The Arabian Nights: The Frame Tale

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The Arabian Nights: The Frame Tale


A frame narrative set in India and Indochina in the legendary past links a series of inner tales from Persia, Arabia, and China; in circulation since the ninth century, transcribed into Arabic in a thirteenth-century version that survives in the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript Alf laylah wa-laylah (The Thousand and One Nights); published in English in 1706.


Betrayed by his unfaithful queen, a king takes a new bride every day and, to prevent her betrayal, executes her the next morning. One bride, determined to put a stop to this, diverts him from his plan with stories for 1001 nights until he is convinced of her fidelity.

Events in History at the Time the Tales Take Place

The Frame Tale in Focus

Events in History at the Time the Tales Were Written

For More Information

The tales and even the frame story of The Arabian Nights have their roots in many countries: India, China, Persia, the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, and Greece. Scholars contend that the stories circulated orally from the ninth century onward. Corroborating their contention, during the 1940s an Arab papyrus that dates back to the ninth century and apparently contains a fragment of The Arabian Nights was discovered in Egypt and acquired by the University of Chicago in the United States. Many of the work’s tales, however, do not appear to have been transcribed until the latter half of the thirteenth century, in either Syria or Egypt, forming the first more-or-less complete version. This earliest version of a complete manuscript was lost, but it served as a prototype for others, including the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript that scholars consider the purest rendition of The Arabian Nights, despite its lack of completeness. Other manuscripts, dating between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, surfaced in Egypt, containing stories not in the Syrian version. Arabic scholars have questioned the authenticity of this additional material, which includes characters—such as Sinbad—who would become famously associated with the work. It was not until the early eighteenth century that The Arabian Nights first appeared in Europe, proving immediately popular there. The scholar Antoine Galland translated and edited the Syrian manuscript into French as Mille et une nuits (1704–06), dividing the material into 282 nights (Mahdi, p. 23). In 1706, Grub Street publishers hurriedly produced an English translation of Galland’s work, calling it The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. By 1800, more than 80 editions had been printed, captivating such writers as Alexander Pope, William Wordsworth, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Late in the twentieth century (1984), Muhsin Mahdi published what many scholars consider the definitive edition of the Syrian manuscript; Husain Haddawy translated Mahdi’s version into English in 1990. Critics praised both efforts, commending them for introducing readers to an Arabian Nights such as the public had never yet known: violent, vigorous, and sensual.

Events in History at the Time the Tales Take Place

The Sasanid period

Determining the exact setting of The Arabian Nights presents the reader with a conundrum; although the frame story is said to take place “long ago, during the time of the Sasanid dynasty”—between 226 and 641 c.e. —many of the tales are set much later, in the 700s or 800s. Indeed, Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph, who reigned from 786 to 809, appears as a character in several stories. It is possible to argue that the frame story’s ostensible setting is not intended to be historically accurate, but rather is meant to suggest antiquity, a conceit of “long ago and far away.”

However directly they figure in The Arabian Nights, the Sasanids certainly played a major role in the development of Persia. This dynasty of Persian kings acceded to power early in the third century, overthrowing the Parthians who had ruled the region from 250 b.c.e. to 226 c.e. Once in power, the Sasanids—so called because their first king, Ardashir I, claimed descent from the legendary hero Sasan—quickly set their own mark upon the area, amassing an extensive empire that included not only present-day Iran and Iraq but also parts of the Arabian Peninsula (Bahrain, Yamamah, and Yemen). Many historians credit the Sasanid dynasty with Persia’s development as a world power between the third and seventh centuries, its influence rivaled only by Rome and Byzantium.

The Sasanid dynasty boasted a strong centralized administration, a rigid social hierarchy, and a unifying religious faith. Sasanid rulers took the title of shahanshah (king of kings) and enjoyed absolute sovereignty over numerous lesser rulers, known as shahrdars. Shahanshahs and shahrdars, along with great landlords and priests, occupied the topmost rank of what historians hypothesize was a four-level hierarchy. Below them, in descending order, came the warriors, the secretaries, and the commoners. The royal family’s attempts to maintain a centralized monarchy was a frequent source of tension within the Sasanian Empire, especially as the lesser kings and the aristocracy were no less determined to retain their own rights and independence. Over the centuries, the Sasanian house withstood various threats to its authority, mainly because other contenders for the Persian throne could not command prestige comparable to that of the ruling family.

In another major development, the Sasanids established Zoroastrianism as the state religion of Persia. During the sixth century, Zoroaster had held that two forces—Ahura Mazda, creator of the world and source of light and order, and Ahriman, god of darkness and disorder—were locked in an eternal struggle, in which Ahura Mazda would ultimately prevail. All people, however, were free to choose between good and evil, light and darkness, truth and lies. The Zoroastrian priesthood acquired great power during the Sasanids’ reign. Meanwhile, to reinforce their hold on the Persian throne, the Sasanids claimed the support of Ahura Mazda and that they themselves were divine. They also exercised religious tolerance. The Sasanids encouraged scholarship, too, dispatching scholars to other countries to collect books, which were then translated into the Pahlavi (Middle Persian) language, along with scientific and technical lore. Many foreign scholars came to Persia to teach and study, finding the country remarkably accepting of differences in faith and race.

