Katherine De Gaetano ENG 251 Activity #7 In the introductory commentary to the 1001 Nights in our text, the editor

describes the jinni of “The Merchant and the Demon” as a “paradoxical being; now tiny and now enormous, he towers above the merchant and yet his son is so small that the merchant’s date pit has killed him”. The paradoxical nature of the jinni extends beyond his amorphous corpulence. The jinni itself is an ill-defined being; neither human nor heavenly1, the jinn nonetheless possesses a tangible reality (at least in the world of the 1001 Nights)they seem to be able to interact freely with the human world, and even be of it as a human being is (note the jinn encountered by Shahrayar and Shahzaman in the Prologue, who keeps his human wife locked in a box). This is a nature more complex than might be suggested by the word “demon”, which seems to be used interchangeably with the word jinn; especially as it is understood in Christian theology. These jinn are not mere minions of Satanat their worst they represent jahiliya, or the old misguided ways, the pre-Islamic pagan Arab traditions practiced before the advent of Islam (as in the eponymous demon in “The Merchant and the Demon”, who exacts a bloody price from the merchant to avenge the death of his son). The Qur’an, however, describes them as being created with free will, and thus capable of embracing Islam as are humans (note the female jinn who declares that she is one of those jinn “who believes in God”). The 1001 Nights, depicting these diaphanous beings in a three-dimensional complexity, is considered the foremost authority on the nature of the jinn apart from the Qur’an itself. Quite unlike the Qur’an, however, The Nights suffers from an image problem in its native land. “Pure” fiction (that is, fiction written purely for entertainment value, as opposed to morality tales such as Aesop’s Fables, or the tales of Luqman as he is known in the Islamic world) has been scorned in Islamic societies as little more than outright lies until very recently; the literate (and/or listening) public therefore has long been conditioned to accept only that fiction imbued with a didactic or meditative or spiritual purpose. The Nights have therefore been treated with a certain disdain over the years, and have even been banned periodically, decried as un-Islamic. But I think it likely that the incisive commentary on Islamic society and human nature contained within it cannot have been lost on the denizens thereof, hence the very survival of the work through the chaotic intervening centuries between the halcyon days of the Islamic Empire and the introduction of the work to an intellectually curious Western audience. And as for this Western audience, it is certain that the paradoxical nature of The Nights, the jinn, and the rest of the characters inhabiting that enchanted world endlessly fascinated them; for at that time, they were privy only to second- and third-hand information about Muslims and Islamic civilization. In his fascinating book What Went Wrong?, Bernard Lewis tells us that by the latter years of the Ottoman Empire, when Islamic Spain was a relatively distant memory, Middle Eastern Muslims did not even entertain the notion of crossing over into Christian lands; in fact, the very thought evoked fear (it is said that the name Richard the Lion-Hearted is invoked as a sort of bogeyman character by mothers in the Levant region to this day), and Muslim governments therefore exclusively enlisted Christian minorities abiding in their realms, such as Greeks and Armenians, and emissaries to the West when the need arose. So the Arabic and Persian literature that was introduced and feverishly translated at this juncture had to do as fodder for the imagination of the armchair Orientalist. The themes of paradox, which are present not only in a great many individual works of Arabic, Persian and Turkish literature but also become apparent when these works are

