Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Political Thought in the Thousand and One Nights

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Political Thought in the Thousand and One Nights

Article excerpt

It is a preposterous title, of course. Should we also look for political thought in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs? Or in the slapstick films of Laurel and Hardy? Or in Superman comics? Surely, whereas politics is "the art of the possible," The Thousand and One Nights (henceforth: Nights) is, in large part at least, the art of the impossible. Yet a moment's reflection allows one to realize that the title is not so very preposterous after all. To start with, the exordium to the Nights, with its references to doomed and vanished dynasties ("Thamud, 1Ad and Pharaoh of the Vast Domain") and its promise to provide lessons based on "what happened to kings from the beginning of time," strongly suggests that political concerns were not wholly alien to those who contributed to the Nights (Mahdi 1: 56; Haddawy T). In listening to Sheherezade, Shahriyâr is supposed to be learning from past examples (even if the political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, once described the study of history as something the historian loves "as a mistress of whom he never tires and whom he never expects to talk sense" [182]). In the light of the opening exordium, the whole of the Nighis can be considered to be an overblown and out-of-control example of the literary genre of mirror-for-princes (German Fürstenspiegel). In the mirror-for-princes section of Nasîhat al-mulûk, a work spuriously attributed to the eleventh-century theologian and Sufi, al-Ghazâlî (d. 1111), the reading of stories about past kings is advocated as a royal duty: "He must also read the books of good counsel . . . just as Anûshîrvân . . . used to read the books of former kings, ask for stories about them and follow their ways" (Crone, "Did alGhazali Write a Mirror for Princes?" 184).

To look at the politics of the Nights from another angle, when Elie Kedoune, in a study of modern Middle Eastern politics, came to discuss the medieval and Islamic legacy to the politics of the modern Middle East, he touched on the despotic powers of the caliphs and specifically of Abbasid Caliph Hârûn al-Rashîd, and he had this to say: "The emblem of his terrible power is the black executioner who, in the Nights, is shown to be in constant attendance on Hârûn al-Rashîd. Nearness to supreme power is perilous. The constant care of the ordinary subject is to avoid the attention of authority. A story in the Nights concerns a householder who, coming back from work in the evening, finds a corpse near his door. He is terrified to report his discovery to the police, lest they accuse him of murder. . . ." Having given (a slightly garbled) version of "The Tale of the Hunchback" with its migratory corpse, Kedourie made the point that for most people under a premodern Islamic regime, happiness was dependent on having as little as possible to do with the rulers, and he went on to quote Hârûn al-Rashîd's son and successor, the Caliph al-Ma'mun, who declared that "the best life has he who has an ample house, a beautiful wife, and sufficient means, who does not know us and whom we do not know" (15). Historically it was probably quite easy for middle- or lower-class Baghdadis to avoid the real Hârûn. But in the fictions of the Nights, humble folk were not so lucky, and for many of them, their story, and their peril begin when they come up against the nocturnally prowling caliph and suddenly find themselves talking for their lives.

Modern political textbooks tend to be drab productions. This was not always the case in medieval times, when storytelling was an accepted way of transmitting religious, political, and moral ideas. Political treatises are not the only possible expressions of political thought (even if the academic prejudice inclines that way). Mobs and mob violence, carnivals and kings-for-a-day shadow theatre and storytelling can all furnish examples of the politics of the street. For all its apparent wildness, the politics of the street has tended to be conservative. Mobs in eighteenth-century England were more likely to riot against freethinkers and Roman Catholics than they were to demonstrate against the government (White 104-20; cf. …

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