By the seventh century, however, the Sasanid Empire was in decline, weakened by years of warfare with Byzantium and riddled with internal problems, including heavy taxation, religious unrest, and overall economic decline. In 633 Bedouin (tribal) Arabs, newly converted to Islam, organized a campaign against the crumbling Byzantine and Sasanid Empires; by 637 Arab forces were occupying the Sasanid capital of Ctesiphon, and by 650 Persian resistance to the invaders had been quelled. Soon Persian customs would be too. The Muslim conquerors imposed their religion and language upon their Persian subjects and integrated the former Sasanian territories into the core of their realm under the rule of a caliph (the Arabic term for “successor”), who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad as temporal, but not spiritual, leader of the Muslim community. Some aspects of Sasanid life remained, however. The Muslims retained the Sasanid coinage system and several Sasanid administrative practices, including the office of vizier (minister) and the divan, an organization that controlled state revenues and expenditures.

In The Arabian Nights, few elements of the Sasanid legacy are visible, despite the frame story’s purported setting. Those few, however, include the absolute authority of King Shahrayar, whose power enables him to take a bride every night and execute her the following morning, and the presence of a vizier who unquestioningly carries out Shahrayar’s commands (Muslim rulers would later adopt the use of viziers in their government).

Rise of the Abbasid caliphate

Although the connection between The Arabian Nights and the Sasanid period remains tenuous at best, the same cannot be said of a subsequent era. Individual tales strongly evoke historical events of the Abbasid caliphate, which lasted from 750 to 1258 C.E. Previously the Umayyad dynasty had governed the Islamic dominions, which included present-day Iran, Iraq, and Syria. The Umayyads were supported predominantly by troops from Syria and by Arab tribesmen from the southern Arabian Peninsula (modern-day Yemen). The Abbasids, by contrast, relied on Persians, Iraqis and other Arabs, and various followers of the Shi‘ite branch of Islam. Led by Abu al-Abbas, who based his claim to the caliphate on his descent from an uncle of the Prophet Mohammed, this eclectic group formed a coalition that successfully toppled the Umayyad regime, crushing the Umayyad army at the battle of the Great Zab in 750.

With all the Umayyad claimants to the caliphate dead or exiled, the victors appointed Abu al-Abbas as the first Abbasid caliph. Known as al-Saffah (the Bloodshedder), Abu al-Abbas transferred the capital of the empire from Syria to the city of Baghdad in Iraq. During his reign and those of his first six successors, Baghdad developed into “a center of power where Arab and Iranian [Persian] cultures mingled to produce a blaze of philosophical, scientific, and literary glory” (Metz, p. 21). Fortifications and canals were constructed to make Baghdad more defensible against invaders, while surrounding swamps were drained to reduce the spread of fever and malaria. Canals also linked the various rivers, helping to establish Baghdad as a trading base between Asia and the Mediterranean, which contributed to an increase in population and prosperity there. By the eighth century, only Constantinople rivaled Baghdad in size within the Islamic Empire.

Besides the transformation of Baghdad into a major metropolis, Abbasid achievements included the maintenance of a standing professional army, the development of an effective taxation system and the formation of a stable bureaucracy to control it, the construction of mosques and palaces, and the support of intellectual pursuits. What some considered the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate coincided with the reign of Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph, who has become strongly identified with The Arabian Nights, not least because he appears as a character in several tales.

The caliphate of Harun al-Rashid

Of the 37 caliphs of the Abbasid dynasty, the fifth caliph, Harun al-Rashid, is probably the most famous. Succeeding to the caliphate upon the death of his brother al-Hadi, who occupied the office for no more than a year, Harun ruled from 786 to 809 over a prosperous, thriving empire. For the most part, his reign coincided with a long period of peace, although he did lead several successful military expeditions against the encroaching Byzantines. In the end, the once-proud empire of Byzantium paid tribute to Harun al-Rashid, the “Commander of the Faithful.” Other moments of strife during Harun’s caliphate consisted of small-scale insurrections in the provinces, which resented the administration’s increasingly exploitative taxation policies.

Historians have divided the reign of Harun al-Rashid into three phases. During the first phase, he relied on the advice and counsel of the Barmakids, a Persian family who had helped to bring him to power. During the second, he distanced himself from the Barmakids, choosing instead to rely upon his chief minister, al-Fadl al-Barmaki, and the military leaders who had supported his brother. During the third phase, Harun exiled or executed several members of the Barmakid family and, in the absence of a single powerful minister, took a more active part in political life. Throughout his reign, the caliph remained consistent in his tendency to delegate day-to-day affairs to his various ministers, a policy that was to create problems, especially in his dealings with the provinces.

