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The Premodern Epic

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The historical novels I discuss in this chapter are distinctively modern forms of fiction. They contain narratives and perspectives arising out of literary and material conditions that became significant for Islamic contexts starting in the nineteenth century.

Modern historical fiction pertaining to Islam has autochthonous sources as well, including nonfiction (such as chronicles and other descriptive works) and fiction. For the latter, great epics in prose and verse in numerous languages are a treasure trove mined again and again by many authors. Available in elaborate performance traditions and in written forms since at least the nineteenth century, these epics have wide social prestige associated with them. Additionally, these are highly sophisticated articulations of social, political, and religious life, honed to great subtlety through centuries of retelling.

Performance of the Arabic epic Sirat Bani Hilal in Egypt.

Evaluating premodern epics related to Islamic contexts is a vast project that is beyond the scope of this book. However, the epics hold great importance for considering Islamic pasts, on their own account and as sources for modern creations. This section offers suggestions for thinking about the epics based on my approach to modern novels in other sections of the chapter. In chronological order, influence flows from the epics to modern novels. However, my analytical stance is going to work in reverse. I believe our easier access to historical projections in modern novels provides ways to incorporate the contents of epics into the narratives we construct of premodern times.

The umbrella category “premodern epic” encompasses vast internal differences. Materials that can be placed under it would form a wide spectrum based on narrative structures, points of origin and arcs of historical development, placement within particular linguistic worlds, investment in ordinary reality or recourse to magic and miracles, and social and political roles in communal contexts. A great mass of academic literature is available to explore these issues, variegated along linguistic and regional lines. My discussion here barely scratches the surface of the matter.

Epic Fictions

Jurji Zaidan, whose novel Ghadat Karbala I discuss in another section of this chapter, writes in his autobiography that his passion for historical narratives began during his childhood. Around the 1870s, he used to help his family by working in his father’s restaurant, which had a cafe next door that provided storytelling entertainment. The young Zaidan never tired of hearing the tales:

When I saw the storyteller walking up and down reciting the story of ʿAntar or az-Zir or the like of it, while the people sat bent forward listening to him, and enacting the scenes of the tale with his gestures and voice—then I would forget my circumstances and would be totally absorbed in listening. The narrator related, usually during the course of the year, the four stories that were in those days the most famous ones: Firuz Shah, ʿAntar, az-Zir and ʿAli Zaibaq. When the year came to its end, he came back to the first once again. I heard them many times. I had no objection to listening to them and I do not complain about the time I wasted doing so (Zaidan, Autobiography of Jurji Zaidan, 36).

The Arabic epics Zaidan mentions in this comment are about heroic figures placed in a past that the listening community regarded as its own history. These stories can be correlated to the timescale one would find in nonfictional accounts, such as chronicles, although epics do not adhere to a straightforward timeline formed from events related through causes. The epics’ purpose is also clearly not to impart information since then listening to them once would suffice. Rather, the point was to create pleasure mixed with moral adumbration through heroic exemplification. As affective narratives tied to “real” history, the epics parallel the modern novels written later by Zaidan.

Aside from the base fact of fictionality, the epics are quite a different kettle of fish from the modern novel. They exist in a dialectic between oral and written text, usually assimilated through a combination of apprenticeship with a practitioner of the art and reliance on a written transcript or aide-mémoire. Because of the “live” nature of performance and consumption, the stories are open to modification through subtle changes, excerption, ellipses, wholesale retelling based on personal predilection or request, and so on. The epics contain stories with predictable structures that have been preserved over time. But the stories within the structures are open to modulation in performance and retelling, making them quite different from a book printed and made into a bound volume.

Often, nesting and elliptical patterns within epic narratives facilitate transformability while retaining recognizability as part of a known cycle. As we can gather from Zaidan’s comment, people would listen to the same narrative, time and again. The stories’ meaning in such circumstances was born in between the narrator’s projection and the hearer’s expectation, both sides being aware of flexibility within the paradigm. That is, when a narrator changed a detail, this was done knowing that listeners were expecting something else. And listeners apprehended the significance of the change based on their prior exposure to the story. This created an interactive, fundamentally social, experience.

