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I asked this question in World-Building but it seems better fit for Writing.

I ask for a few reasons. Despite the specific arguments against speculative fiction within Quranic tradition and protests by other Abrahamic traditions and Hindus against certain franchises, I've noted:

  • Accounts of cultures, especially in the medieval period, undermining doctrine by relying on talismans or superstitions possibly at odds with theological tradition.
  • Modern Muslims, Jews, Buddhists asking for and expecting representation in fantasy and sci-fi.
  • The suggestion that creating a fictional religion based on a real religion isn't any better than leaving people out entirely, because it creates a superficial proxy to which the writer has no responsibility to portray accurately or fairly.

I've looked into how religious people who enjoy speculative fiction think about this, and I'm trying to find experts on the subject willing to answer my questions, but I'd like as many perspectives on this as possible.

In the past, firebirds, djinni, spirits, angels, demons, basilisks, witchcraft, dragons, etc were generally accepted to be actualities of the world often reinforced by religious belief, and even now, people tend toward a belief in the preternatural where spirits, angels/demons, practical magic, chakras, etc are concerned.

In western liberal society, even though adherents to religions like Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism often voice opposition to how magic/fantasy elements and their faith are depicted in fiction (His Dark Materials comes to mind), it's generally not out of the question for Christian/Jewish characters to appear in speculative fiction. Conversely, in Islamic societies, genre fiction is often thought of as a force opposed to Quranic truth, and fiction featuring Hinduism is frequently ardently pro-Hinduism.

My understanding is that religious doctrine usually explicitly describes magic/witchcraft and spirits/demons as physical actualities within dogma, so it's blasphemous to depict those things as physical actualities outside of dogma. So is it possible to respectfully write a culture that believes in the divinity of Trimurti or the Abrahamic God according to Islam in a world where wizards can perform feats otherwise only achievable through God, or in which elves are physically superior to humans?

I want to stress the difference between coexistence and tolerance. Of course not even a fictional Muslim society would abide witchcraft within its borders; my question is more about whether it's antagonistic to religious belief to feature a sorcerer capable of staving off an army of devout Muslim warriors, or a dragon whose knowledge surpasses that of any Brahman, or a magically-inclined elf child as the sympathetic victim of Abrahamic witchhunters?

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    I'm not religious at all, but don't Muslims believe in some personified evil being? If they don't tolerate witchcraft, they must therefore believe that witchcraft exists and if they believe that, why be so against it if unless a powerful witch could defeat even a devout Muslim? So you are writing about things they would consider evil. – Amadeus Apr 12 '18 at 19:53
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    @RichardCosgrove It's hard to say. Muslims in culturally Islamic countries have a different relationship with fiction and as such most opinions on Dune come from 'western' Muslims. But the Fremen adhere to a mostly social iteration of a future Islam. The theological, moral imperatives of the Quran are mostly absent, so it's double hard to say. – Mirzka Apr 12 '18 at 20:13
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    @Mirzka Thanks. Yours is a fascinating question. – Richard Cosgrove Apr 12 '18 at 20:46
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    @hszmv You’re right: the bible doesn’t say why Lucifer was cast out of heaven. The story comes from the “Apocrypha”: unauthorised stories used to “fill in the blanks” of biblical myths. TLDR: Satan is a character from Christian fanfic. – Richard Cosgrove Apr 12 '18 at 21:28
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    I don't have much to say except a couple pieces from Christians, "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "The Lord of the Rings". C.S. Lewis heavily implies that Aslan is actually the Christian God in Earth, namely, Jesus; literary scholars agree. J.R.R. Tolkein, a close friend of Lewis, isn't nearly as explicit, but many people who write dissertations on Tolkein confirm the Christian themes of Providence, sin, and grace. Both are fantasy writers that were deeply Christian (Tolkein even converted Lewis from atheism to Christianity!) Anyways, just my two cents. Not sure if it answers much. @Alexander – Steven Choi Apr 13 '18 at 21:16
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The objection I think most people of faith have to their depiction in works of literature is not so much the author's lack of respect but the sheer ignorance of many writers about what people actually believe. I think this is true irrespective of genre.

As a Catholic, I can tell you that the Catholicism I believe in has very little in common with the Catholicism that critics and even disinterested writers attempting to create respectful characters don't believe in. The comic book Catholicism typically found in TV, movies, and novels, has little in common with the faith professed or the lives lived by actual Catholics.