Whatever the shortcomings of Harun’s administration, his court was among the most splendid in the world: wealthy to the point of opulence and highly cultured. The caliph patronized the arts, taking special pleasure in poets and singers, and encouraged scholarship. The historian Rom Landau describes the caliph’s Baghdad palace as “the hub of a giant wheel with spokes radiating to all parts of the empire. A continuous stream of scientists, theologians, musicians, poets and merchants walked these spokes to pay homage to the Abbasid caliph; he in turn listened, learned and patronized. The golden age of Arab arts and letters, the zenith of Arab sciences, was at hand” (Landau, p. 54).

It is this world that The Arabian Nights continually evokes in its inner tales. Several stories featuring Harun al-Rashid, which were probably composed during the ninth or tenth century, allude to his splendid palace and gardens, along with his love of the arts. In “The Story of the Slave Girl and Nur Al-Din Ali Ibn Khaqan,” the main characters find themselves in a garden.

[The garden] that had no equal in all of Baghdad, for it belonged to the caliph Harun al-Rashid and was called the Garden of Delight, and in it there stood a palace called the Palace of Statues, to which he came when he was depressed. The palace was surrounded by eighty windows and eighty hanging lamps, each pair flanking a candelabra holding a large candle. When the caliph entered the palace, he used to order all the windows opened and the lamps and candelabras lighted and order Ishak al-Nadim [a famous musician and lute player] to sing for him, while he sat surrounded by concubines of all races until his care left him and he felt merry.

(Haddawy, Arabian Nights, p. 364)

Other tales allude not only to Harun’s taste for luxury but also to his difficult relationship with the Barmakid family, especially Ja‘far al-Barmaki, who was his vizier, his companion, and, finally, his victim. In “The Story of the Three Apples,” the caliph continually orders Ja‘far to investigate several crimes, threatening him with death should he fail to produce results. Although events conspire to prevent this sentence from being carried out within the story, listeners would probably have been aware that, historically, Harun al-Rashid did execute Ja‘far in 803, seeing in him and his family a threat to his own authority as caliph.

The Frame Tale in Focus

Plot summary

The Arabian Nights consists of a frame narrative that connects a series of tales and tales within tales, ostensibly told by a queen to her sister but really intended to capture the attention of a jealous king.

The frame narrative opens with an account of two royal brothers. The elder brother, Shahrayar, rules India and Indochina and gives the land of Samarkand to the younger brother, Shahzaman. Ten years later, Shahrayar wishes to see his brother again and sends his vizier to Samarkand to invite Shahzaman for a visit. Pleased by the invitation, Shahzaman begins travel preparations. The night before his departure, however, he discovers his wife lying in the arms of a kitchen boy. Furious, Shahzaman kills the lovers, throws the bodies into a trench, and sets off on his journey.

Although Shahzaman receives a warm welcome from his brother, the cuckolded husband remains morose and distracted by his queen’s infidelity but refuses to confide in Shahrayar. One day, while Shahrayar is on a hunting expedition, Shahzaman, who remains behind at court, sees his brother’s wife and her ladies lying with black slaves, who have disguised themselves as women. Concluding that it is the nature of all women to be unfaithful and to betray their husbands, Shahzaman begins to recover his spirits. On his return from hunting, Shahrayar notices his brother’s improved health and asks the reason. Shahzaman tries to avoid answering, but finally admits that he was betrayed by his wife and adds that Shahrayar has been cuckolded as well.

Enraged, Shahrayar insists on having proof. Giving out a false report that he means to go hunting again, he and Shahzaman sneak back into the palace and witness the queen’s infidelity with her black slave. Out of his mind with anger, Shahrayar, accompanied by his brother, leaves his kingdom, determined not to return unless he finds someone whose misfortune is greater than his. While on the road, the two kings see a black demon carrying a large glass chest, which the demon unlocks, revealing a beautiful woman inside. The demon lies down with his head in the woman’s lap and falls asleep. Spying the two kings, the woman beckons to them and demands that they lie with her, or she will wake the demon and have them killed. Cowed by her threat, Shahrayar and Shahzaman ultimately comply. The woman then orders them to give her their rings. She reveals that, despite the demon’s vigilance and determination to keep her pure and chaste, she has managed to sleep with 98 men, each of whom gave her a ring afterwards. Shahrayar and Shahzaman give her their rings as well, rejoicing that the demon’s plight is worse than their own.

On returning to his kingdom and parting from his brother, who goes home to Samarkand, Shahrayar exacts a terrible vengeance. He orders his vizier to have the queen put to death and to slay all the slave girls in the palace. Reasoning that there is no such thing on earth as a chaste woman, the king decides to take a new wife every day, then have her executed the next morning before she can betray him.

