Fidelity and Infidelity in the Arabian Nights

Fidelity and Infidelity in the Arabian Nights

“Arabian Nights” is probably one of the most famous literary works of the Eastern civilization, which incorporates literary heritage of different countries united into one literary work. At the same time, the creation of this book perfectly reflects the major political and socio-economic trends in the Caliphate era. In fact, the book represents a collection of stories which vary by their genres and style, but which convey basic views and socio-cultural norms of that epoch. “Arabian Nights” is a monumental work which depicts the life of different peoples. In such a way, the book has a considerable historical and cultural value. On the other hand, the book is valuable from the artistic point of view since stories, which comprise the book, are stylistically rich and, in many respects, innovative for the literature of that epoch.
“The Arabian Nights: Tales from A Thousand and One Nights” raise a number of themes, which were very significant for the society of the epoch when the book was created. However, many of the themes covered in the book may be considered to be universal and eternal since, even in the present epoch, these themes are still relevant. In this respect, it is worth mentioning the theme of fidelity and infidelity, which occupies one of the central places in the entire book and may be easily traced from tale to tale. Obviously, this theme was very significant in the context of the strengthening of Islam and the establishment of Islamic principles, which condemned infidelity and glorified fidelity, emphasizing the importance of virtuous family life and forbidding any extramarital connections. As a result, the entire book may be viewed as a kind of prejudice against infidelity and, in all probability, one of the major goals of the book was to promote the virtuous lifestyle and fidelity as an essential condition of a happy family life. On the other hand, the presence of numerous stories where both men and women prove to be infidel may indicate to the possibility of the presentation of an alternative non-Islamic view of the relationship between men and women. What is meant here is the fact that the book depicts the actual nature of men and women and their inability to lead an absolutely virtuous life as Islam prescribes. In such a situation, it is very important to analyze in details “Arabian Nights” and dwell upon some stories where the theme of fidelity and infidelity is particularly strong, in order to find out what was the main message of the book concerning the problem of fidelity and infidelity.
At the same time, it is hardly possible to evaluate adequately the theme of fidelity and infidelity in “Arabian Nights” with a brief analysis of the historical background of the book, when it was created and what were the basic historical and socio-cultural trends in the epoch of the creation of this book. On the basis of the historical background of the book, it will be possible to understand clearly the theme of fidelity and infidelity and its significance within the book.
First of all, it should be pointed out that the precise date of the creation of this literary work is unknown but basically the collection was created about 800-900 AD. In fact, the first manuscripts containing some elements of “The Thousand and One Nights” appeared in 800AD and throughout the following two centuries some references to “The Nights” were made. However, it is only in 1814, Calcutta 1, the earliest existing Arabic printed version of “The Nights”, was published by the British East India Company. “The Thousand and One Nights” actually included works originated from different parts of the world which were either under the impact of Caliphate or with Arabs had close contacts, such as India, Persia, Egypt, Mesopotamia, naturally traditional Arabian tales and legends and many other works from other countries were included in this collection.
In fact, such a diversity of works is not occasional because the epoch, when this literary work was created, was the period of the great progress and expansion of the Arabian state along with the expansion of Islam in the Middle East, Asia Minor, Northern Africa, and reached far to the East where Arabs developed close contacts with Indians. In such a way, on the national level, this was the period of the great progress of Arab culture and civilization at large. The country prospered economically and culturally, while its territories were really enormous and stretched from India till Europe where they also occupied considerable territories, including the Caliphate in Hispania.
In such a situation, it is quite natural that the creators of the collection “The Thousand and One Nights” had rich material to create the solid literary work which incorporated traditional tales and legends of Arabian world and those civilizations which territories Arabs occupied or with which they contacts.
Actually, it was the time of the great popularity of Arabian culture and its religion, Islam started to compete with Christianity dividing Europe and East into two distinguishable parts. In this respect, it is quite natural that tales and legends included in the collection basically represent the heritage of Oriental civilizations.
On the other hand, “The Thousand and One Nights” may be viewed as a literary symbol of the power of Arabian state and, at the moment, it was really one of the major power in the world because European countries were quite weak and divided by internal conflicts because of the lack of strong central power. The Middle East, Asia Minor, Northern Africa were controlled by Arabs and in actuality they were the dominant power in the region, while India and China as well as other Far eastern people were too distant from Arabs to influence their politics. As for America, it was inhabited by Indians which had quite poorly developed civilization.
In such a way, Arabs were one of the major power in the world and had practically no rivals. The country was prospering while Europe was weakened by local conflicts, China and India were also unable to compete, while America was still undiscovered and local civilizations were consistently less developed than Arabian civilization. In such a historical context, “The Thousand and One Nights” became the symbol of the power of Arabian civilization which occupied enormous territories and was actually the leading power in the world.
