Friends of God: Islamic Images of Piety, Commitment, and Servanthoodby John Renard
Prophets, saints, martyrs, sages, and seersone of the richest repositories of lore about such exemplary religious figures belongs to the world's approximately 1.3 billion Muslims. Illuminating some of the most delightful tales in world religious literature, this engaging book is the first truly global overview of Islamic hagiography. John Renard tells of the
Prophets, saints, martyrs, sages, and seersone of the richest repositories of lore about such exemplary religious figures belongs to the world's approximately 1.3 billion Muslims. Illuminating some of the most delightful tales in world religious literature, this engaging book is the first truly global overview of Islamic hagiography. John Renard tells of the characters beyond the Qur'an and Hadith, whose stories of piety and service to God and humanity have captured hearts and minds for nearly fourteen hundred years. Renard's thematic approach to the major characters, narratives, social and cultural contexts, and theoretical concepts of this remarkable treasury of tales, based on material ranging from the eighth to the twentieth centuries and from countries ranging from Morocco to Malaysia, provides insight into the ways in which these stories have functioned in the lives of Muslims from diverse cultural, social, economic, and political backgrounds. The book also serves as a useful and evocative tool for approaching the vast geographical and chronological sweep of Islamic civilization.
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Friends of God
Islamic Images of Piety, Commitment, and Servanthood
By JOHN RENARD
University of California Press
Copyright © 2008 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.
Beginnings Both Humble and Spectacular
Among the various subgenres within the expansive category of Islamic hagiography, those that recount the births, infancies, and childhood years of God's Friends are among the most intriguing for both religious and literary reasons. From a religious perspective, whatever the specific faith tradition, these accounts underscore the mystery and marvelous nature of divine involvement in human affairs. As literary forms, the stories have remarkable similarities in content and narrative art. Not all biohagiographical sketches start with stories of beginnings. Those that do share some themes, symbols, and character types. This chapter considers several nativity and infancy narratives, as well as some tales that follow youthful Friends as they emerge from childhood.
Except in stories of the early lives of the Friends themselves, children do not often appear as subjects of hagiographical narratives. Some famous Sufis report that talking with children is one of several actions (along with hobnobbing with one's enemies and befriending women) sure to erode one's spiritual life. Other hints of a somewhat negative attitude toward children occur in various Islamicate literary strands, a topic that is a major study in its own right. Here I look at the more positive descriptions of how God uses aspects of the beginnings of the lives of his Friends as vehicles for communicating the message of divine providence and power.
Nativity narratives appear in both major types of hagiographic accounts, those of prophets and those of Friends of God. "Birth" stories of both groups arguably represent a single literary form. However, because these two groups of personalities embody theologically distinct presuppositions, certain subtle thematic variations set them apart. I therefore begin here with prominent examples of the Islamic tradition's enshrinement of the origins of God's premier spokespersons, the prophets, and suggest some principal thematic differences from similar accounts of God's Friends. Although no clear formal distinction exists between nativity and infancy accounts, I treat them separately here purely for organizational purposes. Thus, in this chapter, the category of "nativity" story embraces occurrences before the holy person's conception, during gestation, and at birth.
From the Tales of the Prophets
Most of the major prophets are the subjects of Qur'anic texts, although these scriptural accounts are typically brief and fragmentary, and appear sporadically in various contexts. Many of these briefer allusions function as moral examples, reminding listeners and readers of the consequences of rejecting God's messengers and the revelations they bring. In many instances, the works of Qur'anic exegetes fill in details and expand context, and in the unique instance of Joseph (Yusuf), the prophet's story unfolds in a single literary unit (sura 12). But the genre we call "tales of the prophets" provides extended coherent narratives that go well beyond the scriptural accounts. Tales of the prophets are in the category of hagiographical anthologies or "collected lives." Among the most famous and influential works in the genre are the Arabic works of Tha'labi and Kisa'i. My goal here is to illustrate elements of genre and theme rather than to rehearse the traditional Islamic structure of revelation history. I therefore discuss the stories of the prophets by theme rather than in the order in which they typically occur in the major sources.
