|Quranic Storytelling in Dialogue|
In order to appeal to human beings’ hearts and minds, the Holy Quran has used a number of approaches. This has been in an effort to persuade humans to espouse the truth, which is traced back to God, and the true path, which leads to Him. It has been done in such a way as to allow the faith to touch on the innermost feelings of man. The spiritual experience should roam in the vast realm of the ideology, lest the faith be dulled by the barrenness of the thought, or the thought should give in to the rawness of the senses.
Storytelling is among the styles of dialogue the Holy Quran has adopted. The approach has been applied to different brands of storytelling. Some have been historical tales, which talk about the prophets of old and bygone generations; others have been meant to serve a moral purpose; and a third type of tale, which is precise and terse in what it tries to convey, usually discusses a certain position or a particular aspect of a certain human being.
In its aims and objects, the story is not intended to give us an account of history per se. It is not expected to dwell on portraying a picture only of what happened, so that it should be governed by the modus operandi of storytelling, especially the detailed account of the incident or the position.
The Quranic story is entwined with the main guidelines and message of the Holy Quran, i.e. the call to the way of God, guiding people to the truth, and eventually showing them the light to believing in God and submitting to Him. Thus, it seeks to deliver man from the darkness of dishonesty and malpractice to the light that is emanating from the heart of the Message in God’s realms.
In the historical facts and situations of which the Quranic story has told, it has sought to achieve all the aims [discussed above]. Sometimes it can be seen that particular historical stories have been repeated in more than one surah, because they have a bearing, as a whole or in part, on the context and the notion being discussed in that particular chapter.
As a result, the Quranic style advocates different approaches to telling the story. Sometimes a detailed account of the story is given, which may contain most of the characteristics of storytelling. At other times, it gives a summary, usually contained in one or two verses.
The style may tackle the story either from the start or the end, according to the idea or the aspect being discussed or handled, or the situation or position being highlighted or focused on.
The Quranic story stresses the unity of the Message
Among the aims of the Quranic story are stressing the unity of the Divine Message, the unity of the methods the messengers use to call to the way of God, the unity of the spiritual world they live in while making efforts to deliver the Message and in enduring the trials and tribulations in executing their missions, including the challenges mounted against them by their adversaries. This should serve as evidence of the one common path that God wanted His Messages to run along. It should also serve as a proof of the uniform problems that the activists confront at all times and places, regardless of the differences in circumstances of each and every mission and messenger. In the same vein, the Quranic story tries to highlight the uniformity that characterizes the motives of the unbelievers, the haughty, and the straying, in that these motives stem from personal inclinations. The unbelievers do not seem to be standing on any ideological ground in their rejection of God’s Message.
The history of the prophets, in all that they came to stand for, the problems they faced, and the achievements they made, was an important factor in achieving that aim. For this reason, the Holy Quran has discussed in detail their experiences and personal and public positions. This is so that Prophet Mohammad (p.), his companions, and those who have followed in their footsteps would find the lively picture of reunion between the past and the present of the Divine Messages. That is, without losing sight of the difference in time, place, and circumstances that had characterized each and every Message. Pondering their history would provide us with the opportunity to learn from their experiences in spreading the Message. Their history would provide us with the experience we require to withstand the pressures and odd situations, and thus give us the strength and resilience to weather adversity. It makes clear how God eventually perfected His victory on the prophets in anchoring their Messages firmly on the stage of life, against all the odds and challenges.
Also among the aims of the Quran is presenting life’s issues by way of giving examples, where the concept should be clearly defined. Thus the Quranic story has proved to be among the most successful methods of achieving this end result, by virtue of manifesting the notion in a live and dynamic real life setting, instead of talking about it in abstract terms.
Two distinct styles of Quranic storytelling
One can talk about two distinct manners of telling the story in the Holy Quran: reporting the incidents from the start of the tale to its end, and role-play, where each player in the plot plays his or her part in a transparent style. Interaction between the players then ensues.
The first approach deals with minor incidents of history. The storyteller here plays the role of guiding the listener to the fundamental points in a manner that borders on the instructive in filling the gaps.
The importance of the dialogue style of storytelling lies in its attempt to simplify and make understandable the concept all round, so that no aspect should remain ambiguous. This is because each party to the dialogue does their best to put across their point of view.
However, there is another point that distinguishes the dialogue style. It paints a live and dynamic picture of the scene. Thus, the reader lives the situations, one after the other, trying to visualize the climate of the historical occurrences through the activity of the heroes of the story as though he were living then. The reader does not only experience the narrative and its connotations, but also the dynamism and atmosphere that govern the entire story. It is obvious, therefore, that recounting the facts of the story per se cannot serve this purpose, although it should provide a detailed account of the situation.
