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Stories have always been important in the classroom and powerful teaching tools. Stories may be versatile such that they can adapt to the needs of any classroom. In a secondary religious education (RE) classroom, stories can be useful to implement moral education programs (McCabe, 1997, p.454). However, what makes a good story such that it can be used to educate students and stimulate their imagination? McCabe (1997) argues that it is difficult to define features of a good story because they can vary extensively and each story has its own uniqueness (p.470). However, other authors argue that there are certain features of a story which not only make them good but are dynamic in structure and stimulate creativity and imagination (Pinault, 1992, p.16; Shannon, 1979, p.53; Tirrell, 1990, p.115;). Pinault (1992) further asserts that it is how the story is told engages the audience (p.16). Our audience is the RE students involved in religious discourse. In Islam, stories become a vehicle to educate and inspire the believers to engage in a critical discourse about God. Stories used in religious discourse can also serve essential purposes such that it provides meaning and constructs a worldview of faith and life (Topan, 2001, p.107).
In this paper, we begin by examining the use of storytelling in the classroom and three specific literary features: thematic patterns, dramatic visualization, and the use of symbolic language. Our focus will be these three literary features because they may stimulate imagination and critical thinking as well as captivate our student's interests in the various religious dialogues. In Islam, a famous model story is found in Sura Joseph of the Qur'an in which we will analyze the use of the three literary features. After examining Sura Joseph, we will compare them with two other stories, the Conference of the Birds and the City of Brass and investigate what features do these narratives have in common, and how do they differ in relation to the three literary features discussed above. In this process we will also analyze how the three stories may serve as examples to convey moral and ethical messages. Finally, we will discuss strategies to introduce and teach the three stories and the three literary features to secondary RE students.
Storytelling in the Classroom and the use of Literary Elements
Storytelling in the Classroom
Students have grown up with listening to stories throughout their lives. Human beings are meaning making creatures and through stories it helps us make sense of our world. Through stories, we may experience the impossible and the possible as well as shape our own world. In Islam, these stories have been shaped from a narrow perspective of religion to a more open and thought provoking enterprise. Stories may challenge the reader to reflect on the Qur'anic verses and anecdotes from inspired predecessors or amusing and humorous suspenseful adventures of the human experience (Esmail, 1998, p.25). Stories in the classroom can pierce the consciences of the students by inviting them to re-examine values and interests underpinning human conditions that they may or have encountered.
Narratives uses in the classroom serve similar purposes that they may serve in the general human life. Recent work in philosophy and cognitive psychology highlights the importance of stories in developing arguments, encouraging critical thinking, and generating ubiquitous moral issues (Basourakos, 1998, p.265; McCabe, 1997, p.454). One of the objectives of the Literature module in the secondary RE curriculum is to introduce ethical and devotional forms of literature to the students (IIS, 2009). Analysis of the literary features of the narrative texts may result in the critical reflections about moral agency and engender creativity. There are a myriad variety of literary features which when put together can produce a stimulating effect for the reader.
There is no room in this short essay to cover the depths of storytelling and literary features. However, we will discuss three such features of thematic patterning, dramatic visualization, and symbolic language which evoke our senses and aid in the moral epistemology and so moral development (Tirrell, 1990, p.118). The three features contain depths and meaning which are also difficult to convey due to the limitations of the paper. Suffice it will be through the exploration of the three literary features within the three narratives to reiterate the general point. It is through the articulation of the meanings embedded in the stories that the students can become moral agents. In this process, we may invoke their creativity and imagination in finding innovative approaches to moral and ethical dilemmas that they may face in their lives.
The importance of literary features can be traced back to Aristotle who talks about six elements in his Poetics: plot, character, diction (dialogue), thought (theme), spectacle (special effects), and song (chorus) (Aristotle, 1996, p.19). Though Aristotle may not be the founder of these literary features but, the notion of these features present in the classical period highlight their importance. The features have evolved through time and today there are hundreds of different literary features or sometimes known as literary elements which one may find in a narrative whether oral, written, or performed. We may see a story unfold through the plot with characterization, points of view, conflict, foreshadowing, irony, tone, symbolism, theme, and imagery (OUSD, 2009). These features captivate and create a whole of the story through which the reader is taken on a journey and introduced to some form of knowledge.
The three stories which we will analyze will be in light of three literary features: thematic patterning, dramatic visualization, and the use of symbolic language. Thematic patterning and dramatic visualization are introduced to us by Pinault (1992) in his Story-telling Techniques in Arabian Nights. He defines thematic patterning as "the distribution of recurrent thematic concepts and moralistic motifs among the various incidents and frames of a story. In a skilfully crafted tale, thematic patterning may be arranged so as to emphasize the unifying argument or salient idea which disparate events and disparate frames have in common (Heath, 1994, p.22)." We will notice the various ethical and moral themes presented by the authors in all of the three stories.