The objection, therefore, is not, "you portrayed my religion in your story and that is blasphemous", but "the religion you portrayed in your book and named after my religion is actually nothing like my religion". This is not so much a matter of blasphemy as a matter of slander: you are misrepresenting the beliefs and practices of a faith you don't understand.

For people not brought up in any faith, there is a tendency to regard religions as a kind of mythological add on to the set of attitudes about the world that were part of how they were brought up and which they assume to be universal. The real differences are much more profound (though, of course, not every adherent of every religion is grounded equally firmly or deeply in their faith).

The Catholic world view, for instance, starts with some very fundamental beliefs about the nature of the universe (what it is, what it is for) and the nature of human beings and human life (what they are, what they are for) which colors everything you see and do. Catholic thought, therefore, does not see itself as an overlay on top of materialistic rationalism. Rather, it sees human rationality as arising out of the nature of man's relationship with God. It does not see faith as a departure from or rejection of rationality, therefore, but rather sees faith as the justification for the claim to rationality. Religion, in other words, is not an add on, it is a ground of knowing on which all the ordinary things of life rest.

I point this out not to preach, but to make the point that religion goes much deeper than people of no religious faith or upbringing imagine that it does, which makes it much harder than it might appear to create a religious character that truly reflects what people of that (or any) faith recognize themselves to be. However respectful the author intends to be and thinks they are being, they end up creating a caricature because they simply don't get what it really means to belong to a religious tradition. Even when they portray lax members of a faith, they tend to get wrong which things people are lax about and which things they are not.

There are certainly faiths that regard certain names, objects, etc as inherently sacred and therefore hold that they demand special treatment, such as freedom from insult or criticism, or even freedom from depiction or naming. Some will regard such restrictions as incumbent on the faithful, and some as incumbent on all people. But this is part of that particular faith's view of the relationship between God and man. There can be no blanket definition of what constitutes blasphemy. It depends on each faith's concept of the sacred and the duties due to sacred things.

Write what you know remains good advice, therefore. If you want to be respectful, and you don't want a character to come across as a caricature, be very careful about introducing a character of a faith you do not understand well.

Now, having said that, I will also say that it is the novelist's right and responsibility to write what they see. They have an artistic responsibility to be diligent and thorough in making sure they see accurately and perceptively, because a false portrait is a bad portrait. But they are under no obligation to refrain from writing about what they see just because they are not a part of it.

It is entirely legitimate to say that what is seen from the outside often reveals something true that was not perceived from the inside. When the artist accomplishes that, those on the inside, if they are honest, will admit it and admire it and be grateful for the clarity they have been given about themselves.

Artists should look outward and should portray what they see without fear or favor (and without an axe to grind). But their responsibility as artists (if nothing else) obliges them to look deeply and not to merely repeat superficial or stereotypical portraits for the sake of a plot point or a bit of color.

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    Agreed! I would go about portraying each religion with at least two people of very different personalities and moral character; three would be even better. It's not always the religion but the choices people make, either according to or opposed to the religion they supposedly follow. – Steven Choi Apr 13 '18 at 21:23
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It seems to me that what you ask is a theological question.

As a person who is not a member of Religion X, I believe that I can write a story that represents Religion X in a respectful manner. But if an adherent of Religion X believes that any fictional story (about this Religion or in general) is forbidden by that Religion, then from the perspective of a believer in X I cannot represent that relgion in a respectful manner in fiction.

So if you want to represent a religion fairly and respectfully to those who believe in it, the answer to how you can represent that religion respectfully can only be given by an authority on that religion.

If, on the other hand, you want to represent a religion respectfully to those who do not believe in it, then of course that is possible and quite easy. Just be respectful. I suppose your parents have taught you how.

  • This is well-said. I suppose it comes down to the fact that believers of Religion X are not in agreement on this. So, one has to either accept that some people will be upset no matter what, or avoid references to a specific religion. Ironically, my father is a Muslim and a lover of fiction. Thanks for your perspective. – Mirzka Apr 12 '18 at 20:21
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This has been done repeatedly. Let's take some, in my opinion, good examples I can recall.

