1001 Nights

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Shahrazad, the cunning heroine of The One-Thousand and One Nights


Alf Layla wa-Layla (The Thousand and One Nights)

1001 Nights--Shahrazad tells the story to King Shahrayar

Cultural and Historical Background

Historical Perspective

The Thousand and One Nights is set during the Abbasid Caliphate, a dynasty which ruled an enormous part of the Middle Eastern world from approximately 758 A.D. to to 1258 A.D. This third caliphate overthrew the previous Umayyads Caliphate with the support of a variety of heterogeneous peoples, most notably groups of non-Arab Muslims (mawali). This helped to integrate non-Arab groups, such as Persians, into the the clannish Arabic culture under the banner of Islam, and Persian influence increased when the empire's capital was moved from Damascus to Baghdad under the second Abbasid caliph [1]. In short, the Abbasid wanted to rule a more fundamentally Islamic nation, and overthrew the Umayyads based on the ideals of public piety and an Islamic state. Thus, the rulers of the Abbasid dynasty were known for making multiple hajj, or pilgrimages, and for leading several successful jihad campaigns, such as their many successful battles against the Byzantine empire [2].

Ruling over such a variety of groups inevitably caused turmoil within the dynasty, particularly from Shi'a Muslims, who resented the overthrow of the Umayyads, from Kharijite groups in Oman and Northern Africa, and non-Muslim Persians [3]. However, it was not until the later decline of the dynasty that such discord became a grave concern for the empire. During the era in which The Thousand and One Nights is set, the empire was quite stable.

Economically speaking, the Abbasid was largely an agricultural power, but it was unique due to a new reliance on long-distance foreign trade. The empire controlled a large area of land linking India and China to Morocco and Spain, and thanks to the political unity of the region and the widespread use of the Arabic language, the trade of goods besides very expensive luxuries was now readily possible, placing a new emphasis on the importance of merchants and caravans [4].

This trading wealth helped fuel a great outpouring of art, science, and literature, leading many scholars to call this era in Islamic history the Golden Age [5]. Interestingly, however, though Western historians have placed a great emphasis on the scientific achievements of the time period, to the people who lived during the Abbasid dynasty, such developments were merely "foreign sciences" and were subordinate in importance to the "Islamic sciences," which involved the rigorous study of the Koran and theological thought [6]. This is reflected in "The Tale of Sympathy the Learned." When the great intellectuals wish to test Sympathy's knowledge, they quiz her on the intricacies of the Koran and theology rather than any of the other branches of knowledge.

The artistic, theological, and scientific productivity of this dynasty led many to later romanticize and glorify the period, despite these internal troubles. This is reflected in some of the lines from Sa`di Shirazi's “On the Fall of the `Abbasid Caliphate” [7]:

Heaven would be right if it wept blood upon the earth –
Commander of the Faithful Musta`sim’s kingdom has fallen.
Muhammad! If on doomsday you raise up your head from earth,
look upon this doomsday that is now upon the people.
A map of the Extent of the Abbasid Caliphate in 750 CE

At its height, the empire ruled over an area containing large parts of modern-day Saudia Arabia, Egypt, Oman, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, and Lebanon.

Historical Figures

Haroun al Rashid

A depiction of the historical figure, Haroun al-Rashid

Haroun al-Rashid was the fifth Abbasid caliph and, due partly to his frequent inclusion in The Thousand and One Nights, the most famous of the Abbasid caliphs. Relatively soon after his death, numerous poets and bards began to commemorate his reign as one of posterity and peace — due to the exhausting civil war that occurred soon after his own death, the people of the dynasty began to long for the era of al-Rashid [8]. This idea is reflected in one of the last tales of The Thousand and One Nights, The End of Jafar and the Barmakids. The tragic ending seems to suggest the inherent transience of any era of happiness: though, in the tales, Jafar and al-Rashid go on many exciting adventures, their lives must inevitably end in sorrow.

During his reign, al-Rashid was a competent and capable leader who focused on fortifying and stabilizing the empire he inherited rather than expanding into new territories. However, due to a failure on his part to equitably divide the empire among his successors, he indirectly caused the civil war that plagued the empire after his death [9].


