Stories Between Christianity and Islam
Saints, Memory, and Cultural Exchange in Late Antiquity and Beyond
- ISBN: 9780520386464
- Published By: University of California Press
- Published: October 2022
Reyhan Durmaz’s Stories Between Christianity and Islam: Saints, Memory, and Cultural Exchange in Late Antiquity and Beyond is an excellent inquiry into the hagiographic texts of Christianity and Islam from late antiquity. Although the book is not without some deficiencies, overall, it is a worthwhile read for students of Christian–Islamic intertextuality, one that raises many questions and thought-provoking arguments.
The book begins with an introduction that explains the term hagiodiegesis, which is also the overarching theme of the first chapter. Hagiodiegesis, as Durmaz describes it, can mean the oral narration of the stories of saints, as opposed to their transcription. Throughout the beginning of the book, Durmaz uses this term to survey the different types of hagiography present in late antique Christianity, providing many examples.
Durmaz opens chapter 2 with a quotation from Ibn Isḥāq’s Sīrat Rasūl Allāh (The Life of the Prophet), the first of many citations and references to this text. The reference is questionable, as this is one of the most controversial biographies of the Prophet Muhammad and has been widely rejected by scholars. The problems of the text are magnified by the fact that it is not extant and was reconstructed later in history with evident influence and redaction by Ibn Hishām. Many traditional Islamic scholars, such as Mālik ibn Anas and Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, have rejected Ibn Ishaq’s biography, likening it to storytelling and fable rather than history. Many scholars have also dismissed Ibn Isḥāq’s transmission of hadith. The author would have been well served by using more reliable sources such as Ibn Kathīr or al-Suyūṭī’s books of sīrah (Prophetic biography) and hadiths from collections such as Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī or Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim to further her argument while maintaining a commitment to historicity and authenticity.
In the middle section of the book, Durmaz explores Angelika Neuwirth’s argument that when the Prophet Muhammad uses storytelling as mythopoiesis, he uses it to relate a biblical story to the real world of his community. This section does an excellent job of providing concrete examples of this storytelling technique but does not spend enough time exploring precisely how the specific differentiations between the Biblical and Islamic accounts affected the Islamic message of the story. The section also did not dissect the implications in the Islamic presentations of these stories, given the differences therein.
One of the highlights of the middle section of the text, and the text as a whole, is Durmaz’s exploration of the Qur’an’s open storytelling. Durmzaz uses the particular example of surah Ar-Raḥmān to present the distinct art form of ancient storytelling. Durmaz takes the audience through the expectations of engaging with these stories during the time of the Prophet Muhammad to demonstrate why open storytelling was utilized and beneficial to the community receiving the stories. To compound this, she proceeds to present the various storytelling tropes and features through one of the most distinct surahs in the Qur’ān, a surah that includes a refrain. Continuing with this engagement of the Qur’ān, Durmaz spends the entirety of chapter 3 exegeting surah Al-Kahf, traversing different homiletic traditions and narratives that share similarities with the Qur’ānic narratives. While Durmaz does engage thoroughly with some prevalent post-Qur’ānic tafsīrs and at times makes insightful connections between the dueling narratives, Durmaz relies too heavily on words such as “likely” or “probable” when making connections between the texts, primarily when refuting the claims of Brannon Wheeler. While some of these connections may be valid, it would be more beneficial for the audience and would increase the strength of the argument to precisely indicate if the claims are certain, likely, or probable rather than generically referring to claims as likely and assuming that the reader will use pretext to accept her word for it.
Throughout the later sections of the book, Durmaz explores the concept of hagiography and storytelling during the life of the Prophet Muhammad and briefly after his death, using the works of the four Sunni caliphs and the scholars of tafsīr, such as Ibn ʿAbbās. Durmaz identifies four methods of storytelling: exhortation, descriptions of ritual practice, mythopoiesis (myth creation), and Qur’ānic-biblical exegesis, the last of which the author demonstrates fairly well with pertinent examples from both Qur’ānic and non-Qur’ānic sources. However, the author does not spend enough time exploring the impact these four types of storytelling had on the Prophet Muhammad’s direct community and the early Islamic community after his passing.
In chapter 6 Durmaz spends ample time exploring Ibn Abi al-Dunya’s Fear of God and Confidence in Deed and does an exemplary job exploring how extrabiblical medieval Christian sources and extra-Qur’ānic Islamic sources were weaved together to create this depiction of St. Antony of Egypt. This is one of the strongest arguments in the text and paints a vivid picture of how Ibn Abi al-Dunya’s text was pieced together to create its final form. Durmaz continues this exceptional chapter of the book with her discursus exploring the connection between the Book of Crowns and the Alexander Legend. In this portion of chapter 6, she does an excellent job engaging with the two-horned king to identify and elaborate upon faḍā’il (excellency) literature. She continues to advance an excellent argument when positing that faḍā’il literature is a continuation of praise literature previously found in the Christian tradition, and she concludes by succinctly demonstrating its value within South Arabia. Finally, Durmaz does a tremendous job in chapter 6 by making specific and direct connections between the homogenous stories of Paul of Qentos and John of Edessa and Fīmyūn and Ṣāliḥ in Ibn Isḥāq’s Sīrah, generating a solid argument for the heavy reliance and Islamization of the Christian source found in Ibn Isḥāq’s interpretation of the story, resulting in one of the apotheoses of Durmaz’s book.
Ultimately, it is my assessment that in Stories Between Christianity and Islam, Durmaz provides quite a few persuasive arguments on Christian–Islamic hagiographic confluence. However, there are areas in which the support or argumentation could be improved to increase its basis and persuasiveness.
Omar Naisan is a PhD student in historical and cultural studies of religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California.Omar NaisanDate Of Review:August 31, 2023