Dramatic visualization is defined as "the representing of an object or character with an abundance of descriptive detail, or the mimetic rendering of gestures and dialogue in such a way as to make a given scene 'visual' or imaginatively present to an audience (Heath, 1994, p.25)." Each of the three stories vividly creates images through the pages which may induce creativity and imagination in the minds of the readers.
Finally, we will explore the use of symbolic language as a key literary feature. This was developed through a combination of many different literary features such as dialogue and figurative language. Paul Ricoeur (1976) asserts that symbolic language is the touchstone of the cognitive value in a literary work (p.45). If human beings are meaning making creatures, there are magnitude of meanings within the use of symbolic language to allow for individual interpretation and development. The use of symbolic languages also allows the authors to discuss notions which are in the ethos of Islam such as union with God and readers to create their own meaning from them. In our analysis of the stories, we will use the lens of thematic patterning, dramatic visualization, and their use of symbolic language. The definitions of the literary features will be further developed through the various examples we will examine within the stories.
An Analysis of Sura Joseph (Yusuf) (800)
The story of Joseph is from Sura 12 of the Qur'an. It is a journey in which good triumphs over evil. His father Jacob advises Joseph not to speak of a vision he had to his brothers because they are jealous of him (Q 12:4). True to their nature, Joseph's brothers throw him in a well (Q12:15) where he is rescued by a caravan who sells him to a man in Egypt who later adopts him. However, he finds trouble with the man's wife who tries to seduce him and then imprisons him for his resistance (Q 12:35). In prison he interprets another prisoner's dream which comes in handy as he is called upon by a King who learns of Joseph's talent of interpreting dreams. Soon Joseph is cleared of his offence and appointed a position in the Kingdom where he later meets his brothers (Q 12:58). Joseph tests his brothers who do not recognize him and asks them to bring their father to him. The brothers soon learn about Joseph but are forgiven for their wrong doings and find themselves with the father prostrating in front of Joseph, (Q 12:100) thus affirming the triumph of Joseph as a prophet.
The story of Joseph begins with "we do relate unto thee the most beautiful of stories. (Q 12:3)." The use of thematic patterning, dramatic visualization, and symbolic language in the story make it one of the most complete and exemplary stories. Prophet Joseph triumphing is one example of thematic patterning throughout the narrative. The thematic patterning begins right from the start with a vision he narrates to his father that "I did see eleven stars and the sun and the moon: I saw them prostrating themselves to me! (Q 12:4)." The theme of Joseph receiving some form of victory through others prostrating in from of him is ever-present in all the scenes. His brothers plan to get rid of him when it says "slay ye Joseph or cast him out to some (unknown) land (Q 12:9)."
Though Joseph's obstacles begin but at each stage he is unharmed. Joseph reaches manhood as a slave but achieves greatness in power and knowledge from God, as a "reward" for "those who are right (Q 12:22)". When Joseph is tempted and has a choice to make, he turns to God who protect him once again when the "lord hearkened to him (in his prayer) and turned away from him their snare (Q 12:22)." Eventually, "thus did" God "give established power to Joseph (Q 12:56)" and Joseph is vindicated. The theme of Joseph's triumph becomes complete when his vision of the eleven starts and the sun and the moon bowing down to him come true in the form of his eleven brother, his father, and younger brother "fell down in prostration, (All) before him (Q 12:100)." He is tested throughout but Joseph does not give up nor forget his lord and this paves the way for his eventual greatness.
The most popular dramatic visualization is seen when the woman who tried to seduce Joseph. She wanted the other women in the community to know of his beauty invited them to her house for a banquet and handed them each a knife. "When they saw him, they did extol him, and (in their amazement) cut their hands (Q 12:31)." The popularity of this visualization comes not from the collective cutting of their hands but rather on how Joseph reacts to them. He pleads as mentioned above as part of thematic pattering that God protect him. Later commentators have said that the collective cutting of the hands could also indicate an image of collective menstruation and display of female sexuality (Merguerian & Najmabadi, 1997, p.489). The narration of the women simply saying that they are amazed at his beauty or further agreeing with the woman that they understand the reason for seducing him could have been enough. However, the dramatic visualization allows one to really engage with the scene and attempt to understand the depth of Prophet Joseph's beauty.