The story of the Arabian prophet Hud features an important theme: the revelatory dream anticipating the blessed birth. In a dream, Khulud, of the tribe of Ad, sees a chain-a common metaphor for progeny or lineage-emerging from his loins that is as bright as the sun. A voice informs him that when he witnesses the chain in a dream again, he is to marry the young woman chosen for him. He is later instructed to marry a cousin, and when Hud is conceived, all creation exults and the tribe's orchards overflow with fruit. The baby is born on a Friday. Another significant (and often-used) metaphor in such dreams is that of the tree emanating brilliant light from its many limbs, as in the dream of Rebecca that she would bear Isaac's sons Jacob and Esau.
Kanuh (called 'Ubayd in Tha'labi and other sources), the father of another distinctively Arabian prophet, Salih, experiences similar revelatory signs. When the seed that would grow into the new prophet becomes mobile within the father-to-be, a blazing light emits from his body, and he hears a voice that identifies the light as that of Salih. Significantly, Kanuh has heretofore served the idols of the tribe of Thamud-a parallel to Abraham's father's making his living by carving idols. Kanuh, in his fright, has recourse to the chief idol, but just before it comes crashing down, the image concedes that the light is indeed that of a great prophet. Here, as in other tales, an evil king responds to the perceived threat to his rule by trying to assassinate the principal characters; but in this instance, the target is the father, Kanuh. God intervenes and spirits the man away to a remote valley, where he sleeps for a century. Back home a hundred years on, Kanuh's wife continues to grieve his presumed death, when a marvelous bird suddenly appears in her courtyard. It identifies itself as the raven that showed Cain how to bury his brother Abel. It then offers to lead the woman to her husband. The couple reunites and conceives Salih; but God takes Kanuh to himself, and the bird leads his pregnant wife back home. There, on Friday, the tenth of Muharram (the first lunar month), she delivers the child, who immediately begins to praise God. This detail of timing is also a common feature in nativity narratives in tales of the prophets, and the annual date continues to be important both to Sunni and (especially) to Shi'i Muslims.
Abraham's (Ibrahim's) story is among the most extensive in the genre. The tale begins well in advance of his birth, with anticipatory dreams in this instance coming to two wicked rulers in succession. Canaan dreams of his own destruction, and his astrologers inform him that a shepherdess has conceived a child that will threaten Canaan's rule. The infant, Nimrod, survives various attempts to exterminate him and grows up to overthrow Canaan and establish his own evil regime. These activities set the stage for a second round of revelatory events, which inform the tyrant that a child will soon be born who will overthrow him. This time, the newcomer is a prophet rather than a rival king. A pair of white birds, one of the East and one of the West, enter the scene to foreshadow a series of dreams and apparitions. As in other dream stories, Nimrod's dream features brilliant lights emanating from the father-to-be. As in other stories, too, the evil ruler learns that his destruction will come from within his own house. This time the nemesis will be Abraham, whose father, called Azar in most Islamic sources, has long been a trusted servant of Nimrod. Nimrod immediately initiates a murderous seven-year hunt for all male children, only to find that Abraham has not yet been conceived. Azar's wife is old and barren but reports to him that she has mysteriously begun to menstruate again. When the two conceive Abraham, a new star ascends in the heavens and sends the idols in the Ka'ba crashing down from their pedestals. As we shall see, rising stars and falling idols go with the territory.
Again Nimrod launches a slaughter of innocents, and another dream informs him that his nemesis is yet to be delivered. His agents go to Azar's house, but God conceals the pregnancy from the visitors. And when the time for childbirth arrives, according to Kisa'i's account, an angel leads the child's mother to the cave where the prophets Idris and Noah were born, and she delivers on Friday, the tenth of Muharram. She hides the baby in the cave, where wild animals protect him, and she visits him every three days. In an interesting variation, Tha'labi includes an account in which Abraham's mother bears him in a wadi, a seasonal riverbed that was then dry, and hides him in some rushes. Thereafter, his father takes the baby to a riverside and excavates a tunnel in which to hide him. Turning over a new generation, Abraham's own wife, Sarah, eventually conceives their son Isaac on the night on which God had destroyed Lot and his family. When the child is born, his forehead radiates light, and he immediately prostrates himself before God.