considered as a whole, came to shape the Western perception of Islamic culture in a global sense. Ralph Waldo Emerson, the nineteenth-century Transcendentalist scholar, described Middle Eastern culture as being “characterized by the superlative” (Hopkins 21) that is, the best and worst of all things. Indeed, this is an apt observation, virtually summing up the Western perception of this most complex of cultures, the very same one that was in turn (and simultaneously) regarded as both the locus of civilization itself (whether one considered the matter from an anthropological or a religious point of view, history dawned in and around the Fertile Crescent area) and a shadowland, a violent and tyrannical monolith at worst, and a mysterious and exotic landscape at best. But with the age of Exploration and the Renaissance came a curiosity about the lands beyond the borders of Christendom; the newly-minted scholars of Near Eastern studies examined the paradoxes—the superlative, the best and worst—aspects of Islamic culture formed perceptions about it, many of which define the intercultural dynamic between the Islamic world and the West to this day. In this essay, I will examine the paradoxical elements of The 1001 Nights, and also of the poetry of the Persian masters Attar, Rumi, Hafez and Sa’di, so as to create a more encompassing view of Middle Eastern literature. Consider first the paradox between the popular perception of the Nights as existing outside the parameters of capital-L Literature, as a frivolous confection of value for entertainment only, and appealing to suspect elements of the human character besides, and the compelling psychological drama set out in the frame story. The narrative flashes back and forth between the dire situation of a woman in mortal danger, and the “strange and wonderful world” she creates each night in the king’s chambers—so absorbing are the tales that were it not for the daily exchange between Shahrzad and Dinarzad, the reader might well forget that Shahrzad is attempting to forestall her own murder. But to lose the king in a world of her own creation is the point, after all; and these opposing elements find synthesis in the reader’s realization that however fantastic Shahrzad’s tales may seem, they were carefully and subtly crafted for their palliative effect on Shahrayar’s tortured soul, and that they eventually succeed not just in sparing the life of Shahrzad and all the women of the realm, but in exorcising the ghosts that haunted the aggrieved monarch. How can the modern reader even conceive of the stress that Shahrzad not only suffered but also successfully subverted during her proverbial 1001 Nights in the king’s bed? This is reality in the Islamic world; even during the best of the times the winds of change (not always good change—in fact, usually not good change) couldand still canblow in at gale force, and it forged an adaptable human spirit. Of course it also engendered a certain philosophy of resignation, and both of these elements of the Middle Eastern character in large part guided the course of its history, for better and for worse. Secondly, consider King Shahrayar himself. He is an absolute monarch cut right from the cloth of Persian kingship; the prologue tells us that The Nights takes place during Sasanian times, the Sasanians being the last Persian dynasty before Iran was conquered by the Arabs in the seventh century. Depending upon the orientation of the writer such an identity might have signified proud imperial grandeur or baroque decadence and immorality. In fact, “imperial grandeur” almost fails to do justice to the notion of Persian kingship; such a lofty institution it was that it is the source of most received notions of the essence of royalty: European monarchy, which was once tribal and later feudal (i.e. militaristic) in character, morphed into bejeweled regency on the model of the Byzantine rulers, who in turn had witnessed the aweinspiring remoteness and ethereal luxury that swirled around the Shah of Persia.

