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International Conference : ITINERANT PROPHETS / أنبياء جوّالون Rewritings, Appropriations and Metamorphoses of Prophetic Figures in the Religious, Literary and Historiographical Texts of Pre-modern Islam (Paris, 16-18 september 2021)

Mehdi Azaiez, Rémy Gareil, Iyas Hassan

International Conference : ITINERANT PROPHETS / أنبياء جوّالون Rewritings, (...)

Home > Mehdi Azaiez (UCLouvain) > Conferences (Organisation) > International Conference : ITINERANT PROPHETS / أنبياء جوّالون Rewritings, (...)

Call for papers (Arabic, English, French)

Bringing together specialists in Islamic, literary and historical studies, "The Itinerant Prophets" aims to shed new light on the place of prophets in the various fields of pre-modern Arab knowledge. From the Qurʾān to universal narratives, from the Hadith to the mirrors of princes and from qaṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ to novels of chivalry, the work will contribute to decompartmentalizing studies on the sources of premodern Islam while exploring the functions fulfilled by the prophetic figure and the transformations it undergoes in each context considered.


Mehdi Azaiez, UC Louvain

Rémy Gareil, Université Lyon 2 - UMR 5648 CIHAM

Iyas Hassan, Sorbonne Université – UMR 8167 Orient & Méditerranée


The prophet connects the living present, a sacred past and an eschatological future. The prophet fascinates, seduces, unites, reassures, worries or repels. In pious representations of prophecy, this figure is naturally never neutral. A prophet is truthful, to be followed and venerated, or he is false, to be cursed and put to death. Nor is the prophet’s presence in literature insignificant. Moses, Job, Joseph, Abraham, Jesus, or Muḥammad are only called together to mark a high point, to inscribe an identity or ideological claim, or to proclaim a symbolic power.

The prophetic figure changes its features over the centuries, in different cultural areas and fields of expression. Indeed, not limited to the religious field, this figure circulates in all fields of the textual and visual production of premodern Islam - art, narrative, poetry, theology, hagiography, historiography, to name but a few. If these transformations are easily identifiable as soon as one remains within the marked paths of Islamic Studies, they prove to be much less apparent in the other fields of premodern Arabic writing. Two aspects of this phenomenon will be our main focus. On the one hand, we will be interested in the transformations of these figures as they spread through periods, places and genres of Islamic culture, and are reshaped according to the new social and political contexts through which they evolve. In Arabic literature, a figure such as that of Mūsā/Moses shared between the Old Testament, the Koran, the commentary of Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 767), the Chronicles of al-Ṭabarī (d. 923) and the ʿArāʾis al-Maǧālis of al-Thaʿlabī (d. 1035), illustrates well, through its rewritings already studied, the influence of these different historical, ideological or cultural contexts. On the other hand, emphasis will be placed on the application to historical or mythical characters of traits originally associated with the prophets, especially through the use of specific narrative motifs in religious, literary and historical texts.

The event will be organised in three complementary parts, according to the sources discussed and the disciplines involved.

In a prolific and centuries-old exegetical tradition, Muslim scholars and theologians of medieval Islam have constantly recounted many Old Testament prophets’ lives, but also the life of Jesus and other remarkable events. Present in a genre of its own, the Qaṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ, these stories are also very numerous in the tafsīrs. For the latter, we note the presence of biblical prophets absent from the Koran such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel. As Jean-Louis Déclais points out, Tabari had informed himself in Churches and Synagogues in order to write his pages devoted to these characters (Déclais, 2001). But if contemporary studies have been interested in these great figures and particularly in the ’Great Prophets’ present in the Koran and in the Islamic exegetical tradition, such as Nūḥ/Noé, Ibrāhīm/Abraham, Mūsa/Moïse (Wheeler, 2001), Ayyūb/Job (Déclais, 1996), none of them has proposed an overall study of these ancient prophets. The most complete work, that of Roberto Tottoli (2002), leaves out figures such as Ishʿiyā/Isaïe, Ḥizḳīl/Ezechiel and Daniyāl/Daniel. The field remains open to question us on what these exegetical sources can reveal about these figures absent from the Koran, as well as on the strategies implemented to adapt them and especially to Islamize them.

