Thousand and One Nights, The (Alf Laylah Wa Laylah, The Arabian Nights, Tales from the Arabian Nights)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Thousand and One Nights, The (Alf Laylah Wa Laylah, The Arabian Nights, Tales from the Arabian Nights)

Thousand and One Nights, The (Alf Laylah Wa Laylah, The Arabian Nights, Tales from the Arabian Nights) (ca. A.D. 942)

The Persian frame story Alf Laylah Wa Laylah (The Thousand and One Nights) is an eclectic folk collection of works by storytellers from the centuries-old lore of empires in Arabia, Egypt, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Mesopotamia, Persia, Syria, Turkey, and Yemen. The text overlays tribal customs and 10th-century situations with Koranic law to create moral lessons for a just and virtuous ruler. Its stories derive from numerous contributors, beginning with the Abbasid government secretary and storyteller Abdus al-Jashyari, who, at his death in A.D. 942, left his intended collection of 1,000 entries less than half complete at 480. Oral recitations of the popular tales enthralled desert dwellers, who lived harsh lives under rigid religious fundamentalism, with images of beauty, abundance, sexual surrender, and passion.

Introducing the saga of The Thousand and One Nights is the peril of Scheherazade, the vizier Shirazad's daring daughter, who volunteers to marry the Persian sultan Shahryar, the ruler of lands from Persia to India. Suspecting disloyalty in all women, he renounces romance as an infirmity of the spirit and rejects the concept of a consort as a lifelong companion, even less as an adviser and equal. Over a period of three years, he treats his brides as expendable and executes each after only one night. Royal paranoia threatens the future of the kingdom, which can produce no crown prince under the steady annihilation of potential mothers.

The goal of The Thousand and One Nights is the transformation of Shahryar from his devaluation of women and the rescue of his domain from the lack of a worthy queen and a male successor. In the opinion of the scholar M. E. Combs-Schilling, among androcentric Arabs, “When it comes to the really important dimension of man's being, man is to keep his eyes on the prize—on the God who exists beyond this world—and not turn back to gaze at this world's women,” (Combs-Schilling 1989, 268). Fortunately, Shahryar has loved stories from boyhood, and Scheherazade regales him nightly with tales that she never completes until the following night, when she begins a new one. By beguiling him for 1,001 nights with intricate cliffhangers, she turns literature into ransom. She manages to give birth to three princelings while entertaining her husband and indirectly instructing him on the family's need for stability and nurturing. Transformed by his trickster bride, Shahryar grants her a reprieve from execution and, to his subjects' relief, orders a 30-day celebration marking his repentance for killing some 1,100 innocent female citizens. He orders scribes to collect Scheherazade's stories in 30 volumes, a symbolic homage to female integrity and ingenuity. In a landmark of world literature, the preservation of oral treasures retained such aphorisms as “Who seeketh Fame without toil and strife / Th'impossible seeketh and wasteth life” (Arabian Nights 2001, 402).

The strands of The Thousand and One Nights stray from court life under Abbasid caliphs to fantasy figures—djinns, magi, giants, devils, cheats, angels, sorcerers, poisoners, and wonder workers. Other elements include a lynx hunt, the seven sages, talking birds, a valley of serpents, trapdoors, magic lamps, sapphires as big as fruit, and the eggs of the roc, a huge flying predator. Amid the exotica are facets of medieval life in the Middle East—racism, auguries and omens, live burials, foot washing and bath fetishes, elaborate makeup and perfume, immurement of virgins, weddings and widowhood, veiling, circumcision, inheritance laws, and daily Muslim prayer ritual. The core of the story network emphasizes the powerlessness of the peasantry, fisher folk, crafters, traders, poets, and bandits under an unforgiving caste system. But might has its limits. Beast FABLES such as “The Sparrow and the Eagle,” the story of a sparrow that tries to snatch a ram from a barnyard, illustrate the dangers of overreaching, a lethal flaw in the governance of empires. A grim reminder of nemesis engraved on a tablet warns “By Allah, the Destroyer of delights and the Severer of societies and the Devastator of dwelling places came down upon them and transport them from the spaciousness of their palaces to the straitness of their burial places” (517).