Antoine Galland's French translation of The Thousand and One Nights was the first translation of the story into any European language. This translation included several stories, such as "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad" and "Ali Baba," that became famously associated with The Thousand and One Nights despite the fact that these tales were not actually included in the original Arabic manuscripts [10].

Edward William Lane, an Englishman, attempted the next major translation in 1836, yet he failed to translate even a half of the tales, and many stories were omitted or changed due to their sexual content [11].

Sir Francis Burton's translation, on the other hand, was explicit concerning sexual content and in fact exaggerated much of this content. However, he was helped by many top Arabian scholars, and his translation is quite exhaustive [12].

One of the more recent translations of the work, Husain Haddawy's 1990 translation, manages to convey the atmosphere and energy of the original while remaining very accurate, and thus is considered one of the best translations despite the fact that it contains only 35 stories [13].

Interestingly, many of the most famed tales of The Thousand and One Nights, including Aladdin and Ali Baba, are missing from the earliest manuscripts, suggesting that these stories are not actually canon but were instead added later to help "fill out" the collection [14].

The Story


  • Main Story:
    • King Sharayar
    • His Vizier
    • King Shahzman
    • Shahrazad
    • Dinarzad
Shahrazad looming watchfully over the world that she creates, a world that is a reflection of her own
  • Shahrazad's Stories
    • The Three Girls:
      • Zubaidah
      • Aminah
      • Fahminah
    • The Khalifah - Harun al-Rashid
      • His Vizier (Wazar) -- Jafar al-Bamaki
    • The 3 Kalandar's
    • The Porter
    • Sympathy
    • Abu Nuwas



Main Story

King Shahrayar and King Shahzman discover that their wives are having extra-marital affairs in their absence. They set out to "find one whose misfortune is greater than" theirs, meaning they're looking for another man who suffers the misfortune of a cheating wife. At the onset of their journey they encounter a Jinni, a Spirit, who holds a woman captive under lock and key. When the kings discover that this woman is just as duplicitous as their own wives, they return home and vow "to marry for one night only and kill the woman the next morning" in order to "save [themselves] from the wickedness and cunning of women." Thus begins their tirade against the women of the kingdom until so many women are executed at the hands of the scorned kings that the vizier's daughter volunteers to save the women in the kingdom by willingly going to Shahrayar and convincing him, through a long series of stories, to let her live and to end his attack against womankind. Shahrazad, the vizier's daughter, tells a series of stories over One Thousand and One Nights, pausing each story in the morning in the hopes that the king will allow her to continue that evening. During that period of time she gives birth to three children, one son and a set of twins. She claims that she "was absent through sickness for twenty days" while she was giving birth to the twins, but that with their elder brother she "was so little disturbed that [she] had no need to interrupt the Tale of Sympathy the Learned even for one night". This claim not only establishes a timeline of when during her tales she gave birth, but it also indicates that the king is so enraptured with the stories that he doesn't even notice that she pauses for long periods of time to give birth to his children.

The Thousand and One Nights is a cosmopolitan story. Multicultural relations are represented mainly through transactions within the marketplaces of the stories. The richness of interactions between varying cultures in this world brings the mostly fictional story back down to the reality of the time and place in which it was written.