The use of symbolic language is seen throughout the story to allow for notions that are "open, elastic, and indeterminate (Esmail, 1998, p.8)." They allow readers to engage with a superfluous of meanings. The narrative challenges notions of ethics and morals as Joseph is tempted but remained under the umbrella of God's mercy and protection. One of the most famous symbols is the woman who seduces Prophet Joseph in the story. She is not named in the story but in later Muslim traditions she becomes a symbol with multiple meanings that is named Zulaykha (Merguerian & Najmabadi, 1997, p.490). Zulaykha has stood for a female protagonist, a seductress, or symbol of womanly guile. Yet in some of the mystical traditions of Islam, Zulaykha is also seen as a symbol of a lover who one should aspire to be like. Through the use of symbolic language, the reader has the ability to interpret their own meaning and understand it against their own experiences and development. The thematic patterning, dramatic visualization, and use of symbolic language draws the reader to affirm that Sura Joseph is the the finest stories in Islam.
An Analysis of the Conference of the Birds and the City of Brass (800)
Summary of the Conference of the Birds
The Conference of the Birds is a Sufi poem written by Farid al-Din Attar in which a group of birds embark upon a mystical journey in search of their king, Simurgh. It is an allegorical story which symbolizes the mind or soul's quest towards a state of self-awareness and realization of God. The poem begins with the introduction of Hoopoe who is introduced as the guide of the birds who will lead them to Simurg (Davis, 1984, p.29). We are introduced to various birds like the nightingale, the parrot, the peacock, and the duck who are first excited about the journey but then have excuses. Hoopoe eloquently through various anecdotes and short stories responds to the birds. Eventually only thirty birds muster the courage and passion to continue on their journey. On their way, the birds ask Hoopoe questions about the journey in which they are told about the seven valleys that they have to pass through in order to meet Simurgh. The journey ends when they come face to face with Simurgh and learn that it is none other than themselves, the thirty birds, which is a word play because Simurgh means "thirty birds" (Davis, 1984, p.290).
Summary of City of Brass
The tale of the "City of Brass" is from the Thousand and One Nights about the search for immortality. The story begins with Caliph Marwan intrigued after learning about Prophet Solomon and his capture of genies in brass bottles. Talib, one of the caliph's courtiers, is ordered to set out on an expedition to retrieve the bottles. He sets out with a letter from the caliph to see the governor of the Magreb Musa Nusayr who assists him on this journey. Together, they acquire a guide and with a military escort encounter many obstacles and tablets with inspiring inscriptions along the way (Lyons & Lyons, 2008, p.521-522). Finally, they end up at the City of Brass which is encased with a wall (Lyons & Lyons, 2008, p.532). After many unsuccessful attempts, the guide accompanied on this journey courageously infiltrates the city walls (Lyons & Lyons, 2008, p.536). Within the city palace, the expedition comes across a room guarded by a dead queen. It is in this mysterious room the climax of the tale takes place when Musa and his men find a golden tablet. The inscription on the tablet moved them such that Musa reflects on the shortness of this life and the greatness of the hereafter (Lyons & Lyons, 2008, p.542). The men do find the bottles and other treasure which they bring back to caliph Marwan who was impressed and astonished by the findings (Lyons & Lyons, 2008, p.546).
Analysis of the Literary Features in the Two Narratives
The Conference of the Birds and City of Brass can also make an argument to be considered fine stories if not the finest stories because of the way the authors use thematic patterning, dramatic visualization, and use of symbolic language. In Conference of the Birds, the symbol of the birds is a creative because they have the ability to travel (Ormsby, 2009). The symbol of the birds as the "the world's birds gathered for their conference (Davis, 1984, p.32)," may allow readers to see themselves in it. This ability allows the reader to begin to see further into the birds as Attar and other mystics have represented them as the soul. It was difficult at times not imagining individuals I am familiar with or myself when the birds were giving their excuses for not being able to travel. For example, the heron's excuse is that "I cannot join you in this arduous quest" because "the Simorgh's glory could not comfort me; my love is fixed entirely on the sea (Davis, 1984, p.47)." The birds come to life and one may be able to picture a person providing this excuse due to the basic human conditions of temporal temptations.
The use of symbolic language, dramatic visualization and thematic patterning in Conference of the Birds can be seen as parallel streams sometimes intersecting but all moving together. In the beginning Hoopoe discusses the splendour Simorgh and says "It was in China, late one moonless night, the Simorgh first appeared to mortal sight - He let a feather float down through the air, and rumours of its fame spread everywhere (Davis, 1984, p.34)." In these four lines one may see the three literary features emerge beautifully. The symbol of the feather and what it could mean, the dramatic visualization of the detail in moonless night in China, and the thematic patterning of Simorgh's identity force the reader from one page to another impatiently. It is not important that it prompts us to turn from one page to another but the granularity in the text that in each word one learns something about themselves and the world around them.
