The Arabian Nights Entertainment is a treasury of Arabian storytelling and literature that illustrates Islamic culture and how Islamic faith was understood in the times of the oral storytellers.
They have a cosmopolitan setting, with travelers going far afield, even beyond the known world, and cities full of a variety of humankind from all over the Middle East, including Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians in amongst the solid Muslims. The strong religious coloring is like the Victorian Christianity in much middle-class English literature of the 19th century.
The tenets of charity, of regular prayer, and of the sovereignty of Allah are constantly proclaimed, and Mahomet is the Prophet. The assured rightness is that of Sunni Muslims of the Caliphate of Haroun el Raschid of Bagdad.
There are many examples of the fatalism of Kismet, to accept whatever happens, but constant themes are ingenuity, cleverness, resourcefulness and wiliness – how people coped with Fate. Heroes and heroines used cunning and even deceit, to get out of troubles and to achieve. The stories also contain examples of people pretending to be pious in order to deceive others.
The variety of humankind are heroes and heroines of the stories, not just the rich and aristocrats – merchants, cobblers, fishermen, sailors, slaves. A trading society appears, with marked entrepreneuring skills. It loves wonders and stories, and is full of curiosity. People would do almost anything for a story.
In many ways the people in the stories of the Arabian Nights were like many non-strict Muslim today. They loved variety of foods as luxuries; they loved gardens and beautiful things; they delighted in gorgeous clothes. (Why cant we have gorgeous clothes for everyday?) Wine was plentiful and people in the stories often drank themselves stupid. They loved music and dancing - which some Islamic schools in Melbourne forbid.
Superstitions of djinns and magic filled the stories, like magic in our fairy-tales.
The place of women was not as in many Muslim lands today. Women could go about more freely and travel. They could run businesses, own property, and be rich and powerful.
Arranged marriages, as is still common, had neither of the couple seeing each other until after the wedding. Divorce seemed fairly easy and polygamy was common. But there were marriages arranged because the man desired the woman; there were also love matches. There were some marriages for love and romance. In descriptions of loving courtship, men and women lovers talked, recited poetry, and listened to music together. Men could be henpecked who did not bash up their henpecking wives, although in other stories men beat and killed their womenfolk.
Women wore veils but these were not always opaque. Men could see women and fall in love with them for their beauty. Ideals of beauty were frequently represented – much emphasis on eyebrows – e.g. men’s eyebrows that were straight lines, and women’s that met in the middle (contrast Japanese eyebrows like butterflies.) If they could not see women’s faces, men might fall in love with them for their wrists, which they could see, in several examples. (In the same way, Victorian women’s ankles became sexually charged because men couldn’t see more of their bodies. Now it is hard for men’s imagination to have anything left to become excited about seeing.)
The traits of a desirable woman included being educated in ‘the sciences’, able to read, write, sing, dance, play. Many stories hinge on the astuteness and learning of a woman.
Women could be very good, or very bad, and there could be very misogynist men, and women could manage to cuckold their husbands. There were courageous and enterprising women, like Morgiana.