the European or ‘Western’ imagination? Open One Thousand and One Nights – a collection of folk tales compiled during the Islamic Golden Age, from the 8th to the 13th centuries CE – and you will find it stuffed full of these narratives, and more.
Western readers often overlook the Muslim world’s speculative fiction. I use the term quite broadly, to capture any story that imagines the implications of real or imagined cultural or scientific advances. Some of the first forays into the genre were the utopias dreamt up during the cultural flowering of the Golden Age. As the Islamic empire expanded from the Arabian peninsula to capture territories spanning from Spain to India, literature addressed the problem of how to integrate such a vast array of cultures and people. The Virtuous City (al-Madina al-fadila), written in the 9th century by the scholar Al-Farabi, was one of the earliest great texts produced by the nascent Muslim civilisation. It was written under the influence of Plato’s Republic, and envisioned a perfect society ruled by Muslim philosophers – a template for governance in the Islamic world.
As well as political philosophy, debates about the value of reason were a hallmark of Muslim writing at this time. The first Arabic novel, The Self-Taught Philosopher (Hayy ibn Yaqzan, literally Alive, Son of Awake), was composed by Ibn Tufail, a Muslim physician from 12th-century Spain. The plot is a kind of Arabic Robinson Crusoe, and can be read as a thought experiment in how a rational being might learn about the universe with no outside influence. It concerns a lone child, raised by a gazelle on a remote island, who has no access to human culture or religion until he meets a human castaway. Many of the themes in the book – human nature, empiricism, the meaning of life, the role of the individual in society – echo the preoccupations of later Enlightenment-era philosophers, including John Locke and Immanuel Kant.
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