The merits of working and studying in Education City – where the branch campuses of some of the best universities in the world are within a stone’s throw of each other – is being driven home by the publication of a book written by a faculty member of the Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar (VCUarts Qatar), in collaboration with student research assistants from five Qatar Foundation universities.

Dr Jörg Matthias Determann
Dr Jörg Matthias Determann

Science Fiction in Islam and the Muslim WorldDr Jörg Matthias Determann, an Associate Professor of History at VCUarts Qatar, worked with students from Georgetown University in Qatar (GU-Q), Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q), UCL Qatar, VCUarts Qatar and Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), for his book titled, ‘Islam, Science and Extraterrestrial Life: The Culture of Astrobiology in the Muslim World’, published by I.B. Tauris, an imprint of Bloomsbury.

The student research assistants include Linda binti Ridzuan Chun (GU-Q), Anusheh Zaman (UCL-Qatar), İrfan Batur (HBKU), Mosammat Samiha Sadeka (CMU-Q), and Shima Aeinehdar and Maphuza Akter (VCUarts Qatar). They were hired through the VCUarts Qatar Student Employment Program. Walli Ullah from GU-Q also volunteered his services and expertise towards the project.

Science Fiction in Islam and the Muslim World

Dr Determann’s book focuses on a topic that has often been overlooked – science fiction in Islam and the Muslim world.

If you compare genres of literature across the globe, you will notice that writings on science fiction are sparse. And even when a literary study is published, more often than not, it is on western science fiction.

The historian says that though Arabic science fiction has always been, and is, flourishing, misconceptions exist.

He said that western commentators and media tend to assume that the Arabic speaking world is too traditional and conservative to create science fiction.

But the truth is to the contrary; the same zeal, creativity, literary prowess and spirit of inquiry that drove Arabs to put forward numerous inventions, discoveries and concepts in the past, continue to produce science fiction that appeal to different audiences in the present.

The academician notes how, despite the enormous scientific contributions made by Arab civilisation to mankind, the prevalence – and popularity – of science fiction in the Arab world hasn’t been recognised.

In fact, not many sci-fi fans know that Islamic civilization contributed one of the earliest science fiction novels, Awaj bin Anfaq, by the 13th-century Baghdad-based writer and physician, Zakariya al Qazwini.

Dr Determann explained how exploring the sheer breadth of science fiction in the Muslim world necessitated a research team drawn from various nationalities – and that’s where the advantage of working in a multi-university campus, became apparent.

He said that while this is not the first time that he’s written a book, it certainly is a first for him in terms of such an extensive cross-campus collaboration.

To have students from five different universities – and countries – research and collaborate on a topic that has cultural, scientific and literary implications is something that was made possible only because of the uniqueness of Qatar Foundation’s Education City model.

He said that the student researchers from Iran, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Turkey provided valuable input and were able to detect social, political, cultural or psychological subtleties that lie hidden in the science fiction of their respective countries – something that Dr Determann would not have been able to pick up.

İrfan Batur
İrfan Batur
Linda binti Ridzuan Chun
Shima Aeinehdar
Shima Aeinehdar

The student research assistants noted how the project allowed them to apply their background knowledge of their respective countries and languages, and pick up research skills – while working with a faculty member from another university.

As an Indonesian, GU-Q sophomore Chun said she was attracted to the research project because it appreciates her native language and culture.

I was able to learn how the growth of science fiction has been influenced or inspired by local culture, religious traditions, political events, and globalisation.

Aeinehdar, an Iranian student at VCUarts Qatar, echoes Chun’s earlier statement: I have always been interested in extraterrestrial life. 

She said that researching the topic specifically in Iran was very informative and inspirational as he had to use both Persian (his first language) and English. The theme’s emphasis on diversity also provided him with a chance to dig deeper into his culture.

HBKU Student Batur from Turkey, recalled how, despite his initial hesitations, the project led to a personal revelation – that in addition to a high level of computing and design skills, he has other qualitative and soft skills.