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The Arabian Nights: Sources and Functions in Arabic Medieval Islam – MSFIMA

The sources of the Thousand and One Nights, the middle literature and their role in medieval Islam

Most of the text of the Thousand and One Nights and the books of the same genre are still unpublished manuscripts. The objective of this project is to make the work, neither popular or erudite but middle literature, the most widely available and thereby to have a better understanding of the complexity of medieval Islam civilization who produced it.

The distribution of medieval Arabic literature and its functions

Unpublished manuscript sources of the Thousand and One Nights belong to a middle literature, which, in addition to scholarly and popular literature, allows a better understanding of the complexity of the society of medieval Islam and its cultural production. Currently, only a fraction of the manuscripts of the middle literature were published (under 5%). The aim of the project is to emphasise the importance of this new literary category, to gather in one place copies of all the texts that belong to the middle literature, including the Thousand and One Nights, in order to make them accessible to the public. The analysis of their content will offer another vision of Medieval Islamic society, while deemed conservative, has generated a vast cache of literature entertainment often described as irreverent and subversive.

At first, we brought together each reference of The Thousand and One Nights, which were published by specialists (H. Zotenberg, D. B. Macdonald, M. Mahdi, H. Grotzfeld). Then we supplemented them with a lengthy process of prospecting the catalogues of the world’s great libraries, from Rabat to Yale. Once established the list of texts of The Nights and other works of the same genre (middle literature), we began to acquire copies starting with the most important texts, which are also often the oldest ones (but not always). Secondly, we began to subdivide (copies of) manuscripts by tale and to bring together the different versions of the same story in order to compare them with the academic and popular versions that use the same narrative pattern (the same structure), then to classify it. The essence of a manuscript or a story including the changes that are introduced provide valuable information about the context of their development and the social representations involved, namely those of a certain social component of medieval Islam. The list of manuscripts, their content and the different versions of the stories will be provided in a database.

The results of the project have currently provided : (1) a book to be published in 2014 by IFPO (Institut Français du Proche-Orient), entitled « Introduction aux sources manuscrites des Mille et une nuits, Edition critique de quelques textes remarquables «, it will contain a general introduction on The Thousand and One Nights and the new concept of «middle Arabic literature «, the list of available sources (which in itself is a major innovation) and their classification and the critical edition of five stories among the most important and oldest, (2) a database, late 2013, to be available through the website of the INALCO (Institut National des Langues et Civilsations Orientales) and the BULAC (Bibliothèque des Langues et Civilisations), stored at the BULAC, which will provide access to the manuscript, copyright free.

The project’s perspectives: (1) to rethink the history of medieval literature not by the usual two categories, academic and popular, but by adding a third category, the middle literature, and therefore with a finer knowledge of medieval cultural, be more able to explain its evolution towards modern literature, (2) concurrently to promote a more comprehensive knowledge of medieval Islam as a civilization, through the knowledge diversity of middle literature forgotten today, and very surprising, as subversive and going against preconceived ideas in many ways (3) to provide material to develop literature lessons on storytelling or narrative traditions and their movements within and outside the Arab world through the mass of unpublished manuscripts, collections of stories that become available and through the resulting network will be woven from these texts with academic and popular Arab and non-Arab literature, (4) to process a critical edition of the middle Arabic literature and its translation.

Three publications for subject experts and others:

(1) « Le grand puzzle des Nuits », in Qantara, n° 86, January 2013, p. 32-37 ; provides a general reflection on The Nights, its history and its relationship, as a middle literature, to the academic and popular literature.
(2) Mille et Une Nuits, Institut du Monde Arabe Exhibition Catalogue, Ed. Hazan, Paris, 2012 ; an update with some thirty articles on the issue of The Nights.
(3) La Grande Oreille, Special issue on Les Mille et une nuits, n° 52, 2012 ; contains around twenty articles on The Nights, more directed towards non specialists.

The Arabian Nights: Sources and Functions in Arabic Medieval Islam (MSFIMA)

The Arabian Nights, after The Koran, represent the most remarkable book of medieval Islam, being the most complex work from the cultural and ideological points of view, as well as the most influential one. Since the 18th century, it represents the core component of Orientalism, while the ubiquity of its influence is visibly present in all forms of literature and films universally. In spite of all the work done in the last thirty years, many fundamental aspects of the Nights still remain to be elucidated such as their primary sources and functions. Most of the manuscripts, however, constituting approximately 85%, without considering the analogous manuscripts, are in fact still unpublished. Moreover, concerning the published narratives, we dispose of a few tools permitting us to establish if the texts we have are complete or not, censured or not, and more broadly, to which literary, ideological or artistic movement they originally belonged. Thanks to some samples in circulation, we know how this literature was opposed to the usual standards of the medieval world, if only by the figure of Shahrazâd. And yet, many similar characters still sleep in the manuscripts and wait to be brought to light. It is about a real literary movement, an entire part of another Islam, as a civilisation, which is revealed by these texts. Their publication will shed new light on the world of medieval Islam, in terms of diversity, creativity and attesting to a broad dimension of thought and perception.

The twofold aim of the MSFIMA project is firstly, to create a database with the primary sources of the Arabian Nights alongside their analogous texts, in brief, a whole unpublished middle literature, as well as the popular and scholarly variations of it. Secondly, to propose an interpretation of this new corpus in relation to the society of Arabic medieval Islam, according to its meaning in the original Arabic language: What were the functions of this literature? Which lessons and visions did it generate?

The database will be built in three fields, each of a different genre:
1 – A new central field will be devoted to references on the Arabian Nights' manuscripts and the collections called analogues, according to David Pinault's terminology, which constitute the middle literature, which are unexplored as such until today, and written in middle Arabic;
2 – A peripheral more scholarly field will contain author's books written in classical Arabic, as they were partly identified by Chauvin and the Arabian Nights Encyclopedia sharing some patterns of plots with the Arabian Nights' tales;
3 – And finally, a peripheral more popular field will reference the Arabic tales written in regional dialects, to which Aarne and Thompson's nomenclature is applied as well as Hasan El-Shamy's one, which also share in these cases, the Arabian Nights' tales' s plot pattern.

The database is in itself an invaluable contribution. It will be located at the BULAC, which accepted to take in charge its perennial conservation and diffusion. In addition, three publications in the international journal Arabica (Brill: Leiden), which has also agreed in principle, will present the progress of the project, show and interpret the information collected and provide its broad diffusion.
The publications will concern first, the new corpus of the Nights, then the Arabic middle literature which includes the Nights, and finally the relation of all of these to the civilisation which nurtured and elaborated it. We notice that from this point, the way will be paved for the elaboration of a critical edition of the Arabic middle literature's corpus in general, and of the Arabian Nights in particular, without additional financial effort.

Project coordinator


The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.



Help of the ANR 230,000 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: July 2011 - 48 Months

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