by Thandazani Mhlanga | 16 November 2023 |
Proficient storytellers understand that storytelling is the art of shaping human lives. In the hands of a skilled rhetorician, it may be the sharpest transformational tool in our ideological tool box. Storytellers know that how a story is told is inextricable from why it is told.
Yet when we engage with stories, we often evaluate them through our cultural and religious preferences. The inevitable outcome is the acceptance of the familiar and the disregard or the rejection of the unfamiliar. Imagine what we could learn about our cultural biases if we could, even for a second, look at the stories of others differently!
A comparative study
What can we learn about ourselves and “the other” through the storyteller’s methods by comparing the biographies of Muhammad, Abraham, and Jesus the Messiah?
The adherents of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity have a long history of animosity toward one another, and there is no shortage of militant skeptics of the others’ faith traditions. In non-Islamic countries, unfortunately, for the most part what we know about Muhammad is derived from skeptics, biased commentators, and politicians.
Through this short investigation of storytelling techniques, I will focus on Muhammad, since his stories are less known in the western world than Abraham’s or Jesus’. We will see that similar techniques mark the stories of these pivotal figures in history.
The predestination technique
One storytelling technique is to present heroes as individuals whose calling was proverbially “written in the stars.” The goal is to convince the listener that the protagonist’s calling was set in stone before their time, and thus, they could do nothing besides embrace their larger-than-life calling. In this technique, there is always an ever-present aura of the mystical that punctuates the protagonist’s life.
In the case of Muhammad, ancient storytellers say a light manifested on Muhammad’s father’s forehead. The light disappeared after a sexual encounter with Amina, Muhammad’s mother, after which Amina saw the same light in a vision. The light shone from her pregnant belly and lit up all of Syria. A voice instructed her to dedicate the male child and name him Muhammad.
Al-Tabari, an ancient historian, details an encounter that Muḥammad, at age nine or twelve, had with a Christian monk named Bahira while accompanying the Meccans’ caravan to Syria, where the monk was said to have revealed Muhammad’s prophetic destiny.
Biblical storytellers utilized a similar technique in the story of Jesus. His birth and Messianic destiny are foretold to his mother and father at different times (Luke 1:26-38). There is also the story of Elizabeth’s baby, the forerunner of Jesus, leaping for joy in the presence of Mary.
This motif of light is also extensively utilized to describe the mission of Jesus (John 1:9; 8:12; 12:35-36; Luke 2:32). As for Abraham, the biblical storytellers described how Abraham, having received new light, left Haran and its idolatrous lifestyle to follow the one true God. From the onset, Abraham is destined for greatness: he is to be the father of a great nation and the recipient of loyal divine favor.
The rejection and pilgrimage motif
Muhammad began receiving the revelation of the Qur’ān around 610 CE, when he was 40. A year after the revelation he began his public ministry, but firm opposition to his message arose from the ruling class in Mecca who increasingly saw his message as a threat to their way of life. Ostracism, verbal attacks, commercial sanctions, and physical violence ensued, and his followers gradually left Mecca in search of sanctuary cities.
After the death of his uncle and clan leader, Abū Ṭālib, in 619, Muhammad left Mecca and eventually found sanctuary in Medina. This event is referred to as the Hijra. It marked a new epoch in the Islamic world: time would henceforth be marked as AH (after the Hijra), compared to AD (Anno Domini) or CE (Common Era) in the western world.
Biblical storytellers also emphasize Abraham’s rejections, and his pilgrimages from Ur of the Chaldeans to Canaan, Canaan to Egypt, and back.
Jesus’ message greatly agitated the religious establishment of his time, catalyzing his assassination and the persecution of his followers. The biography of Jesus has pilgrimages embedded in the narrative: his parents made a pilgrimage to Egypt immediately after his birth, and Jesus would also make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, leading to his arrest and subsequent execution.