While different due to literary genre and the performance context, premodern epics do interface with Islamic topics in multiple ways. Some contain pre-Islamic stories that remain situated in their original time while being consumed by Muslims, while others begin in pre-Islamic contexts and then accommodate Islamic references within their internal chronological development as narrative time progresses. Still others are coterminous with the birth of Islam or start in periods where the surrounding context contains Islamic figures and ideas. All these possibilities play out in myriad ways based on variation in languages and regions of the world.

Almost all academic energy that has gone into studying premodern epics relevant for Islam has come from philologists and literary scholars. This is because the narratives’ historical content tends not to conform to patterns that have defined Islamic history. The epics rarely cite dates, and their heroic stories are usually too outlandish or magical to fit into modern historians’ sense of the real past.

While aware of references to their topics in epics, historians’ own references to epics are restricted to use as epigrams or other instances where the point is to highlight the prevalence of a motif in popular culture of a given period. I believe the epics can be put to greater use through a considered approach to their relationship to nonfictional chronography.

I am inclined to leverage an observation made for modern contexts: fictional and nonfictional forms of historical writing prevalent since the nineteenth century exist in a shared world. Both forms are committed to realism, according to which events are represented such that a reader can be expected to believe that they could have occurred. In nonfiction, providing evidence accomplishes this task, while in fiction, one hypothesizes imaginatively while remaining tied to a nonfictional historical frame.

Nonfictional and fictional history constitute a bifurcated field in which the separating line divides as well as coalesce. As one major theorist has argued, “the interweaving of history and fiction in the refiguration of time rests… upon this reciprocal overlapping, the quasi-historical moment of fiction changing places with the quasi-fictive moment of history. In this interweaving, this reciprocal overlapping, this exchange of places, originates what is commonly called human time” (Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, 3:192).

With adjustments for scale and awareness of the difference in narrative structures, the interdependence we can see between modern historical nonfiction and fiction is relevant for premodern epics and chronicles as well. This does not work by comparing a novel to an epic, just as a modern historical account does not match a premodern chronicle. As totalities, the epics are very long texts with a tendency for expanding with age. They are extremely wide in scope, span long periods, and include elaborate plots and subplots that can be inserted or extracted as needed. But one can concentrate on aspects of one or more subplots within an epic to add to historical accounts we might generate out of nonfictional chronographic works written in premodern times.

Princess Dhat al-Himma and her Son ‘Abd al-Wahhab

The Arabic epic entitled Sirat al-Amira Dhat al-Himma (Story of the Princess Possessor of Resolve) is thought to be the longest narrative of its genre. It runs to over 5,000 pages in a version that was first printed in 1909 and has now become the standard reference. Literary detective work indicates that the narrative likely originated in northern Syria in the twelfth century CE, although the story it tells hearkens to centuries earlier, namely the period of transition between the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties (ca. 740–800 CE).

Among long-standing Arabic epics, Sirat al-Amira Dhat al-Himma is the only one to have a woman as its main heroic figure. The story, however, is not limited to her alone and contains a vast cast of major and minor characters. As I will discuss, the epic coincides with the chronicle tradition at moments when known historical figures are made to act and talk in it.

To provide the epic’s flavor, I will focus on two pivotal birth stories: one is that of Dhat al-Himma herself and the other of her son ‘Abd al-Wahhab, who later goes on to have a grand heroic career like his mother (Maqanabi, Sirat al-Amira Dhat al-Himma, 7:1–47). Pivotal to the narrative, these births are fraught affairs that lead to the protagonists having precarious lives during their youth. The section of the epic between the two births includes the narrative’s complex negotiations pertaining to gender and inherited versus earned status in the world. The stories also lead to understanding the epic as a counterpart to mainstream chronicles’ portrayal of early Islamic history. The latter is usually an affair tied to Muhammad’s genealogical descendants and the caliphal dynasties that evolved out of the early Islamic polity in Arabia.

