“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream and the real worlds?” --- Morpheus, The Matrix
I’ve been researching Sufism and Arabic science fiction for some time, and, wouldn’t you know it, after finishing writing and reviewing my drafts, I bought Muhammad Abd Al-Munim Khafaji’s classic Literature in the Heritage of Sufism (1980).
By Emad Aysha
I’d stumbled on the book I had needed just before emailing my final document. It was in the shop front window, begging to be seen, at a place I’d asked at over and over again. Do you have anything on Sufi literature, and they’d say No? Even on the damn computer!
After a few days of intensive speed-reading, my synapsis rewired in toto, and memories began flowing back to me. I recollected a poem by Jalal Al-Din Rumi that I’d used to introduce a chapter by Dr. Faycel Lahmeur in my book Arab and Muslim Science Fiction (2022) about life being like a big sleep where you dream you are someplace other than where you are.
I found the explanation for the poem in Khafaji’s book, where you waste your life pursuing worldly things, like chasing a mirage (another Sufi analogy), while comatose to the way the real world is and what you should be doing about it. That reminded me of The Matrix (1999); see the quote above.
Looking through other words of wisdom by Laurence Fishburne, aka Morpheus, and the whole storyline of the movie – you feel there’s something wrong with the world, I can only open the door, but you have to go through it, the secure well-paying job that leaves you with no creative freedoms – all have Sufi corollaries.
They also liken the world to a house with two doors, value skepticism and doubt, praise the hopeless romantic who gives up everything for true love, etc. How could we have squandered such an inexhaustible resource for science and speculative fiction for so long in our part of the world, the very birthplace of Sufism?
That’s a topic for another (academic) article. Dr. Faycel is a philosophical novelist who loves SF but sees it in a different light than mainstream Western SF, seeing it as satire and skepticism as much as a science.
Cognitive disenchantment; is the world the way we see it? Seeing future worlds that are radically different pushes you along that path. That’s the job of the Sufi. And one way of doing that in Sufi history, and now in Arabic SF, is to use our religious literature, namely the story of the Israa and Miraj, the Night Journey that took the Prophet Muhammed from Mecca to Al-Quds and from there to the Heavens above. Reading Khafaji’s book, I found that the first modernist Sufi poet, Iqbal Khan in Pakistan, did just that in one of his poems, putting his satire on a par with Dante’s Divine Comedy.
There are corollaries of this in sci-fi history, again. There’s Lucian of Samosa’s tale of a journey to the moon, allowing him to continue his satirical trek against the received religious wisdom and superstitions of his day. Nothing quite beats the objectivity of a bird’s eye view.
Dr. Faycel does this in a his YA novel, In the Forgotten Dimension, which uses a space opera setting as an allegory for the search for the self, with references to Rumi and riyadat al-nafs (exercises of the soul). Wouldn’t you know it, Sufis have always used the Night Journey as a mode of salvation, connecting the worshipper with God as the Prophet is supposed to have lost himself in the Person of the Almighty.
The journey outward is always inward, just as jihad on the battlefield should never distract from the more complex jihad against your ego and insidious imagination. Sufism is more than airy-fairy mysticism. Reading Khafaji’s book, especially in tandem with Dr. Faycel Lahmeur’s book chapter (see details below), helped you realize that Sufism is counter-culture.
There’s no difference between what Sufis did in the past, through stories and parables and poems and prayers and songs, and what Philip K. Dick did in the 1960-the 70s. It’s not a happenstance that Sufism emerged in Baghdad in the 2nd Islamic century, during the heyday of fiqh (legalistic traditions) and the Mutkalimin (rationalist philosophers).
These people churned out dry drivel that focused only on the proper regulation of worldly affairs, without any moral instruction and poems and stories about role models and – more fundamental still – questioning of the point of all of these laws and religious practices. What’s the Divine wisdom behind it all, the way the world is, and we’re commanded to live in it? Indeed isn’t knowing, and feeling, a greater guarantor of moral conduct in this life than mere lip service to religious custom and fear of legal retribution if you break the law?
Isn’t there more to life than merely eating, sleeping, and pooping – to take a page out of Russell Morris? A life of contemplation is the only way to go but a in a romantic way where passion doesn’t get lost in the cold, hard, materialistic logic of science. The science is there for a reason. And to use it properly without blowing yourself and everything else up, you have to have Wisdom.
This is like Iraj Fazel Bakhsheshi’s Guardian Angel all over again. The journey backward, in time, is the journey to our true selves that we’ve forgotten all about. Sympathy and pity and upholding the rights of others, even the defeated, as opposed to gloating over a slain enemy and dismembering his body just for the fun of it, all driven by an illusion of superiority that comes with super science. That’s where the West has found itself and, like any lackey, where hanging onto the coattails of somebody else’s glories instead of building our own from our ever-present raw materials. Right there is in the shop front window that nobody bothered to remember they placed there to gather dust instead of wisdom!
The books referenced here are, in Arabic, Muhammad Abd Al-Munim Khafaji’s ‘Literature in the Heritage of Sufism’ (Cairo: Dar Gharib, 1980). In English, Dr. Faycel Lahmeur’s chapter, “The Mechanics of Writing Algerian SF: Resistance to the Speculative Tools of the Trade,” ‘Arab and Muslim Science Fiction: Critical Essays’, (McFarland, 2022), pp. 28-38.
The chapter was translated by yours truly. A ‘rewarding’ task given Dr. Faycel’s thinking and writing skills!