Fiction, Depiction and Allegory: Islamic View?

Question and answer details
E. M.
As-Salaamu Alaykum, What is Islam's stance on this subject in fiction writing? Would a series like "Dune" be considered inappropriate? Is portraying different cultures (with decidedly radically different social norms) in fiction be considered, well, bad? For example, portraying, in a fictional-not-historical work, a culture primarily of atheists? Or writing a world with literally multiple physical gods, subject to the laws they put forth, in a world existing only for the pleasure of the imagination? For that matter, is creating such fictional worlds to be frowned upon? Again, an example would the Lord Of The Rings series. I'm aware the question is too tenuous in its current form, thus logically presuming it won't be published immediately. Nevertheless, I feel I conveyed the basic idea: How much does Islam govern 'the creation of worlds' in works of art? Be that writing, drawing, cinema, etc. With the emphasis on writing, my field. Through communication, I hope we can agree in the end. _We_ hope.--- Thank you. As-Salaamu 'alaykum
Shahul Hameed

Salam Dear Brother,

Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.

The Islamic view of literary composition or artistic creation is primarily based on the Holy Quran and the narrations of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. We know that the Quran itself should basically be viewed as Guidance for the God-fearing, and not as literature or work of art. But at the same time, a discerning reader cannot escape noticing how language is used in the Quran to its fullest potential.

The Quran abundantly uses figures of speech, such as simile, metaphor and even irony. It also employs highly suggestive symbolic language and allegorical narratives. There are several instances where traditional words are used in an innovative way to invest them with new meanings.

The verses that speak of Allah Almighty’s Creative Power and Sovereignty are particularly noteworthy. The narration of prophetic stories as well as the description of heaven and hell present before our mind’s eye a number of word pictures that appeal to our imagination and disturb our preconceived notions, as nothing else can:

In the descriptions of the phenomena of nature or of the numerous blessings bestowed upon man, the Quran’s appeal is not only to our reason, but also to our imagination and aesthetic sense:

{Fair in the eyes of men is the love of things they covet: Women and sons; Heaped-up hoards of gold and silver; horses branded (for blood and excellence); and (wealth of) cattle and well-tilled land. Such are the possessions of this world’s life; but in nearness to Allah is the best of the goals (To return to).} (Quran 3:14)

{It is He Who sends down rain from the skies: with it We produce vegetation of all kinds: from some We produce green (crops), out of which We produce grain, heaped up (at harvest); out of the date-palm and its sheaths (or spathes) (come) clusters of dates hanging low and near: and (then there are) gardens of grapes, and olives, and pomegranates, each similar (in kind) yet different (in variety): when they begin to bear fruit, feast your eyes with the fruit and the ripeness thereof…} (Quran 6:99)

{By the (Steeds) that run, with panting (breath), and strike sparks of fire, and push home the charge in the morning, and raise the dust in clouds the while, and penetrate forthwith into the midst (of the foe) en masse;-Truly man is, to his Lord, ungrateful….} (Quran 100:1-6)

Indeed our aesthetic sensibility is a great gift of Allah deserving to be used in our life for our own benefit. It is one of those faculties we need to use in the worship of Allah and in the service of our fellowmen.

As responsible ambassadors of Allah Almighty on earth, we have to use our artistic and literary talents too, as in the case of all other gifts.

The Prophet taught us that all things are judged on the basis of the intentions behind them. The question is whether our intentions are acceptable before God or not. Science or art at our disposal can be used for good or bad: About poets, Allah says in the Quran:

{And the poets it is those straying in evil who follow them. See you not that they wander distractedly in every valley? And they say what they practice not….} (Quran 26:224-226)

These verses are about the kind of poets who “wander distractedly in every valley” – whose poetry, one might say, distracts their followers to every valley of dissipation and depravity.

But the rest of the verse speaks of another kind of poets:

{Except those who believe, work righteousness, engage much in the remembrance of Allah and defend themselves when they are unjustly attacked. Soon the unjust assailants know what vicissitudes their affairs will take.} (Quran 26:227)

Indeed this bifurcation applies to all writers, whether poets, novelists or dramatists: that is, those whose writings distract their readers from virtue; and those who strive in the Path of Allah.

Obviously in the field of literary composition as well as appreciation, as in every other human activity, Muslims should necessarily observe the limits set by Allah and His Prophet.

In view of the above and without transgressing the limits, we can use our artistic and literary talents, irrespective of the genre of literature or the form of art chosen.

The Dune series (or The Lord of the Rings series) on American TV is the work of Non Muslim artists who do not observe the above principles and naturally they contain elements objectionable to Islam and Muslims.

A Muslim can employ his valuable time for better purpose than watching immoral or amoral productions. But a mature person can watch such productions for study or criticism.

A Muslim artist or writer cannot ignore the kind of impact his contemplated work is going to have on his audience. Imaginative works such as novels or stories – allegorical or otherwise – where gods or demons are characters may be written, as long as they are presented as fiction and taken as such in the first place. And secondly these works should urge their readers to be better persons, rather than merely strive to please them.

I would like to underscore the fact that Islam is not afraid of imaginary (or for that matter, even real) worlds of differing values and ideals; it seeks to confront such scenarios with a view to establishing its superiority.

It was the English poet John Milton who wrote deprecatingly of “a fugitive and cloistered virtue” that is not strong enough to contend with its adversary, but slinks out of the race; and Islam is far stronger than that, as warranted by history.

Muslim authors should take care to see that their works do not encourage superstition or immorality. An imaginative creation of a world, where the correct norms of truth and decency are subverted is certainly un-Islamic; and no Muslim author is justified in undertaking such a task.

And Allah knows best. I hope this helps answer your question.

Salam and please keep in touch.

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