Here in India, you may have had a plate of biryani at Al Zamzam or hummed the soulful Kun Fayakun from the film Rockstar without pausing for thought. The consumption of the products of our Islamic legacy comes easy to most of us, but we are pretty lazy when it comes to learning about the context. We seldom give these “alien” words a chance to be assimilated into our world view, even if they trip off our tongues easily enough.
This is one, but only one, of the reasons Rana Safvi’s Tales from the Quran and Hadith: Islam’s Greatest Stories Retold for the Modern Reader is a good, timely and important book.
The Quran, of course, is the holy book of Islam containing divine revelations, while the Hadith comprises traditional accounts of the life of Prophet Muhammad, commentaries on the Quran, and guidelines for Islamic jurisprudence. The narrative of “otherness” is so strong in the world right now that the Muslim community is the most formidable “other” today. In a society that is so eager to vilify Islam, making (at least parts of) the Quran and the Hadith accessible to the lay reader is a desirable, even necessary idea. Translated versions have long been available, but I daresay their readership is limited.
Old stories, fresh appeal
Safvi’s book, on the other hand, promises us only “tales” from the Quran and Hadith(s), which makes it so much more attractive. Who doesn’t like stories, after all? Without the weight of religiosity, this anthology can be seen simply as a collection of charming, magical legends, or myths, if you will.
Safvi clarifies in her preface that the book was written in a manner that would make it appealing to both children and adults, and she achieves this end rather admirably. The tales selected are among the most popular and apart from regaling us, they offer both context and cultural insights – something we could all use. The book comprises 20 short stories, collated from the Quran and the Hadiths.
Some deal with grave subjects like creation, revelation, war, and dissolution, while others are simpler tales featuring prophets, magical beings and animals, extolling universal virtues like patience, faith and compassion. Sure, the underlying premise of all these stories is monotheism, and the greatness of Allah, but that does not dilute their easy charm.
Oddly, though, the author does not reveal the reference text for every story (barring story #13). If a serious reader wishes to look the original up, they wouldn’t know whether to start searching in the Quran or in the voluminous Hadiths. Perhaps the publishers, Juggernaut Books, who specialise in mobile app-based publishing, might consider fixing that in the digital version of the book.
More than just religious discourse
But even without any academic enquiry, there are plenty of takeaways from these tales. For those who know the Bible or the Torah, some stories such as the flood myth will seem familiar, given the common roots of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. But the slight differences in names make for an interesting lesson in linguistics. For example, Eve becomes Hawwa, Jacob becomes Yakub, and Gabriel becomes Jibril. When you scratch the surface further, you’ll find surprising titbits of history, ancient religion, geography, trade relations, and of course, a whole load of social customs.
First, there are stories such as “Zamzam Zamzam”, that help you understand and appreciate Islamic festivals and customs such as the Eid Al Adha and of the famous Hajj pilgrimage. These explain why the cities of Medina and Mecca are holy, and the reason behind practices such as the veneration of the Kaaba, the stoning of the Devil, or the seven back and forth trips between two hills – Safa and Marwah.
A fascinating picture of pre-Islamic Arabic society also emerges from stories like “The Year of the Elephant”. We learn that before Muhammad preached Islam, the Arabs too were a polytheistic society and worshipped a moon god named Il-lah and his three daughters, Al Lat, Al Uzza and Manat. We learn a little about the socio-political conditions of 7th century West Asia, with descriptions of complex cultural and trade relationships between Persians, Arabs, Israelis, Egyptians and other neighbouring regions. One of the stories about a certain Zul Qarnain may even be a veiled reference to Alexander.
The women in the Quran
Further, you learn of prophets other than Jesus and Muhammad, such as Nuh, Musa, and Ismail, and names of Muhammad’s many wives other than the Western media’s favourite, Ayesha. Speaking of Ayesha, one of the things that springs out of these pages is the relatively positive portrayal of women. The Quran and the Hadiths have many stories to tell about women who are as beautiful and virtuous as they are wise and strong, and, sometimes, downright passionate and headstrong. From Khadija’s business acumen, to Zulaikha’s unashamed lust, from Hajira’s piety to Bilqis’s behaving #likeaboss, the picture of the woman is definitely not one we see trapped in burqas today.
And yes, from this book you will also learn that Al (the) Zamzam is the name of a sacred spring at Mecca, dug by angels, or that Kun Fayakun (“Be, and it was”) are among the most significant revealed words of the Quran, marking the creation of the world. Perhaps you will then feel a little more connected to the owner of Al Zamzam, whose business is next to one named Ganga Sweets; or to the lyric-writer of Kun Fayakun (Irshad Kamil, by the way), whose supplication to god is just as sincere as the one that starts with om.
Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a freelance writer, and dabbles in history, mythology and culture studies. You can know more about her work on cultureexpress.info
Tales from the Quran and Hadith: Islam’s greatest stories retold for the modern reader, Rana Safvi, Juggernaut.