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1001 Nights of Revelation

The most central component of Islam, and subsequently, the most critical historical component, is Allah. The Penguin Selection of famous tales, composed during the Abbasid dynasty of ambitious Arab Khalifas, in the eighth and ninth century C.E., begins, as all great works do, with a dedication. This one reads “Praise be to Allah Lord of the Creation, and blessing and peace eternal upon the Prince of Apostles, our master Mohammed.” This meandering anthology, Tales from a Thousand and One Nights, chronicles the adventures and misfortunes of a most fascinating race of men, strong and willful, yet compassionate and compromising. These curious tales reveal a depth of imagination, culture, and wisdom arguably unrivaled by western literature, presumably until Dante himself set out to embark on the greatest adventure of all: the quest to meet God.

What makes these fables and fairy-tales so enchanting, generation after generation, beyond the skillfully detailed settings, the complex characters, and the occasional moral overtones, is the oceanic sense of humility and duty conveyed in the most ubiquitous sense. These Arabs were as prone to cunning and treachery as any humans alive, but great care is taken to illustrate how the worst follies occur as the result of foolishness and lack of experience, as represented by faith in imposters, dependence on jinnies, attachment to wealth, overconfidence, idolatry, laziness, and the worst of all sins: betrayal. Loyalty was often the most dangerous condition of the human spirit, certainly not less so for the Arabs than the Mongols or Turks or any to follow this magical civilization of dreamers and tinkerers, subdued by only by centuries of political and military intrigue, but incapable of being extinguished. Viewing success as a goal, they perceived failure only as opportunity for wisdom, education, and courage. Loyalty reenforced this arrangement, Loyalty first and foremost to Allah, who guided them and strengthened them in all trials, and a sense of loyalty to each other that sustained them with an impenetrable concept of collective identity.

The bridge between Man and God was the prophet Mohammed, a man of no special ability or talent beyond the receipt of divine revelation. He is not generally held to have walked on water or turned water to wine. His role is much less pedantic. Through Mohammed flowed the word of God, upon which Mohammed himself clearly placed a higher premium than his own life. What is necessary about Mohammed is that landmark quality of familiarity that distinguishes his message, that which proceeded from an Arab, from the faith traditions of others. When the characters in Nights express gratitude, amazement, or encouragement, they say not just “There is no God but Allah,” but also the next exclusive qualifier : “...And Mohammed was his prophet.” Not Moses, Not Ahura Mazda or Thomas Aquinas or Jafari even. The message is one of reverence, overtly for God, but specifically for the God of the Arab. It says “you will be ok” or “this fortune has come to you” because Allah helped, which is great, but also because you are an Arab. Where the inhabitants of two major continents would struggle for familial supremacy under the Persian, Arab, or Turkish Banner over the coming years, it would be that unifying quality of Islam that penetrated most deeply into the annals of each of their cultural histories. Islam, the gift of peace, received by the world from the hands of Arabs.

Through their treatment of Allah in the many fanciful encounters of poor people, princes, dervishes, merchants, and foreigners, modern audiences can glimpse the many survival advantages with which Allah imbued the Arab. Allah is a sort of a social seal against iniquity. He is a monitor of personal conduct, as always. But he is also an omnipresent third party who arbitrates trade negotiations and other social exchanges. A consumer will plea for a discount by invoking the merchant's charitable nature, and by confidently asserting that Allah will bless them for their kindness. Allah is the protector of truth, and will be invoked as such to emphasize a speaker's sincerity, or to witness a promise or pact, effectively granting legitimacy to seemingly rocky impractical agreements. Allah would punish trespassers, liars, cheats, braggarts, and cowards in peculiar ways, which, at least in the narrative sense, seemed purposefully constructed to educate them. When all else fails, for example, an accused person or a victim of imminent harm may appeal to Allah for safety, at which point, the threat is often deflated, but is almost always replaced by some immediate task or service that often seems burdensome, but is often followed by incredible fortunes which speak to the Arabs sense of Self within the greater Self. 