The birth of Moses (Musa) is likewise foreshadowed by ominous dreams, in which Pharaoh gets a glimpse of his own ignominious end, through the auspices of a child born within his own household. Like Nimrod, the Egyptian ruler sets out to slaughter all male children. Amram ('Imram), Moses's father, has been accustomed to sleeping at the foot of Pharaoh's bed, but God now carries Amram's wife to the royal bedchamber on the wings of a bird so that the couple can conceive the prophet. When a new star arises, Pharaoh's astrologers deliver the bad news to his majesty, who again seeks the lives of all male children. But Moses's mother hides the baby in the stove. Unaware of this fact, her daughter lights the oven; and when guards come shortly thereafter in search of the baby, they look everywhere but the stove. There God has kept the baby safe, and when his mother returns and flies into a panic at her daughter's actions, the infant reassures her from within the stove that all is well. Tha'labi also includes a version of the oven incident but prefaces it with an account of the effect of the child's birth on the Egyptian midwife whom Pharaoh has sent to kill the baby. When the infant emerges, a light from between his eyes shines on the midwife, causing her to love him totally. In this version, Moses's mother is the one who casts the baby into the oven, to discover after the guards have left that the oven has cooled miraculously.
Stories of a host of lesser figures, also of biblical fame, provide intriguing twists on the main thematic elements of the genre. Most prominent in Noah's (Nuh's) story, for example, is the idea that age is a barrier to the birth of the special child. Here, however, the initial problem is not age beyond fertility but a woman who is not yet marriageable, however old she may sound. According to Kisa'i, Noah's father meets a woman to whom he is attracted, but when he inquires about her age, she initially claims that she is one hundred eighty years old-twenty years short of marital maturity. When he continues to express interest, she reveals that she is actually two hundred twenty years old, and they marry and have a son. As in the story of Abraham (among others), Noah's mother fears the evil king of the age and gives birth sequestered in a cave. But after the child's birth, she wants a way to emerge safely from hiding, so her infant speaks up (like the baby Jesus and others) and assures her that she need not worry because God will take care of him. She then leaves the baby in the cave (as Abraham's mother left hers) and returns to her family. After forty days, a cohort of angels retrieves the baby and brings him to his mother. Other stories that feature an unlikely pregnancy are those in the "historical books" about Islamic prophetic figures or "former prophets" of the Bible. As in the biblical story of Samuel, Tha'labi's version highlights the pregnancy of the aged and barren wife of Samuel's father. Like Hanna of the biblical First Book of Samuel, the woman prays and the next day begins to menstruate again. Hearing of her pregnancy, the people conclude that the baby will be a prophet, for women otherwise incapable of bearing children give birth only to prophets; one need only witness the mothers of Isaac and John the Baptist.
Tales of the prophets include stories of the conception and birth of Mary, mother of Jesus, with Tha'labi providing greater detail than Kisa'i does. When the story starts, Mary's mother has been childless, and her husband has a dream that he is to have intercourse with her. She has prayed for a son and promised to dedicate him to the temple if her prayer is answered. Her husband takes her to task, however, for dedicating a child whom he knows will be (or thinks might be) a girl. While Mary's mother is still pregnant, her husband dies and she bears a girl, who later comes to be one of the four premier female models in Islamic tradition: Mary, Asiya, Khadija, and Fatima. Mary's mother takes her immediately to the temple for dedication, inciting a competitive stir among the priests, for they all want to claim the child. The priests cast lots, tossing their quills onto the water. That of Zakariya, father of John, stands upright in the water, and Mary becomes his charge. Like other wonder children, Mary begins to grow much more rapidly than her peers.