Gendered Motifs and Themes

A century after Abu Tammam's compilation of warrior stories in HAMASA (Courage, ca. A.D. 845), The Thousand and One Nights displays a misogynistic motif of female dependence on men for existence that underlies a feminist staple, the survival of women through self-subordination. Clever women pleasure men by denying their own needs and by adopting male standards of attraction and sexual dalliance. In “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad,” in a poetic adulation of the male, the female versifier proclaims the intoxicating power of the male glance and gait and admits, “His coiling curl-lets my soul ennetted / And his cruel will all my wits outwitted” (70). The tales acknowledge an Islamic hypocrisy that stereotypes women as carnal voluptuaries, connivers, and traitors capable of sabotaging a kingdom's dynasty. In “The Hermits,” a shepherd charges an angel, “How much of foulness hidest thou under thy beauty, and how many a pious man hast thou seduced from his duty and made his end penitence and perdition?” (256). Like the myths of Eve, Pandora, and Lilith (the bearer of disease and death), the question assumes the worst of women.

Confrontations between perfidious males and fearful females dominate the Arab narrative. One account of self-preservation, “The Wily Dalilah and Her Daughter Zaynab,” dates to the time of Harun al-Rashid of Tehran, a patron of the arts and the contemporary and host of CHARLEMAGNE. The story pits two clever females against the double-dealers of Baghdad, who condemn the women to crucifixion. Scheherazade subverts the misperception of the Eve myth and the loss of paradise from GENESIS and the KORAN as the destiny of all gullible males. Her mastery of oriental WISDOM, jest, and anecdote illustrates the centrality of women to the empire as mothers and educators of royal children, human- izers of patriarchy, and advisers on mate selection to assure the longevity of the royal household.

The Book in Translation

In 1717, the translator and orientalist Antoine Galland of Rollet introduced to Europe a French version of the Arabic classic. It preceded a multivolume English version produced in 1885-88 by the explorer and linguist Sir Richard Francis Burton, the translator of the Indian Kama Sutra and of LUIS DE CAMOES'S The Lusiads. Burton justified the work as requital of England's “forgetting that she is at present the greatest Mohammedan empire in the world” and that “she has systematically neglected Arabism” (Burton 2001, 28). Among the adventure lore, revenge motifs, and crime stories, European writers added classic narratives about the beggar boy Aladdin and his genie from a magic lamp, Ali Baba and the 40 thieves, and the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, a Persian adventurer from Basra during the Abbasid Empire and a forerunner of JONATHAN SWIFT'S protagonist in Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

In Europe and North America, the themes in The Thousand One Nights of brotherhood, good faith, ethical purity, and fidelity influenced hosts of composers, artists, and authors, including the playwright WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE; the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson; the adventure writer ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON; and the GOTHIC master MATTHEW GREGORY LEWIS. A feminist author, the Danish raconteur ISAK DINESEN, valued the empowerment of females via seductive words. The Arabo-Sicilian writer Muhammad ibn Zafar al-Siqilli (1104-69) followed The Thousand and One Nights with his Sulwan al-Muta’ Fi’ Udwan al-Atba’ (Consolation for the Ruler, 1154), a forerunner of NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI’S The Prince (1514). Film versions include Arabian Nights (1942), starring Maria Montez as Scheherazade; the voiceovers of Robin Williams in Walt Disney’s Aladdin (1992); and the cartoon feature Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003), narrated by Brad Pitt and Catherine Zeta-Jones.


The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights. Translated by Richard Francis Burton. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Combs-Schilling, M. E. Sacred Performances: Islam, Sexuality, and Sacrifice. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.

El Saadawi, Nawal. The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab World. London: Zed Books, 2007.

Hovannisian, Richard G., and Georges Sabagh. The Thousand and One Nights in Arabic Literature and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.