Major Internal Stories

"The Tale of the Porter and the Young Girls" (pg. 418-46)
  • Featuring:
    • The Porter
    • The Three Sisters
    • Haroun al-Rashid and his vizier Jafar
    • The Three Kalandars
  • Key Phrase:
    • "Speak not of that which concerns you not or you will hear that which will please you not." This is the warning that the girls issue out to each guest that enters their home before they perform their unsettling nightly ritual. Jafar chooses not to ask the girls the reason they beat the two dogs, but Haroun and the Kalandars can't resist being curious, which nearly costs them their lives.
  • Major Theme:
    • Consequences of Encroaching upon Forbidden Territory:
      • Within the story, character infringe on the condition for entering the house by asking the sisters why they beat the two dogs. As a consequence they are almost killed by attendants within the house. However, they are spared after having a chance to tell the sisters the story of how they came to end up at the house in the first place.
      • In the story of the Second Kalandar, which takes place within this story, the Kalandar and others suffer the negative repercussions of the Kalandar, once a prince, encroaching on the territory of Jinni and ignoring the limitations on his stay in the Jinni's abode.
      • Outside of the story, Shahrazad herself is playing in dangerous territory as she tries to keep the king happy because her life, and the lives of many other women, are in the balance.
"The Tale of Sympathy the Learned" (pg. 446-456)
  • Featuring:
    • Sympathy, a slave girl who embodies perfection in beauty, intelligence, and piety
    • Abu al-Husn, Sympathy's master
  • Major Themes
    • Sympathy acquiring the robes of "the masters of art and science in [Haroun al-Rashid's] kingdom." This tale takes its power in it's ability to overturn conventional beliefs about who is supposed to have power over whom. The female slave is wiser than her master as well as the masters in the fields of arts and science. She uses her knowledge to empower herself, literally stripping them of the outward power they possessed as a function of their knowledge.
"An Adventure of the Poet Abu Nuwas" (pg. 456-9)
  • Featuring:
    • Abu Nuwas
    • Haroun al-Rashid
    • Abu Jafar
  • Major Themes:
    • The power of poetry -- just one example of a story in which the shift between the story and the poetry within the story is so fluid as to suggest that the line between storytelling and poetry is almost non-existent
    • Undressing -- in a contest of power the loser is marked by having to remove the outward layers that tell of the power and influence he has over others (also found in the Tale of Sympathy the Learned)
    • The Breaking Point -- when one crosses the line between harmless fun in storytelling and infringing on another person's reality. Abu Nuwas faces this danger in his comment to Haroun al-Rashid which offends the caliph almost enough to have Nuwas executed. The story also illustrates the possibility of return from that point when Haroun allows Abu Nuwas to go free, even after Nuwas attacks him with another crude comment.
"The Wonderful Bag"(pg. 461-3)
  • Featuring:
    • A Merchant
    • His Customer
    • A Judge
  • Background: The customer, a Kurd, comes through the marketplace and stops to bargain with the merchant over some goods. Following this, the Kurd picks up a bag and attempts to walk away with it. The merchant goes after him, claiming that the bag belongs to him, while the Kurd claims that the bag is one that had previously been stolen from him. The matter is brought before a judge who, upon asking both parties what the bag contains, is regaled with magnificent tales from both sides about a magical bag that holds the entire world inside. When the bag is opened, there is nothing inside but an orange peel and some olive stones.
  • Major Theme:
    • The Significance of Storytelling: The story is about a magnificent bag which contains whole worlds within it, even the world of the storytellers. The tale of the contents of the bag is fantastic, yet the actual contents of the bag are only what's left over after someone has had a sweet snack, including an orange and some olives. After the storyteller is finished the caliph bursts out into explosive laughter. The anticlimactic ending to the stories about the contents of the wonderful bag indicates that the reality after the story itself is not as fulfilling as the story itself, nor is it as fulfilling as the initial experience.

Modern Interpretations

A'la ed'deen (Aladdin)

In this Disney rendition of Aladdin, a young street urchin stumbles upon a magical lamp containing a genie that can grant him three wishes. (Genie here possibly being a version of the Arabic word Jinni, which is a non-human creature that can either be evil or good.) He encounters many obstacles on his path, including Jafar, the Caliph's evil vizier who is trying to gain power over the kingdom, and his state of poverty that prevents him from being together with the princess, who he loves.

A representation of Jafar from Disney's cartoon rendition of the story of Aladdin
This representation of Jafar in Disney's "Aladdin" differs drastically from the loyal vizier of Haroun al-Rashid in the actual 1001 Nights stories. Disney's depiction of Jafar is as a manipulative villain who seeks to overthrow his caliph by marrying his caliph's daughter. In the story of the end of Jafar and the Barmakids, Shahrazad claims that Haroun al-Rashid forces his vizier Jafar to marry his sisterso he can sleep with both of them at the same time. He forbids them from seeing each other outside of his presence, but eventually the two give in to temptation, which could possibly be the reason that Haroun has Jafar executed.

