Ghazali and The Arabian Nights

Khaled Ahmed in a recent review writes:

The scholar fears that his own religious validity may be destroyed through political contact. The king is usually keen to establish contact with the scholar for his legitimacy, not because he wants to correct his political behaviour

This volume on The Arabian Nights or Alf Laila wa Laila is the result of a conference held in Japan in 2002 to celebrate 300 years of the French version of the Arabic masterpiece done by Antoine Galland. Through it, the Japanese orientalists put on record their nation’s contact with Orientalism and revealed in the process some remarkable facts about the Nights hitherto unknown to most Muslim scholars. The West became enthusiastic about the Nights in the 17th century and much was made of how the Western mind was shaped by the classic. Today, it arouses contempt in some Muslim intellectuals who wonder about the European obsession with what is after all a collection of unrelated bawdy tales.

The book reveals Galland’s own interpolations dubbed orphan tales by later researchers. For instance, Aladin and the Magic Lamp and Ali Baba and Forty Thieves were never a part of the Arabic version of the Nights, but were inserted by Galland in his translation, pointing to an Orient within, probably expressing what the West wanted the Arab civilisation to look like. In the mind of many readers, two parallel and earlier collections Kalila va Dimna and Sindbad Nama are often taken to be a part of the Nights. Yet the over 2100 tales appearing in the Arabic version have continued to mesmerise the West while the Muslim mind preserves them as folklore without reading the grand collection.

There is evidence that the tales included in Nights were not all put together in Baghdad with the help of local and Iranian-Indian stories; some of them had been collected in Egypt and contain variations on the ancient Egyptian mythology absorbed by the aristocracy that went to Egypt as conquerors. Some stories also came in from what the Arabs called Israeliaat, borrowings from the Talmudic lore that early Muslim scholars did not shun under a restrictive doctrine and whose influence is to be seen in the works of historian Al Tabari (d.923).

The most interesting contribution in the book is a paper by Yuriko Yamanaka of the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka, about the story of Alexander the Great titled Alexander the Two Horned and a Certain Tribe of poor Folk which appears in Nights but was not translated by most European translators because of its brevity and apparent unimportance. Yet this is the man called Zulqarnain (two-horned) by the Quran whose encounter in India with the naked cult was to become a staple, first in the Judaic lore, and then in the guidebooks that the scholars wrote for their kings, including Nasihatal Muluk by Imam Ghazali (d.1111). The title of the paper contributed by Yamanaka is Alexander in the Thousand and one Nights and the Ghazali Connection.

The Alexander story current from the 9th century AD onwards related what Alexander’s historians narrated as his encounter with the gymnosophists (naked philosophers) of India. The story is among eighteen such concerned with themes about death and about righteousness of kings. The story of encounter with gymnosophists was about rejection of the weal of the world, eating nothing of things living but what grew from the earth. Alexander calls for their king who refuses to see any use in meeting him; so Alexander goes to him and asks him questions that the king answers within the framework of the belief in the Hereafter rather than the world here. Then the local king shows him two human skulls, of two kings, one tyrannical and the other just and asked which one of the two would Alexander identity with since they were both identical? Alexander cries and accepts the wisdom.

The two skulls story is famously found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and it is there in Firdawsi’s Shahnama too a hundred years before Imam Ghazali who put it in a section of his book Nasihatul Muluk concerning the kings helplessness in the face of natural death. The earliest version of course is to be found in the Babylonian Talmud. Ghazali wrote his book of counsel for the Seljuq king sometime between 1105 and 1111 when he died. Ghazali calls Alexander simply Zulqarnain and doesn’t write the two names together. The section of the Nasihat book where the story appears is said to be an interpolation and not Ghazali’s own work. But the Zulqarnain story appears in part one of the book which Ghazali wrote himself, which proves the acceptance of the legend by Ghazali. In all, there are 11 Alexander tales in the book. There is one in the earlier more famous book, Ihya al Ulum too.

Riazul Islam in his excellent book Sufism in South Asia: Impact on Fourteenth Century Muslim Society (OUP) notes that Ghazali spoke with two tongues in Ihya and Nasihat. In Ihya, in the early Seljuq period of cultural renaissance, he rejects the practice by the scholar to have contact with the king. Ghazali rejects acceptance of royal grants because they belong to the king and are haram. He thinks that tyrants deserve to be deposed and are not therefore proper kings. Not only are all transactions with the king illegal in his eyes, but a visit to meet the king is also disobedience of Allah. Nasihat supersedes his earlier advice and now pays heed to the later less tolerant Seljuq period in which the king is apotheosised. Ghazali accepts the unbelief of the king if he is just and quotes the Prophet PBUH saying that king was God’s shadow on earth and must be obeyed. Yet, compared to a more Machiavellian Siyasatnama of Nizamul Mulk, Ghazalis Nasihat still asks the King to be good. That is, if Nasihat was actually written by him!

This example of Imam Ghazali is important when examining the behaviour of Muslim scholars in the ages that followed. There is a tradition of keeping aloof from the king because his rule lacks Islamic credentials. Here the scholar fears that his own religious validity may be destroyed through political contact. The king is usually keen to establish contact with the scholar for his legitimacy, not because he wants to correct his political behaviour. This is a very relevant condition while considering the religious state today. *

The Arabian Nights and Orientalism: Perspectives from East and West; Edited by Yuriko Yamanaka & Tetsuo Nishio; IB Tauris 2006
Pp269; Special Price £30
Available in bookstores in Pakistan

Leave a Reply