Storytellers (al-Quṣṣāṣ) have always remained an important segment of any society. Stories are an excellent way to sway people to a certain direction, to admonish them, or to simply pass on wisdom and lessons in the most attractive way possible. Indeed the Quran also narrates stories, though a vast majority of Muslim exegetes have generally considered these stories to be literal, real events, as opposed to unreliable tales often told by fallible human storytellers. With the Umayyads, the Muslim world began to see a rise in the existence of storytellers, and by the Abbasid dynasty, storytellers were a very prominent segment of society.1
The existence of storytellers would eventually lead to conflicts between them and certain groups of scholars. The latter would often accuse the former of forging tales, and attributing them to the Prophet (p) or other religious figures, fooling the masses and making them believe in matters that were not historically true. Perhaps the most scathing critique of storytellers was written by ‘Abd al-Raḥmān b. ‘Alī b. al-Jawzī (d. 597/1200) in his Kitāb al-quṣṣāṣ wa’l-mudhakkirīn. In it, he refutes those who categorically condemn all storytellers, critiques certain tendencies that exist among the storytellers, and then offers directives for them to uphold in their meetings and gatherings.
He argues that storytellers also have a share in warning people of evil and guiding them towards good, as scholars do. He writes:
“The storytellers and the preachers were also given a place in this order so as to exhort the common people. As a result, the common people benefit from them in a way that they do not from a great scholar.”2
“The preacher brings to God a great number of people, while a jurist or a traditionist or a Quran reciter cannot bring [to God] a hundredth of that number, because [the preacher’s] exhortations are addressed to both the common people and the elite, but especially the common people, who only rarely meet a jurist, so they discuss things with [the preacher]. The preacher is like the trainer of animals, who educates them, reforms them and refines them.”3
When he critiques them, he does so by pointing out their lack of knowledge and leniency in transmitting anything they can get their hands on to. He says those who take up the job of storytelling are “ignorant of [the procedures of] transmission” and simply “recite what they have found in books.” Then, he says storytellers “address themselves to the common people, who are like beasts, and who cannot criticize what they say. They recite and say: ‘The scholar has said’; but the common people consider a scholar anyone who climbs the pulpit.”4
The phenomenon of storytelling definitely impacted the ḥadīth literature, and in fact, one can find remnants of these stories in works such as that of Shaykh Ṣadūq and others. Consider the story of Bilohar and Yuzasif recorded in Kamāl al-Dīn.5 Ṣadūq’s al-Amālī is also replete with such reports that are merely stories and do not possess any historically factual value for those who are seeking such details. It is important to be aware of this genre when studying the ḥadīth literature in order to evaluate such reports and derive meanings from them accordingly.
One such scholar who comments on the phenomenon of storytellers is Muṭahhar b. Ṭāhir Maqdisī the author of al-Bad’ wa al-Tārīkh written in 355 AH. He was not from the Ahl al-Ḥadīth, nor a Mu’tazalī, and nor Ash’arī, but still emphasized on the use of one’s intellect and contemplation for more accurate understanding. He dedicates the first part of his book to discussions on what would today be titled epistemology, thereafter he discusses arguments for the existence of God, and then eventually reaches his historical discussions.
In the introduction to his book, he attacks the mediocrity of scholars who in their attempt to attract people towards them, speak about strange and absurd things. He conveys his intent with respect to writing his work, to be a historical work free of “superstitions of the elderly, the embellishments of the storytellers and the fabrications of those who have been accused by the scholars of ḥadīth.” His objectives are of utmost value, especially when considering that the work is being written in the 4th-century hijrī.
Maqdisī speaks about leading scholars who transmit stories made up by storytellers in order to incline the hearts of people towards them, however, these stories are so absurd that the intellect cannot accept them. He believes one of the factors that has led to this level of mediocrity is the very culture of storytelling, as it was a phenomenon full of strange and absurd matters. Though these absurd and strange stories were the bread and butter of storytellers, other preachers and scholars would transmit them just to attract people towards themselves. In one section of his work he writes:
One of the instances of this calamity is what God has inflicted on those that wear the turban and organize gatherings. Those who seek knowledge not for the sake of God nor for themselves, but rather only for seeking superiority and preference over others. They attract the hearts of the laymen towards themselves by praising their shallow religious beliefs and relay stories that are astonishing and constructed by hardworking storytellers, whose truth the intellect rejects and they do not have a correct understanding. In the process, they corrupt the minds of the laymen, to such an extent that their hearts are filled with falsehood and farces, polluting their minds with stories and myths.
Maqdisī tries to remain true to his intellectual approach wherever he can. After citing a transmission from Wahb b. Munabbih where Jesus (a) is asked about what is “under the earth”, to which he replies, “darkness of the wind”, Maqdisī says: “These are stories that the masses love to hear.” Then while alluding to the fact that even religious people are interested in hearing these stories for the purpose of understanding God better or in order to reflect over creation, he offers a hermeneutical analysis of these types of narrations and says, if these narrations regarding the skies and earth are not fabrications of the Ahl al-Kitab or the storytellers, and if we assume them to be true then: “All of them are tamthīl and tashbīh (comparisons & representations),” – meaning they cannot be understood literally, “and Allah knows best.”6
While there are definitely some contemporary researchers and scholars who adopt a critical approach like that of Maqdisī’s when it comes to dealing with the Islamic textual heritage, it is far from common or mainstream practice. For some of these researchers and scholars, the intellectual damage this lack of attention to the storytelling genre and transmitted reports have done to the Muslim world is not hidden, and in part, perhaps our stagnation could be blamed on it. If this causal relationship between acceptance of stories as a basis of formulating beliefs and understanding of historical events with our collective stagnation and inability to bring transformational changes is indeed true, then whether we will ever see an approach like that of Maqdisī’s becoming more popular in our lives is something we can only sincerely pray for.
- For more information in English, see: The Quṣṣāṣ of Early Islam, by Lyall Richard Armstrong; Popular Preaching & Religious Authority in the Medieval Islamic Near East by Jonathan Berkey; The Power of Oratory in the Medieval Muslim World by Linda G. Jones; Arabic Oration: Art and Function by Tahera Qutbuddin.
- Pg. 176 – https://ar.lib.efatwa.ir/43423/1/176/
- Pg. 370 – https://ar.lib.efatwa.ir/43423/1/370/
- Pg. 318 – https://ar.lib.efatwa.ir/43423/1/318
- See: https://www.al-islam.org/kamaaluddin-wa-tamaamun-nima-vol-2-shaykh-saduq/chapter-54-shaddad-and-his-paradise-those-who-had#incident-bilohar-and-yuzasif
- Vol. 2, pg. 50 – https://ar.lib.eshia.ir/40018/2/50