This has been the reason why the Holy Quran has concentrated more on dialogue in telling a story in order to portray a lively picture of the history of the Message in its vitality in real life situations, which the Quran has desired to relate to the present, stressing the common denominator between all the Divine Messages. It may be said too that the Holy Quran has desired to raise the vital issues that relate to people’s lives in order to give them that extra dimension in their minds.
Here, we are trying to sail through some samples of Quranic stories that are told in a dialogue style, in the history of prophetic missions to deliver the Divine Message to people. Some stories should also touch on the fundamental issues as they simmer in real life situations. This should help the cause of propagating the way to God and the journey of Islam in life.
With the Prophets in Dialogue on their Message
Noah and his people
The Holy Quran has related the story of Prophet Noah (a.s.) in at least six chapters. We will discuss his story in the light of the Quranic style that seeks not to elaborate on all the details of the story. It has confined the discussion to those aspects that have a bearing on the prime objectives of the Message. Since we do not aim to analyze the subject of the plot, but to feel the dialogue that is taking place in it in order to get to the moral it is trying to impart, we are going to focus more on the dialogue.
Here, we are trying to empathize with Prophet Noah (a.s.) through the words he utters in the context of his noble task, his stand on the battleground, his approach to convincing others to embrace his thought in a climate of love and compassion that is symptomatic of the ideology he came to spread.
In this climate, we can see that the forces of unbelief that take part in dialogue with Noah are bereft of any meaningful thought or love which they can exchange with his. They paint a picture of a narrow-minded people who seem bent on not giving the words of Noah (a.s.) any chance to sink into their minds. They are adamant not to follow the climate of the Message, preferring to indulge in personal and class concerns. Thus, taking a position on the Message is, to their mind, tied to the personality of the Messenger and his social rank, the kind of followers the Message has attracted and their social and financial positions. This appears to be the case even without attaching any importance to the thought of where God fits in all that, and the Message’s significance in spiritual as well as human terms, especially for the future well being of the nation (ummah).
Now we move along with the mood of the Quranic dialogue in scene one of the story of Noah, as though there was no time lag.
The reasons the unbelievers give for rejecting belief
This position can be examined in these Quranic verses:
We sent Noah to his people (with a mission): “I have come to you with a Clear Warning: That ye serve none but God: Verily I do fear for you the penalty of a grievous day.” But the chiefs of the Unbelievers among his people said: “We see (in) thee nothing but a man like ourselves: Nor do we see that any follow thee but the meanest among us, in judgment immature: Nor do we see in you (all) any merit above us: in fact we think ye are liars!” (11: 25–27)
Noah calls his people to the way of Allah, warning them with torment, with an express fear for their safety, in the way someone’s heart goes out to their loved ones when they see that harm is coming their way.
He engages them in dialogue with a view to leading them to belief and to the right path; he urges them to respond to his call and discuss it. Yet, they seem to have nothing to do with the Message Noah has come to them with, concerning themselves with social and tribal allegiances. They look as if they are oblivious to their fate, which the Message has come to tell them about. Instead, their way of thinking is completely overtaken by personal and social rank concerns.
The verses mention the line of thinking of the unbelievers. Their stand vis-à-vis Noah’s Message is that there is nothing that could set Noah apart to take up that important position of prophecy, because they maintain that he is a human like them. That aside, to their mind, there is nothing that would entice them to respond to his call positively and follow him, particularly when those who did follow him are counted among the meanest among their folk. In their judgment, there will be no purpose served if they, being the dignitaries of their people, rub shoulders with the “inferior” elements of society.
So, in order for them to accept Noah’s call to belief, the prophet and his followers should come from a certain rank in the social pecking order. They have yet another reason for rejecting the Message. It is that Noah (a.s.) and his followers are not superior to them, so that they can carry the torch of the Message and call on people to follow it.
In the end, these justifications have led to the inevitable outcome, where the verse concludes with their words “in fact we think ye are liars!”, in that, according to them, the distinction between right and wrong is social merit, not the critical and rational judgment of the Message and its proponents.
