SOAS University of London

Centre of Islamic Studies

The Good, the Bad, and the Very Ugly Soothsayer: The Function of the pre-Islamic Kāhin in post 2nd/8th century Arabic texts

Hasan Al-Khoee

Date: 25 January 2017Time: 1:00 PM

Finishes: 25 January 2017Time: 2:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: B111

Type of Event: Seminar


It is a scholarly common-place that the figure of the pre-Islamic Arabian 'soothsayer' [kāhin] was generally scorned in post-2nd/8th century Muslim scholarship, a fraud of the age of ignorance from the pagan past. Such conclusions as to a broad condemnation of the kuhhān are founded in emphatic Qur'anic assertions that the Prophet was neither a soothsayer nor ‘one possessed’; in ḥadīth texts which roundly condemned both the kāhin and their oracles; as well as in the regular use of kāhin or kāhina as pejorative appellatives affixed to an array of false prophets, rebels and heresiarchs.

Nonetheless, scholarship also notes that the early Muslim tradition maintained a qualified belief in the ‘knowledge’ of the kāhin, stemming from ideas pertaining to how the kāhins received their ‘inspiration’ via spirit-sources who had ‘listened in’ on the decrees of the heavens. Yet intrinsic to the ‘demise of the soothsayer’ was the accompanied theological assertion that the advent of the Revelation had ultimately halted any possible inspiration of the kāhin, culminating in the commonly-referenced maxim ‘there is no [more] soothsaying after [the advent of] Prophethood [lā kihāna baʿd al-nubuwwa].

An examination of the function of kāhin-oracle in early Arabic literary genres presents however a major variance to the image of the pre-Islamic kāhin as a figure broadly condemned. This paper will argue that the kuhhān and their oracles serve several distinct functions across a number of early extant Arabic chronicles and will focus especially on the use of kāhin-oracles to provide truth-statements that legitimised not only the advent of Prophethood, but also several distinct tribal, dynastic and even sectarian claims. The paper will argue that the early Muslim conception of the kāhin’s inspiration, while negating its continuation in the present, nonetheless rendered in the kāhin’s oracle when located in the pre-Islamic period as valuable theological ‘proof’.

About the speaker:

Hasan Al-Khoee is a final year PhD student in the Department of Near and Middle East under the supervision of Professor Hugh Kennedy, having completed his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in History at SOAS. His doctoral thesis focuses on the evolutions of the functions of Arabic public oratory during the first two-centuries of Islam. Hasan has since 2007 also worked at the Institute of Ismaili Studies with a research focus on Shiʿism and Fatimid history.