Ditto the Islamic caliphate; Mohammad and the first few caliphs succeeding him were tribal leaders in the style of the Arab sheikh, a figurehead among equals. Thereafter, contenders for the Caliphate took their cues from the Sasanian Persian rulers and surrounded themselves with similar luxuries and the trappings of absolute monarchy, a trend that had its apex with The Nights’ Harun Al-Rashid. (The difficulty lay in the fact that such kings, one right after the other, wished to command the loyalty and rouse the awe of their subjects as had the legendary kings of Persian history such as Cyrus and Darius; however, few exuded the effortless authority and displayed the wisdom, justice and compassion for which the two latter became renowned; but I digress.) The Prologue indicates that Shahrayar does command the loyalty of his subjects, but whether because he is a just ruler or a pompous autocrat is left for us to contemplate. The lack of evidence for the former speaks volumes in favor of the latter. What I find paradoxical about Shahrayar is that he reacts to the events in a fashion that seems disproportionate to his identity as presented in the story; that is, though he is a power-happy absolute monarch, one for whom everything is permissible, he suffers profoundly from the queen’s betrayalso much so that we view him in a new, humanizing light. It may sound patronizing to describe Shahrayar’s solution the “female problem” as merely stemming from anguish, but I maintain that there is something more than chauvinism or misogynyor an old-school standard of female propriety, though it would be disingenuous to claim that there was no such element presentat work here (not least because a folkloric tale such as the Nights multiplies the elements of a story for dramatic effect—that is to say, a real historical situation in which the king, faced with similar circumstances, executed his wife and slave girls morphs into a bloodbath of much greater proportion for mythological purposes). He doubtlessly possessed a sizable harem; furthermore, any exotic beauty of his far-reaching realm was subject to his whims. Yet this did not assuage the anguish stemming from his wife’s betrayal, just as the considerable advantages afforded by consortium with a king did not dissuade Shahrayar’s wife from an adulterous relationship with a slave. And as she, in the end, paid for her transgression with her life, we could say that the king’s life was stripped of its significance—recall that he and Shahzaman were willing to forfeit their thrones and wander the Earth in search of a more pathetic cuckold, with no guarantee that one existed. So if Shahrayar represents a rather dark reality of the world of the Nights, he has his antithesis in Shahrzad. The figure of Shahrzad immediately presents two sharp contrasts concerning the nature of women in the Nights and the prevailing attitudes toward them. Firstly, in a world in which women were tragically expendable and even sometimes treated as chattel, Shahrzad is noted not only for her beauty, but for her intelligence, refinement and compassion, and she is clearly cherished by her father the vizier. She furthermore resists the role prescribed for her by defying her father (a figure possibly second in importance only to the king himself) seemingly without consequence. Thus is she set apart from the other young women of the kingdom, the nameless, faceless victims of Shahrayar’s misdirected wrath. Shahrzad further presents a contrast to the wives of Shahrayar and Shahzaman (as well as to the evil queen in “The Enchanted King”); whereas the wronged parties read into their betrayal at the hands of the two former queens a perfidiousness inherent in the feminine nature, Shahrzad is perfect in her ingenuity, nobility and courage. The age of the Nights was infamous for a certain phenomenon wherein though it was unthinkable that women should hold any real power in a political or legal sense, the influential wives and concubines of sovereigns and officials often exercised considerable sway over the men in their lives from behind the proverbial veil. Shahrzad appropriates these tactics, and uses them for the most altruistic of purposes. Our text suggests a fascinating conceptthe Nights clearly

demonstrates the influence of either a female writer or one who was in touch with the feminine spirit, so to speak, by the subtle modes of conflict resolution employed by Shahrzad—a more typically male solution would have been to simply march on the palace and depose the offending monarch (which would have made for a far less interesting tale). Why women have historically been relegated to second-class citizenship is a complex issue, one that is not limited to Middle Eastern culture by any means and which has not been resolved in our present day. One of the more oft-repeated justifications is that women are by nature emotionally unstable and prone to flights of fancy; thus, the testimony of a woman is only half as valuable as that of a man in a court of law according to sharia. Couple this argument with the lamented “treachery” of women in the Prologue, and it would appear that the argument is that women are somehow less civilized than men. Shahrzad proves this a patently unfair generalization. Rather, she acts as a civilizing force upon Shahrayar; as mentioned above her tales are chosen not only for their engaging qualities but also for their subtly instructive moral lessons in love, compassion, justice and tolerance; as Mona Mikhailis puts it in her essay “The Role of Women in Arabic Literature”, As the tales unfold, there emerges a discernible pattern of studied strategy to bring about radical change in the disposition of her opponent. The battle of the sexes is peacefully resolved after the purging of the residual enmity lingering in Shahrayar’s soul. Shahrzad could further be said to represent the civilizing force of Islam itself, in contrast to the “old ways” as symbolized by the Sasanian identity of Shahrayar (though admittedly this is only a literary device—Persian society was by no means less civilized than that of the Arabs or its other contemporary societies. It was, however, bureaucratic and deeply stratified) and his parallel in the tales, the jinn of jahiliya; Islamic societal prescriptions did indeed represent vast improvements over those of pre-Islamic Arabian society. This is ironic considering that women were not perceived as being “of” the faith by reason of the conjectured flaws mentioned above; indeed, the sanctions they suffered by reason of their sex were likewise imposed on Christians, Jews and Zoroastrians, the so-called Peoples of the Book (i.e. they were not enlightened by Islam but they were not heathens either). I have primarily referred to Persia to Persian culture within the Islamic sphere for two reasons. The first is obviously that “Shahrayar” and “Shahrzad” are Persian names and the characters are identified as Sasanian Persians in the story. The second is that Persia represents a unique element in the Islamic cultural tapestry; as an ancient culture with a well-defined homeland and sense of ethnic and cultural identity, the comparatively rustic invading Arabs encountered much cultural resistance, so to speak, from the Persians; although the Arab armies felled the Sasanian emperors and drove the Zoroastrian religion either underground or far afield, the Persians eventually asserted cultural dominance even over the Arabians (that is, Arabs from what is now Saudi Arabia, or those most closely related to Mohammed in an ethnic/tribal sense); “Persian dress, manners, and technique spread quickly throughout the Empire” (Oschenwald 67). Of course, as the Islamic empire expanded to include the lands from Morocco and Spain in the West to the outer reaches of Central and South Asia in the East, the mix grew more eclectic; but Persia represents this phenomenon because it was the first and perhaps most

