Storytelling, Preaching, and Power in Mamluk Cairo *

Jonathan Berkey
Storytelling, Preaching, and Power in Mamluk Cairo * I As with many other Islamic institutions, the origins of the qa≠ ss˛ (storyteller) and the wa≠ 'iz˛ (preacher) are obscure. 1 However, from an early point in the Islamic period, storytellers and popular preachers became the principal channel of instruction for the common people, those not engaged in a rigorous course of study of the religious sciences under the supervision of one or more scholars. 2 By the sixth/twelfth century, the Hanbali
more » ... urist and theologian Ibn al-Jawz|, whose famous treatise on the storytellers, Kita≠ b al-Qussą≠ s˛ wa-al-Mudhakkir|n ("The Book of Storytellers and Those Who Remind [People of God's Blessings]"), sought to rein in their excesses and set proper bounds for the material which they related, acknowledged their important role in the transmission of religious knowledge to the common people (al-'awa≠ mm). Drawing on the ethical injunction related in the Quran in surah 3, verse 104 and elsewhere, he remarked that God had sent prophets "to draw people to the good and warn them against evil," and after them the ulama who are distinguished by their learning ('ilm). "Moreover," he said, "the storytellers and the preachers were also given a place in this order [amr] so as to exhort Middle East Documentation Center. The University of Chicago. * This article is based upon material in my forthcoming book, Popular Preaching and Religious Authority in the Medieval Islamic Near East. My thanks to the University of Washington Press for permission to reproduce it here. 1 Much of the earlier secondary material dwelt upon this issue; see now Khalil 'Athamina, "Al-Qasas: Its Emergence, Religious Origin and Its Socio-Political Impact on Early Muslim Society," Studia Islamica 76 (1992): 53-74. 2 Preaching of course took place on a variety of different levels. At one end of the spectrum, the activity included delivery of a formal sermon (khutbah) at noon on Fridays. Beyond that, however, there was considerable scope for less formal exhortation. The Muslim masses might attend formal Friday services, but might also hear sermons or edifying stories read in other venues as well. In these settings, the individual delivering the sermon or reciting the tale was usually referred to as a wa≠ 'iz˝ (preacher) or qa≠ ss˛ (storyteller). The medieval sources use the terms wa≠ 'iz˝ and qa≠ ss˛ more or less interchangeably to refer to individuals engaged in the delivery of exhortations and the transmission of religious knowledge to the common people. See, for example, Ibn al-Jawz|, Kita≠ b al-Qussą≠ s˛ wa-al-Mudhakkir|n, ed. Merlin Swartz (Beirut, 1986), 11 (Eng. trans., 97-98).