Learning of this tragic development and the grief of the brides’ families, Shahrazad, the vizier’s learned elder daughter, asks her father to marry her to Shahrayar so she can try to save the women of the kingdom. The horrified vizier refuses, trying to dissuade his daughter with cautionary tales, but she remains adamant. Reluctantly, the vizier offers Shahrazad to the king, who consents to marry her. Meanwhile, Shahrazad and her younger sister, Dinarzad (or Dunyazad), concoct a plan by which Dinarzad will be summoned to the palace the night of the marriage and will ask her sister to tell a story before daybreak. Their plan is successful. After Shahrayar consummates the marriage, he allows Shahrazad to receive a visit from Dinarzad, who promptly asks her to tell a tale to while away the night. With the king’s consent, Shahrazad begins a story but deliberately stops before morning.

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence, leaving King Shahrayar burning with curiosity to hear the rest of the story. Then Dinarzad said to her sister Shahrazad, “What a strange and lovely story!” Shahrazad replied, “What is this compared with what I shall tell you tomorrow night if the king spares me and lets me live? It will be even better and more entertaining.”

(Haddawy, Arabian Nights, p. 18)

Curious about the tale’s outcome, Shahrayar decides to spare his bride’s life until the tale is finished.

Over succeeding nights, Shahrazad spins out the tales, beginning a new one immediately after the old one is finished and always pausing before morning to gain another day of life. This process continues for a thousand and one nights, at which time Shahrazad points out to Shahrayar that she has borne him three children and proven her fidelity beyond question. Having learned to love and trust Shahrazad, Shahrayar spares her life at her request and retains her as his queen and consort.

By Allah, O Shahrazad, I pardoned thee before the coming of these children, for that I found thee chaste, pure, ingenuous, and pious! Allah bless thee and thy father and thy mother and thy root and thy branch! I take the Almighty to witness against me that I exempt thee from aught that can harm thee.

(Burton, Arabian Nights, p. 722)

Research has shown that this ending, neatly providing a resolution to the tales, was added by the French translator, Antoine Galland (Mahdi, p. 48). The fact that it was, nevertheless, adopted by all subsequent versions of the Arabian Nights, even those composed in Arabic, testifies to the truly international scope of contributions to the tales.

The inner tales

In the Syrian manuscript of The Arabian Nights, the stories told by Shahrazad involve themes that reflect her own situation in the frame tale. Several of the stories, for example, deal with issues of gratitude, loyalty, and the abuse of power: protagonists find themselves at the mercy of cruel monarchs or capricious demons but manage to win a more favorable destiny through acts of wit, kindness, or charity. Other tales address betrayal and sexual infidelity, especially between white women and black men—a sore point with Shahrayar, whose queen betrayed him with a black slave. In such stories as “The Tale of the Enchanted King” and “The Story of the Three Apples,” Shahrazad elicits sympathy for the husbands wronged by their unfaithful wives but, at the same time, subtly conveys the message that not all women are false and some are even cruelly misjudged.

In “The Fisherman and the Demon,” a poor fisherman casts his net after three unsuccessful attempts and brings in a sealed brass jar. Curious, the fisherman unstops the jar, only to find himself confronted by a huge demon. Furious over his long captivity, the demon has decided not to reward whoever frees him but rather to give that person only the choice of his manner of death. The fisherman pleads for his life, saying that he performed an act of kindness, but the demon remains adamant. All is not lost, for the fisherman tricks the demon into showing how he became small enough to fit into the jar. Then the fisherman promptly reseals the jar and threatens to return it to the sea and warn all other fisherman not to open it if they should ever bring it back up. Relenting, the demon rescinds his earlier vow and eventually persuades the fisherman to free him again, this time promising him a reward.

Once liberated, the demon takes the fisherman to a lake full of rare-colored fish—white, red, blue, and yellow—and tells him to cast his net there once a day and bring whatever he finds to the king. The fisherman obeys, snaring one fish of each color, and takes the catch to the royal palace, starting a chain of events that eventually leads into “The Tale of the Enchanted King.”

Amazed, the king pays the fisherman handsomely, and the fish are taken to the kitchen to be prepared for the king’s dinner. While the cook is frying the fish, however, a beautiful maiden appears through the kitchen wall, speaks to the fish, then overturns the frying pan and disappears, leaving the fish too scorched to eat. The shocked cook tells the vizier what she sees, and the vizier orders the fisherman to fetch four more fish from wherever he found the others. The same sequence of events takes place, only this time the vizier witnesses the maiden’s apparition as well and decides to tell the king. Again, the fisherman is ordered to bring his catch to the palace. On the third night, the fish are fried in the king’s presence, but this time a huge black slave appears, speaks to the fish, and overturns the frying pan.

