The Islamic Context of The Thousand and One Nights

The Islamic Context of The Thousand and One Nights

Mushin J. al-Musawi
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 352
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/al-m14634
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    The Islamic Context of The Thousand and One Nights
    Book Description:

    In this fascinating study, Muhsin J. al-Musawi shows how deeply Islamic heritage and culture is embedded in the tales of The Thousand and One Nights (known to many as the Arabian Nights) and how this integration invites readers to make an Islamic milieu. Conservative Islam dismisses The Thousand and One Nights as facile popular literature, and liberal views disregard the rich Islamic context of the text. Approaching the text with a fresh and unbiased eye, al-Musawi reads the tales against Islamic schools of thought and theology and recovers persuasive historical evidence to reveal the cultural and religious struggle over Islam that drives the book's narrative tension and binds its seemingly fragmented stories.

    Written by a number of authors over a stretch of centuries, The Thousand and One Nights depicts a burgeoning, urban Islamic culture in all its variety and complexity. As al-Musawi demonstrates, the tales document their own places and periods of production, reflecting the Islamic individual's growing exposure to a number of entertainments and temptations and their conflict with the obligations of faith. Aimed at a diverse audience, these stories follow a narrative arc that begins with corruption and ends with redemption, conforming to a paradigm that concurs with the sociological and religious concerns of Islam and the Islamic state. By emphasizing Islam in his analysis of these entertaining and instructional tales, al-Musawi not only illuminates the work's consistent equation between art and life, but he also sheds light on its underlying narrative power. His study offers a brilliant portrait of medieval Islam as well, especially its social, political, and economic institutions and its unique practices of storytelling.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51946-5
    Subjects: Religion, Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: IS THERE AN ISLAMIC CONTEXT FOR THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS?
    (pp. 1-20)

    Several things prompted this study of Islam in the Thousand and One Nights. There is, first, among academics and laypeople, an increasing interest in everything Islamic. The Thousand and One Nights, or the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, as it was called in English by its first Grub Street translator, has always been considered one of the world’s most entertaining books, but its title and concerns are Arab-Islamic, and thus it has drawn and should draw more attention as a repository of popular memory, collective consciousness, and cultural dynamics. We know that eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century Europeans, in the wake of the colonial...

  5. 1 THE ISLAMIC FACTOR IN GLOBAL TIMES “Whether an Arab or a foreigner, he is a brother dervish.”
    (pp. 21-51)

    Dervishes are not alone in speaking of global fraternity beyond ethnic or social distinctions.¹ The mendicants’ journeys to Baghdad, after a series of adventures and misfortunes, testify to Sufi unease at settlement of any sort and to deep recognition of the vagaries of time. On the other hand, the frame tale is transactional on more than one level, for it buys life with narrative, and it collapses physical virginity with narrative virginity, where whatever is new and unfamiliar suffers use, both the new story and the virgin maid. It may not be superfluous to mention John Barth’s recurrent reference to...

  6. 2 THE UNIFYING ISLAMIC FACTOR
    (pp. 52-105)

    The properties Leigh Hunt significantly encapsulated in his highly condensed review are not alien to the Islamic context,¹ both because of their subtle understanding of an enveloping climate of faith and because of their association between faith and technical properties, which were studied carefully in contemporary scholarship but in isolation from the Islamic context.² The most conspicuous pattern is God’s beneficial order, which the narrator specifies when commenting on the simultaneous and coincidental marriages of the two brothers Shams al-Dīn and Nūr al-Dīn. Despite their separation, they each have their offspring on the same day, and the cousins are also...

  7. 3 THE AGE OF MUSLIM EMPIRE AND THE BURGEONING OF A TEXT
    (pp. 106-144)

    It is ironic that the collection of tales under the title of the Thousand and One Nights remains the most widely celebrated representation of medieval Arab-Islamic society between the ninth and fourteenth centuries. Whether with approval or disparagement, the Arabian Nights, as it is commonly called in English, is still cited and talked about as a medieval classic more representative of so-called Eastern manners than any other book available to nonnative speakers or adepts in Arab culture. Even erudite scholars in Indo-Persian literatures such as J. F. Hewitt treat the tales as a “national portraiture” and a “speaking picture of...

  8. 4 THE CHANGING ORDER: THE ROLE OF THE PUBLIC IN THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS
    (pp. 145-196)

    To some Islamic thinkers, the popular mind only displays the Islamic message itself: its appeal to principles of freedom, equality, justice, affection, and compassion. That was one of the reasons behind both the enormous appeal of its message and the hierarchal resistance to its basic beliefs of equality and justice, a resistance that penetrated the development of nations, dynasties, and the Islamic empire. They rarely debate the concept of ʿāmmah, however, as being anything more than the material for faith and guidance. Kamāl al-Dīn al-Damayrī (d. 808 H.) says in his Ḥayāt al-Ḥayawān al-Kubrā: “The common individual is weak, excited...

  9. 5 NONRELIGIOUS DISPLACEMENTS IN POPULAR TRADITION
    (pp. 197-227)

    One of the most effective narrative tropes in the story of “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” and the tale of the ensorcelled king is that of the mansion and the rubbish mounds. While it emphasizes the dichotomous patterning between the court and street, the elite and the common public, and belletristic prose and popular tradition that cuts across the collection, it also underlines rapprochement and harmony. Transgressions that usually make every binary structure or dichotomy rife with anxiety and tension culminate in some solution or understanding, including the retention of just authority or the appreciation of the...

  10. 6 THE PUBLIC ROLE IN ISLAMIC NARRATIVE THEORIZATIONS
    (pp. 228-249)

    Writers on the Thousand and One Nights unfortunately tend to forget that the frame story, which drew official belletristic disparagement, gives its soul and meaning to the whole as much as the whole accumulates and grows in response to the frame. Each partakes of the other and lends itself to the other. Even the historical or pseudohistorical stories within the collection tend to do so, as long as storytellers create and appropriate whatever appeals to large common audiences. This effort should be seen as basic to the growth of narrative theorizations, negative and positive alike. Vituperative criticism, as well as...

  11. 7 SCHEHERAZADE’S NONVERBAL NARRATIVES IN RELIGIOUS CONTEXTS
    (pp. 250-278)

    The nonverbal narrative properties in the Thousand and One Nights have more Islamic character than we might assume. They permeate medieval narratology, history, and hagiography. Especially in the latter, they constitute the most exhilarating narrative force, displacing logic and leading us into other unmapped domains beyond time and space. They include icons, images, codes, paintings, magic, and food. Due to their semantic uncertainty, they have received no erudite scholarly attention despite their significant presence in the translated texts of Scheherazade’s anecdotal and narrative repository and its multiple redactions, abridgements, and adaptations. There is also in the Islamic tradition a rich...

  12. CONCLUSIONS
    (pp. 279-280)

    The significance of the frame tale for the Islamic context is not limited to its encapsulation of the verbal and nonverbal components that permeate the whole collection, nor is it limited to its adaptability to the new Islamic milieu. Its function as a gravitational center for tales and storytellers also signifies the association between narrative and the imperial center. Baghdad or Cairo and the frame tale reflect on each other, and the tale evolves as a trope for the urban center that in its time was famous for its allure and glory. Like mendicants and other fugitives who settle in...

  13. NOTES
    (pp. 281-306)
  14. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 307-318)
  15. INDEX
    (pp. 319-334)