Saturday, December 11, 2010

Review of The Islamic Context of The Thousand and One Nights

The Journal of Folklore Research has a new book review up on Muhsin J. al-Musawi's 2009 book The Islamic Context of The Thousand and One Nights.

The review is vast and lengthy and is written by Hasan El-Shamy, Professor at Indiana University and author of the 2006 book A Motif Index of The Thousand and One Nights, a specialized academic resource of tale types found in the Nights.

I haven't read the entirety of al-Musawi's book but I have it at home from the library.  It seems to be one of the few lengthy treatments of the topic (Islam & the Nights) though it also suffers, I think, from some of the generalizations of most Nights scholarship (ie does not necessarily treat individual variants of the Nights as idiosyncratic pieces of a much larger and looser literature instead relying on the Nights in a very broad sense).

El-Shamy's review can be read in its entirety here:

Here is an excerpt:

"The chapters are logically arranged to present a sequence of historical and sociocultural developments as depicted in or inferred from the Nights as literature rather than folklore, written or oral. Chapters 1, 2, 3, and 7 address the Islamic Factor: in "Global Times" (25), as "the Unifying [...] Factor" (52), its role in "the Age of Muslim Empire and the Burgeoning of a Text" (106), and in "Scheherazade's Nonverbal Narratives in Religious Contexts" (250), respectively. In this context, "Global Times" signifies fraternity beyond ethnic and similar social distinctions (21). Meanwhile, chapter 5 discusses "Nonreligious Displacements in Popular Tradition," emphasizing the dichotomous patterning between the court and street or the rich and the poor (197), and between the secular and the religious (214, 231, cf. 224 where the fantastic partakes of the religious). Two chapters (4 and 6) are dedicated to the influence the population exerted on the formation of this narrative anthology; they bear the titles "the Role of the Public in The Thousand and One Nights," where the "readers" and their preferences are discussed (145), and "The Public Role in Islamic Narrative Theorizations" (228), respectively. Al-Musawi labels this cultural phenomenon associated with a readership the "urban mind," and points out that it distinguished Baghdad from the eighth to twelfth centuries C.E., and Mamluk Cairo later (6, 8, 22).

It is that "urban mind" and its desire to read 'asmâr (nightly entertainments) and hikâyât (tales) that motivated the movement among some elite to gather and re-write oral traditional folktales that came to be attributed to Sheherazade's oral tale-telling skills. Al-Musawi explains: "The effort to address a reading public is central to the [narrative] art, however, for it manifests both the damage done to the oral tradition... and the desire among some of the literati to dig into the marginalized culture or to refine it through acceptable embeddings and translated framing narratives" (230-231)."

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