The Arabian Nights

Author; Book (Ancient; Fiction); Introduction and notes by Muhsin Al-Musawi; Barnes & Noble Classics; ISBN-13: 9781593082819; 02/01/2007. Illustrations.

NOTE: Each book in the Barnes & Noble Classics collection offers valuable insights into the book’s background and the culture of the times, usually with extensive endnotes and footnotes, by specialists (e.g. professors, researchers, translators). You’ll enjoy richer reading experiences from those “aha!” moments when you understand the story-behind-the-story than if you go it alone.


Kings, caliphs and commoners behaving cruelly. If this is your impression of The Arabian Nights, you’re not alone. My first encounter with this work (also known as 1,001 Nights) was such that I barely got through 100 or so pages before I gave up, wondering what the attraction was with multiple tales of swiftly executed beheadings and lopped off hands and/or feet (due process mostly absent).

So, what’s the idea behind all this gore? Professor Al-Musawi explains in his introduction. It’s all about keeping in mind the “frame story.” Yes, Scheherazade entertains the king with her stories. As a matter of fact, she tells her stories as if her life depends on it…because it does.

The back story is that the king was convinced that his first wife was unfaithful to him, so he has her beheaded. In his mind, all women are fickle and prone to stray, so he resolves to marry a virgin for a night and have her beheaded in the morning. Scheherazade, wishing to halt this decimation of the realm’s young women, asks her father’s permission to marry the king.

Scheherazade’s father is also the king’s chief vizier. Among his duties is to oversee the morning’s beheadings. “Understandably upset” doesn’t begin to describe his dismay, but Scheherazade persists and convinces her father to allow this marriage to take place.

Scheherazade was well educated and her excellent memory was reservoir to a vast collection of stories. Her plan was to use these stories to gradually exert a positive influence on the king’s attitude and behavior. But how could she initiate the storytelling? The king’s asking her to tell him a story on their wedding night is less than remote, and a direct suggestion by Scheherazade would probably lead to an earlier-than-usual beheading for her impertinance.

Scheherazade’s younger sister Dinarzade is her ideal solution. Scheherazade tells the king that she and her sister are very close. She asks permission for her sister to stay with her that night before they part forever and the king consents. Scheherazade instructs her younger sister to awaken before daybreak and ask her elder sister to tell, for the last time ever, one of her entertaining stories. Unaware of Scheherazade’s intent for a stay of (her) execution, the king assents.

And so the stories begin. Scheherazade suspended her story as dawn was breaking; she reminded the king of morning prayers and the start of his kingly responsibilities at court. Scheherazade’s father is amazed and relieved to discover that he is not to preside over his daughter’s execution that morning, as the king was anxious to learn the rest of the story. The rest of the story, however, included many twists and subplots that would take many nights to complete. And the allure of Scheherazade’s suggestion of the next story was too great for the king to resist.

If you keep in mind the “frame” story of the king’s behavior and Scheherazade’s precarious situation, the cruelty (and some unexpected humor) that are incorporated in many of Scheherazade’s stories begin to make sense.

Intricate drawings sprinkled throughout the book add to its attractiveness and enjoyment.

Consider Reading The Arabian Nights to Discover…

The Power of Effective Storytelling

Scheherazade eventually gets her permanent stay of execution as the king gradually comes to the realization that he has fallen in love with her. Her patience and persistence, subtle influence over time, and, finally, absence of direct “hard sell” accomplished what tears, logical arguments, appeals to a sense of fairness and other emotional or intellectual states could not. Knowledge Branches:

  • Management/Soft Skills: Communication; People.
  • Life-Long Learning/Humanities: Culture/Society

Some Lessons from the Stories Themselves

Many of the stories relate how the kings and caliphs needed to protect their power and preferred not to rely purely on the reports of their viziers and other close advisors. One of the favorite ways for these rulers to observe how well their realm conformed to their expectations was to dress and adopt the ways of merchants, fishermen and other commoners as they walked the streets anonymously, with only a single trusted slave (often armed with a razor-sharp scimitar, just to be sure). Knowledge Branch:

  • Management/Functions: Business Intelligence

Two of the most famous stories most people associate with The Arabian Nights appear in the Appendix: Aladdin and his magic lamp, and Ali Baba and the fourty thieves (“robbers,” according to the title). Scholars are divided on whether or not these stories were part of the 1,001 nights collection of stories, but are included because most readers would probably consider the book incomplete without them.

Aladdin’s tale is particularly rich in life lessons. His father, a tailor, tries to interest his young son in the trade, but Aladdin isn’t at all interested despite the family’s meager income. The father dies, leaving his wife and his only child in even greater poverty than before. Heedless of their dire need, Aladdin prefers to spend his days playing with boys his age; Aladdin’s mother does the best she can to keep them alive by spinning and selling the cotton cloth she has produced.

Aladdin and his mother are both deceived by a magician who needs an unwitting accomplice to take possession of the magic lamp. Aladdin thwarts the magician’s evil plans when he accidently rubs the lamp the magician instructed him to retrieve and hand over. Discovering the power of the lamp’s genie, Aladdin is filled with grandiose schemes to become unimagineably wealthy and have his every desire fulfilled. Eventually, the return of the evil magician and Aladdin’s own reckless reliance on the lamp instead of on his own resources lead to the brink of death. Fortunately, the lavish generosity he bestowed on the populace saves his life. Yet more magic ensures his future prosperity.

Cultural differences notwithstanding, Aladdin’s filial respect for his mother is hardly admirable. Although he provides her with various gifts, he directs her to plead with the king on his behalf. She obeys her son’s command (sigh) and, after many days’ attempts, is finally successful in getting an audience with the king. She presents the king with many valuable gifts and convinces the king to grant Aladdin’s request. Knowledge Branch:

  • Management/Functions/Strategy Development
  • Life-Long Learning/Applied/Work/Careers
  • Life-Long Learning/Humanities/Culture-Society