Storytellers also include the supernatural to establish the uniqueness of the protagonist. In one story, Muhammad asked God to split the moon into two halves, and God performed that miracle in the presence of the Quraysh (a ruling tribe in Mecca). Still skeptical, the Quraysh questioned travelers who arrived days later if they had witnessed the wonder, to which they responded affirmatively.
At another time, at a market in Medina, some 300 of Muhammad’s companions needed water to perform their ablutions for prayer. Muhammad called for a bucket of water, placed his hand over it, and suddenly water began to flow from between his fingers.
Muhammad also battled a confederation of Bedouin tribes called the Hawāzin. Their army was 20,000 men strong. Muhammad miraculously defeated them.
Another story tells how, on a raid against the Ghatafan tribe, Muhammad withdrew from the front lines to rest under a tree. A Ghatafan man, Du’thur by name, snuck up unnoticed, and Muhammad awoke suddenly to find the man standing above him with a drawn sword. “Are you not afraid?” Du’thur asked, shocked by Muhammad’s calm. “God will suffice me,” the Prophet answered. Suddenly, severe back pain struck Du’thur. The pain was so intense that he dropped his sword and crumpled. Muhammad picked up the sword and Du’thur, wonderstruck, embraced Islam that instant.
In the Biblical narrative, Abraham, with an army of 318 men from his household, fought against a coalition of four kings and their trained troops who had taken captive his nephew and his family. In trying to make sense of Abraham’s miraculous victory against a well-oiled fighting machine, some rabbis said that Abraham took straw and dust and threw them toward the vast army. Miraculously, the dust turned into spears and the straw into arrows—while simultaneously the enemy’s arrows and spears were turned into straw and dust (Bereishit Rabbah 43:7).
The miracles of Jesus are ones you know well. It is interesting to note that, like Muhammad, the enemies of Jesus had no power over him unless God permitted it.
The social visionary
Another technique that storytellers employ is to present their characters as visionaries who either lived above, challenged, or changed social norms. The protagonists, considering their immediate cultural context, are often presented as exemplars of social responsibility.
Take Mohammad’s marriages as an example: the storytellers present him as a model husband because his marriages displayed exemplary social morality for his time. Muhammad went against the gendered conceptualization of war, in which masculinity was typically one of the conditions for participating in jihad, by allowing women to participate.
The stories of Abraham and Jesus the Messiah display a similar narrative technique. Considering his setting in time, Abraham’s handling of the events surrounding Sarai and Hagar is exemplary. The Hebrew scriptures celebrate this by placing Ishmael and Isaac, the sons of Hagar and Sarai, at Abraham’s graveside, suggesting the close relationship that the two maintained over the lifetime of their father (Genesis 25:9).
While Jesus never married, he went against the social norms of his time by involving women in his mission: major turning points in the life and ministry of Jesus had women taking up consequential roles, such as having women announce the resurrection, and the woman supposedly of ill repute who “anointed” him for his death at a public banquet.
The storytellers view
This storyteller’s analysis is not about disrespecting or lessening religious traditions or questioning their validity. Instead, one of its goals is to foster understanding and appreciation by giving us a platform to ask soul-searching questions.
- Why do the faith, traditions, religious stories, and beliefs of others always strike us as unbelievable, even though our own stories use similar narrative techniques?
- What is it about me and my systems of evaluation that makes it easier for me to believe my foundational stories and to disregard and disqualify those of others?
- We read these narratives in a culture where a “truth binary” notion reigns—where a story is thought either true or false—and we narrow definitions (either legal or scientific) of what it means for something to be true. Did ancient storytellers hold a similar standard?
- Do storytellers have to be historically accurate for their message to be authentic? When we read Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” or William P. Young’s The Shack, their truth claims are not contingent on the historicity of the narrative. Thus, in the stories of Muhammad, Abraham, and Jesus, what truth claims and assertions of historicity were the ancient storytellers making?
Thandazani Mhlanga is a pastor, educator, speaker, and author who is a pastor in British Columbia. Thandazani and his wife, Matilda, have three girls who are the joy of their lives. His website is themscproject.com.