Animation summarizing the epic of al-Amira Dhat al-Himma (Samaka Studios, Egypt, 2020).

The scene is set around the middle of the eighth century CE, when two half-brothers, Zalim and Mazlum (the names mean “tyrant” and “victim,” respectively), are contesting inheriting their father’s assets as the chief of the Banu Kilab tribe as the result of a complicated back story. They marry on the same day, and both their wives become pregnant. They come to the agreement that if one gets a son, he would become the chief, but the inheritance would be split if both have sons.

Zalim’s wife gives birth to a boy, Harith, while Mazlum’s wife has a girl. To avoid being disinherited, Mazlum suggests that the child be killed and they say the child was a boy who had been stillborn. The midwife, Suda, is willing to go along with the story. But she saves the child, named Fatima, and brings her up together with her own son, Marzuq. Fatima is the future Dhat al-Himma, a girl braver and stronger than any boy.

When the Banu Kilab are attacked by another tribe, Fatima, Suda, and Marzuq are captured and carried away into servitude. Growing older under these conditions, Fatima’s bravery and beauty cause her to become coveted by a man. When he tries subduing her a second time, she kills him and then goes on to acquire the reputation of a fearsome warrior deserving the title “possessor of resolve” (dhat al-himma).

The tribe in which she is situated as a servant comes into conflict with the Banu Kilab again, and eventually Fatima and her father Mazlum come face to face as enemies. At this point, Suda tells Fatima who she really is, while Mazlum also recognizes Suda and realizes that his opponent is his own daughter. Fatima is then reconciled with her father and goes back to the Banu Kilab with him.

In the story so far, Fatima is a person of ambiguous value. At birth, her gender threatens to disinherit her father, who is willing to dispose of her entirely. To preserve his own status, he shuns her, disinheriting her of her genealogical distinction. The misfortune is compounded when she becomes a captive. But she overcomes these severe disadvantages through her personal qualities. Having earned high status, she becomes an asset for her father in his struggle against his brother Zalim and nephew Harith. Her loyalty as a daughter compels her to show a kind of generosity to her father that he did not extend to her at birth.

Once back among the Banu Kilab, Fatima becomes a part of the politics between her father and his fraternal enemies. Her cousin Harith now becomes obsessed with her and seeks her in marriage, which she refuses on the grounds that she has no need or desire for a husband. At this point, the tribe is invited to the court of the second caliph of the Abbasid dynasty, al-Mansur (ruled 754–775), the founder of the city of Baghdad. Mansur is especially attentive to Fatima and manages to convince her to marry Harith, although she still refuses to have any physical contact with him.

Unable to get his way through pressure or persuasion, Harith becomes aggressive. He bribes Fatima’s trusted companion and foster brother Marzuq to drug her. As she lays unconscious, he rapes her and she becomes pregnant. She is flabbergasted when she wakes up and wants to kill Harith but is stopped by her father. She hides the pregnancy in order not to have any involvement with Harith. Eventually, she gives birth to ‘Abd al-Wahhab, who would go on to be a great warrior like her. Fatima is advised to kill the child lest she is accused of adultery. She refuses to do this and instead sends him into foster care, replicating the circumstances of her own early years.

‘Abd al-Wahhab’s birth has parallels with that of his mother. Although he is legitimate (because Fatima and Harith are actually married), he is also the result of an assault. The mother initially works such that the father is unaware of his existence and hence does not acknowledge him. One of his other attributes is that he is born Black, creating an additional complication with respect to recognizable inheritance. Fatima’s gender and ‘Abd al-Wahhab’s blackness are marks of similar implications.

