Saturday, 17 December 2011

Thoughts on Medieval Islam.

I was asked yesterday to write something fictional that was related to my Malay background. I replied that I wasn't interested in doing that anymore because I was more interested in writing something that was inspired by medieval Arab/Islam.

My friend asked why medieval Arab and not Malay. And while at the time I simply answered, "Cos the medieval Islamic period is more interesting", I feel I should expand on that a little bit.

The truth is, when I first started this blog, I was all about writing something that reflected my roots and heritage. I wanted to write The Great Malaysian Novel. I wanted my stories to be infused with Malaysiana.

And I did. I wrote several short stories of which I feel reflect quite accurately the Malaysia that I personally know. Unfortunately those stories have never really been published, not because I think they're rubbish (although I do occasionally reread them and think they are a bit rubbish) but because I feel they are a little too personal for me to share with the rest of the world. They are just fiction but somehow I have an emotional bond attached to them that I cannot sever by releasing them into the wild. Doing so would be to bare my soul to the judgemental masses and I don't think I can do that.

Publishing those stories would mean exposing them to be criticised by readers and while I'm generally immune to brickbats and am quite welcoming of constructive criticism, I really cannot allow any leeway when it comes to these stories.

After writing those stories I realised that I had needed to write them as a sort of cathartic process and after I had done that I was ready to move on to other things. And so I moved on to writing fantasy inspired by the medieval Arab era.

And why that particular period? Well, it's like asking someone why they like the European Renaissance period. Because the period featured interesting people such as Galileo and Da Vinci.

Well, the medieval Arab period was the Renaissance before the Renaissance. The Muslims had conquered most of what remained of the Roman civilisation during this time and the great Arab scientists and thinkers of the era were lucky to have been able to study well-preserved documents of science, mathematics and history dating back to the Greek period.

Using ancient texts as their reference, the Muslim scientists began to build upon and add new information to what had already existed and these new developments were documented. This was the time of Ibn Sina, Ibn Battuta, Al Khwarizmi and Omar Khayyam.

The discoveries of these Muslim pioneers would later be brought over to Europe where it would inspire the Europeans to greater heights and usher in the Renaissance.

To say that the Medieval Islamic period is rife with inspiration for fantasy and science fiction stories is an understatement. I'm surprised more people haven't dug in this treasure trove of inspiration but hey, more for me I guess?


  1. To quote a character from The Blasphemer:

    'Look, Hayley, back when Europe was locked in the Dark Ages, held back by fear and superstition, the Muslims were already highly civilised. They were the first to purify water, manufacture petrol, perform cosmetic dentistry, cure cataracts, set up pharmacies, create educational colleges and even invent primitive analogue computers to planetary orbits. Their list of accomplishments are monumental. I am not exaggerating when I say that Western society today would be nothing without the knowledge and the technology that the Muslim world pioneered.'

    I think it's awesome that you've decided to tackle the Islamic caliphate. You're the best person to do it, and I think your story is going to be a cracker of a read when it's done.

    Interestingly, I actually considered writing about it myself a number of years ago. I was so interested in the subject matter that I actually took a paper on Islamic civilisation back in uni. However, after much tinkering, I decided against pursuing the project. It just wouldn't be right, seeing as I'm not a Muslim.

    By the way, Have you heard of Saladin Ahmed? He's an American-born Muslim who writes really intriguing Islamic fantasy. If you haven't checked him out, you should. He'd be right up your alley, I think.

  2. I am a fan of Saladin Ahmed's short stories! There's a really cool western story of his that I really love and I hope one day he will make a novel out of it. Maybe after the one that will launch next month. (I'm slightly annoyed though he took the name Crescent Moon Kingdoms... I wanted to use that!)

    I'm not sure why you wouldn't feel right writing about the Islamic caliphate just because you're not a Muslim. That hasn't stopped other people. But yeah, Islamic civilisation is a very interesting subject, as long as it's not bogged down by dogmatic rhetoric.

    In the meantime, let me finish that novella. I'm throwing myself into hospital next week (taking tonsils out) and I'm hoping the free time and drug-fueled haze will help me finish it.


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