The 1001 Nights and Arabic Letters


“The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad”, from Arabian Nights, Illustrated by Duilio Cambellotti, 1912-1913 

by Karla Mallette

The Islamic Context of The Thousand and One Nights,
by Muhsin Jāsim Mūsawī
New York: Columbia University Press, 344 pp.

Readers have long celebrated the Thousand and One Nights as a work that transcends cultural divides: during the last three centuries, it has been read and enjoyed as much in its translations into the European languages as in Arabic. The popularity of the English and French translations in particular perhaps accounts for the fact that it has been discussed in modern scholarship mainly from the perspective of Western culture and Western letters: its tangled translation history and its wide influence on European narrative have furnished especially popular subjects for scholarly study. Muhsin al-Musawi’s study on the Nights in the context of Islamic culture in general and Islamic letters in particular works as a magnificent corrective to this tendency. His unique contribution to scholarship on the text lies in his emphasis on two themes in particular. He studies “the Islamic factor” as it relates to the Nights (p. 4)–“as it appears in the Thousand and One Nights,” al-Musawi writes, “Islam is a way of life, a culture, and a context for aspirations, adventure, love, enterprises, and vicissitudes” (p. 3). And he meditates on the “underlying narrative unity” in an early nucleus of tales, the editions that circulated during the eighth and ninth centuries of the Christian era (p. 4). For the most part resisting the urge to leap centuries in analyzing the narratives of the Nights, he consistently emphasizes the Abbasid environment in which the Arabic text was first recorded and the broader imperial context in which it was transmitted and elaborated. Given the vast historical and geographical reach of his material, his book has the feel of a scholarly shadow version of the Nights: a bursting portmanteau of intriguing details, a work of truly epic scope. This review cannot hope to do justice to the richness of the book; I will satisfy myself with pointing out some themes which I think may prove particularly suggestive for students and scholars.

Al-Musawi is particularly interested in the “urbanism” (p. 3) of the tales in the Nights–a notion which he interprets in a very broad sense, embracing the urbane adab that informs the tales, the tales’ urban setting, and the metropolitan context in which they were first told and elaborated. Under this thematic umbrella, al-Musawi draws together an array of disparate material: for instance, the topography of Baghdad as it appears in the tales–his discussion of characters’ physical and social parkour from river boats to the banks of the city, between the roofs of residences, between market and mosque is particularly illuminating (pp. 127-31); the genre of faḍā’il, or celebration of the excellence of individual cities, as it relates to the Nights (pp. 152-53); and the curious absence of the sectarian disputes that were an inescapable part of urban life from a book that embraces so many of the aspects of premodern Islamic culture (pp. 184-89). The urbane, cosmopolitan setting of the tales in the Nights is undeniable (one might go so far as to say that a rural version of the Thousand and One Nights is unthinkable). Consider one of the first stories we encounter in the text, “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad”: the Lady’s prodigious shopping list in preparation for the night’s revels–as she leads the Porter through the marketplace, heaping the fruits of the Mashriq on his back–uses the mercantile economy of the imperial emporium to set the scene for a tale that will create a short-lived cosmopolitan utopia in the ladies’ private home. Al-Musawi’s discussion of the tale helps us to see the Porter as ẓarīf, a man of refinement and elegant manners who trades on his sophistication to earn the company of the three Baghdadi ladies. And he points out that the Porter’s skills would not be equally appreciated in all urban settings: Baghdad is unique, “the metropolitan center where the Commander of the Faithful resides and imposes the combined authority of religion and the state” (p. 118). Al-Musawi’s elucidation of the finer points of distinction between intoxicating liquor (khamr) and less noxious wine (nabīdh) adds a shade of nuance to the randy bath scene that follows (pp. 168-72). Most fascinating is the discussion of the liminal areas of the city as they appear in “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” (and more vividly in other tales, especially the “Tale of the Enchanted King”). The Lady’s and the Porter’s shopping trip takes us through the heart of Baghdad: through the markets. With the evening of social bizarrerie which follows, we enter the precincts of a private home. At one moment in the story, however, we find ourselves on the edge of the city–at a rubbish heap at the edge of town–and hence at the borderline between cosmopolitanism and its opposite: the absence or refusal of the urbane. Here, al-Musawi argues persuasively, the skin of the city and of social order is ruptured, and we reach the limits of the urban ideal (pp. 197-98). On the whole, the Islamic city functions well in the Nights (even when it is obliged to play the sinister role of containing aberrant passions). In the tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies, Baghdad offers something of a cosmopolitan utopia: the Commander of the Faithful socializes amicably with mendicants and respectable women. In the rubbish heaps at the edges of the city, however, we encounter a dystopia where civilization breaks down and cosmopolitanism comes to an abrupt end.

“The Story of Cogia Hassan Alhabbal”, from Arabian Nights, illustrated by Duilio Cambellotti, 1912-1913

Some of the most illuminating material that al-Musawi presents comes from the ḥisbah manuals used as guides by the muḥtasib, the moral and legal market inspector. These guides, because they functioned as moral commonplace books for men whose job description included policing the urban public, are a uniquely useful source of information for the reader of the Nights. Al-Musawi points out that the command repeated a number of times in the tale of the Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad–“speak not of what concerns you not, lest you hear what pleases you not”–is in keeping with ḥisbah regulations that guarantee privacy within the home, as long as the speakers are out of earshot of the street (pp. 33-34). Al-Musawi cites the pledges and commitments recorded in the ḥisbah manuals to contextualize the pledges exchanged by characters in the tales (pp. 78-79). The dhimmi dress codes detailed in a twelfth-century Syrian ḥisbah manual elucidate the fish of four colors in the “Tale of the Enchanted King” (pp. 79-80), and the prohibition against mention of Shi‘ite sectarianism or of the life and martyrdom of Imam Husayn from the same manual help to explain the absence of references to Islamic sectarianism in the Nights (pp. 184-85). The ḥisbah manuals shed light on tales set in the pan-Arab metropolis–in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo in particular–because “the Islamic subtext of the tales works within the parameters of the ordering of good and the forbidding of evil as it is practiced and also stressed in ḥisbah manuals” (p. 59).

