By Emad El-Din Aysha, PhD
As journalist with The Levant and a member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF), I’m always on the lookout for fellow Arab and Muslim authors of science fiction, and one area that has peaked my interest as of late is Sufi science fiction. I’d given you all a hint of this with the interview I’d conducted of Eslam Samir Abdel-Rahman. Sadly, tragically, Eslam hasn’t written about Sufism in the sci-fi format, only in horror and dark fantasy. All the more reason for this interview with Dawoud Kringle, one of a long line of Western authors of SF (Muslim and non-Muslim) who have infused their works with noble Islamic concepts and traditions.
While originally a musician (see below) he’s authored a full blown Sufi SF novel entitled A Quantum Hijria: A Sufi Science Fiction Tale (2011), as well as an anthology of stories and poems on Sufism and other related matters (A Mansion with Many Rooms, 2016), with more to come. Here’s some essential stats quoted directly from his academia.edu page:
Dawoud Kringle is a multi instrumentalist, composer, improviser, and band leader of the ensemble God’s Unruly Friends. In addition to being an accomplished guitarist and bassist, it is his work on the sitar and dilruba that earned his reputation as “The Jimi Hendrix of the sitar,” His experiments with applying unprecedented concepts and techniques, and electronics, have extended the boundaries of the instruments. He has performed in the US and Europe, appeared on many recordings – including having produced eight albums as a leader, and has enjoyed radio airplay in the US, Europe, Russia, and Indonesia. He often produces his own concerts as a solo artist and with God’s Unruly Friends (whose concerts have included extended ensembles, dance performances, visual art, and other elements of theatrics).Dawoud has extensive experience composing for film, theater, and dance performances. His larger scale composition projects include several chamber works, a symphony, the Harmolodic Raga Cycle (a 21 part cycle that combines elements of Indian Raga with Harmolodic Jazz), and the Isra Wa Miraj Suite (a seven part suite that depicts the Night Journey of the Prophet Muhammad).One of his innovative ideas is the Music Meditation Sessions. After years of experience performing live music for yoga and martial arts classes, he developed a system of musical improvisation that augments and directs the energies in the class. His Music Meditation grew out of this
Emad El-Din Aysha: First off, please tell us something about yourself. Your background and career, and what drew you to Islam?
Dawoud Kringle: I grew up in Milwaukee, and moved to New York City in 1983, where I presently reside.
My interest in music began at an early age, despite not growing up in a musical household. As a toddler, the first music I remember in my life was the Scherzo from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Later, I started listening to the Beatles. But it was Jimi Hendrix who inspired me to become a musician. I started playing guitar when I was 10 years old, with Hendrix being my main inspiration. Later, I started listening to jazz and classical music, and was exposed to Ravi Shankar. I bought a sitar on my 18th birthday, but didn’t become serious about it until later in life. I spent my young adult years playing rock music, and toured with rock bands. I also learned recording engineering and worked in several recording studios as an engineer and in-house studio musician. It was around that time I first composed music for theatre. Later, I abandoned rock music, and entered a period where I played nothing but jazz, and then returned to sitar. By this time, I was also proficient with electronic music. Eventually, I developed my own music that brought together all the diverse elements of my training and experience. Additionally, I toured the US and parts of Europe, produced several recordings, composed music for film, theatre, and dance companies, and also conduct what I call Music Meditation Sessions. I’m presently at work on a new series of compositions and recordings, finishing my first symphony, and am composing a seven part musical suite inspired by the Isra wa Miraj of the Prophet Muhammad (sas).
When I was young, I was interested in religion, philosophy, mysticism, and spirituality. After exploring some arcane paths, and having read the Bible, Bhagavad Gita, Tao ti Cheng, etc., I came across the Qur’an. It spoke to me on a spiritual as well as intellectual level, and answered more questions than it generated. I read it from cover to cover, and I didn’t speak to any Muslims until the day before I took my Shahadah. One of the things that drew me to Islam – and most importantly, kept me as a Muslim – was the fact that it offers a pragmatic manner of defining human existence, and our relation to the Supreme Being. Its mystical dimensions form a logical and practical bridge between the spiritual and corporeal, and provides a method of attaining spiritual enlightenment and a real relationship with Allah. I’ve also been an Imam with the volunteer services of the New York City Department of Corrections for over 20 years, and occasionally give khutbahs at Masjid al Farah in lower Manhattan. It’s interesting to note that I never wanted this job: I was drafted!
EEA: Are you a fan of ABBA by any chance? Their tunes actually sound quite Oriental to the Arabic ear.
DK: I’m not a big fan, but I like ABBA, and certainly respect their talent and accomplishments. They’ve done some great things.
EEA: Did your career in music have anything to do with your attraction to Sufism specifically?
DK: To be honest, I’m not sure one way or another. On the one hand, my approach to music has two distinct facets: the artistic and spiritual part, and the business part. I work at developing both, and keep them separate. On the other hand, while Islam/Sufism is my religion, I tend to see music as my yoga, or my kung fu. So, it’s very possible. But I’d have to say Allahu Alim!
There will always be some overlap there. And since the authentic Shari’ah is so specific about ethical business practices, it has been a guide and a paradigm of limitation in how I approach business.
EEA: Sufism is one of those things that it is extremely difficult to define. What does Sufism mean to you, personally?
