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.
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.
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….
In 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.