In such a context, the theme of fidelity and infidelity covered in the book reflected the general attitude of peoples inhabiting the Arab world to the problem of fidelity and infidelity as well as extramarital relationships of both men and women. In this respect, it is important to underline that the theme of infidelity is a cornerstone of the entire book because all the tales of the book are told by Scheherazade to the King Shahryar and her only purpose was to postpone her own execution caused by an almost paranoid fear of the King Shahryar of being deceived by an infidel wife. To put it more precisely, Shahryar had already suffered from the infidelity of his former life and this negative experience defined his future attitude to all his wife and women he had close relationships with. In fact, he executed the infidel wife as soon as he learned about her infidelity. Moreover, he continued executing his wives after the night he spent with them because of the fear of being deceived one more time. In such a way, the execution became a sort of the preventive measure against the infidelity of the king’s wives.
At the same time, such a radical “solution” of the problem of the infidelity reveals the general attitude of people in the Arab world to this problem. Obviously, the execution of infidel wives is conveyed as a justified punishment. This is why it is possible to conclude that the infidelity was one of the most serious crimes that could have committed in that epoch. On the other hand, it is obvious that such a severe punishment of infidel wives was, in all probability, the prerogative of the King, but it is possible to presuppose that his subordinates could also appeal to the authorities for the punishment of infidel spouses.
However, Scheherazade manages to escape the punishment, which is apparently unjust because she is innocent and she is not going to be infidel. In such a way, the book shows that there is a kind of justice in the world, which is above the king and his earthly rule. At this point, it is possible to speak about some divine protection of Scheherazade as well as about her own wisdom and ability to save her life. In order to survive, she tells the king a tale night after night, but, as the morning is about to begin, she starts a new story and the king, being intrigued and interested, delays the execution to hear the end of the story. In such a way, Scheherazade tells the King a tale during a thousand and one nights and after that the king decides to let her live and she escapes the unjust punishment. In this respect, it is important to underline that such an outcome may be interpreted as a reward of Scheherazade for her fidelity. To put it more precisely, Scheherazade spends night after night with the king and she cannot deceive him, remaining devoted to him. As a result, the king understands that his wife, Scheherazade is trustworthy and her fidelity is beyond a doubt. As a result, he decides to let her live that is apparently the highest reward she could have received for her fidelity. In such a way, the book emphasizes the importance of fidelity and its significance for the Arab world in that epoch.
Nevertheless, such a kind of happy ending is not typical for tales of the book because tragic endings are quite often for the book, especially for people who proved to be infidel. At the same time, it is necessary to dwell upon the tales, in order to understand the views of people on fidelity and infidelity in that epoch. For instance, it is possible to refer to “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” the story which gives quite an original view on the concept of fidelity and infidelity. The main characters of the story, three wealthy and beautiful sisters, invite three one-eyed Kalandras and three merchants. The merchants are Caliph and two of his companies who disguise themselves. While entering the home each guests must take the following oath: "Whoso speaketh of what concerneth him not shall hear what pleaseth him not!" (Arabian Nights, 48). Suddenly, the eldest lady stops the festivities and two female dogs are brought out to her. Without any obvious reason she beats them with a whip. After that, her mood suddenly changes, she cries and kisses both dogs and sends them awayThe eldest lady interrupts the festivities to attend to her duty. Two black bitches (female dogs) are brought out to her; she proceeds to beat them with a whip; then, tearfully kissing them both, she sends them away.
As the cateress sings a sad song, the portress penitently rends her garments and reveals to the guests the marks of a terrible beating she has suffered from. The men are curious about the causes why she has been beaten and what has happened to her. But the elderly lady grows angry and orders to bind and capture the men and demands each of their stories in exchange for their lives.
At first glance there is no problem of fidelity or infidelity in this tale. However, on a profound reflection, it is obvious that the tale gives a deeper insight on the concept of fidelity. To put it more precisely, the traditional view of fidelity is supposed to be related to the fidelity or infidelity in the relationship between men and women, while the tale discussed above reveals another side of this problem – the fidelity to the oath. In other words, the fidelity in this tale refers to the spiritual sphere rather than to the material sphere of the relationships of men and women. In such a way, this tale shows that the concept of fidelity could be used in a broader sense than it was traditionally used in European tradition, for instance (Dwight, 131).
On the other hand, there are stories, where the concept of fidelity and infidelity is closer to the traditional problem of the relationship of men and women. For instance, in “The First Kalandar's Tale” a secret relationships of man and woman is revealed, which apparently contradicts to the basic norms and concept of fidelity.