While the section of the conference dedicated to Islamic Studies aims to deepen and broaden approaches to the Islamization of the biblical prophets, the literary section will focus on these figures once they have left the field of religious knowledge and been scattered in so-called secular sources. Strongly present in Arab literary writings throughout the pre-modern period, the prophetic figure has rarely been approached as such in these sources. Among the rare readings that pay attention to what can be called the "prophetic mask" in popular Arab literature are Bernát Heller’s observations of the presence of the Abrahamic legend in Sīrat ʿAntar and those of Aboubakr Chraïbi on the reuse of the figure of Moses in the construction of the figure of King Sayf b. Dhī Yazan in the popular novel of the same name (Chraïbi, 1996). Note also the forthcoming work by Georges Bohas on the recomposition of the figure of Alexander according to, among other elements, the scheme of Sīra Nabawiyya, during the second Islamization’ (Hassan, 2018) of this character in Sub-Saharan Africa. Beyond the cases where a particular prophet lends some of his features to a fictional character, the prophetic figure may be more diffuse and more difficult to recognise. This is the case of the multiple borrowings in Sīrat al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Baybars of elements from the narratives of Moses, Joseph, Abraham and Muḥammad, as well as the succinct use of the Abrahamic legend in the construction of that of the pre-Islamic poet Imruʾ al-Qays in the works of classical adab (Zakhariah, 2009). Following the traces of these elements, their fragmentation, crossing and rewriting in different Arab literary sources is the main concern of this section.

While these transformations and transpositions are found in works of a very varied nature, in the historiographical field they are concentrated particularly around certain themes. Descriptions of rulers and accounts of dynastic foundations, for example, frequently make use of the prophetic register. As in the case of the Abbasids, this can of course be done by exploiting the legitimacy that derives from the prophet Muḥammad, by highlighting their genealogy and the symbols of the power of the Messenger of God - the mantle, the staff, the high hat and the Qur’ān attributed to ʿUṯmān - but not only that. The construction of figures of founders and rulers also involves taking up messianic characteristics, as in the Almohad case with Ibn Tūmart (García-Arenal, 2006 ; Ghouirgate, 2014), composing itineraries modelled on the lives of prophets, starting with the Sīra Nabawiyya. Other historical or mythical figures associated with the exercise of power, whether Islamic or not, such as Alexander, also undergo a series of transformations aimed at making them appear as prophets. Comparable processes can be found in texts devoted to scholarly circles, particularly with a view to establishing the legitimacy of disciplines confronted with criticism from some Islamic scholars. Aesculapius, Galen and Hippocrates for medicine (Abbou Hershkovits, 2013), Luqmān for ḥikma, or the various Hermes - one of which is occasionally identified in Enoch/Idrīs (Bladel, 2009) - for the occult sciences, are all figures of authority who, in the Islamic context, find themselves assimilated - explicitly or not - to prophets, particularly in the context of accounts describing the origins of this knowledge (Brentjes, 2013). More widely, the definition of collective identities frequently calls upon prophetic figures, not without subjecting them to deep transformations, as for example Ibrāhīm/Abraham and Ismāʿīl/Ismael in the framework of the elaboration of the notion of “Arabness” seen through the prism of genealogical constructions. The circulations and rewritings of these prophetic models invite the historian to question in particular the types of narrative motives that spread across genres and eras, the factors of adoption of prophetic models in contexts of political or scholarly legitimization, and the chronology and future of these transpositions.

This colloquium will thus seek to grasp these itinerant figures, from the spaces in-between: the prophets of the pre-modern Arab world, between Judaism, Christianity and Islam, between sacred model and familiar figure of popular literature, between mythical authority and historical hero. It will welcome proposals devoted to Islamic Studies, literary or historiographical approaches, as well as those that explore the continuities and discontinuities between these different fields.

Proposals for papers should be sent to the following address: no later than 26th March 2021.

The proposal will include:
- An abstract and a title in French, English or Arabic (between 1500 and 2000 characters including spaces)
- A short CV (1 page) or a link to the author’s online CV.