Narrative in Medieval Arabic Literature

     The early development of medieval Arabic literature was, by and large, concomitant with the development of Islam. While there existed a rich poetic tradition in pre-Islamic Arabia and a body of narratives that accompanied it and purported to provide the factual background of the poetry, this material seems to have been preserved in oral form until it began to be written down in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, that is, at the same time that, with one exception, the other early texts of Arabic literature are being written. The exception, of course, is the Qur'‚n.

     The death of Muhammad in 632 A.D. furnishes a reference point. The Qur'an is the only text which we know to have existed in some written form in the century after his death. It is, we should note, a work that contains little narrative as compared to the Bible.

     After the Qur'an, the next major work we possess is the SÓrat an-nabÓ, "The Life of the Prophet," composed by Ibn Ish‚q in the first half of the eighth century, but available to us in the recension of Ibn Hish‚m who made his own cuts and additions. Close on its heels comes al-W‚qidÓ's Kit‚b al-magh‚zÓ or "The Book of Raids" describing the raids Muhammad and his followers made on the pagan tribes.

     Because of their priority and the importance of their subject matter, these works established precedents for the use of narrative that would have lasting effects throughout the Islamic Middle Ages. They are made up of the earliest narratives in Arabic, traditions about what Muhammad and his followers said and did in the course of conquering western Arabia. One of these narratives, depending on its content and on the context in which it is cited, is known as a khabar or a hadÓth. It is usually very brief, a half a page or less in length, and hence confined to the pithy recounting of a single incident. Because of its religious significance and to buttress its factual claims, each narrative came to be preceded by a feature known as the isn‚d (in Arabic, 'chain'), a series of names representing a kind of bucket brigade of tradents who, it is claimed, have passed the narrative along to the writer from an eye witness to the original event. Both with respect to narrative form and the uses to which narrative may be put, these traditions exerted enormous influence on subsequent narrative literature. Thus, in its beginning, narrative literature in Arabic purports to confine itself to fact, to the recounting of real events by eye-witnesses, real people. If one accepts everything at face value in the works cited, in Ibn Ishaq's Sirat an-nabi and Waqidi's Maghazi, then Ibn Ishaq and Waqidi, the 'authors,' have composed very little of their books' texts, having simply copied verbatim the 'accounts' from other people and other written sources.

     For various historical and ideological reasons, it proved very difficult for narrative literature to free itself of these conventions. 1 The theoretical and practical problems these conventions pose for fictional narrative should not be underestimated. First of all, narratives are always about 'real events.'2 Within the literature proper, a generic space for fiction never really opened up. That which never happened is simply a lie.

     Secondly, the device of the isnad poses a formal obstacle for beginning a fiction. It bars the way to the space where a fiction unfolds. This can be seen in some of the few fictional narratives composed by recognized authors. Thus Ibn Butlan, deferring to the need for an isnad, begins his Dinner Party of the Physicians, "One of them said..." One of whom? We can imagine a novel beginning with those words, but we would expect shortly to be given at least a hint as to the identity of 'them' within the fiction. That never happens in Ibn Butlan's work. We never learn anything about 'them,' for this 'them' exists in some extratextual place. As Valťry was aware, it takes some time within a tradition for someone to work up the nerve to simply begin, "The marquise went out at five."

     The isnad can also pose a problem with respect to the length of a narrative if one must represent a fiction as fact. Here I might remark that speculation about length per se as a factor that distinguishes The 1001 Nights narrative from the anecdotal works of adab misses the larger point. It is not a question of length in and of itself, but of length as an index of fictionality. 3 A second glance at a work like Tanukhi's Happiness after Hardship, which as we have seen, contains some analogues with stories found in The 1001 Nights, shows this. The stories in Tanukhi are almost entirely anecdotal, by which I mean most are a page or less in length. They rarely have the scope or the detail found in the full-blown fictions of The 1001 Nights. The very length of a narrative would pose a problem vis ŗ vis the assertion of fact staked out by the isnad. To focus on only one aspect, any khabar is likely to contain direct speech, but if such an account extends for many pages, one must grant the original eye-witness/reporter extraordinary powers of recollection to think that the reported speeches are the verbatim words of the various persons involved. The question must inevitably arise, 'How could he (and all of the other persons in the isnad) have remembered all of this exactly as it was said?'