The first Kalandar reveals that he is actually a Prince. His adventure begins with a visit to his cousin, who is also a Prince of another kingdom: sworn to an oath of secrecy, he agrees to conceal his cousin in an underground dwelling with his cousin's lover. After that he comes back to the kingdom of his father, but he finds out that his father is killed by the Wazir who has taken the power over the kingdom. The Wazir puts out the Prince's left eye and sentence him to death in the wilderness, but the Prince luckily escapes and runs away back to the kingdom of his uncle, who has already discovered the disappearance of his son and is grieving over it. The Prince violates his oath and tells the uncle the truth. After that he shows the entry to the secret dwelling but they find nothing but the burnt bodies of the cousin and his lover. The uncle condemns his own son and his lover spitting on them. Then they return to the palace to find it taken over by the same evil Wazir. Similarly to the father of the Prince, the uncle is killed too, while the Prince, disguised as a Kalandar, has to escape again and seek the aid of the Caliph.
In such a way, the tale reveals the story of a secret relationships of the cousin and his lover, which were based on the infidelity because their relationships was illegal and, therefore did not meet the norms of the society and it contradicted to basic moral principles that dominated in the society of that epoch. In such a context, the misfortunes the Prince faces in this tale may be viewed as a kind of punishment for his assistance to this secret relationship, while the cousin and his lover were also punished since they were burnt. Obviously, such a tragic story reveals the negative attitude of the society to the illegal, infidel relationships between men and women.
In this respect, “The Second Kalandar's Tale” is particularly eloquent since it also leads to the tragic outcomes of the infidelity.
The Second Kalandar also turns to be a Prince. He was attacked by a band of robbers during his journey to Hind. However, he has managed to escape to a foreign city where he is taken in by a friendly tailor, who aids him in his finding work as a woodcutter. However, when he was in the forest, the Prince had discovered a secret underground dwelling, in which he found a beautiful Princess who was capture and imprisoned by an Ifrit. They spend the night together but by the morning the Prince is captured by the Ifrit, who kills the Princess for her infidelity. After that he spells the Prince and transforms him into an ape.
In such a way, the Princess and the Prince are punished for infidelity that reveals the significance of the infidelity for the Arab society in that epoch. In fact, even though Ifrit held the Princess as a prisoner this fact was not really viewed as a crime worth punishing, while the infidelity was immediately punished and this punishment was justified since the tragic development of the story reveals that the Prince who had relationships with the Princess could bring only misfortunes even to his saviors.
While wandering, the Prince, being transformed into an ape, arrives to a kingdom where he gets a chance to impress the local King with his intelligence and abilities. The daughter of the King, the Princess Sitt al-Husn is a magician and she understands that the ape is actually the Prince enchanted by a villain. She decides to save the Prince and defeats the Ifrit in a terrible battle in order to set the Prince free, only to be killed herself (). The Prince transforms into a human again but he has lost his left eye in the battle with the Ifrit. He disguise himself as a Kalandar and makes his way to Baghdad. In such a way, the King’s daughter is punished for her assistance to the Prince, who provoked the infidelity of the Princess.
Furthermore, it is possible to dwell upon “The Third Kalandar's Tale”, in which the infidelity of a man leads to his punishment.
As for the third Kalandar, Ajib son of Khazib, he, similarly to others, is another Prince. He is marooned on the island of the Magnet Mountain after the shipwreck. On the island he hears a voice which indicates him the way. On his way, the Prince kills the island's horseman. Suddenly, a man appears on a skiff to rescue him. However, on their way to a safer place, the skiff overturns, and Ajib falls on another deserted island, where he meets a boy hidden in a secret underground dwelling. There was a prophecy, according to which the boy would be killed by the killer of the horseman of the Magnet Mountain, and so his father has hidden him there to avert death (). In accordance with the prophesy Ajib accidentally kills the boy as he falls with a knife on him.
Fortunately, the tide recedes and Ajib has a chance to get to the mainland, where he meets ten one-eyed men. He joins them but the men demand that he should not ask any questions. Every night the men perform a penance by covering themselves with ash. Eventually, Ajib cannot help from asking them to tell their story. But the men send him on a bird to a palace of beautiful women, where he remains in luxury for a year. Once, all the women has gone from the palace and Ajib, wandering over the palace discovers a black stallion with a horse. He rides the horse, which then flies away and, upon landing, knocks Ajib's eye out with his tail. After that Ajib also disguises as a Kalandar and eventually goes to Baghdad.