At the king’s command, the fisherman takes the monarch and several members of the court to the mysterious lake, surrounded by four hills, which no one in the kingdom has ever visited before. Intrigued, the king decides to explore the region alone that night and comes upon an apparently deserted palace. On entering, the king discovers another, younger monarch. This monarch has been enchanted: his lower half turned to stone by a curse. The helpless monarch, otherwise known as the enchanted king of the Black Islands, reveals that his beloved queen betrayed him by taking a black lover. Discovering the two together, the king attacked his rival, inflicting a serious wound that deprived the latter of speech. Bent on vengeance, the queen turned the king to stone below the waist, whipped him daily, and forced him to wear a coarse hair shirt under his fine garments. She also cast a spell on the realm and the king’s subjects, turning them into a lake full of colored fish, each color signifying the faiths of the different inhabitants. Meanwhile, she arranged for her wounded lover to be taken to a mausoleum where she could visit and tend him every day.

Upon hearing all this, the first king vows to help the second and goes to the mausoleum. There, the first king kills the black lover, disposes of the body, then assumes the lover’s clothes and place in the tomb. In this guise, he successfully dupes the queen into restoring her husband, his subjects, and the realm to their proper form: “Damn you, cursed woman, it is the inhabitants of this city and its four islands, for every night at midnight, the fish raise their heads from the lake to implore and invoke God against me, and this is why I do not recover. Go to them and deliver them at once” (Haddawy, Arabian Nights, p. 64). After the queen has performed these deeds, the still-disguised king lures her into the mausoleum and kills her. The enchanted king, restored to full capacity, expresses eternal gratitude to his rescuer, and they travel together to the first king’s realm. To reward the fisherman, the first king takes one of the fisherman’s daughters as a bride and marries off the other to the enchanted king. He blesses the fisherman’s son with good fortune too, making the son one of his own attendants.

The themes of race and infidelity play a major part in another tale also, “The Story of the Three Apples,” one of the episodes that connects The Arabian Nights to the Abbasid period, especially to the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, who makes an appearance. The tale begins as the caliph and his vizier, Ja‘far al-Barmaki, walk through the royal city to assess the conduct and competence of the caliph’s administrators. Encountering a poor fisherman in need, the caliph offers to buy for a handsome price whatever the fisherman next catches. Casting his net, the fisherman draws up a locked, heavy chest, which the caliph purchases and has brought to his palace. To his horror, the chest contains the decapitated body of a young girl. Concluding that the girl has been murdered, Harun commands Ja‘far to find the killer within three days or forfeit his own life. Not knowing how to proceed, Ja‘far does nothing, and on the third day, he is arrested and sentenced to death by hanging.

Before the execution can take place, however, two men—one young, one old—come forward to take responsibility for the murder. The young man, who is the old man’s nephew and son-in-law, proves that he is the culprit by describing in detail how he disposed of the victim’s body. Astonished, the caliph demands to know the entire story. The young man reveals that the dead girl was his wife. They had been happy together for 11 years until she fell ill. During her long convalescence, she developed a craving for apples, which proved hard to find in the city; her husband finally located some in an orchard in Basra. The husband traveled for several weeks before reaching his destination and obtaining three apples from the orchard’s gardener. The wife, however, lost interest in the apples once they were brought to her and remained in poor health. One day, the husband saw a black slave walking through the street, carrying one of the apples he had brought from Basra, and asked the slave where he had obtained the fruit. The slave answered that he had received the apple from his mistress, who had mentioned that her husband had journeyed half a month to get them for her. Going home, the husband confronted his wife about the missing apple, but she was unable to account for its absence. In a jealous rage, the husband cut off his wife’s head, put her body into the chest, and threw the chest into the river.

On returning home again, the husband learned from his eldest son that the boy had taken one of the apples from his mother’s room, which had, in turn, been stolen from him by a black slave who refused to give it back, even after the boy mentioned how his father had made a long journey to get the fruit for the boy’s mother. Realizing he had murdered his wife unjustly, the husband was overcome with remorse and blamed the slanders of that unknown slave, who claimed to have obtained the apple from his mistress, for the tragedy. Before the caliph, the husband again reiterates his own guilt and offers up his own life for his crime.

The caliph, however, vows to hang no one but the slave and again commands Ja‘far to find this person on pain of his own death. Still not knowing where to look for the culprit, Ja‘far instead decides to trust in God’s will and do nothing. In the nick of time, he discovers the apple in the possession of his own daughter, who bought it from one of his slaves. Astonished, Ja‘far has the slave brought before him and learns that he was indeed the one who took the apple from the boy who had taken it from his mother. Ja‘far brings the slave before the caliph, who is amazed by the coincidences in the whole situation. Initially disposed to hang the slave, the caliph reconsiders after Ja‘far tells him another story about two viziers that is even more fraught with coincidences. Ultimately, the caliph decides to free the slave and confer a choice concubine, a substantial income, and a position at court upon the husband. The tale illustrates the value of compassion and forbearance in judging others, but the question of justice for the murdered girl goes unasked and unsettled.

