From Imagination to Reality As It Might Have Been

Alternative history often features in science fiction – what might have happened had something been different in history as we know it.  In an earlier webpost, The Conquest of Space As It Might Have Been, I touched on the potential for space flight if European civilization had died in the fourteenth century and Arab science now dominated the world.

But that’s only part of the story.  As is implicit in our motto “From Imagination To Reality”, it’s the exercise of the imagination, and not just developments in science, which lead to true progress.  And if we look back in the history of Arab culture, we see evidence of how this also might have expanded over the centuries.

Arab scientists and philosophers placed great emphasis on their literature and the written word.  In The Science of Secrecy, Simon Singh describes how the use of ciphers became important during the Abbasid Caliphate, and the scientist Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi was writing extensively on phonetics, syntax and linguistic analysis in the ninth century.  His work on frequency analysis in decryption was written over five hundred years before that concept developed in Europe.

The Arabs of that time had the benefit of many works from ancient Greece and Rome – al-Kindi himself translated many of them from Greek to Arabic – but developed a sophisticated literature of their own.  Following the immense importance of the Qur’an itself, a wide range of poetry, history and fiction was written in classical Arabic.

The thirteenth century scientist Ibn al-Nafis is undoubtedly best known for his extensive writing on medicine and anatomy.  In his superb account of Arab science Pathfinders, Jim Al-Khalili describes how he provided the basis for an accurate analysis of blood circulation.  But Ibn al-Nafis may also be credited with one the earliest science fiction novels, translated into Latin as the Theologus Autodidactus.  Here he made serious attempts to describe extraordinary matters through science, rather than mere supernatural explanations.  Another thirteenth century writer, Zakariya al-Qazwini, described travel to other planets and visits by aliens.

If we look for the Middle Eastern roots of such work, we might even go back as far as The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Babylonian epic poem written nearly four thousand years ago.  The hero’s travels to the ends of the earth have the fantastic elements we see in so much science fiction.

But in terms of imaginative and fantastic fiction, it’s surely the famous One Thousand and One Nights which stands out.  In this compilation of Arab, Persian and Indian tales, we see many of the great themes and characters we all know so well – Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin, sorcerers and jinn.  First introduced into Europe at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the origins of many of the stories may go back as far as the ninth century.

No question about it – the Arab imagination was alive and well.  As Robert Irwin put it in his recent book on Orientalism For Lust of Knowing, the “past and present achievements of Arab culture are so considerable that they do not need to be exaggerated”.  There’s no reason to think it wouldn’t have flourished even more if European civilization had collapsed.

There are arguments that it was rather the rise of the (Turkish) Ottoman Empire which reduced the importance of Arabic literature in subsequent centuries – the Empire might have happily taken the benefits of Arab science without the imaginative fiction that went with it – but, even so, the imagination has a tendency to win through in the end.  Our hypothetical astronauts in an alternative twenty-first century would have travelled to the Moon and planets whilst reading, and inspired by, their equivalents of HG Wells, Arthur C Clarke and the rest.  But written in Arabic, of course.

Odyssey readers may like to know of a panel event, chaired by the BBC’s Samira Ahmed, at the Science Museum at 19.00 on Saturday 15 November 2014, discussing the spur to technological innovation from Arab science fiction; cost £10 (£8 concessions), details available from

Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)