At six years, ‘Abd al-Wahhab asks for a horse, which leads Fatima to have more contact with him and she begins to train him as a warrior. One of Fatima’s maids discloses that she has a son, leading to an accusation of adultery and, subsequently, to a civil war within the Banu Kilab between the Fatima/Mazlum and Harith/Zalim factions. Eventually, they all go to Mecca to seek clarity regarding the child’s paternity from the wise who live there.

In Mecca, an expert examines ‘Abd al-Wahhab and then identifies Harith as the child’s father after interpreting footprints from many men. When Harith still refuses to acknowledge paternity on account of the child’s skin color, the matter is referred to Ja’far as-Sadiq (d. 765), the sixth Shi’i Imam and leading descendant of the Prophet Muhammad who resides in Mecca and is regarded as the most knowledgeable.

The epic contains an extended account of the interaction between the Imam and the disputing parties. Once Ja’far is agreeable to adjudicate, the case is presented to him in poetry. Dhat al-Himma addresses him first, beginning with the entreaty “today, you are the provision in my state of humiliation.” Harith then responds also in verse, including, “We are white, so from where would we get blackness?” After the two fathers also give their positions, Ja’far examines the child and pronounces him to be Harith’s son. He explains that the difference in skin color between father and son was caused by the fact that Fatima was menstruating when the child was conceived. He then cites a story from the time of the Prophet involving the same issue, stating also that God has the power to cause the change of skin color. If He could cause Jesus to be born when Mary was a virgin, surely everything is within His power (Maqanabi, Sirat al-Amira Dhat al-Himma, 7:36–41).

Harith acknowledges that Fatima was menstruating but still refuses to accept ‘Abd al-Wahhab as his son. The party then ends up at the court in Baghdad again, where the caliph has seen a dream in which the Prophet appears to him and declares that ‘Abd al-Wahhab is being wronged by his father. From here the story veers off toward issues beyond the scope of my current interest.

Diagram rendering the different conceptions of time, with a blue dotted line showing


The Premodern Epic

A Dance of Times

Invoking figures such as the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur and the Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq, the story of Dhat al-Himma incorporates well-known historical figures in its narrative. It is helpful to think of these instances as cases of incidental contact between chroniclers’ time and the temporal progression that works as the epic’s narrative time. The two times do not plot as lines running parallel to each other since they have different internal scales. They can be seen as parabolic formations coming into contact at particular events and then bouncing off on their distinctive trajectories.

The payoff of the way I am correlating chronicle and epic times comes when we interpolate affective content from Sirat Dhat al-Himma into the history known from chronicles. The birth stories of Fatima and ‘Abd al-Wahhab highlight the tension between status gained from genealogy versus one’s own initiative and talents. The epic characters are of noble birth but are denied their due. Their gendered and Black bodies are physical indications of their outcast status.

Yet, the two defeat all the foes they encounter on battlefields while also constantly asserting their rights in the arena of familial relations. The story contains a rich mixture of pathos and triumphalism, the righteous succeeding consistently while being confronted with an unending series of trials. The epic’s picture of human existence brims with both anomie and hope, its expansive narrative taking the listener to subtle understandings of the pains, pleasures, and contradictions of human existence.

Now let us recall what we know from chroniclers regarding historical figures who are made to speak in the epic. The caliph al-Mansur was the second ruler of the Abbasid dynasty that superseded the Umayyads in 750 CE through a widespread revolt. He succeeded his brother, the first caliph al-Saffah, and spent his long reign consolidating the dynasty’s control by building institutions and suppressing rivals within his own family. The bitter family struggles between the main characters in Sirat Dhat al-Himma have extensive counterparts in what the chroniclers’ report about the early decades of the Abbasid ruling family.