Women in pre-Islamic and Islamic society

Given the widely held view of Islam as a thoroughly patriarchal religion, the figure of Shahrazad, the intelligent, resourceful queen who literally manages to talk her way out of a deadly situation, may seem like an anomaly to Western readers. Placing limitations on the role of women in public life and viewing them as inferior to men was a ubiquitous feature of societies surrounding the Mediterranean Basin. We find traces of these attitudes in ancient Greece and Israel as well as in the Byzantine Empire, which was Islam’s greatest rival for most of its history. However, both Islamic and pre-Islamic societies included learned, capable women who, like Shahrazad, managed to wield a surprising amount of power.

During the Sasanid period—the ostensible setting of The Arabian Nights—women were considered the spiritual equals of men according to the tenets of Zoroastrianism. Granted, in practice, women remained largely under the tutelage of men: first their fathers or brothers, then their husbands. The Madigan i hazar dadistan—“Book of 1,000 Legal Judgments”—partially clarified the rights and status of women in Sasanian law. With regard to marriage, for example, fathers generally sought suitable husbands for their daughters once the girls reached the age of 15; however, a daughter could refuse to marry. She would not be punished for her refusal, nor would she be required to forfeit whatever allowance her


A recurring event in The Arabian Nights tales is adultery between white women and black slaves, who then conspire against the women’s husbands. Historically, Arabs are considered among the first slave traders. During the eighth century Arabs from the Arabian peninsula began colonization of the east African coast; large numbers of black Africans were captured and carried by ship to Arabia, India, Europe, and even to distant China. This practice continued intermittently until the nineteenth century, when the slave trade was abolished, accounting for the presence of black slaves in Arab countries. Within medieval Islamic society, slaves of all colors ranked at the bottom of the social scale and then were ranked within this bottom according to their skills and attributes, their market value, and even the social position and personal character of their owners. History indicates, “Some [slaves] labored in the harshest conditions on large-scale construction schemes or estate agriculture. Some were pampered favorites of kings or highly prized artists in the homes of great merchants. Some were nurses, housemaids, cooks, or porters. Some became generals. In their own differences, they reflected the social system, its mobilities and rigidities” (Segal, pp. 27–28). There has been much speculation about the frequency of the black slave as the cuckolder in The Arabian Nights. Subscribing to widely held racial notions of his day, the nineteenth-century translator Richard Burton ascribed it to “the size of their parts” (Burton, p. 732). Others have argued that black-white racial prejudice of the sort familiar to the modern world does not apply. Slaves within the Islamic Empire could be white, black, or Asiatic. Significantly, say these others, the slave dynasty that rose to power in Egypt and Syria, overthrowing in Arabic caliphate, consisted of Turkish Mamluks, not black Africans. In view of this fact, anxiety about any slave’s betraying his master may account for the theme’s frequent occurrence in the Arabian Nights’ tales.

father had settled upon her. Similarly, if a father failed to find a husband for his daughter and she subsequently entered a “love-match” of her own choosing, the father would still support her and she would retain her inheritance, though it might be reduced, depending on how severely the father disapproved of the relationship.

Within marriage a Sasanian woman, especially one known as the zan-i padikhshayih (wife in authority), had full authority over the internal running of the house, the organization of other members of the household, and the upbringing of the children. With regard to the last, sons remained in the care of their mother until they were five, at which point their formal schooling began. Boys belonging to the upper ranks of society might receive an education similar to that described in the Pahlavi text “King Khusraw and the Page,” which included such diverse subjects as “writing, hunting, polo-playing, chess, music, games, apparel, food, wines, perfumes, and women” (Rose in Hambly, p. 36).

Comparatively little is known of the formal education of Sasanian girls beyond the acquisition of domestic skills. However, an incident mentioned in the Madigan i hazar dadistan—during which a learned lawyer and five women discuss several cases involving loans—suggests that some women may have been instructed in scholarly reasoning and the study of law. The education of Shahrazad, who had read “books of literature, philosophy, and medicine” and “was acquainted with the sayings of men and the maxims of sages and kings” was clearly exceptional, although perhaps not as unprecedented as it first appears (Haddawy, Arabian Nights, p. 13).

The displacement of Zoroastrianism by Islam during the seventh century had few radical effects upon the status of upper-class women. Generally Islam presupposed and supported a sexually polarized society in which men occupied the public, economic sphere; women, the private, domestic one. In Islam’s sacred text, the Quran (also in WLAIT 6: Middle Eastern literatures and Their Times), women are spiritual equals to men, with the same rights and duties (Quran 33:35). Elsewhere, however, the Quran says the man is head of the family and that his wife should obey him. One verse states,

The men are overseers over the women by reason of what Allah (God) hath bestowed in bounty upon one more than another, and of the property which they have contributed. Upright women are therefore submissive, guarding what is hidden in return for Allah’s guarding (them); those on whose part ye fear refractoriness, admonish, avoid in bed, and beat if they then obey you, seek no (further) way against them.

