Popular Preaching and Religious Authority in the Medieval Islamic Near East

Jonathan P. Berkey

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  • Published: 2001
  • Subject Listing: Middle East Studies; History
  • Bibliographic information: 155 pp., notes, bibliog., index, LC 2001027015, 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Series: Publications on the Near East
  • Contents

Islamic popular preachers and storytellers had enormous influence in defining common religious knowledge and faith in the medieval Near East. Jonathan Berkey's book illuminates the popular culture of religious storytelling. It draws on chronicles, biographical dictionaries, sermons, and tales - but especially on a number of medieval treatises critical of popular preachers, and also a vigorous defense of them which emerged in fourteenth-century Egyptian Sufi circles.

Popular preachers drew inspiration and legitimacy from the rise of Sufi mysticism, with its emphasis on internal spiritual activity and direct enlightenment, enabling them to challenge or reinforce social and political hierarchies as they entertained the masses with tales of moral edification. As these charismatic figures developed a popular following, they often aroused the wrath of scholars and elites, who resented innovative interpretations of Islam that undermined orthodox religious authority and blurred social and gender barriers.

Critics of popular preachers and storytellers worried that they would corrupt their audiences' understanding of Islam. Their defenders argued that preachers and storytellers could contribute to the consensus of the Islamic community as to what constituted acceptable religious knowledge. In the end, religious knowledge, and the definition of Islam as it was commonly understood, remained porous and flexible throughout the Middle Period, thanks in part to the activities of popular preachers and storytellers.

"Jonathan Berkey has taken on one of the most challenging issues of medieval Muslim culture and done an exceptionally good job. His book represents the cutting edge of a new direction for Islamic studies that combines religious and social history. It adds an important element to our understanding of the social life of pre-modern Muslim society and opens up areas previously inadequately or never covered by others."
-Jere Bacharach, University of Washington

Origins and Early Controversy
Storytelling and Preaching in the Late Middle Period
The Social and Political Context of Preaching
Storytelling, Preaching, and Knowledge
Conclusion: Storytelling, Preaching and the Problem of Religious Authority in Medieval Islam
Works Cited

"This concise but thickly documented study addresses one of the most important developments in early Islam relating to the interpretation of the Quran, conversion, and the definition of Muslim identity. . . . Specialists interested in a number of diverse fields from Quran interpretation and Sufism to narrative studies and authority will find a wealth of insights in this book."
-Religious Studies Review