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Islamic Storytelling

Blog Post 9

June 24, 2018

5OriginalsMasjidan Nabawi Page5 2

Muslims have always engaged in artistic storytelling because we understand that storytelling is a vehicle to inspire faith and love for Allah Subhanahu wa ta’ala and Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him and his family. It’s always been a method of tarbiyah (education and upbringing) through the relating of stories of the Prophets, peace be upon all of them, historical stories of specific and general situations and stories that provide a moral message.


In the early history of humankind, gifted orators and ordinary people told stories, parables and fables, captivating listeners with their narrations. It is a technique as old as time which we use to teach each other. The Prophets told stories about believers from earlier generations. These stories help to ease the pain of hardships and oppression and increase patience and perseverance in the Prophets’ followers. Of course, Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, taught the stories of the Prophets as revealed by Allah Subhanahu wa ta’ala in the Holy Qur’an. These stories, called ahadith in the Holy Qur’an, can be found in many surahs (chapters), for example in Surah Yusuf, Chapter 12, beginning with ayat (verse) 3. The stories of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, have also been relayed to us in the form of ahadith.

During the Prophet’s time, poetry was in vogue. Some speculate this may be one reason why the Holy Qur’an was revealed in rhyme, as an everlasting miracle, protected and forever superior to anything human beings can devise. Muslims created poetry and as it developed, several lines were formed, including the qasidah, ghazal, qiṭ’ah, ruba’i, mathnawi and maqamah. The qasidah (intention) serves religious purposes and includes solemn praises of Allah Subhanahu wa ta’ala, eulogies of the Prophet, and songs of praise and lament for the shohada (martyrs) of Islam, such as Al-Busiri’s Qasida al-Burda (Intention of the Mantle) in praise of the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him and his family, and Mawlana Rumi’s Dam Hama Dam Ali Ali (In Rapture My Soul Cries Ali Ali) in praise of Imam Ali, peace be upon him. The ghazal (yarn, flirting), used for religious and secular expression, is an elaboration of the qasidah's introductory section and usually embodies the pain, loss and separation of unattainable love and its beauty, such as Hafiz’s Diwan (Collection). The qit’ah (fragmentation) deals with everyday life and incorporates ethics, advice, satire, jokes and word games, such as those by Sa’adi of Shiraz. The ruba’i (quatrain) uses aphorisms and concise expressions of thought for religious, amorous or skeptical purposes, such as Umar Khayyam’s Raba’iyat. The mathnawi (couplets) begins with the praise of Allah Subhanahu wa ta’ala and provides the thread of a tale through thousands of verses, such as Mawlana Rumi’s Mathnawi-i Ma’nawi of 25,000 verses. The maqamah (gathering) are stories told in a complicated style, using word play and double entendres, and interspersed with poetry, such as Al-Hamadhani’s Maqamat of 400 episodic stories.


Human beings are members of a whole,


In creation of one essence and soul.


If one member is afflicted with pain,


Other members uneasy will remain.


If you have no sympathy for human pain,


The name of human you cannot retain.

From Sa’adi’s Gulistan, Chapter 1, Story 10,
woven into a carpet on the United Nations wall


Stories educate us about our nature and Allah’s Subhanahu wa ta’ala Self and social laws. They create a sense of the supernatural, metaphysical and existential. They teach values and morals and correct wrong concepts, attitudes and behaviours. Stories provide encouragement and inspiration to our souls. Narratives offer spiritual guidance. They inspire learning, wonder and adventure. They critique us and the world we live in. Stories reinforce historical narratives, creating positive identities, but also stereotypes, prejudices and ongoing conflicts. 

When a listener or reader is entertained by a story, it enables us to feel safe from criticism as we are enraptured in our own mind. We are not defensive about being directed through the story and can learn from the characters’ experiences, from the protagonists and antagonists, as we see ourselves and others in them. Stories provide lessons, not lectures.

Thus, we more easily learn

values and ideals

through transmitted stories

when they are told in a narrative form.


Stories often revolve around the emotions of pain and love. We internalize the struggle and journey of the characters, who live only on the page and in our emotions. Not only do stories contain beauty, they also contain power. The narrative power comes through its timelessness and universal ideals.

Muslims must tell our own stories. Through various devious means, Muslims have often been unable to effectively inform the world about our lives. Our voice has been outsourced, resulting in our stories being wrongly told. Of course, this has not only happened to Muslims. It happens to all people who are viewed as the “other,” who don’t fit into the narrative of white privilege, imperialism and capitalism.

When our stories aren’t relayed or are broadcasted incorrectly, we are left feeling helpless, victimized and angry. But if we create stories whose characters get to expose their own emotions, experiences and journeys, we can become empowered.

Muslim stories should ignite love and create strong and responsible wayfarers. They can be enjoyable, even amusing. But mostly, our stories must be powerful. Storytelling, whether oral or written, should uplift our hearts.


By the power of the pen, our stories

can become immortal, inshallah.


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