(Quran in Walther, p. 48)

Although there was more freedom in the early Islamic period and in the lower classes, by Abbasid times the sexes were rigorously segregated. Girls like Shahrazad, from the upper classes, grew up in the harim (harem), the women’s quarters of the household, which were off-limits to every man except the master of the house, his sons, and perhaps a physician should the services of one be required. Segregation continued when the children were old enough to be educated. Sons might be taught reading, writing, and the basics of arithmetic. Most daughters, by contrast, were trained as future housewives, schooled in domestic activities such as needlework and cooking. In some aristocratic families, daughters might have the opportunity to receive the same education as their brothers; however, in that case, girls were entrusted to female teachers only.

Despite these conservative dictates, some women, especially those of the ruling elite, managed to establish themselves successfully outside the household, in certain sectors of Islamic society, including the religious and scholastic. With regard to the former, women helped to maintain folk cults and pilgrimages to local shrines, and some founded convents dedicated to Sufism, a branch of Islam emphasizing mysticism and spirituality. A few female mystics became famous in their own right, including Rabi‘ah al-Adawiyah (713–801), who was one of the earliest women Sufis.

Women also served as scholars, teachers, and transmitters of knowledge—most notably in the form of hadiths, traditions based on Muhammad’s non-divinely revealed words that served as a source of Islamic law. Even within the domestic sphere, some women contrived to improve their education, establishing study circles in private homes, in which women delivered lectures to other women. Moreover, despite one pervasive tenet of Islamic thought that advocated the total exclusion of women from public life, some managed to transcend the domestic sphere through a combination of wealth, social circumstances, and individual strength of character. Gavin R. G. Hambly writes, “In reality, well-placed women in traditional Islamic societies always had the opportunity to influence public affairs, even if that influence was used inconspicuously. There was always the possibility of a strong female personality determining the actions of a less forceful husband, son, or brother, or of a ruler becoming infatuated with one of the women in his harem” (Hambly, p. 10). The character of Shahrazad, a strong-willed queen who uses her wit and education to influence and redeem a king whose bitterness has led him to commit cruel and barbarous acts, may thus be regarded as a viable role model for women of pre-Islamic and Islamic society.

Sources and literary context

Scholars tend to agree that most of the tales that comprise The Arabian Nights were drawn from Persian story collections. Of these, Hazar afsanah (Thousand Tales) is considered the most immediate source. Other tales originated in China, India, Egypt, and even Greece. It was centuries, however, before The Arabian Nights achieved anything that resembled a “fixed” form. Despite the existence of thirteenth-and fourteenth-century manuscripts, the collection continued to grow until the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A common core does exist, however, a nucleus of eleven stories:

  1. “King Shahrayar and Shahrazad, His Vizier’s Daughter”
  2. “The Merchant and the Demon”
  3. “The Fisherman and the Demon”
  4. “The Porter and the Three Ladies”
  5. “The Three Apples”
  6. “The Two Viziers, Nur al-Din Ali al-Misri and Badr al-Din Hasan al-Basri”
  7. “The Hunchback”
  8. “Nur al-Din Ali ibn Bakkar and the Slave-Girl Shams al-Nahaar”
  9. “The Slave-Girl Anis al-Jalis and Nur al-Din Ali ibn Khagan”
  10. “Jullanar of the Sea”
  11. “Qamar al-Zaman and His Two Sons, Amjad and As‘ad”

Significantly, some of the tales with which The Arabian Nights has become most closely associated—not only “The Story of Sindbad the Sailor,” but also “The Story of Ali-Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “The Story of Ala al-Din (Aladdin) and the Magic Lamp”—were late additions to the collection, composed some time between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries.

As a work, The Arabian Nights is most often described as a story cycle and has evoked comparison with such staples of world literature as Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s Decameron. All three works consist of tales told by the main characters and embedded in a framing narrative. The Arabian Nights is distinctive in having really only one storyteller, Shahrazad, at the heart of the work, although many characters within Shahrazad’s tales are storytellers themselves.

Events in History at the Time the Tales Were Written

Decline of Arab civilization

Even at the height of its power, the Islamic empire of the Abbasids carried the seeds of its eventual dissolution, a process that occurred over several hundred years. Initially, much of the strife was internal; political unity within the empire began to break down during the ninth and tenth centuries. Religious sects and splinter groups emerged from the provinces to challenge the supremacy of the Abbasid caliphate, including the Aghlabids of Tunisia, the Fatimids of Egypt, and the Hamdanids of Syria. An increasing number of new states sprang up after declaring independence from Baghdad. Meanwhile, the Abbasid caliphate itself went into a gradual decline, partly because of an increased reliance on Turkish military slaves to maintain its armies and serve as bodyguards. Known as Mamluks (“owned ones”), the slaves were strong, well-disciplined fighters. Gaining the confidence of their masters, they managed to manipulate the caliphate from within, and their influence spread to other parts of the empire as well. In 1250 a Mamluk seized power as sultan in Egypt. The Mamluks proceeded to form a military elite that would rule Egypt and Syria for some 250 years.

