Fiction’s Battle for Acceptance in Islam, as Metaphor for Visionary Fiction

Part One

In researching Book Three of my series 1001: The Reincarnation Chronicles, I read a great deal about the history of Arabic Literature. I am no Arabic scholar, but I had to learn about medieval Persian and Arabic culture. My characters, in their past lives in 10th century Baghdad, collaborate on a special version of The Thousand and One Nights, which is multi-cultural, subversive, and highly symbolic. I became enthralled by the development of fiction in the early Islamic world, and how difficult it was for a story collection like the Nights to gain acceptance.

When I learned about the gradual acceptance of Visionary Fiction in literary culture, I thought there were some interesting parallels with Arabic fiction. The phrase uphill battle comes to mind. But also, Visionary and Arabic Fiction each have strong ties to spirituality and religion, which both promote and hinder their acceptance. But let’s travel back in time to see more detailed parallels.

Before the advent of Islam, the Arabs and Bedouins had a rich literary tradition, weighted toward poetry, recitation, and storytelling in the desert night. One way to think about Muhammad’s receiving and delivery of the Qur’an is in continuity with this tradition of oral transmission through recitation. Only later were The Prophet’s words written down. Of course The Qur’an was visionary: sacred and divine Truth.

The early Islamic community outlawed fiction for many reasons. First, fiction was considered lies, in stark contrast to the truth of the Qur’an. Second, there were reports of Muhammad’s wise utterances, known as hadiths, by his followers. But there were many who would sermonize or pontificate without authenticity, and these utterances were considered fictional lies. Third, to legitimize spoken or written words as being authentically derived from The Prophet, and thus from Allah, every speaker and author introduced their text with a chain of credits naming their sources. These chains, or isnad, distinguished truth from fiction, and fiction was left with a bad reputation.

Finally, all of these precautions and conventions became deadly serious when tribal warfare erupted over the legitimate heirs to Muhammad’s power in the community. Now legitimate connection to The Prophet’s words contained deadly and crucial stakes; fictional words were useless to obtaining power. Fiction had no place in the new Islamic era.

Scheherazade Ferdinand Keller(1880)

Scheherazade and King Shahryar – Ferdinand Keller 1880

Not a great starting point for Scheherazade and Sinbad! But as storytellers and fiction authors eventually gained footing in the Islamic world, they retained some of these early conventions. The Arabian Nights’ central convention, the frame tale, where Scheherazade recounts stories she had read, derives from the isnad. Just as every text had to be authenticated with a chain of credits, so Scheherazade begins each Night with the convention of who was telling which part of a story to whom, sometimes a chain with numerous storytellers.

Visionary Fiction did not have as dangerous a beginning as Arabic fiction, but it did grow out of a culture of religious and spiritual truth. Whereas in Islam the truth was from a singular source whose followers contested the authenticity of their connection, Visionary Fiction grew out of multiple sources, Jung and beyond, whose truths and followers were diverse: psychology, philosophy, Christianity, paganism, and so forth. But like Islam, there is the sense that the literature must get at a Higher Truth, perhaps one that unifies the diverse expressions of it.

The second phase for Arabic fiction was its slow acceptance in the courts of the great Islamic Empire. Poetry and philosophy were literary forms that developed with clout and sophistication in the first centuries of this magnificent culture. But since fiction was considered lies on religious and political grounds, the secular literati frowned upon it. It developed in the streets and markets with storytellers, so the court distanced itself from this lower class form.

Kalila wa Dimna tale

An illustration of a fable from the Kalila

The gradual acceptance came about through the support of individual Caliphs, such as Harun al-Rashid (the ‘hero’ of the Arabian Nights according to Joseph Campbell), who founded The House of Wisdom, an establishment housing all kinds of books. Of equal importance, fiction gained favor through a few individual works. The Kalila wa Dimna of Ibn al-Muqaffa was a Persian primer for Princes in the guise of animal fables. The fables were elegantly structured around the frame tale convention, making the story collection an alluring genre. In the 11th Century/late 4th Century A.H., two authors introduced the court to a genre called maqamat, charming verse and prose tales surrounding a rakish trickster character. Though the content was often from the street, the language was so clever and virtuosic, and the subjects so diverse that the court welcomed the works with delight. If Kalila and maqamat were acceptable, other fictions were soon to follow.

Like Arabic fiction emerging out of a field of poetry and philosophy, Visionary Fiction also had a gradual acceptance standing up to its non-fiction cousins. Jung’s writings, or Castaneda’s Don Juan books had huge followings, but Narnia was children’s fantasy first and foremost, and Jonathan Livingston Seagull was pop fluff. As in the Islamic court, a few individual works stood out to define the genre, but even they weren’t fully accepted: The Celestine Prophecy was a breakout hit, but its literary technique was criticized; Paulo Coelho had to create his own agency when publishers would not touch him. Just as Arabic fiction achieved credibility through the creation of a new literary form, the maqamat, so Visionary Fiction would have to make a case for its own genre.

That’s only the beginning of the story….