In fact, the tale shows that the man, who was actually happy in a palace of beautiful women, deceived them and violated the rules established in the palace that can be interpreted only as the infidelity to the women and to the rules of the palace. In such a situation, the man is severely punished for his infidelity since Ajib has his eye out with the tail of the horse, which is the punishment for his horse. In this respect, it is possible to view this part of the tale as allegory and metaphoric representation of the act of infidelity. In fact, it is possible to view the horse as a woman whom Ajib seduced when the women were absent. In such a context, the punishment seems to be justified and, compared to the King’s wives, this punishment is not as severe as the execution that makes it possible to speak about certain inequality in the interpretation of the infidelity in relation to men and women (Irwin, 194).
Unlike the previously discussed tales, “The Eldest Lady's Tale” may be viewed as an example of the story where the fidelity is rewarded. In fact, the two black female dogs turn out to be the enchanted elder sisters of the mistress of the house, also known as the eldest lady. The dogs-sisters are under the care of the eldest lady. The have been left destitute by their husbands. Once the lady and her sisters travel to a city where all people are magically turned into stone. There, the lady meets a young man who recites verses from the Koran. This man is the Prince of the city and he was not turned into stone because he was the city's only worshipper of Allah.
Then, the lady and the Prince return to the ship and decide to marry. However, her envious sisters throw the lady and the Prince into the sea. As a result, the Prince dies, but the lady closely escapes the death and floats to shore. While she returns back to Baghdad, she comes upon a serpent being chased by a dragon, which the lady slays. In actuality, the serpent is a Jinniyah, who, in gratitude to the lady for saving her life, turns her two envious sisters into black dogs but the Jinniyah warns the lady that if she does not whip the black bitches three hundred times a night, she will be imprisoned under the earth forever ().
In such a way, the lady’s fidelity to the Prince is depicted through her revenge on her sisters who actually caused the death of her beloved. The punishment of the two envious sisters is the reward for the fidelity of the lady, who was unjustly deprived of happiness with the Prince.
In such a context “Tale of the Portress” may be viewed as a classical sample of the punishment for the infidelity of a woman in relation to a man.
An old woman, deceives the portress and leads her to the home of her master. The master falls in love with the portress and wishes to marry her. The portress falls in love with him too as she sees that he is a handsome may. Soon, they are married. However, he forces the portress to swear that she will never look at another man. They live happily together for a month. Once, on a trip to the market with the old woman, the portress makes a purchase from a young man who asks for a kiss as payment. The portress refuses at first, but the old woman talks her in to allow the young man to kiss her, but, instead of kissing, he bites her on her cheek. Naturally, her husband discovers the wound and understands that his wife is infidel and deceived him. At first he want to kill her, but he is convinced by the old woman to beat her and send away. The portress has to return to the home of her eldest sister, where she mourns her misdeed and the banishment from her beloved's home.
Obviously, the infidelity of the portress was absolutely unacceptable for the society of that epoch because she apparently could not allow a young man to kiss her as payment. However, in this respect, it is important to underline that the role of the old woman in this story is apparently underestimated and she actually flees without a punishment, though it was she who talked the portress into kissing. At this point, it is possible to presuppose that the concept of fidelity and infidelity in that epoch were regarded as the question of the personal responsibility. In other words, it was up to the protress or any other infidel person whether to admit the infidelity or stick to the principle of the fidelity.
Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that the concept of fidelity and infidelity play a very important role in “Arabian Nights”. At the same time, this concepts proves to be quite large since it incorporates not only the idea of the relationship of spouses or relationship of men and women, but it also extrapolates the concept of the fidelity on a spiritual level, such as the fidelity to the oath or certain moral or ethical principles. Nevertheless, whatever the infidelity is, the book shows that it should be severely punished because it is absolutely unacceptable, especially in relation to extramarital liaisons. In stark contrast, the fidelity is supposed to be rewarded and the entire story of the King Shahryar and Scheherazade and some tales show that the fidelity is one of the major virtues. In such a way, the book shows that the concept of the fidelity and infidelity occupied a very significant place in the life of the society in that epoch and the fact that the infidelity was severely punished throughout the book proves that “Arabian Nights” basically supported major Islamic concepts and principles emphasizing the importance of the fidelity and condemning the infidelity in human relations.


Works cited:
Arabian Nights. New York: Penguin Classics, 2002.
Dwight, R. "The Thousand and One Nights: A History of the Text and its Reception." In The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature: Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period. Cambridge UP, 2006.
Irwin, R. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. Tauris Parke, 2004.
Zipes, J.D. and R.F. Burton. The Arabian Nights: The Marvels and Wonders of the Thousand and One Nights. New York: Penguin Classics, 1991.