Internal strife within the empire was more than matched by outside threats. During the eleventh century, various invaders overran parts of the empire. Seljuk Turks, newly converted to Islam, infiltrated the Arab kingdom from Central Asia, defeating the Byzantines and occupying Syria and Palestine. Meanwhile, the first Crusaders descended on the Near East from western Europe in 1096, intent on wresting control of the Holy Land from the Muslims. On June 7, 1099, the Crusaders laid siege to Jerusalem, which fell to them little more than a month later. The Crusaders proceeded to enter the city, slaughtering Egyptian soldiers as well as Muslim and Jewish civilians along the way. After their victory, the Crusaders established a chain of principalities along the eastern Mediterranean coast.

A far worse threat overtook the Arab world in 1221 when Mongol troops led by famed warrior Genghis Khan invaded the eastern frontiers of the Islamic Empire, advancing into Persia and Afghanistan. In 1258 Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis, invaded Asia Minor and Iraq, captured Baghdad, and ordered that all of its 600,000 inhabitants be put to death. His army caught Musta‘sim, the last Abbasid caliph, and kicked him to death on Hulagu’s orders. The Mongols invoked a policy of all-out destruction, leveling cities and massacring people as they marched through the Near East. Poised to invade Egypt, they were finally driven back by a Mamluk army consisting of combined Syrian and Egyptian troops.

From the fourteenth century onward, however, an even greater threat emerged as the powerful Ottoman Empire—based in Turkey—launched a series of expeditions against the crumbling Islamic kingdoms. In 1516 Ottoman forces advanced into Syria, crushing Mamluk forces at the battle of Marj Dabiq; the following year Egypt also fell to the Turks, ending Mamluk rule in the region. Ultimately, all the states that had made up the Arab Empire fell under the control of the Turks. Arab civilization became a casualty of the Ottoman conquests. Scholarly pursuits, such as the study of the arts and sciences, fell into decline; the once-rich cultural heritage of the Arabs was absorbed and overshadowed by the priority their Turkish conquerors gave to administrative and military matters.

Not surprisingly, the Ottoman conquest evoked nostalgia for a bygone age among the conquered. This nostalgia forms part of the appeal of The Arabian Nights, which was most likely set down in manuscript form during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Robert Irwin, author of The Arabian Nights: A Companion, observes,

When one finds stories set in Baghdad during the caliphate of Harun al-Rashid, the notional setting should be read as an expression of nostalgia for a lost golden age, located in the early ninth century, when Arabs still controlled their own destiny, before the Turks took control over the army and administration, and when almost all the Islamic lands were united under one ruler, the Abbasid caliph.

(Irwin, p. 124)


Although the Western world has long counted The Arabian Nights among the classics of literature, this collection of tales occupied a less exalted position in the Arabic-speaking world, at least until the twentieth century. For many centuries, Arab scholars and intellectuals looked down upon The Arabian Nights as intended for the marketplace and common people rather than for the more sophisticated audience of the court. The continued admiration of the West for these tales, however, has inspired modern Arab scholars to re-evaluate this part of their literary heritage.

Revival of interest in The Arabian Nights inspired new translations of the available manuscripts, among them Haddawy’s recent English version. His translation has received considerable acclaim. Working from Muhsin Mahdi’s critical edition in Arabic of the oldest surviving Syrian manuscript, Haddawy retained the original shape and order of the stories. Sophia Grotzfeld wrote in Middle East Journal that Haddawy’s is a “sensitive translation,” adding that he succeeds at “conveying to the English-language reader the full narrative variety of the Arabic text and transmitting the true impression of the original” (Grotzfeld in Mooney, p. 68). Geoffrey O’Brien, writing for Voice Literary Supplement, was likewise enthusiastic, calling Haddawy’s version “indispensable. He has given us not a new version of an old favorite, but a work we’ve never known…. The real and unacknowledged legacy of the Nights… lies in the qualities that Haddawy’s version brings out: their spareness, their harshness, the highspeed complexity of their storytelling mechanisms” (O’Brien in Mooney, p. 68).

—Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

Burton, Sir Richard F., trans. The Arabian Nights. New York: Modern Library, 2001.

Clot, Andre. Harun al-Rashid and the World of the Thousand and One Nights. Trans. John Howe. London: Saqi, 1989.

Haddawy, Husain, trans. The Arabian Nights. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.

Hambly, Gavin R. G., ed. Women in the Medieval Islamic World: Power, Patronage and Piety. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Irwin, Robert. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. London: Allen Lane, 1994.

Kennedy, Hugh. The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates. London: Longman, 1986.

Landau, Rom. Islam and the Arabs. New York: Macmillan, 1959.

Mahdi, Muhsin. The Thousand and One Nights. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995.

Metz, Helen Chapin, ed. Iraq: A Country Study. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1990.

Mooney, Martha T., ed. Book Review Digest. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1992.

Segal, Ronald. Islam’s Black Slaves. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001.

Walther, Wiebke. Women in Islam. Princeton: Markus Wiener, 1993.

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The Arabian Nights: The Frame Tale

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