Elevation and promotion were common themes in many stories of impoverished, sometimes even shiftless, characters, who are shown taking risks, innovating, thinking on their feet, trusting others, or not, depending on their own instinct. Such is the basis of the Arab's optimism, and the continuity of the Arab identity. More-so, however, it is the keystone of what later solidifies into Arab nationalism, as Arabs learn over and over that they are better off trusting each other than trusting any other. Social stature, however, was rightly perceived as fleeting, or at best, fragile. A palace was a sign of human authority, and reflected a reverent sense of duty and social organization, but it was also a tangible, and therefore temporal, thing. And like all things, a palace could be built in a night, taken away in a moment, and yet restored either on a whim or as the result of epic conquest, only to be destroyed or neglected, or worse. Love for a princess, however, could make a poor man King, and a palatial life would soon evolve naturally around them, as evidence of Allah's most divine element of grace: human affection.

With the supremacy of Allah taken to be such a principle theme in Nights, it is interesting to note how the characters conduct themselves in the presence of other cultures and faiths. A hodgepodge of strangers assemble for relief among strange women who perform vividly unnatural rights after their own fashion of mysticism, but the major outcome of the scene is a series of shared personal histories that are, by turns, moving, comical, terrifying, impossible, and inspiring. Inevitably, a group of odd characters with unfathomable intentions collide in space and time, and the device is always similar: the characters begin often under awkward or even adversarial circumstances, usually as strangers, and usually always across some cultural divide, as in slave meets ship captain, or the pauper who engages the prince (or princess) or the merchant conversing with the soldier. However, once each has told his or her story of how they arrived, who they were, where they came from, whatever conflict they had found themselves in was attenuated by the bonding element of the shared story. By humanizing themselves and each other in this fashion, it is clear that the citizens of ninth century Baghdad were not only well accustomed to tall tales from strange people on march or caravan from some remote corner of the world, they must have found them quite endearing.

A narrative is a difficult thing to construct, and a nuanced narrative requires a mastery of the human condition. These tales represent more than just a peace of cultural heritage, or a window into the political, economic, and social landscapes. They allow modern audiences to understand just how far back in time the human imagination can be traced. For westerners of the period, civilization beyond the church was wholly absent of any literary development. The fall of the western Roman empire left Europe in an intellectual vacuum known as the Dark Ages. The Platonic thought patterns the church retained persisted until the Arabs reacquainted Latin and Anglo audiences with Aristotle, a pretty thoughtful gift in light of the Crusades that opened the gates of Enlightenment, which like sunshine, always flows from the east. Westerners now take Vergil and Herodotus and Plutarch for granted, as they do hieroglyphs, another Easter-egg puzzle also surreptitiously unlocked as a consequence of western aggression. But each of these would perhaps still be lost to the world had they not been preserved by our eastern kinsmen for the six hundred more years we needed to evolve to appreciate what they intuitively ascribed value. The love of story, and the understanding of its myriad roles in the human experience, is arguably as advanced an art form as it is an exacting science.

No culture has ever survived that would not evaluate its own existence, decisions, and consequences. The sheer volume of substance contained within even the fewest passages from the thousand accounts of life and circumstance as presented in the Penguin anthology is not in and of itself novel. Even the most illiterate among barbarians could spin a decent yarn. But the specific scenic use of interpersonal dialogue for character development shows that as early as the Abbasid empire, Arabs were keen on the idea that learning about each other and indulging in someone else's accounts was vital to their growth and development, in both senses, practical and moral.
While it should be granted these tales were not all authored by some homogeneous Arab collective, the weight of influence of these tales in Medieval Arabia, down to the modern western audiences which revisit these iconic stories year after year, can not be dismissed. The tales we hear as children form our models for the world. They provide us with a context in which to understand our lives and to navigate our ever-complicating futures. Most importantly, however, they anchor us to a time and a place, and to a set of values and habits that define our character. The story of the Arabs is the story of Islam that predominated the stories of the Turks, Mongols, Ethiopians, Persians, and all the other cultures to whom those names would have been highly audible topics of relentless existential concern.

Through a well told story, both the character and the reader are altered for the better. One's sense of honesty or duty is reenforced. One's sense of adventure or curiosity expands. And One's ethical bearings are finely tuned by weighted examination of conflict and consequence. Effectively, for those of most faith traditions, a thing or event that makes one better is analogous to a thing which brings one closer to God, or to universal truth, or to wisdom, which is also divine. For those whom God is distant, courage and patience must often be drawn from the finite and exhaustible reservoir of self. For the Arabs of Baghdad in the 9th century and the thousand years that followed, God, who was kept close, provided and infinite well of strength to carry on, while binding to the Arab soul a profound regard for the strength of community, the warmth of family, and the dignity of the self.

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