The Literature Book (Big Ideas Simply Explained) (2016)

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IN CONTEXT

FOCUS

Early Arabic literature

BEFORE

610–632 According to Islamic belief, the Qur’an (Arabic for “Recitation”) is revealed to Muhammad by God.

8th century A collection of seven pre-Islamic poems, some dating to the 6th century, are written in gold on linen, and are said to have been put up on the walls of the Kaaba at Mecca. They are known as Al-Mu’allaqat (“hung poems”).

AFTER

c.990–1008 Badi’ al-Zamān al-Hamadāni writes Maqamat (“assemblies”), a collection of stories in rhymed prose that relate the encounters of the witty Abul-Fath al-Iskanderi.

13th century The Story of Bayad and Riyad, a romance about the love of a merchant’s son for a foreign court lady, is written in Islamic Andalusia.

Across the Arab world there is a long tradition of storytelling, with folktales passed down orally through many generations. However, from the 8th century onwards, with the rise of flourishing urban centres and a sophisticated Arabian culture that prospered under the guidance of Islam, a widening distinction was made between al-fus’ha (the refined language taught at educational centres) and al-ammiyyah (the language of the common people). Pre-Islamic literature written in the vernacular – including traditional folktales – fell out of favour with the educated elite, and writers of Arabic literature turned away from composing works of imaginative prose to focus instead on poetry and non-fiction.

A Golden Age of Islamic literature

By the mid-8th century, the territory controlled by Muslims stretched from the Middle East across Persia into the Indian subcontinent, and from North Africa into Iberia. Sophisticated urban societies throughout the Islamic world became cultural as well as political centres.

This was the beginning of an Islamic Golden Age, which lasted for around 500 years. Centres of learning, such as the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, attracted polymaths – proficient in science, philosophy, and the arts – as well as scholars of the Islamic holy book, the Qur’an.

The Qur’an is the word of God, revealed to Muhammad, so it is considered not only a source of religious knowledge, but also the model for Arabic literature. Its style and language greatly influenced the classical Arabic literature that flourished from the 8th century onwards, mostly in the form of poetry, which was held in much higher regard than narrative fiction.

The appeal of stories

Yet despite the emphasis placed on the “high art” of poetry, there was a continuing public appetite for a good yarn. Although not highly regarded by Arabic scholars, the collection of tales that appeared under various titles over the next few centuries, but which are now known as the One Thousand and One Nights or the Arabian Nights, was perennially popular.

The collection came together in a chaotic fashion over several centuries, and no canonical version of the tales exists. Storytellers combined ancient Indian, Persian, and Arabic tales, with more stories being added over the centuries. The oldest Arabic manuscript still in existence is believed to have been put together in Syria in the late 15th century. It is written in everyday language that offers a strong contrast to the classical Arabic of poetry and the Qur’an.

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Tales within tales

The structure of the One Thousand and One Nights takes the form of a frame narrative, where one story contains all the others within it. The framing device is the tale of Princess Scheherazade, who faces execution by her husband, Prince Shahryar. After his previous wife’s adultery, the prince believes that all women are deceitful; he has vowed to marry a new bride every day, “abate her maidenhead at night and slay her next morning to make sure of his honour”. The princess averts her fate by withholding the ending of a story she tells on her wedding night, leading Shahryar to delay her execution. After 1,001 such nights, he confesses that she has changed his soul and he pardons her.

The tales told by Scheherazade intermingle fantastic tales set in legendary locations with stories involving historical figures – such as Haroun al Rashid (c.766–809), ruler of the Abbasid Caliphate during the Islamic Golden Age. The diverse nature of the tales is responsible for the wide variety of genres to be found within the collection, from adventure, romance, and fairy tale, to horror and even science fiction.

"O my sister, recite to us some new story, delightsome and delectable, wherewith to while away the waking hours of our latter night."


One Thousand and One Nights

Influence in the West

It was not until the 18th century that the stories became known in Europe, thanks to a retelling by French scholar Antoine Galland in Les Mille et Une Nuits (1704–17). The manuscript from which Galland translated was incomplete, falling well short of 1,001 nights worth of stories, so he added the Arabic tales of “Ali Baba”, “Aladdin”, and “Sinbad”. These were never part of the original One Thousand and One Nights, but have since become some of the most well-known stories from the collection in the West.

Galland’s book derived much of its popularity from its exoticism, with its tales of genies and flying carpets, and was an important influence on the folktale-collecting movement taken up by the Brothers Grimm and others in the early 19th century. A translation of the original stories by Sir Richard Burton in 1885 inspired a more serious interest in Islamic culture – but in the Arab world the tales are still regarded as entertaining fantasies rather than literature.

See also: Mahabharata • The Canterbury Tales • The Decameron • Children’s and Household Tales • Fairy Tales (Andersen) • Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque • The Prophet