“nationalistic” of the distinct cultural entities to be enveloped within the sphere of Islam. The dynamic thereby created resounds to this day, and both ancient and modern manifestations of it represent a great paradox2; it is appropriate that our paradoxical characters in this paradoxical tale should be identified as Persians. To widen the scope of our examination of paradox in Middle Eastern literature, then, let us consider one of the most celebrated and internationally renowned aspects of Persian culture, the poetry of the mediaeval Sufi masters. The “golden age” of Persian literature began with Firdowsi (b. 940), who composed the Shahnameh. A sort of national heroic epic consisting of over 50,000 couplets, the Shahnameh is a grand synthesis of religious foundation stories (known only from the Avesta, the Zoroastrian scripture) with Persian history and contemporary affairs (over thirty five of the shahs named in the Shahnameh are readily identifiable historical figures). Firdowsi undertook the project at the behest of a certain Bahram Shah3; from his time until that of Jami, who died in 1492 (the very threshold of the modern age in the West), a literary renaissance of arguably miraculous proportions took place in the lands of the old Persian Empire, centered around the city of Shiraz in Fars province, which was famous for its wine and roses, as well as the tombs of the poets Hafez and Sa’di. In the West today, Omar Khayyam (d. 1123) is well-known from the British Edward Fitzgerald ‘s translations of his rubaiyyat ; Hafez, to a lesser extent due to the cultural influence of the Iranian diaspora; and Rumi, called Jalal Ad-Din Balkhi in Iran, to an increasing extent, due to the modern appeal of his poetry, and not least to the translations of Coleman Barks (who does not speak Farsi, but takes literal translations and turns them into contemporary English which appeals to modern sensibilities, but nevertheless is said to be as true to Rumi’s spirit as any rendering yet attempted). First, consider two overarching paradoxical elements of Persian poetry in the context of its time and place. The first involves the Sufi philosophical currents inherent in the poetry, distinc as they are from the letter of Islam. Islam initially counted amongst its doctrine that of ijtihad, meaning the necessity and desirability of a dialectic among the scholarly types so as to clarify and more accurately and thoroughly apply shari’a law to all aspects of human life. Then, after the death of the last and most influential codifier of Islamic doctrine, al-Ghazali, the “gates of ijtihad” were closed and locked. At least for the Sunni, that issuppression of ijtihad was never officially endorsed by the Shiite ulema, although it must be said that the Shiites were known to favor their own doctrines as militantly as did some Sunni groups. Formerly, it had been the case that whereas the Qur’an and the sayings and the traditions of Mohammad formed the basis upon which Islamic thought was constructed and deviation therefrom was unacceptable, it was recognized that shari’a did not provide a whole lot of guidance considering what might be called the minutiae of civil law. There is no inherently Islamic way to zone a city, for example. Therefore, consensus, private opinion (of scholars) and local custom were to be taken into account when interpreting Islamic law. One can imagine that within the several already-extant schools of Islamic thought so petrified, an environment of intellectual stagnation and petty one-upmanship developed. In support of this view, in his poem “The Essence of Grace” Hafez writes, “O Sufi, it’s no use, these selfish preachers will never learn to whirl; they give equal value to the shell as to the pearl (38).” Against this background appeared the Sufi philosophy of Islam; although Sufi preachers introduced mystical elements to the point where only the barest Islamic structure remained recognizable, Sufism nonetheless took root in the minds of the people. The utter newness of Sufi thought, most notably its ecumenical character, is exemplified by Rumi’s “Only Breath” and “Sometimes Visible, Sometimes Not” (1545); the overarching theme, that God is knowable not through received canons