Nativity accounts of Jesus ('Isa) and his cousin John the Baptizer, known in Arabic as Yahya, are intimately linked. John is wondrously conceived by an elderly, infertile woman. Tha'labi notes that Zakariya had faith that his wife might yet have a son and prayed accordingly. When his mother is carrying him, John bows to the still-unborn Jesus, and immediately at birth, John gains note as a precocious infant.
Mary is likewise impregnated under improbable circumstances. Gabriel meets her on the "longest and hottest day of the year" as she seeks water in a cave. The angel breathes into an outer garment that Mary has laid aside, and when she again dons the robe, she conceives. In Tha'labi's account, Joseph and Mary have an extended discussion of how this conception could have occurred. In Kisa'i's version, when Joseph interrogates Mary about her pregnancy, Jesus rebukes Mary's husband-to-be from the womb. Mary explains to Joseph that Jesus, like Adam, is to be born without ordinary parentage. When Mary later encounters the expectant mother of John, the two prophets exchange gestures of greeting with an intrauterine bow. Variant traditions put the length of Mary's pregnancy from the usual nine months to as little as one hour, the abbreviated terms underscoring the miraculous nature of the prophet's genesis.
At the onset of labor, Mary takes hold of an unproductive date palm beneath which lie a livestock manger and a stream. According to Qur'an 19:24-26, and Muhammad's biographer Ibn Ishaq, Jesus speaks to her immediately upon birth (some variant traditions say that Gabriel speaks instead), telling her not to grieve, for God has placed a river under her. He instructs her to shake the palm tree so that ripe fruit will rain down upon her. Shortly after delivery, Jesus speaks to Joseph, announcing that he has come as a messenger from the darkness of the womb into the light. Idols across the world reportedly toppled at the time of the birth of Jesus as well as upon the birth of several other prophets, including Muhammad. Jesus caught the devil by surprise, for before Mary's secret pregnancy, Iblis had had foreknowledge of every human conceived. This theme of frustrating the devil's agenda and restoring joy and vitality to the earth is important, occurring in many stories. When Solomon (Sulayman) was born, for example, all the world's devils became comatose, and Satan sank into the ocean for seventy days. For the first time since Nimrod threw Abraham into his bonfire, the earth laughed again.
Ibn Ishaq's Life of Muhammad tells several intriguing stories about the conception of Muhammad. In each instance, the author is careful to note that he cannot vouch for the veracity of these "allegations" or "folktales." Muhammad's grandfather, 'Abd al-Muttalib, prays to God and tells the Almighty that if He will grant him ten sons, he will sacrifice one in gratitude. God fulfills the prayer for ten boys. 'Abd al-Muttalib takes them all to the Ka'ba to cast lots, and as they do so, he prays that 'Abd Allah, his youngest, might be spared. 'Abd Allah loses the lot. When his father takes him to the place where the ruling Quraysh tribe performs its sacrifices, the tribe members protest, saying that they will go to any length to redeem the young man from his father's vow. The Quraysh insist that 'Abd al-Muttalib take the youth to see a sorceress to get her verdict. She instructs him to return to Mecca and cast lots again, and every time the lots fall against his son, to add ten more camels to the blood money. The lots fall against 'Abd Allah over and over, until the blood money reaches one hundred camels. The Quraysh declare the deity will now be satisfied, but 'Abd al-Muttalib insists that he must cast lots three more times. Each draw is in favor of his son, so he slaughters all the camels, and his son lives to become the father of Muhammad.
Excerpted from Friends of God by JOHN RENARD Copyright © 2008 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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"Reading this book is to step into . . . a lively world where spiritual things matter and influence ordinary lives."Theology, Ethics And Philosophy
Meet the Author
John Renard is Professor of Theological Studies at Saint Louis University. He is author of Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims, Windows on the House of Islam (both from UC Press) and All the King's Falcons: Rumi on Prophets and Revelation among many other books.
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