The case of the Shi’i Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq is even more poignantly comparable to that of Fatima and ‘Abd al-Wahhab. Descended from ‘Ali and another Fatima—Muhammad’s only daughter to have children—Ja’far had impeccable genealogical credentials. Yet, these had brought his ancestors great tragedies: ‘Ali had been a disputed caliph and had been assassinated; his son Husayn was killed in the massacre at Karbala; and Fatima herself is usually presented as a doleful mother aware of the terrible fate awaiting her descendants. Ja’far as-Sadiq himself lived a quiescent existence in Medina although without necessarily giving up the claim that his family, and not the Umayyads and the Abbasids, should have been the rulers of the empire to come out of Muhammad’s mission.

Ja’far first designated his son Isma’il to be his successor as the next Imam. But Isma’il died before the father, leading to a rift in the community of his followers. From this we get the Isma’ili branch of Shi’ism, which picked one of Isma’il’s sons as the next Imam. Shi’is who eventually came to be called Twelvers regarded one of Ja’far’s other sons (Musa al-Kadhim) as the successor after him. The promise and denial of inheritance tied to political as well as religious authority was a central leitmotif of Ja’far as-Sadiq’s life in terms of both ancestors and descendants.

We may read the emotion-laden narrative of the Sirat Dhat al-Himma as a kind of extended commentary on the time-bound pasts we find in chronicles. This works on at least two levels. First, the two streams of time are clearly interconnected within the epic’s inner logic. The Banu Kilab, the ‘Abbasids, and the Prophet’s descendants represent parallel streams of embodied time in the epic. As a reflection on the circumstances of the eighth century, then, the epic works as a portrayal of emotional burdens generated by the endless internecine conflicts that define the early history of the Muslim community in the Middle East.

Second, we know that the Sirat al-Amira Dhat al-Himma, as it became preserved, was generated in the twelfth century. This was a period of great political turmoil that included Arab tribes in northern Syria switching allegiances between various factions. The battles depicted in the epic pertaining to many centuries earlier were proxies for what was happening in the context of production. Moreover, the memory of early problems was still active, especially in the continuing Sunni-Shi’i division and had also, by now, become interlaced with all manner of other conflicts. This made the story of Dhat al-Himma a kind of nonchronological historical memory that could be deployed as a morality tale in later contexts. Its form was that of episodic, heroic adventure rather than chronicle, but its functions paralleled what we know about chroniclers’ intentions.

Epics and other forms of make-believe pasts are never free-form exercises. While a chronicle is tethered to the progression of time, a successful epic must satisfy burdens of expectation pertaining to entertainment and exploration of moral problems. The epic provides more options in the latter regard because in it, the narrator has the freedom to work through hypotheses regarding the results of people’s actions. Moreover, epics account for contingency by way of the fact that even the most righteous characters can come to grave ends. Epics’ continual evolution through performance extends the freedom to hypothesize further while retaining necessities pertaining to narrative and emotive structures.

Documentary on a woman learning to be a reciter of the Persian epic Shahnama of Ferdowsi in Iran (2009).

My foremost point in this brief discussion is that careful parsing of references within epics can work to enrich our own stories about premodern contexts. This is not an endeavor to be undertaken through a formula. Rather, it requires us to come to a complex understanding of every epic on its own as both a timeless narrative and something produced and consumed in particular human circumstances. Once we understand an epic narrative’s internal temporalities, we can correlate them to temporal structures found in other types of narratives. The key issue is to understand time as a diversified and intensely complex construct whose particulars must be substantiated through detailed attention to all the different kinds of materials we have available to understand human situations.

Modern forms of fiction such as novels have an important place in the way the Islamic past has come to be understood over the past two centuries. In the meantime, the epics have not simply fallen by the wayside but instead have been reinterpreted to form the basis for national identities. Often, their correlations with Islam have become assets or problems based on the national context under consideration. Moreover, stories contained in the epics live on in new forms, often retaining their cachet as repositories of cultural authenticity. Their performance contexts have now expanded from gatherings of the type Zaidan recalled from his youth to other mediatic forms available to tell stories.

Related Sections in Other Chapters