In the City of Brass narrative it has many turns and twists with interesting use of symbolic language, thematic patterning, and dramatic visualization. The thematic patterning may be seen through snippets of poetry throughout the story indicating that man is not immortal. For example, in the following lines it says, "for soon earth will be sprinkled over you, as you lie lifeless in your grave, (Lyons & Lyons, 2008, p.524)," or "you who are on the edge of death, take care, (Lyons & Lyons, 2008, p.526)," or reminding of the hereafter with "send on provisions of good deeds to cheer you in the world to come (Lyons & Lyons, 2008, p.542)." The use of symbolic language may also be explored from the above lines reminding the travellers on this journey that death is inevitable so be prepared for it. When the crew of men meet with the lifeless queen, they notice that "she is no more than an artfully preserved shell. Her eyes were removed after death and given a backing of quicksilver before being put back in place (Lyons & Lyons, 2008, p.540)." The dramatic visualization and the vivid description of the lifeless queen create an image that transports you into the room to witness the conversations.
The Three Narratives - A Comparative Analysis
All three stories have something for everyone. At the elementary level, the stories are adventurous with a mixture of love, poetry, and spirituality. On a profound level, they contain subtle and deep reflections on philosophy, psychology, power and mortality. The stories contain abstruse meaning of a difficult quest for truth or reality. The thematic patternings in all three stories are encased in the unexpected, the awe-inspiring, the phenomenal and the astonishing weaved into the fabric of human experiences. One specific thematic patterning ever-present in each story is the notions of search, time or journey. There is a radical discovery in each of the story as the journey reaches a climax.
In the Sura Joseph the climax occurs as the fulfilment of the vision takes place (Q 12:100). The birds go through difficult passages to learn that Simurgh is no other than themselves and they none other than the Simurgh (Davis, 1984, p.219). Finally in the City of Brass, the climax occurs when the guide reads inscriptions on the golden tablet and learns that "death is the clearest truth, certain promise and the end to which we must return (Lyons & Lyons, 2008, p.542)". The journey, personal as well as collective, yields knowledge and inspiration challenging the moral and ethical agencies. The thematic patterning involves the readers to differentiate oneself from the characters and the portrayed in the stories (Tirrell, 1990, p.116).
The use of symbolic language of all three stories can be seen as esoteric, evocative, and suggestive. Interestingly, Sura Joseph has inspired Muslims through the ages and references can be seen in the Conference of the Birds. Attar interprets deeds of the brothers of Joseph as they "throw him down at the bottom of the well (Q 12:15)," as the birds symbolizing any form of humanity "who'd led the lovely Joseph into slavery - who had deprived him his liberty (Davis, 1984, p.218)."
The use of symbolic language enables human beings to grasp inner hidden meanings of life and beyond according to their level of understanding and experiences. The guide who takes the men through the journey and is responsible for all, for example, can be seen in the story of City of Brass as the symbol of the authority for Muslims, whether Shi'a or Sunni. This symbol of guide is also present with Hoopoe designated as the guide for the birds and God as Joseph's guide throughout the course of his journey. The symbols become delicately suggested images and stimulate thoughts which then unfold in a never-ending process of meaning making all while inspiring continuous creativity (Esmail, 1998, p.53).
The scene in Sura Joseph wher the Zulaykha is seducing him and "they both race each other to the door, and she tore his shirt from the back (Q 12:25)," offers a dramatic visualization that is essential to the story. Each verse vibrantly provides the reader into the realities faced by Joseph. When the birds are in the valley of love, and Attar describes "love here is fire; it's thick smoke clouds the head- when love has come the intellect has fled (Davis, 1984, p.172), the readers may grow wings and feel as if they are traversing the valley amongst the birds.
Similarly, when the men in City of Brass reach the city, they notice that the city was "as large as any that eye had ever seen, with lofty palaces, splendid domes, well-maintained houses, flowing streams, trees and gardens with ripe fruits (Lyons & Lyons, 2008, p.532)." The description of the City of Brass and the events leading to the infiltration may allow the reader to draw a map of the adventure. The dramatic visualization in all the three stories may not simply be for the purpose of amazement and awing the reader but also for challenging the reader's to question their own lives and surroundings.
The use of thematic patterning, symbolic language and dramatic visualization in the three stories are like fine ingredients which follow beautifully orchestrated recipe and creates revitalized delicious food. Within each story we find gems that encourage the reader to reflect on certain existential questions. Through the stories, one can engage in a critical discourse (Sarris, 1990, p.184) to discover truths about life and beyond. All three stories heighten the senses and invoke moral and ethical motifs to challenge an individual and community as a whole. In the following section, we will discuss strategies and activities to teach these three stories and literary features in a secondary RE classroom.
Making Connections: Narratives in the Classroom (1000)
Exposing secondary RE students to stories in the classroom may lead to new opportunities which may not have otherwise been available. Stories allow the teachers and students to navigate from the known to the unknown. They become powerful teaching tools to convey moral and ethical values, engender creativity and engage in critical discourses about the world around and within us (Chesin, 1966, p.213). Vygotsky's theory of social grounding of language provides a framework
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