Prayer Room Science Fiction

Seven Fridays ago, the authorities in Indonesia cancelled public religious gatherings, and a state of emergency was declared in my hometown of Jakarta. All due to COVID-19. The mosques, including Jakarta’s giant Masjid Istiqlal, which can house 200,000, are now empty in lieu of five prayers a day. The churches and temples have exhaled people, and welcomed a waiting for pandemicless times. Children at Muslim boarding schools—including my cousin’s wonderfully precocious child, who loves his education there—have been sent home. And my family prays inside our house (instead of in work prayer rooms or mosques or office spaces during the day, though they often work from home), in the house from which I am disconnected, video-chatted into from London for catch-up sessions, a digital, anxious daughter.

Growing up, I was taught that in our Sunni Muslim theology (mixed with different elements from Indonesian cultures), Earth is a mosque. The entire planet we inhabit. This tenet is why you can pray anywhere—conduct the five daily prayers in a parking lot, in a field, at a busy airport terminal. In an empty classroom, in a bed, by a river, on the beach facing Mecca with your feet in the sea. Theoretically, yes, in a fast food restaurant or down by the pumps at a gas station, or up in a tree, facing Mecca. The architecture of mosques facilitates gathering, but in truth, the whole world is holy.

As religious gathering places shut down, the possibilities of science fiction and the books containing them are respite in more ways than one—science fiction calms our spirits through our consumption and creation of stories. And also, if we are spiritual people, sci-fi calms with the understanding that our theologies may exist in other universes. That infinite kinds of theologies, those that exist in the world or those we invent, systems for making sense of spirit and calm and purpose, can exist in sci-fi.

If we wish, we can imagine ourselves in a science fictional landscape with our Earthly understandings of religion and spirituality intact, but expanded. If the Earth is a mosque, other worlds could well be also. More worlds in which we can understand how to diminish violence in landscapes of different spiritualities, to undo injustice and imperialism and patriarchy. Places where imperialism and patriarchy never existed, or perhaps have been eradicated. Fictional settings allow us to adopt more equitable, just, and inclusive versions of our faiths. Where the gloriously multiple genders that existed before colonial laws in Indonesia, for instance, live freely. Where they can pray and lead prayer, no matter how one identifies. Where women are not socialised to always pray behind men. Where traditional, “animist” practices are not seen as anathema to God(s). And, if we can imagine these possibilities, we can find and join with others who are working to make these practices more and more a reality.

Science fiction provides places where the blunders of the world are reimagined as non-existent. Places where Health Ministers, if they exist, do not tell Indonesians to just pray, in lieu of urgent and accurate health information needed in times of pandemic. A place where more true faithfulness to humanity than such abysmal behaviour can be found.

Science fictional worlds are ways we expand our understanding of space, time, and where we can hope—in a way that affirms an understanding of my Muslim faith as one in which everywhere that exists is a place to pray, and to hope. A plurality of hopes. The more universes, the more places to hope, and keep faith, whatever that means to you.

Perhaps we SF/F devotees are all, whether we identify as religious or not, spiritual futurists. As spiritual futurists, we seek to remake the realms of the soul. We can look beyond spiritualities here on Earth that may not serve our purpose, or imagine better worlds in which spiritualities that are disrespected on Earth—Indigenous spiritualities, for instance—are not denigrated. How much more deeply I feel this, this sense of science fiction as opportunities for spiritual futurism, in times of quarantine and lockdowns. Or when, as with many other disabled people, since before COVID-19, I live in bed (not “bedbound”). For days or weeks, to protect my body, or to help it recover, holistically, loving it beyond corporate platitudes of “self-care” that really seek to uphold capitalist status quos.

We need more than prayers in this world, but in the vastness of our science fiction, prayers can be a part of how other worlds function, how other worlds might understand what’s inside us, how other planets’ natures might communicate with our most intimate selves. In science fiction, a single sentence thought by a human in a pandemic, wishing internally, could be felt by an intact, ancient rainforest. And this forest could deploy its medicines to help the humans that are part of its biome, could heal and protect. In other words, in science fiction, there are infinite ways our prayers could manifest real change.

In science fictional situations, God(s), wherever she/they are, in whatever form, can facilitate a sense of hope beyond anything we feel in the present, on this Earth.

And the opportunities for such hope are endless. We are given the gift of imagining other worlds. Within these worlds, we can create entirely new spiritualities or render old ones anew. We can imagine ourselves Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, and/or any of the other thousands and thousands of spiritualities, of Indigenous belief systems, that have existed in the world, whether stamped out or extant. In all of these faiths, hope can operate as a tool for felt change.

We could imagine worlds where we could pray inside a blue volcano as it erupts, at the bottom of the ocean as alien life forms protect us, in multiple dimensions simultaneously. We could imagine places where the drudgery and panic of daily lives under capitalism is met with the welcome revolutions this world deserves—deity-approved. We could structure Muslim economics in entirely different currencies and societal frameworks that are actually equitable. We could trace new histories, on new planets, of Minangkabau feminist genealogies (my mother’s culture, the largest matrilineal society in the world) we’d never known before. Hope could exist without the dread that it will never produce our needs. Hope in sci-fi can be expansive, threaded through our soulbodies in infinite ways.

In science fiction, religion can be barred from facilitating oppression. In science fiction, spiritualities can be felt with senses beyond the human. In science fiction, for that is what it is to imagine any world beyond our own, we do not discriminate against those who claim no faith. In science fiction, freedom from harm can be tied to the ability to hope, to pray, wherever one wishes in the vast spread of universes.

Gratitude is a powerful tool in the face of seemingly unending hopelessness. I’m grateful today that the world is a mosque. And, in my mind and heart, so is all of science fiction.

Khairani Barokka

Khairani Barokka is an Indonesian writer, artist, and translator in London, whose work has been presented extensively, in fifteen countries. She was Modern Poetry in Translation’s Inaugural Poet-In-Residence, and is Researcher-in-Residence at UAL’s Decolonising Arts Institute. Among Okka’s honours, she was an NYU Tisch Departmental Fellow and is a UNFPA Indonesian Young Leader Driving Social Change. Okka is co-editor of Stairs and Whispers: D/deaf and Disabled Poets Write Back (Nine Arches), author-illustrator of Indigenous Species (Tilted Axis; Vietnamese translation published by AJAR Press), and author of debut poetry collection Rope (Nine Arches Press).

Photo Credit: Derrick Kakembo

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