In light of his astute discussion of premodern Islamic cosmopolitan civilization and of urban moral codes, al-Musawi’s defense of one of the least sophisticated characters in the Nights–the loathsome Barber from the “Hunchback’s Tale”–comes as a surprise. The Barber seems to function as an inversion of the qualities celebrated in the Nights. The thoughtful ingenuity of Scheherazade, the perspicacity of the Porter, the cunning of the Fisherman who outwits the Demon, even the character of Ja‘far, who retains his charisma despite his frustrating fatalism in the “Story of the Three Apples”: all of these laudable characteristics are inverted in the Barber. Garrulous to the point of obstructionism, obtuse despite his self-promotion as a man of discernment, the Barber seems according to the moral economy of the Nights itself thoroughly despicable. Al-Musawi redeems the figure of the Barber (like the Porter) as a symbol of the social utopianism of the Nights. He reads the Barber’s insistence on his own extensive education (“an astrologer and a physician, versed in the arts of alchemy, astrology, grammar, lexicography, logic, scholarship disputation, rhetoric, arithmetic, algebra, and history, as well as the traditions of the Prophet, according to Muslim and al-Bukhari … I have tried and mastered everything” [p. 255, night 144]) as a kind of premodern upward social mobility (pp. 112, 153). Barbers and porters, whenever they appear in the Nights, become revolutionary heroes who fight to make their voices heard; “loquacity, which becomes another term for narrative, is the barber’s strategy to enforce his or her equal status as an educated person in many sciences and fields of knowledge” (p. 117).

Is this an accurate reflection of the Barber, as he appeared in the eyes of the first audiences of the Nights? The question is impossible to answer; yet al-Musawi’s reflections add substance to our understanding of the character. One might accuse the author of anachronism–depicting the Barber, for instance, as a class warrior who lived half a millennium before Marx–yet al-Musawi’s anachronistic observations are one of the genuine pleasures of the book. In the course of his discussion, al-Musawi finds occasion to observe that “narrative for Arab audiences would have been like present satellite TV stations” (p. 55); that “territorial and spatial contraction as narrated in the tales anticipates contemporary developments including the media and war industries” (p. 65); that “Ali Baba’s ‘open sesame’ is not that different from the workings of certain contemporary electronic devices” (p. 72); that women as a class in the Nights are allied to popular culture and to the risky or marginal behavior of the underworld, “like the ‘dark ladies’ of 1940s film noir” (p. 209). Of course, al-Musawi is author of the authoritative work on the influence of the Nights on English literature (Scheherazade in England, 1981). His insights are the fruit of a profound knowledge not only of medieval Arab culture, but also of the afterlife of the medieval Arab text. And they contribute substantially to our sense of the book as superabundant repository of transhistorical culture and knowledge. On the rare occasion, they might strike the reader as off-target. At one point, for instance, al-Musawi discusses American soldiers’ use of Ali Baba to represent the child bandits of contemporary Iraq. But Ali Baba himself now has a history as a freedom fighter that stretches back at least three quarters of a century. Chu Chin Chow (1934), a British movie based on a successful London stage play, showcased Ali Baba as hero for the downtrodden, followed by Ali Baba Bound (a Porky Pig vehicle, 1940), Ali Baba (another product of wartime Hollywood, 1944), and Ali Baba aur 40 chor (a Soviet-influenced Bollywood riff, 1979). A scholarly discussion of the repackaging of Ali Baba and his thieves to represent brigandage and looting in twenty-first-century Baghdad should reflect Ali Baba’s twentieth-century career as revolutionary hero.

 Al-Musawi’s study will, one hopes, inspire more vigorous historical engagement with the Thousand and One Nights in the context of Arabic letters and Islamic history. Al-Musawi points out the existence of a number of valuable historical works that can be used to illuminate the Nights: not only the ḥisbah manuals and the faḍā’il genre, but also histories of Baghdad (which he uses extensively to read the Baghdadi stories), travel narratives (particularly, but not exclusively, relevant to the tales of Sindbad; pp. 157-59), as well as “encyclopedic works, compilations, biographical dictionaries, linguistic studies, epistolographic manuals, and statecraft compositions” (to cite the works that al-Musawi uses to support his discussion of medieval readings of history as decline; p. 137). A next generation of scholars should rifle his bibliography to bring new eyes to this venerable and ill-understood text. For a number of reasons, the Nights is among a short list of imaginative narratives that possess seemingly infinite narrative elasticity and continue to inform new inventions despite being transported far beyond the time and place of their origin (al-Musawi discusses the murky Sasanid origins of the frame tale as well as the postmodern spawn of the Nights; see for example pp. 36-38, 42-43). Robust analysis of the broader literary, cultural, social, and economic history that informed the Nights, however, has lagged, largely because of the absence of monographs that systematically discuss the historical resources available to scholars. The Islamic Context of the Thousand and One Nights should be welcomed as an open door to a new generation of scholarship, an inspiration for graduate students in search of dissertation material and established scholars alike.

Piece originally published at H-Net Reviews |