and the proclamations of self-styled religious authorities, but via an inner journey to the divine as it exists within all of us, and the recognition of the same divine spark in those around us. Secondly, consider the difference between the modes of the expressions of these poets. Attar and Sa’di are thoroughly Sufi in their religious sentiments; “The Conference of the Birds” in particular expresses an idea (i.e. at the conclusion of the tale, when the thirty birds discover their own reflection in the mirror—that is, they have discovered their own divine natures) that must have seemed a remarkable revelation at best, and deeply subversive—even blasphemousat worst. But Attar’s tale is built upon the tradition didactic framework and draws from commonly recognized symbolic imagery, especially as regards the use of animals as emblematic of particular character traits. Sa’di’s “Golestan” likewise employs a framework typical of the morality tale of the period; the individuals who populate the work are less characters than symbols, each representing an archetype. Anushirvan, for example, refers not to the historical personage; Anushirvan refers to the idea of Persian kingship, or even absolute power distilled to its essence. Likewise does Zahak represent tyranny (this is a different animal from the Shah—it seems the only thing worse than a tyrant is a foreign tyrant in the Persian worldview), an Arab a plethora of distasteful traits, and the Dervish goodness, piety, wisdom, patience—a symbol of all the moral precepts the poet is trying to impart. Hafez and Rumi did employ traditional poetic meters, but their subject matter was hardly traditional. Both spoke openly of love and life in ways that were rather unIslamic; both spoke openly of wine, song and dance as avenues of communion with the divine, and both scorned the practices and attitudes of the traditional religious establishment. The sentiments expressed by each poet ring profoundly in modern ears—couple this with the fact that through their poetry timeless human emotion finds full expression, and it is easy to understand why they are as famous throughout Iran and the Islamic world as they were 700 years ago, and have become so in the Western world. It is conjectured the sensual verse of both Hafez an Rumi should be read as a metaphor for the love of God for his people, and for the devotion that an individual should feel for God in return; but much like Song of Solomon of the Bible, the poetry just lends itself too easily to a depiction of human relationships—sometimes subtle, sometimes explicit, sometimes idealized, sometimes all too real; my personal favorite is this selection from “Music Master”: When I am with you, we stay up all night Whne you’re not here I can’t go to sleep Praise God for these two insomnias, and the difference betweem them! The minuteI heard my first love story, I started looking for you, not knowing how blind that was. Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere, they’re in each other all along. They both also offered biting political commentary; the nature of politics apparently does not change over centuries or a hemisphere; such sentiments, if published today, would seem every bit as appropriate as they did in the poets’ (and remember that this were the chaotic years of the Mongol scourges). Note in particular Rumi’s opinion of “Why Wine is Forbidden” (1247), and this, one of my favorite lines of Hafez: “The alcoholic chancellor of the University says ‘Wine is illegal. It’s worse than living off charity’…the town’s forger of false coins is also