Opening up to the truth
Since this is their rationale for rejecting his call, Prophet Noah (a.s.) has decided to reason with them on the same lines, in the hope that he may be successful in breaking the ice, and that they may address the real issues and concepts of the Message:
He said: “O my people! See ye if (it be that) I have a Clear Sign from my Lord, and that He hath sent Mercy unto me from His own presence, but that the Mercy hath been obscured from your sight? Shall we compel you to accept it when ye are averse to it? And O my people! I ask you for no wealth in return: my reward is from none but God: But I will not drive away (in contempt) those who believe: for verily they are to meet their Lord, and ye I see are the ignorant ones! And O my people! Who would help me against God if I drove them away? Will ye not then take heed? I tell you not that with me are the treasures of God, nor do I know what is hidden, nor claim I to be an angel. Nor yet do I say, of those whom your eyes do despise that God will not grant them (all) that is good: God knows best what is in their souls: I should, if I did, indeed be a wrong-doer.” (11: 28–31)
What Noah criticizes of their argument is that the questions of prophecy and the Message do not fit the straightjacket they try to put them in. The Message endures in the context of evidence, which testifies to its credibility. They have nothing to lose in approaching it with an open mind to know if it contains the truth. As for the humanness of the messenger, Noah does agree with them, for he does not try to raise the position of the messenger above that of mankind. He admits that he does not have any control over the treasures of the earth so that he might attract them financially. He cannot foretell the future so that people could follow him for his knowledge of their secrets. It is not in his power to elevate his human status to that of the angels, so that people might submit to him out of fear. He is but the Messenger of God, Who entrusted him with delivering His Message with clear proofs. All that it takes is for them to open their minds to it with no commitment, i.e. they are free to take it or leave it. No one is going to coerce them into accepting it, should they choose to head up a blind alley.
In his bid to understand why they reject his call to them the join the ranks of the faithful, Noah (a.s.) puts it bluntly to them that he is not in it for personal material gain, because the Divine messengers do not expect to be paid for their work. They hope that God will reward them in this life and in the hereafter. He then turns his attention to talking about his followers, whom they dubbed as socially inferior in accordance with a social structure that judges people in terms of their wealth, lineage, or power. He then announces to them that he cannot drive those believers away. They will meet God and submit before him the account of their deeds, firm in the knowledge that God will grant them lofty positions. That is, God does not look down on people for their color, wealth – or lack of it – or social standing. Rather, He judges them for their intentions and deeds. If He knows that they are well intentioned, He will reward them in the same measure.
Prophet Noah (a.s.) then raises before them the issue of powerfulness and weakness, in that if he were to turn them away, who is going to protect him from God? Are they going to offer him sanctuary from God’s punishment, if he has gone ahead with ousting those believers, who are the friends and soldiers of God? He is urging them to wake up from their slumber in ignorance and call to mind their positions, power base, and the kind of misguidance that overwhelms them.
He does all this in a loving and open way. Will they reciprocate? Say, by getting involved in dialogue. Nay, the response is a display of sheer arrogance and playing down the threat of punishment.
They are not up to dialogue, for they lack the evidence with which they can contest his clear proofs. They have nothing of substance to throw at Noah except intransigence, defiance, and impatience: “They said: ‘O Noah! Thou hast disputed with us, and (much) hast thou prolonged the dispute with us: now bring upon us what thou threatens us with, if thou speaks the truth!” (11: 32) They even threatened him with stoning him to death if he did not desist from calling them to belief:
“They said: “If thou desist not, O Noah! Thou shall be stoned (to death)” (26: 116)
What was his response? He does not want to brag about his ability to cause punishment to descend upon them. He has kept his integrity as the Messenger of God, who does not have control over what will become of him, be it good or evil. He does not end his call on a note better than it started with. At the outset, he proclaims to them that he fears for them from the chastisement of grievous day. His fear does not diminish, especially after they have rebelled against him without any evidence. Thus, his reaction is calm, as it draws on the spirit and strength of the Message: “He said: ‘Truly, God will bring it on you if He wills, and then, ye will not be able to frustrate it!” (11: 33)
In dialogue, there always remains the personality of the Messenger, who cannot do anything without God’s will, exuding love and kindness for his people, yet showing composure and control over the situation: “Of no profit will be my counsel to you, much as I desire to give you (good) counsel, if it be that God wills to leave you astray: He is your Lord! And to Him will ye return!” (11: 34)
Then the decisive Divine intervention comes in to propose to Noah how he should respond to his people’s charge against him, i.e. of feigning the prophecy. God revealed to Noah to tell his people that he should be held responsible for all that he talks about and calls for, yet they should face the consequences of their intransigence, blasphemy, and rebellion. Thus, he draws the curtain on any further debate that is not going to yield any meaningful result: “Or do they say, ‘He has forged it?’ Say: ‘If I had forged it, on me were my sin! And I am free of the sins of which ye are guilty!” (11: 35)