The Qussas of Early Islam. By LYALL R. ARMSTRONG. Islamic History and Civilization, vol. 139. Leiden: BRILL, 2017. Pp. xii + 342. $165, [euro]135.
In this groundbreaking work, Lyall Armstrong offers the first comprehensive discussion of "storytellers" (qussas) during the formative period of Islam. While the qussas appear frequently in early Islamic sources, they have received little scholarly attention. As Armstrong aptly points out, they are typically dismissed as curiosities or as "second-rate religious figures" suspected of corrupting the faith (p. 1). Relying on works specifically addressing them, by Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Suyuti, Ibn Taymiyya, and others, as well as historical chronicles, biographical dictionaries, and works from the genre of Stories of the Prophets (qisas al-anbiya'), Armstrong presents a more nuanced picture of the qussas and their activities. His study demonstrates that their role in early Islamic society was complex and varied, while underscoring the difficulties inherent in any study of a group that is both common and ill defined.
Armstrong begins by grappling with the problem of determining who the qussas actually were. Given that the storyteller or sermonizer (qass) did not occupy an official, paid position like the qadi or the amir and that even the function performed was murky, distinguishing the composition of this group proves problematic. Armstrong opts to err on the side of caution by including only those who are explicitly identified somewhere in his sources as qussas. This creates a manageable list of 109 individuals who were active between the advent of Islam and the fall of the Umayyads. Geographically, they are broadly distributed throughout the early Islamic world. Chronologically, they appear throughout the period under consideration.
Armstrong next turns to an examination of what the qussas actually say. This is a more complicated exercise because, as Armstrong recognizes, not every statement uttered by a qass is a qissa (pl. qasas), whatever that vague genre of pronouncements might actually include. Here again, Armstrong uses a very strict criterion. He includes only statements described as such, or somehow associated with the verb qassa, which produces a corpus of a mere forty-three qasas texts, most of which are quite brief. This effort to narrow the list of texts illustrates the difficulty the stories present as a topic of analysis. Armstrong is aware that his restrictive standard likely excludes...