“…we do not say that God forces rain to fall, it is not necessary to say that God forces a choice on man.” — Ahmad Shafaat
There’s a difference between Allah forcing man to do something all the time and Allah being incapable of forcing His creation to do as He sees fit (determines). — Yours Truly
I, like a lot of Americans who were born in the early seventies, grew up with a love for science-fiction and fantasy. And while I’ve always been a lifelong fan of the genre, I’ve also never been naive of science-fiction’s mythos; a mythos which all too often places its white protagonists (see the trailer for the new Luc Besson film, Valerian) in a world where they are surrounded by aliens (real world “aliens” such as Blacks, Mexicans, Asians, or Muslims, are exchanged for a cast of extraterrestrial characters, often just caricatures of these various ethnic groups), whereupon they are conscripted into a campaign of conquest masked as heroism. This call to heroism is often instigated by a foreign, hostile, “alien” threat, revealing the perspectivism and propaganda being visited upon the entire genre: whites are inherently good, benevolent, courageous and civilized (especially the builders of civilization) and never are the aggressors.
It is for this reason I found Denis’ Villenueve’s adaption of Ted Chiang’s Story of Your Life, Arrival, refreshing. I want to pause here before going any further and provide a spoiler alert. If you plan to see the movie and wish to savor the plot, then stop reading here, go see the movie, and then resume!
Arrival is a quiet, cerebral and engaging film. While it has many of the typical props any good science-fiction movie will have (space ships, a secretive government and military, aliens, spooky music, etc.) it does manage to avoid some common tropes (such as the white savior or feminist-ninja-syndrome recently on tap in The Force Awakens). Its visuals are striking and yet still allows for the well-written and for the most part, well acted characters to shine through.
So why am I, an Imam, and self-confessed lover of cheesy sci-fi, praising Arrival? Because it reveals, for me as a Muslim, some really good tidbits for thought, particularly on the subjects of determinism, agency, and rida’/ridwan (being pleased with what Allah decrees). I feel these are three issues that many Muslims today struggle with and even more so after the apparent victory of the GOP in the United States 2016 Presidential election. The question can be asked: with the GOP/white supremacists (so-called “alt-right”) in power, are Muslims bound (determined) to a horrible fate in America or do they posses agency—the power—if not to change the conditions of reality to their suiting, then to change their dispositions towards trying to achieve that which is pleasing to Allah? Can Muslims, despite these challenges, still live full, meaningful lives? According to Arrival, yes, we can.
Arrival plays with time, a hallmark in the sci-fi genre. In this case, it asks some poignant questions about fate, intention, and turns the understanding many of us have: if we had knowledge of what happens in the future and the past, we would doubtless change our actions to suit a more favorable reality. Louise Banks (portrayed by Amy Adams), Arrival’s protagonist, suffers an emotionally crippling blow at the film’s beginning with the death of her daughter who passed away in early childhood from a rare type of cancer. This leaves Banks emotionally “limited” for much of the film; she is highly intelligent, analytical, but also crushed by the death of her daughter. Through Banks’ encounter with an alien species who have come to the earth in mysterious obelisk-like space vessels, she comes to an alternative and non-linear understanding of time.
Arrival’s aliens (whose alien-ness*, amongst other things, is conveyed through their complex and nonlinear form of language) allow Banks to perceive the meaning of her child’s death, not through the lens of entitlement but through the lens of experience. How often, in the vernacular of our own cultural myths, do we hear the phrase, “so-and-so died too early”, or so-and-so is “gone too soon”. One could, in an attempt to validate such statements, say that they’re merely defensive mechanisms, articulated through our confrontation with the mortality of our loved ones, and ultimately with our own. I would not argue with such explanations, but given Islam’s stance towards death—and how it pushes us to accept the fate of others—I was pleased to see how Louise Banks ultimately reconciles her trauma by seeing that what was most important in her relationship with her daughter was not simply to extend the lifespan of her child’s life, but was to fully experience it. In moments of clairvoyance dispersed throughout the film, Banks ultimately comes to see that though she is powerless to change her child’s fate (the result of a genetic abnormality passed on to her daughter from her husband, Ian) she wouldn’t trade being Hannah’s mother for anything, even if she had to experience her death again. This is further emphasized at the film’s conclusion when it is explained who Hannah’s father is (Ian – played by Jeremy Renner); it was through Louise’s and Ian’s collaboration on the alien project that they fall in love. Had Louise not fallen in love with Ian, she’d never have married him and thus become Hannah’s mother, an experience too powerful and to meaningful to give up simply because she could not control it and the pain and difficulty she will experience. In my opinion this metaphor makes Arrival a very powerful film. It demonstrates the power of meaning and also lays bare the powerlessness we humans truthfully have over our fates. The question Arrival begs is, “are we willing to give up meaning for security?”. We Muslims would echo what Allah says in the Qur’an,
فَيُضِلُّ اللَّهُ مَن يَشاءُ وَيَهدي مَن يَشاءُ ۚ وَهُوَ العَزيزُ الحَكيمُ
“Allah misguides anyone He wills and guides anyone He wills. He is the Almighty, the All-Wise.” Qur’an, 14: 4
…meaning that we do not have ultimate control over reality but we do have control over our disposition towards it and most importantly, towards Allah. If I may take creative license, Louise Banks essentially submits to the Will of Allah: she accepts the fate of her child to die in childhood; unarguably a grievous thing to experience, by submitting, whereby she relieves a great burden upon her heart all the while knowing full-well (a result of the nonlinear alien language which Louise learns and thus learns of her child’s fate) she will have to relive and re-experience her child’s death again.
Arrival is a quiet, cerebral science-fiction story that serves up a lot of food for thought; there are aliens but no explosions. Space ships but no laser cannons. Yet despite the absence of these I am left feeling more hopeful and energized about my own prospects, not because I can do anything about them, but because I feel inspired to do something about my attitude towards the One Who Created them.
* Hat tip to the visual creators of Arrival for choosing their aliens to be cephalopods. Having grown up on Lovecraftian short stories of alien creatures with squid-like features was, I felt, a well-deserved nod to H. P. Lovecraft.