The Abbasid dynasty endowed a scholars’ center in Baghdad; its first work was to collect and translate the Iranian books sitting in local libraries. We don’t know at what point they began to translate the Persian storybook that became the most successful Islamic cultural ambassador ever sent to Europe.
The Persian story was about a Shah who, angry at all women because his wife was unfaithful, married and then beheaded one virgin per day. In this Persian kingdom, his chief minister was called the Dapir, the Scribe. The Dapir’s daughter had studied history intensely; she decided to volunteer as the next bride, confident that she could tell stories long enough to save her life. Within this frame story, she tells a core of stories that originated in Persian. The girl herself seems to be modeled on several legendary Persian queens.
In Arabic, the king’s chief minister was now the Wazir, an Arabic word. Religious references were altered to be consciously Muslim, and during the 9th century, stories about Harun al-Rashid were added. The culture presented in the new blended stories was that of Baghdad: Arabicized Persian. The book’s title was usually Alf Layla: One Thousand Nights.
Harun al-Rashid was the 5th Abbasid caliph, presiding over the new city at the height of its early glory. His mother had been a slave who rose to influence with her intelligence. Praising the Caliph’s mother could have been one reason for the way the stories multiplied. The Caliph appears in the stories as a daring, clever hero; he likes to go out disguised at night to learn the truth about affairs in the city.
When Islam is presented, it’s usually in the Sufi form with devout dervishes, sometimes whirling in ecstatic worship. I wonder if lingering Zoroastrian mysticism helped create Sufi Islam.
The stories first entered Europe’s consciousness in a French collection. Noticing that the stories did not live up to their name (there were not even close to one thousand of them), Antoine Galland added many more stories that he said were taken from storytellers in Syria. Galland’s version, published in 1717, set the spelling of names that we’ve come to expect: Scheherazade, the Vizier, Aladdin, Sindbad, and Ali Baba first come to us in Galland’s Mille Nuits. By this time, the stories were from all over the Silk Road, over several centuries.
Galland’s stories are set in Harun al-Rashid’s Baghdad, but some of the sub-stories are set in China, Bengal, or out in the Indian Ocean. Some stories have muskets, while some are very primitive; some are more Muslim than others. Some are science fiction (the flying horse) and some are detective stories; a second recurring character, with the caliph, is the Cadi, the sharia judge of Baghdad.
One core story that has been in the collection from the first Persian versions is about a fisherman and a Jinn. The fisherman finds a large vase, sealed with lead, in his nets. He opens it and out comes the Jinn, who offers him his choice of deaths. The Jinn explains that for the first century he was trapped, he promised to give his savior a choice of riches; the second century, riches and a choice of kingdoms; the third century, riches, a kingdom and a choice of everlasting life. But in the fourth century, he gave up and angrily vowed only to give his rescuer death for taking so long. The fisherman gets out of his predicament by tricking the Jinn back into the vase, and in some versions he has a lot more improbable adventures and fortunes. I’ve always loved that story for what it says about human psychology. Don’t we just do that?
If you haven’t read The Arabian Nights, as they’re commonly called, you really should try a few stories. C. S. Lewis borrowed his “Calormene” culture in Narnia straight from the 1000 Nights, and many other writers have used the stories as models. Victor Hugo wrote a poem about “Les Djinns,” inspired by Galland’s stories.
Here is a recent film cover, in which the Sultan is mentally ill with paranoia and has to be saved from himself by Scheherazade’s stories. Victor Hugo wrote a poem about “Les Djinns,” inspired by Galland’s stories. Here is a link to the poem in French and with translation.