Models of Leadership in the Adab Narratives of Joseph, David, and Solomon

Lament of the Sacred

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Sami Helewa
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books
    , November
     234 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


For many reasons, scholars of Islamic intellectual culture have often preferred to lay “religious writing” to the side of genres that more overtly address social and political themes. Contemporary scholars of Islamic thought then face the challenge of bridging this gulf, bringing the Islamic sacred sciences into the settings of their composition. 

With Models of Leadership in the Adab Narratives of Joseph, David, and Solomon: Lament for the Sacred, Sami Helewa tries to re-situate “religious” narrative writing as a genre with a social function. Helewa’s focus on the class of writings termed qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā, or prophet stories, is in this respect well-chosen. The qiṣaṣ is a genre remarkably rich in political content, containing, in the form of narratives on the prophets from Adam and Noah through Jesus, a number of models of political leadership and its relationship with prophecy and sacred law. But, as Helewa notes, this body of prose is rarely approached as such. Rather, scholars classify it along with Qur’anic interpretation and hadith scholarship as simply “religious” or “theological” literature. Helewa aims instead to place the qiṣaṣ into the broad category of adab, that is, narrative prose directed towards a polite readership. He wisely focuses his attentions on two canonical qiṣaṣ compilations, both well-known to scholars: the Ta’rīkh al-Umam wa’l-Mulūkby al-Ṭabarī (d. 923 CE), and the Arā’is al-Majālis by al-Tha‘labī (d. 1035 CE). Specifically, Helewa juxtaposes the qiṣaṣ narratives with the so-called “mirrors for princes” advice literature of Ibn al-Muqaffā and Kāi Kā’ūs. These two writers of adab demonstrate a concern with three concepts of political theory: Justice, friendship, and enmity. Helewa approaches the qiṣaṣ in relation to these classical topics and uses them to reveal “the function of the qiṣaṣ in their capacity of granting narrative advice to rulers” (xx).

Helewa lays out this problematic in a truly excellent introduction that presents a comprehensive review of recent scholarship on the qiṣaṣ alongside a persuasive plea for a political reading of the genre. The following two chapters of Models of Leadership lay the groundwork for this. After an expository introduction differentiating the qiṣaṣ from competing narrative forms, Helewa then summarizes the three prophet stories he will use for his comparisons: the stories of Joseph, David, and Solomon. 

Next, Helewa furnishes the reader with a surprising amount of detail on the lives and settings of al-Ṭabarī and al-Tha‘labī. Despite the familiarity of these two major figures to Islamic intellectual historians, this biographical overview is welcome as a synthesis of current views on these scholars. 

Chapters 3, 4, and 5 comprise the heart of Helewa’s monograph. In these three chapters Helewa reads al-Ṭabarī and al-Tha‘labī in light of the three categories laid out by Ibn al-Muqaffā‘ and Kāi Kā’ūs in their mirror texts: “Just Leadership,” “Friendship,” and “Enmity.” As a consequence, Helewa’s study grows in complexity as he interprets both authors’ uses of the three prophet narratives through the lens of each of these three political themes—producing, altogether, eighteen interpretations of prophet stories as advice literature. 

Whether one is convinced by each of these historicizing interpretations of the qiṣaṣ depends on the extent to which one accepts Helewa’s view that the narrative elements differentiating al-Ṭabarī and al-Tha‘labī represent each author’s commentary on social and political issues of their time. Considering the ambition of Helewa’s task, this reviewer finds them largely tenable and persuasive. In al-Ṭabarī’s case, Helewa argues that theTa’rīkh displays the author’s anxieties regarding the Hanbali challenge, the Zanj rebellion, and the marginalization of the caliphs. These conditions give rise to stories of Joseph, David, and Solomon that emphasize monarchical stability, statesmanship based on diplomacy, and pious circumspection as the means to bind monarchy with the prophetic ideal. 

In contrast, al-Tha‘labī of 11th-century Nishapur (characterized as a city on “the edge” of the Islamic world, borrowing from Bulliet), lived amid more profound political flux, tensions between the Hanafi and Shafi’i maddhabs, and various novel pietisms: the Karramiyya, the Malamatiyya, and a coalescing Khurasani Sufism. This more chaotic environment, in which the caliphate as symbolic center has receded into the background, made al-Tha‘labī embed in his Arā’is a concern with individual ethical experience, using Sufi vocabularies to give voice to what Helewa calls an “egalitarian spirit.” Al-Tha‘labī, furthermore, seems to describe a close natural connection between prophetic appointment and political mandate in which Helewa detects the influence of mystical ideologies.

These systematic differences between the political content of al-Ṭabarī and al-Tha‘labī’s qiṣaṣ writings justify, for Helewa, the aim stated in his introduction: to read qiṣaṣas adab political literature in the vein of the mirror texts, liberating them from unproductive classification within the religious sciences. This intervention demonstrates that religious narratives such as the qiṣaṣ, along with related genres such as sīra (Prophetic biography), might be deployed more flexibly by historians and literary scholars. This alone gives Models of Leadership great value in the study of Islamic narrative writing and literary history more broadly.

Yet, nonwithstanding the innovative methodology of Models of Leadership, certain small issues hold it back. First, one may ask whether Nishapur in the Ghaznavid period still sat at the “edge” of anything and wonder to what extent Helewa’s interpretation relies on this characterization. More importantly, Helewa’s analysis occasionally seems overly determined by conventional historiography as he folds the qiṣaṣ too tightly into its frame. Rather than reading qiṣaṣ in light of history, Helewa sometimes reads history and then forces the qiṣaṣ narrative to match. This kind of reading can only reflect, and rarely challenge, our understandings of medieval Islamic intellectual dynamics. 

Despite these issues, Models of Leadership demonstrates the great potential for social and political history that lies hidden in “religious” texts. It is well-written and very clearly structured. Indeed, Models of Leadership is a service to scholars of environments where pious writing is one of the only available resources—it points the way to novel approaches to these narrative genres. Helewa’s work thus deserves the attention of any scholar of medieval Islamic textual traditions, both “religious” and political.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Carlos Grenier is Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Florida International University.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sami Helewa is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and Director of Catholic Studies at Campion College, University of Regina.


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