Tunisia, Egypt, and 1,001 Arabian Nights: A Book Recommendation

There is a lot of change going on in the Middle East at the moment. Protests in Tunisia led to the resignation of that country’s leader, while continued protests in Egypt led to the recent resignation of Hosni Mubarak, that country’s former president of thirty years. One worry is that Islamic fundamentalist groups will manipulate elections to gain power so that they can impose Sharia law. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood‘s influence in Egypt is something to fear I will not debate here, but I will argue that increasing understanding is always important.

Americans (and the West in general) is having to deal with Muslims a lot more today than before. It is important to understand Islamic culture, especially if you want to talk about dangers proceeding from Islamic political movements. Sometimes people write to expose manipulation of the political dialogue regarding Islam in America and in the West. It is easy to panic when reading about such things, and it is precisely when we feel like panicking that we should move to understand. Reading stories from Middle-Eastern societies is a good way to start.

Maybe you know One-Thousand and One Arabian Nights (alternatively The Thousand Nights and a Night): King Shahryar marries Shahrazad, and he is going to have her put to death after the wedding night. However, she knows what is going to happen, so she has her sister Dunyazad come along and ask her to tell a story. She starts a really good story, but she stops it halfway through when the sun comes up. The king wants to hear the rest of the story, so he decides to put off her execution. This continues for 1,001 nights. By the end, she has three kids, the king loves her, and he decides not to kill her.

Within the overarching story about Shahryar and Shahrazad, she tells a lot of stories, and some of those stories contain stories within stories in an Inception-like manner. There is the story of a fisherman who finds a jinn (genie) in a bottle. He lets it out, and the jinn gives him the choice of how he is to die. The fisherman tricks him back into the bottle, and they trade stories to argue why or why not the fisherman should let the genie out again. One of those stories is about a vizier who wants to poison the king’s mind against one of his trusted officials, and they trade stories about how to determine what is good advice!

This sort of thing continues for 1,001 nights! In full translation, The Thousand Nights and a Night can take ten volumes.  The stories describe many parts of Muslims’ lives and indicate lines of thought and practice in an Islamic society. I particularly want to recommend the translation by Richard Francis Burton, who did ten volumes for the main story and added six additional volumes with supplementary materials. His footnotes describe all of the quaint things that you read about in the stories. If you can tackle the volumes of this work with his annotations, you will “readily and pleasantly learn more of the Moslem’s manners and customs, laws and religion than is known to the average Orientalist,” as he states in his translator’s foreword. (You can find it for free here. You will have to search a little for the other volumes, but you can find them easily.)

While he may sound arrogant to say such a thing of his own writing, he wrote back in the 1800s when, as he also says, “Apparently England is ever forgetting that she is at present the greatest Mohammedan empire in the world.” Just one or two little conquests back in the colonial days, and Britain found itself ruling millions of Muslims. Furthermore, he says, “Now Moslems are not to be ruled by raw youths who should be at school and college instead of holding positions of trust and emolument. He who would deal with them successfully must be, firstly, honest and truthful and, secondly, familiar with and favourably inclined to their manners and customs if not to their law and religion.” Although Burton’s context is dated, his writings still teach the necessity of understanding and respect when approaching Muslims.

The volumes written and translated by scholars from the colonial era are invaluable resources for if you want to get to know Muslims and Islamic society. For instance, if you read Thousand Nights, you can observe attitudes toward women (they, especially the ugly ones, have the magic powers), the Arab and Persian appreciation for recited poetry, and the Islamic understanding of the sovereign will of God. Perhaps you know the jinn (genie) from the story of Aladdin. In Thousand Nights, you will see good jinni and bad jinni, and some of them even follow Islam.

In the end, if you want to write about Islam, you have to read. You have to read a lot. You have to read the Qur’an for more than references to Jihad. You have to read what Europeans wrote back in the colonial days. Every new problem has roots in an old problem with roots in an ancient problem. I recently wrote and asked whether there was a Christian plot to take over the world. Even when caution is warranted when dealing with politicized Islam, let not understanding be lacking. Its presence sharpens caution, but its absence enfeebles vigilance. Read The Thousand Nights and a Night: you just might learn something.

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