     Other conventions pose other sorts of difficulties for the development of fictional narrative. Being supposedly a literature of hard fact, in a hadith or khabar no one would presume to make a statement about what someone else was thinking or feeling -- for how would he know such a thing? Thus, only the grossest sorts of emotions are registered: 'He was very angry,' and thought, unless it is spoken, is absent. The continuing presence of these features will be seen in The 1001 Nights.

     There may also have been ideological constraints. M. Arkoun has written: "The theological and philosophical tradition imposed an ontological weakness on the imagination. The Koran contributed to this weakening with its attacks against 'the poets whom the erring follow, who wander in every valley and who say what they do not do' (26:224-226)." 4 And a well-known episode in the sirah and maghazi literature shows Muhammad's anger with a storyteller. Nadr ibn al-H‚rith so vexed Muhammad that the latter ordered him killed. 5

     In time, to be sure, some obvious fictions came to exist within the literary canon; KalÓlah wa Dimnah, the fables translated by Ibn al-Muqaffa', and the Maqamat or 'Seances' of al-Hamadhani and al-HarÓrÓ are the most notable examples. But such works are also exceptional. Kalilah wa Dimnah is a translation of Persian work based on the Panchatantra, and Hariri was attacked for having made up his stories. 6

     As a result of all of these developments, in the general view of the literate minority, inventing stories was not distinguishable from simply telling lies. And on all of these accounts, The 1001 Nights just goes too far. Its excessively fictional character in this respect can be seen in the way The Nights' version of 'The Sleeper Awakened' adds a second part to the story that Ishaqi has. Thus, its genre, its patently fictive nature, is the first major reason why isnad is an exceptional work; there is no generic space in the medieval literary canon for it.

     Another important factor has to do with its style; the sort of Arabic found in isnad also counted against it. As far back as can be determined, Arabic seems to have been characterized by a considerable divergence between the written and spoken forms, a divergence in both vocabulary and grammar. The difference is most visible perhaps in the case endings that are preserved in the written language, but almost completely ignored in spoken dialects. With such a divergence, literacy is a rather more difficult and elusive goal to attain -- something that remains the case today in the Arab world. In the Middle Ages, the spoken forms were not even conceived as being languages by the literate minority. The power of that minority rested in their grasp of al-'arabÓyah, the classical written language in which the official discourse of the culture was carried on, while the illiterate were excluded from speech in their view since they had no language proper. They were, in a sense, 'unspeakable' -- one could say 'repressed' in the strict sense that they were denied the words to express themselves.

     In such a vast work as The 1001 Nights there are many registers of language, but apart from perhaps conscious stylistic variations, the different manuscripts of The 1001 Nights all contain significant amounts of colloquial usages. These usages have led various scholars to speak of it as being written in 'Middle Arabic,' but that term, coined by a modern Western scholar, had no status at all among the authors who wrote 'Middle Arabic'; those men were attempting to adhere to the classical grammar -- they simply no longer mastered it. In any case, the language of The 1001 Nights works against it. The influence of popular tongues, Syrian and Egyptian, is heard in it, and those sounds were, no doubt, repellent to the ears of the literateurs who wrote in the 'pure language' al-'arabiyah.

     Finally there is the subject matter. Illicit sex and wine splash the pages. Hashish is mentioned. Whether the book is 'a faithful mirror of medieval Islam,' as many editions tout it, is difficult to say. For what we know about medieval Islam derives from the rest of the literature which is the product of an elite who seldom write about such homely subjects. Hence, the argument threatens to become circular. It is some sort of reflection no doubt, but how clear a reflection is difficult to say. Some literary refraction must be involved. Jinn fly back and forth between China and the Near East in the course of a single night; humans are transformed into animals and back into humans; islands turn out to be whales, and mountains pull the nails from ships' hulls by means of mysterious, magnetic powers. As a source for social history, The 1001 Nights must be used carefully. This much is clear, however; its subject matter could be an affront to the pious writers who always made up a considerable portion of the literary elite, men who wrote the sorts of books you might find in the waiting room of an evangelical dentist. Books with titles like Dhamm al-LahŻ -- "The Condemnation of Fun."

     For all of these reasons The 1001 Nights was a marginalized work in medieval Arabic literature, and that is one reason why it is so valuable. It escaped the self-censorship of more typical narrative works, and from the outset its pages are fillled with desires and ideas that are rarely articulated elsewhere in the literature. Which could serve to justify the approach taken here, that is the the theories of Jacques Lacan, but I shall not use that as a rationale. I wish to justify that on a much more general basis in the next chapter.

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