Drama: Middle Eastern Narrative Traditions

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Popular religious storytelling has been widespread in the Islamic Middle East since the earliest times, and its forms have varied considerably according to time, place, and branch or sect of Islam. For the period before 1500, sources for religious storytelling are few and widely scattered; nevertheless, some idea of the situation can be gained. With the establishment of Shiism as the state religion in Persia in about 1500, important new forms of religious oral narrative appeared, some of which are still practiced in the twentieth century.

Religious storytelling on the popular level has its roots in formal preaching in the mosque. In its broadest sense, it attempts to interpret the religion and meet the spiritual needs of the common people in a manner more accessible to them than that of a preacher representing the religious establishment. This kind of storytelling quickly came to reflect the values and beliefs of popular Islam and in doing so widened the gap between the Islam of the theologians and jurisprudents and that of the common people. The sources for the study of popular religious storytelling reflect, by and large, the views of the small educated class, including the religious class, and deplore the existence and influence of popular oral narrators.

In the first century of Islam it became the practice of governing authorities to appoint a preacher for the local mosque and pay him a stipend from the state treasury. At the same time, unofficial preachers (qā, lit. "story-teller"; pl., quā ) began delivering sermons in mosques and elsewhere. While the official preachers represented the views of the religious establishment, the free preachers were not so restricted. Enlightenment mixed with entertainment in their sermons, and edifying tales slowly developed into entertaining ones, always within the framework of transmitting and interpreting the tradition of the Prophet. Some popular preachers were highly respected men of great learning, and al-Jāi (d. 868/9) included asan al-Barī (d. 728/9) in his list of learned popular preachers. Most, however, were bent on impressing their audiences, and since it is easy to pass from edifying tales to profane ones, they began to enjoy great success among the uneducated. By about 892, popular preaching was considered a problem in the Muslim community, and the government announced that storytellers, astrologers, and fortune-tellers were not to appear in the streets and mosques of Baghdad. In Spain in the twelfth century, religious storytellers were banned from performing in cemeteries and from telling tales in which the Prophet's name was mentioned, and municipal authorities were charged with preventing women from attending their sessions in tents.

Because of the bias of the sources in favor of the religious establishment, most accounts of popular preachers and storytellers after the ninth century describe them as charlatans and often associate them with beggars and confidence men. They were accused of mixing edifying narratives from the Qurʾān with fanciful biblical legends, stories from pre-Islamic Arabia and Persia, eschatological and cosmological tales based on invented chains of authorities, romances with religious associations, and popular etymologies, leaving no questions unanswered. Among the public, they became more highly regarded than the theologians, who condemned them for falsifying the religious tradition. They were also opposed by the ūfīs, who maintained that they did not transmit true mystical experiences. More than one source describes their practices used to impress their audiences, which included painting their faces, artificially stimulating the flow of tears, making histrionic gestures, pounding on the pulpit, running up and down its stairs, and even throwing themselves off it. These storytellers flourished in Iraq, Persia, and Central Asia but were relatively scarce in the Hejaz and in Muslim North Africa. Whatever the accuracy of these accounts may be, it is clear that the popular religious storytellers, like the friars of medieval Christianity, bridged the gulf between an intellectual and distant religious establishment and an illiterate populace needing spiritual guidance and education in terms they could comprehend.

When the Safavids (15001732) were establishing Shiism as the official religion in Persia, one of the means they used to spread their message was the oral storyteller. This appears to have stimulated the development and specialization of oral narration, and to judge from the sources, religious storytelling flourished in Persia from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. I shall describe here the three most important forms.

Rawah-khvānī began with public readings from Ruwat al-shuhadā (The garden of martyrs), a collection of stories by usayn Vāʿi Kāshifī (d. 910 ah/15041505 ce) about the Shīʿī imāms. Soon moving out of the mosque and into public places and private houses, rawah-khvānī became an integral part of religious life. It is still practiced widely in Iran. Another form of oral religious narrative, rarer today, is a variety of picture storytelling called pardah-dārī. Working in pairs, narrators make use of a large canvas on which are painted pictures of the imams in their struggles with the opponents of Shiism. The canvas is slowly unrolled or unveiled as the story is related in a mixture of prose and verse. Finally, there is sukhanvarī, which began in Safavid times and is all but extinct in Iran today. Probably deriving from an older rivalry between Shīʿī and Sunnī religious storytellers, sukhanvarī was a contest in which two narrators attempted to outdo each other in improvising verses praising the imams and condemning the Sunnīs. The contests would usually take place in coffeehouses and were most popular during the nights of Ramaān.

Among the Sunnīs of Ottoman Turkey and the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, religious storytelling was practiced to a modest extent. It is believed that the meddah s (dramatic storytellers) of Turkey were originally religious storytellers, and nineteenth-century travelers report hearing popular religious narratives in Kabul and Bukhara. Today the practice has almost disappeared from Sunnī Islam, but it is still popular among the Shīʿī communities of Iraq and Anatolia, in addition to Iran. There a variant of rawah-khvānī is common: passages from maqtals, books that relate the martyrdom of the imāms, are recited, most often during the first ten days of Muarram (the first month of the Muslim lunar year).

See Also



Because references to religious storytelling are so widely scattered, the following sources have been chosen for their bibliographical references as well as their information on the subject. Charles Pellat's "ā," in The Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., vol. 4 (Leiden, 1978), gives a basic introduction to the subject but focuses on Arabic sources. Ignácz Goldziher in his Muslim Studies, edited by S. M. Stern, vol. 2 (New York, 1973), pp. 149159, discusses the early preachers of Islam and the rise of popular preaching. This was originally published as Muhammedanische Studien, 2 vols. (Halle, 18891890). The scandalous side of popular religious storytelling is depicted vividly by C. E. Bosworth in his The Mediaeval Islamic Underworld, vol. 1 (Leiden, 1976), pp. 15, 2429. The various forms of dramatic religious storytelling in Iran are described by Bahrām Bayāʾī in his Namāyish dar Irān (The Theater in Iran; Tehran, 1965), pp. 7176. Metin And describes Shīʿī religious practices and storytelling in his "The Muharram Observances in Anatolian Turkey," in Taʿziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran, edited by Peter Chelkowski (New York, 1979), pp. 238254.

William L. Hanaway, Jr. (1987)

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