It’s pretty much accepted by now that of the nearly 1 million Facebook users who said they’d attend this week’s “Storm Area 51, They Can’t Stop All of Us” event, most were merely trolling the Defense Department and had no intention of seriously traveling to the Nevada desert to liberate imprisoned extraterrestrials. But that didn’t stop one group — i.e., Muslim teens — from contemplating their religious duties if it turned out that the U.S. government was harboring alien life forms for all these years.
Okay, that was basically a joke, too, with most of the Muslim teens who tweeted stuff like the above telling me that they were merely playing along with the meme. “The Area 51 meme was funny, and I saw my Muslim friends in America making jokes so I wanted to join in, too,” explains 17-year-old Khalil Mohamed. Still, it didn’t not present some interesting theological questions as well. Or as Mohamed puts it, if it turned out that these aliens followed a different religion or spiritual path, “it would be a duty on Muslims to bring them to Islam. Because [God] is the ruler of everything. Not just of Earth but every galaxy and universe, too. So even though I was joking, there was some seriousness to it as well.”
After all, he continues, “There are passages in the Quran and the Hadith [the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed] that say that every being on Earth is a Muslim, not just humans. So if plants can be Muslim, and animals can be Muslim in the eyes of [God], wouldn’t aliens be as well?”
Questions about aliens have long been a component of religious thought, particularly Christian doctrines. As early as the 13th century, theologians like Thomas Aquinas were engaging with the emerging astronomical sciences and asking about God’s power beyond Earth, and in 1891, Pope Leo XIII established the Specola Vaticana, or Vatican Observatory, on the basis that it was a Christian’s duty to spread the word of God to every place known to man. (The Latin Dictionary issued by the Holy See even includes the acronym RIV, res inexplicata volantes, which means unexplained flying object (UFO).)
More recently, movements in Christianity like exotheology have interrogated theological doctrine vis-á-vis extraterrestrial life, attempting to demonstrate how it could allow the faith to thrive and transcend beyond the boundaries of human worship. For instance, Christian theologians like Ted Peters, whose thinking forms a lot of the Christian transhumanist movement, which argues that the religion will eventually have to manifest in non-physical spaces (such as virtual reality), believes that alien life forms would represent “an expansion in the vision of God.”
“Christians should expect to learn new things about God from an encounter with aliens,” Peters writes in his 2014 book UFOs: God’s Chariots?: Spirituality, Ancient Aliens and Religious Yearnings in the Age of Extraterrestrials. He adds, “Any theologian should re-examine carefully just why we believe in human dignity on Earth, and in that way learn to expand that belief. Theologians should be able to transcend their way of thinking, and become Astrotheologians.”
There’s relatively little Islamic scripture when it comes to life beyond earth. That’s not to say the concept is deemed implausible by the faith. In fact, one of the most prominent theological concepts in Islam is jinn — supernatural, non-Earthly spirits, some of whom can overpower humans and corrupt their faith as well as their morality. Not to mention, in 2013, the Toronto-based Imam Shabir Ally addressed the question of whether Islam and alien life would be compatible in a webinar, in which he said:
“The Quran is open to the idea that many Earths exist. Of God’s signs in the Heavens and the Earth, are his creatures. That doesn’t just mean humans; it means all the animals and insects too. And that also might refer to other kinds of intelligent life forms. It doesn’t mean that just human beings have been created, and if other life forms do exist, we know that God does not abandon his creation. That would mean that God has communicated Islam to all his creation.”
That said, most imams I contacted about this topic either hung up on me, or more politely, told me this wasn’t their area of expertise (before also hanging up on me). One imam (the London-based Jaffer Suleiman), however, was willing to entertain me (for a while at least). “One thing to abandon is the assumption that the ‘aliens’ themselves aren’t Muslim,” Suleiman explains. “Think about what Muslim can mean on Earth. Even as humans we have different ways of understanding God, Islam, how to worship and even our beliefs. But we don’t refer to people of other faiths, or no faith at all, as an ‘alien.’”
He adds that while discussions about extraterrestrial life aren’t atop the agenda for most imams, they can provide a way to discuss Islamic duty — to both the Earth itself and the Muslim community more largely. “Imagine if aliens came to Earth tomorrow, and assume they accepted Islam. Muslims have a responsibility to provide space for them to practice and be close to God. So a conversation about aliens, assuming their existence and their knowledge of us, means that part of the ‘conversion’ process requires us to clean up our Earth and make it habitable. It also means making Islam more open and democratic — to allow these aliens to be part of our global ummah [community] and join us in worshipping our creator.”
Interestingly, then, Suleiman argues that the duty to convert aliens to Islam isn’t as important as Muslim communities making sure to accommodate strangers and outsiders. “Whether aliens come to Earth, whether we go to their planet, whatever happens in the future, Muslims have to lead by example and embrace everyone in their communities,” he says.
But he adds, laughing, “There is one big challenge — for Muslims anyway — that will cause some controversy: No one is going to know what direction to pray to!”