In The Chronicles of Riddick Franchise, in the first (Pitch Black), second (Dark Fury), and third (Chronicles of Riddick) you have a recurring character.

Keith David as Abu 'Imam' al-Walid. A Muslim preacher who was travelling to New Mecca for the annual preaching, and was stranded with others when the ship crashed. He is travelling with three young boys.

Here you have Islam portrayed in a Sci-Fi setting, and it's done quite well. Though I dare not say if the terminology is used correctly, he is shown to be a wise and caring man who is deeply religious. A man that doesn't turn his back on his faith during hard times.

In The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest (TV Series), you have Hadji, who is a Hindu. I don't remember the series too well, but I do remember Hadji was a valued sidekick, and didn't get shunted into tokenism (that could be the shine of nostalgia, so take with a grain of salt).

You can also look deeper into certain anime shows, they are rife with different cultures though most commonly Japanese (for obvious reason). Naruto, of all places, did this quite well with much of Shinto mythology and breathing new life into this. I bring this up, because most don't realise just how much of their culture is just always present there.

Pokemon also does this well, in their games, manga, and anime. Blending multiple cultures almost seamlessly, and allowing each region a little flair of its own. Curiously, they stray away from religion in the real world sense, but it's easy to see hints in the series and the games, if you consider the 'gods' of the various regions (though they call them legendary Pokemon).

In Memoirs of a Geisha, this is also done quite well. And, yes, I prefer the book over the film, if you want a toned down 'fantasical'.

(willing to research more media if desirable, but none come to mind at present)

My point is, it's already been done over and over. The thing is, the better it's done, the less it stands out. The worse it's done (examples of how I would view 'bad portrayal': Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons) the more noticeable it becomes that certain aspects of the religion are put under the loop and are poked at.

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    You seem to imply that if you show a character of a certain faith who is not wise and caring and who does "turn his back on his faith during hard times", then you aren't representing their religion respectfully. In contrast to that view, I would say that representing a religion respectifully must not have anything to do with how you represent an individual character with that faith, because otherwise you are not respectful but merely politically correct. – user29032 Apr 13 '18 at 13:47
  • @Cloudchaser First off. I'm an atheist, so I don't believe in any religion. That being said, I do respect people and try to show respect for their sincerely held beliefs. So, if you are going to show a religion, or more specifically a practitioner of said religion, then it is wise to either show the full spectrum or at the very least not straw man them. I used these examples because I respect the characters, and as such believe they were portrayed very well. Nothing more, nothing less. – Fayth85 Apr 13 '18 at 14:01
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I'm going to say no, but do it anyway. Which may be confusing, but let me explain.

Religious groups are diverse, and you won't be able to represent that diversity in your book, because you will only have so many characters who will belong to each group. We are all slaves to subjective biases, like 'What you see is all there is' (WYSIATI). Our perspective is limited to the obvious.

As you are no doubt aware, most are quite precious about their beliefs. But they are precious only about a specific interpretation of an ideology. Usually other interpretations are regarded as heresy, though for the most part this doesn't apply to Hinduism. A Sunni may not care too much if a Shia is portrayed negatively, just as a Catholic may not be too concerned if a Protestant is portrayed negatively. Importantly, you are unlikely to create a character who matches any given individual's subjective bias.

Therefore, you can create many reasonable characters, and yet will be harshly criticised. If a negative character is Muslim, you're a bigot. If a positive character is Muslim, you're an apologist. If you have two Muslim character, one good and one bad, you'll be accused of tokenism because their being Muslim will be regarded as insufficiently fundamental to their character; you just made them Muslim as a multicultural afterthought.

The only way to create an authentic character is good research. For example; to start on Hinduism, I might advise reading Shashi Tharoor's 'Why I am a Hindu' which discusses the history of Hinduism and contemporary Hindu politics (the author being a liberal Hindu disapproves of Hindu nationalism). Then you could go further, reading Hindu texts (Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads), investigating Hindu demographics, history, music, cuisine, religious leaders, etc.

With such knowledge you will be able to construct a character whose motivations are believably grounded in a specific culture. The real test of course will be whether someone from that group can recognise your fictional character as one of their own. Approval isn't really the point; if you write a Hindu nationalist, a liberal Hindu reader will disapprove of their world view, but they should be able to recognise whether this character is authentic or not.

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