president of the city bank.” (77). Both poets also authored morality tales, but managed still to make them as delicate and poignant as a Persian miniature painting (as Rumi’s “Spiritual Couplets” (Norton 1546). A final thought on Persian poetry: the reader notices a jarring discrepancy between the major Persian poets in one aspect of their work. We have established that Rumi, in particular, advocated a spiritual philosophy that rendered the labels Jew, Christian and Muslim irrelevantor more appropriately, equally relevant. Hafez expressed similar thoughts; consider his “Listen to my Pen’s Advice”, in which he says “Hafez, yours is the most beautiful verse I have ever heard. You must have the Qur’an and the Bible in your heart combined” (12; Hafez often refers to himself in the third person). In comparison, Attar’s depiction of the Sheikh Sam’an’s beloved is harsh; her religious practice is depicted as idolatry (even though even the Qur’an says otherwise) and her haughty disrespect of Sheikh Sam’an and her demands that he forsake Islam paint a very different picture than Rumi’s vision of oneness. However, in the end, that Attar should have chosen to so depict Christianity serves to illustrate an enduring truth about Iranneither fundamentalist nor reformer, not conservative or liberal, are cast from the same mould; the discrepancy was and remains dramatic, as borne out by the tragicomedy of Persian history. If literature can act as a cultural ambassador to those residing beyond the borders of the country of its origins, I would argue that The 1001 Nights and the poetry of the Persian Sufis are particularly skilled ambassadors. For they reveal the diverse elements that were incorporated into Islamic civilization in order to produce the rich cultural tapestry that is still readily apparent; paradoxically, of course, they are the same elements that have oontributed to the tensions that continue to afflict the region in modern times. But, presenting a three-dimensional view as they doof ugliness and beauty, strength and weakness, the supernatural and the mundane, piety and decadence, humor and devastating poignancythey serve their citizens well. For once a stranger to the culture begins thinking in terms of black and white as opposed to just black, then shades of grey, then all the colors of the spectrum—it is not a long road to the “meadow beyond right and wrong” where the Master is waiting to meet us.


In fact the Qur’an describes the jinn as antedating mankind, having been created from “smokeless fire”. These inauspicious origins are said to explain the “fiery nature” of the jinn; this in turn explains their tendency to align with anti-Islamic forces. 2 I am speaking of the following situation in Iran: Islam obviously did take root very deeply in Iran. However, Iranians held fast to their organic culture and their pre-Islamic heroes and traditions and still do to this day, which is a fact not lost on their Arab co-religionists (in fact, Saddam Hussein was fond of employing the epithet “racist, fire-worshipping Persians” during the Iran-Iraq War). Also, whereas Arabic had been language of bureaucracy, learning and literature in the centuries after the Islamic conquest, Persian soon regained linguistic dominance in Iranian areas; Firdowsi is the poster child for the reassertion of the Farsi language and Persian nationalism. Since language is the house of culture, as it were, the survival of Persian nationhood as distinct from Islamic civilization was thus ensured. And finally, Iran was historically fertile ground for deviant schools of Islamic thought. The most obvious example is the fact that Iran is wholly Shi’a; whereas Shiites form minorities in several other West and South Asian states, only in Iran does the Shi’a sect enjoy official status. Iran was also the birthplace of the famous Ismaili Shiite order of the Assasins, from which we derive the word for political murder, and which would probably on many a terrorist watch list if they were around today, even though, according to one source, “they were more principled than Osama bin Laden”. I’m not sure if this argument would sway the authorities presently in power. Many of the most famous and respected Sufis—that most mystical and tolerant strain of Islam were of Iranian origin ; the dichotomy between the theology of the Shiite establishment, rigid in its complexity, and self-professed “Sufi-esque” orientation of the Iranian people is a major source of conflict in Iran today. 3 It is suggested that the impetus for the commission of this national epic, a chronicle of Persian history from the dawn of time (some scholars suggest that Zoroaster lived so long ago as to make him a predecessor or contemporary of Abraham; indeed, the language of the Avesta displays many similarities to that of the RigVedas, which were composed prior to 1500 BC) to the reign of Shah Bahram was not only Persian cultural reassertion after the centuries of Arabic domination, but the imminent onslaught of the Mongols! From one of the most unfortunate and terrifying chapters in history came something as sublime and enduring as the Shahnameh—a paradox indeed.


Barks, Coleman. The Essential Rumi. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.
Crowe, Thomas Rain. Drunk on the Wine of the Beloved: 100 Poems of Hafiz. Boston:

Shambhala Publications, 2001. Lewis, Bernard. What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Mikhailis, Mona. “”The Role of Women in Arabic Literature”. Cornell University. 20 September 2004. http://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/awomnlit.htm

Ochsenwald, William, and Sydney Nettleston Fisher. The Middle East: A History. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004.

Sign up to vote on this title
UsefulNot useful