DK: If memory serves me, Imam Shafi’i (ra) said that whoever embraces Tassawuff and rejects Shari’ah will become a heretic, and whoever embraces Shari’ah and rejects Tassawuf will become a fanatic. Islam and Sufism are part of each other. There are some who see Sufism as being separate and distinct from Islam. This is a serious error, and on a spiritual level, such people have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. There are too many people who, like those who have become what can only be described as political fanatics, indistinguishable from hardcore fascists or communists. The reality is they have made a false idol of the external appearance of their religion. I’ve crossed paths with people who claim that the poetry of Rumi is all you need to study about Sufism; whereas Rumi described himself as a servant of the Qur’an, and dust on the Path of the Prophet (sas).
If Sufism is anything, it’s the spiritual and mystical dimensions of Islam. It brings the esoteric and exoteric together in a harmonious manner, and offers an actual tangible experience of “at-oneness” with Allah. Beyond that, I have doubts if it can be completely defined.
EEA: What prompted you to write a novel, and a science fiction novel at that? And please give us the lowdown on the story itself.
DK: One day I was in line at the grocery store, and I had an idea for a short story. I started writing it, and it grew and grew, until I realized I was writing a book. Eventually, I declared the book finished (or abandoned!) and looked into ways to publish it.
I’ve been a sci-fi fan my whole life. I’ve read Frank Herbert, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, and others. I’m also an unrepentant Trekkie (although I draw the line at wearing Spock ears and memorizing star dates, Enterprise technical specs, and Klingon love poetry). I see the genre as an excellent means of communicating and demonstrating different sides of reality, and for inspiring innovative ideas. It’s a valuable and necessary art form.
A Quantum Hijra deals with the spiritual unfolding of a young musician who, after a series of tribulations, accepts Islam. It blends scenarios of time travel, outer space colonization, and the “Hero’s Journey” with aspects of Islamic spirituality. I also wanted to extrapolate how Islamic culture would evolve several centuries from now, among human civilizations that had little or no connection to terrestrial culture or civilization.
As of this writing, I’m at work (sporadically – when my musical endeavours permit) on another Sufi sci-fi novel. It will deal with the ideas of evolution, transhumanism, and spiritual apotheosis, as well as communication and interaction with extraterrestrial intelligences.
EEA: What are your literary influences in general – favourite authors, genres? Are you a fan of Philip K. Dick, by any chance?
DK: There was, of course, those I mentioned; Herbert, Asimov, and Clarke. There’s Roger Zelazny. I was amazed by the work of Octavia Butler. Her Xenogenesis Trilogy was, in my opinion, absolutely unique in that there was no way in the world a man could have ever come up with that story. She was a powerful pioneer in both female and African American sci-fi. There’s also Steven Barnes. I can’t think of anything he ever wrote that wasn’t a masterpiece. And yes Philip K. Dick was a genius, with an astonishing breadth of imagination! I should add that when I first wrote “A Quantum Hijra,” I was completely unaware of the existence of Muslim science fiction writers! I thought I was alone. Some years after its publication, I learned to my utter astonishment that I was already part of a community! People like G. Willow Wilson, Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, Farah Rishi, Razwan Ul-Haq, Irving Karchmar, and many others have opened up a brilliant new wave of literature, and a wellspring of ideas and philosophies.
EEA: Would you say that Sufism opens up avenues for new modes of narrative and literary innovation?
DK: I’d say that it’s impossible for it not to do so. Generating inspiration for the artistic works, whether literary, musical, visual, cinematic, or otherwise, is a natural part of the process of Sufism.
EEA: What role do you think such novels as yours can play?
DK: Muslim/Sufi sci-fi writers hold an important place in the hierarchy of Islamic art. Our work presents facets and aspects of reality that may have been unknown, or at least undefinable to us. We articulate that which otherwise has no vocabulary. You are doubtless aware of how the sci-fi of the past inspired not only scientific and technical innovation, but also warned of the inherent dangers that awaited us. This is one of the functions of science fiction, and of all art. When the paradigm of Islam/Sufism is introduced, the division between religion and science, spiritual and corporeal, is removed, and they function in a harmonious manner.
I believe that the word Islam – and by default, Sufism – is a verb. It describes an action. When it is treated as a noun, it ceases to be Islam. Because it is an action, process and change are an integral part of its own fitra, its own true nature. Allah’s creation is immense beyond human comprehension. Thus, there are always new things we can find out there – and within ourselves.
EEA: Would you say there are not enough novels and anthologies out there by Muslim authors, written originally in English?
DK: If there aren’t enough Muslim sci-fi novels in English (compared to other languages and nationalities), it’s because too few have been written. Personally, as a native English speaker and citizen of the US, I’d like to see more, and encourage English speaking Muslims to offer their works, and the ideas and perspectives it offers.
EEA: Finally, is this the first time you’ve heard of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF)? Have you heard of Rebecca Hakins, Marcia Lynx Qualey and Ahmed A. Khan?
DK: I’ve heard of Ahmed A. Khan, but I was unaware of ESSF before you and I started speaking. I’m glad we began this dialogue!
For the benefit of the reader, Rebecca Hankins is an Africa-American convert to Islam who is a major patron of Arab-Islamic SF and Afro-futurism. She also had the privilege of being appointed by President Barack Obama (in December 2016) to the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).
Marcia Lynx Qualey is a literary translator and blogger, also from the US, who has been tireless promoting Arabic literature – including Arabic SF – via her prize-winning website, Arab Literature in English. Arablit.org was launched whilst Marcia resided in Cairo. She is currently living in Morocco.
Ahmed A. Khan is a Canadian author of Indian origin and had the honoured of editing the first ever anthology of Muslim science fiction stories in English – A Mosque Among the Stars. He also helped launch Islam and Science Fiction with Mohamed Aurangzeb Ahmad.