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Steve WeinstockIn his past life before writing 1001: The Qaraq, Book One of The Reincarnation Chronicles, Stephen Weinstock created music for theater companies, choreographers, and dance studios (Merce Cunningham, Martha Graham). His theater works included the musical Rock and Roy, with writer Barry Jay Kaplan, about the double life of Rock Hudson.  He has worked as a musician/teacher at UC Berkeley, Princeton, Juilliard, and the ‘Fame’ school, as well as at the NYU Musical Theater Writing Program.

For years he had the idea of a novel puzzling out an intricate past life history between a group of souls, but only with the epiphany of using the ancient frame tale structures of The Thousand and One Nights did he decide to jump fields.  By day he still bring dancers to ecstasy with his improvisations, but at night he enters the world of metempsychosis, time-honored storytelling, and worlds ranging from historical fiction to romantic fantasy. You can see more of Stephen’s work on his website.

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13 Responses to Fiction’s Battle for Acceptance in Islam, as Metaphor for Visionary Fiction

  1. Welcome, Stephen, to the ranks of VFA bloggers. Your debut article is indeed impressive as is your resume. Intriguing that you choose to compare the emergence of modern Visionary Fiction with the development of Arabic fiction about which I can claim only ignorance to date although your piece prompts me to remedy that. I've already concluded that the sacred texts of all genuine spiritual movements are best understood as visionary fiction, a conclusion reinforced in a recent more focused restudy of Jung and Joseph Campbell.

    As I learned in the decades it took to write my own first reincarnation novel, The Anathemas, good visionary fiction reflects the multi-layered aspect of the human condition. Otherwise, it remains flat, on the plane of a single genre. Even the short parables of Jesus can be read with different results at different points on the journey, each time opening deeper, sometimes opposite, revelations. Then there are classics like Herman Hesse's The Bead Game, intentionally designed to debunk fixed beliefs while only tantalizing as to the promise of higher truths that might replace them.

    Looking forward to your next installment as well as to reading your full works.

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    • drstephenw says:

      Thanks so much, Victor! If you're interested in reading more about Arabic lit, especially early, I love Robert Irwin's anthology Night & Horses & the Desert. He's a British scholar who writes very accessibly about the subject, including a great introduction to the history of the 1001 Nights.

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  2. Love this. Thank you for such an insightful and beautiful post!

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  3. libredux says:

    Thanks for this great introductory article, Stephen. I can't help but take a personal interest in this as my own VF novel takes from the Quran's core message – albeit waiting to be discovered under layers of some up-to-date literary devices.

    You have made a thought-provoking comparison between the development of fiction in the Muslim world and VF in general. While I knew about the idea of fiction as a lie in the Muslim tradition, I was unaware of its historical background. How intriguing that this slow acceptance owes itself to the development of the isnad (chains of narrators) – an area, which I might add, is itself subject to increasing criticism at present, and in some cases, outright rejection. (I love that trivia note about the chains of storytellers in the Nights, btw.)

    Some of what you have written is also reminding me of a book I published recently that touches upon the "Islamic movement of literature" in the Indian subcontinent over the last century or so. Its author takes a distinctly "visionary" (in the VF sense) view of this literary movement.

    Needless to say, I'm looking forward to the next installment of your article.

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    • drstephenw says:

      I was looking forward to your response, Saleena, and I thank you for it (and the repost). I'd love to know about the book about Indian/Islamic literature. This entire area fascinates me. I worry about thinking/saying/writing the 'wrong' things as a Westerner, but then my fascination gets the better of me. Recently I saw a great article about the advent of Arabic sci-fi, in the sense that a Lot of Arab authors want a sci-fi genre that's not imitative but truly represents the Arab imagination and world. Can't wait to hear about some of these books.

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      • libredux says:

        The book is "Iqbal: His Life and Our Times" by Khurram Ali Shafique. I'm rushing about a bit today, but I'll get in touch with you by email with more details when I get the chance. In the meantime, if the article about Arab sci-fi is on the net, please share the link. I'd love to read it.

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  4. This is a most intriguing comparison of the parallels between the history of Arabic literature and Visionary Fiction. I notice a lot of us have used that word intriguing to describe your post.
    To me, this comparison shows the richness that Visionary Fiction grew from, among other influences as well. VF stands on the shoulders of such fiction as this, and carries it forward to the next level for the modern reader.
    Love your work, and your bio!

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    • drstephenw says:

      Thanks so much, Jodine, for your lovely and 'intriguing' comment. And especially thanks for your support for this opportunity.

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  5. Hello Stephen. As Victor said in a previous comment, "Welcome to the ranks of VFA bloggers." What an interesting comparison between the development of fiction in the Islamic world and VF's quest for acceptance with modern day publishers. Your last statement says it all: "Just as Arabic fiction achieved credibility through the creation of a new literary form, the maqamat, so Visionary Fiction would have to make a case for its own genre."

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    • drstephenw says:

      Hi Margaret. I'm honored to join the ranks, for I've truly enjoyed everyone's offerings. And I haven't scratched the surface of the archives for this great site!

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  6. Pingback: Fiction’s Battle for Acceptance in Islam, as Metaphor for Visionary Fiction: Part Two | Visionary Fiction Alliance

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