By Sumbul Ali-Karamali
As a practicing Muslim, I’m always answering questions, and it’s amazing how often Star Trek works its way into my answers. Captain Kirk was my first crush and I still sometimes hear his affable yet steel-edged cadences in my mind. Perhaps never before Star Trek had such jewels of wisdom been delivered by someone so un-selfconsciously ensconced in olive-green polyester. Call it coincidence, but the Prophet Muhammad favored green, too.
Prophet Muhammad would have loved Star Trek. Muhammad would have admired Captain Kirk for the same reasons that Muhammad’s followers admired him. Muhammad was a social reformer in 7th century Arabia, and Captain Kirk was a social reformer in space. Oh, Captain Kirk was supposed to be following the Prime Directive, but he managed significant social reform on all those planets. He once stopped centuries of warfare by showing that computerized brutality was still brutality. Human beings are barbaric, he said, but we can wake up every morning and say to ourselves, ‘You know, I don’t think I’ll kill anyone today. Not today.'”
Like Captain Kirk, Muhammad reformed society by limiting violence. He outlawed all forms of warfare except the jihad, which is the use of force in self-defense to overthrow an oppressor.
He also established an egalitarian social structure. He advocated a pluralism that was unvalued in his time. The first muezzin of Islam was a freed Ethiopian slave. Muhammad had family connections who were Christian, Jewish, and pagan. In his last sermon, Muhammad famously proclaimed that no one had superiority over another, not a white man over a black man, not a black man over a white man, not an Arab over a non-Arab, not a non-Arab over an Arab. And the Qur’an says that God could have made us all into one religious community, but instead made us into different nations and tribes so that we would learn from one another.
Pluralism was Star Trek’s hallmark, too. Captain Kirk’s bridge boasted international and interplanetary diversity. Only three years after the Civil Rights Act, Star Trek proudly featured a black woman on the bridge. We might now cringe at Uhura’s mini-dress and her role as glorified telephone operator, and we roll our eyes at some of her lines (like, “Captain, I’m frightened”). But, we can recognize that Star Trek established a feminist model that later Star Trek movies – and society – could build on.
Muhammad and the Qur’an were feminist, too, believe it or not. Together, they gave women more rights in the 7th century than any other legal system in the world did at the time. In fact, Islam gave women more rights than Englishwomen would have for another thousand years. Jane Austen’s heroines would actually have fared better under Islamic law than English law.
Islam, like Star Trek, established a feminist model that could be built upon later. Muslims have a duty to build upon this model. They haven’t nearly done enough in the last few centuries. For one thing, they’ve been hampered by socioeconomic and political obstacles (colonization being a big one). Today, though, many Muslims groups and individuals are working to promote women’s rights and human rights from an Islamic perspective. That’s what Muhammad, despite the limitations of his premodern society, tried to do.
And that’s what Captain Kirk, despite his society, tried to do, too.
I hugely enjoyed the new Star Trek movie, but I thought it lacked the social conscience of the original series. The original Captain Kirk is still my hero – as is Prophet Muhammad. And for some of the same reasons.
Sumbul Ali-Karamali has a degree in Islamic law and is the author of “The Muslim Next Door: the Qur’an, the Media, and that Veil Thing.”