The Arabian Nights Board/Card Game

Like the multilayered stories in The Thousand and One Nights this boardgame contains multiple layers of games within other games

"Tales of the Arabian Nights is actually several games in one.

In the standard game, the players are characters living in the 1001 Nights universe, wandering about the map and having adventures. These adventures are designed in a sort of paragraph system, with the player to your left reading what happens to you and exposing the choices you have - choices that then lead to other paragraphs or outcomes. The characters evolve during their adventures, acquiring skills of various degrees of advancement to open up new options and various "statuses" (such as married, despondent, cursed, etc) which also affect play. The object is to become rich and come back to Baghdad.

Other variants of the standard game include the Quest game, which forces you to roam the map looking for quests to fulfill. There's also a Merchant game, where your adventures give you arrow tokens which are used on a little separate board to simulate the progress of your caravans." [17].

1001 Nights Musical Interpretation with Dance

The 1001 Nights: A Song

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  2. Goldschmidt Jr., Arthur. A Concise History of the Middle East. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2002. <http://books.google.com/books?id=DHw0NzygOHoC&pg=PA73&dq=harun+al-rashid&lr=#v=onepage&q=harun%20al-rashid&f=false>.
  3. Goldschmidt Jr., Arthur. A Concise History of the Middle East. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2002. <http://books.google.com/books?id=DHw0NzygOHoC&pg=PA73&dq=harun+al-rashid&lr=#v=onepage&q=harun%20al-rashid&f=false>.
  4. <http://sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/files/jLTKV2/Chapter%20TwentyTwo.%20Abbasid%20Civilization%20and%20the%20Culture%20of%20Islam.pdf>
  5. Muslim Student Association. "The History of Islam." University of Buffalo. Web. 3 November 2009. <http://wings.buffalo.edu/sa/muslim/Goldenage.htm>.
  6. <http://sitemason.vanderbilt.edu/files/jLTKV2/Chapter%20TwentyTwo.%20Abbasid%20Civilization%20and%20the%20Culture%20of%20Islam.pdf>
  7. Kolliyat-i Sa`di, ed. Muhammad `Ali Forughi (Tehran: Sazman-e Chap o Intisharat-e Javidan, n.d.), pp. 503-4. <http://www.unc.edu/courses/2005ss2/reli/025/001/Sa%60di.htm>.
  8. Kennedy, Hugh. When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World: The Rise and Fall of Islam's Greatest Dynasty. United States: De Capo Press, 2004. <http://books.google.com/books?id=67fZB5YGkOQC&pg=PA51&dq=harun+al-rashid#v=onepage&q=harun%20al-rashid&f=false>
  9. "Harun al-Rashid." Islamic Archeology Glossary. 2007. The Joukowsky Institute for Archeology Classroom. 5 November 2008 <http://proteus.brown.edu/islamicarchaeologyglossary2007/4673>.
  10. France, Peter. The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 149.
  11. Karolides, Nicholas J., Margaret Bald and Dawn B. Sova. 100 Banned Books: Censorship Histories of World Literature. United States: Checkmark Books, 1999. 271
  12. France, Peter. The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 151.
  13. France, Peter. The Oxford Guide to Literature in English Translation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 151.
  14. Classe, Oliver. Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 2000.<http://books.google.com/books?id=C1uXah12nHgC&lpg=RA1-PA1391&ots=ik8A3VbuZy&dq=thousand%20one%20nights%20%22orphan%20stories%22&pg=RA1-PA1391#v=onepage&q=thousand%20one%20nights%20%22orphan%20stories%22&f=false>
  15. Damrosch, David, et al. The Longman Anthology: World Literature. Vol. B. New York, NY: Pearson Education, 2009.406-481.
  16. <http://www.gateplay.com/tales-of-the-arabian-nights-board-game.aspx>.
  17. <http://www.boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/788>.
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