Many of the Arabian Nights stories tell of men who rise from poverty to wealth and prosperity. This is evident through Aladdin of "Aladdin's Lamp," Ali Baba of "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and Sinbad in "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor," among others. In each of these stories, the protagonist begins with very little to show for himself, but manages to rise in society both through luck and perseverance. In fact, many of the characters experience good fortune, but must capitalize on that good fortune in order to succeed. Many characters fall back into poor luck after initially securing a fortune, but manage to recapture it through such perseverance. The idea of a common man rising in status was not only a popular concept during the Islamic Golden Age; the idea that we can overcome our societal standings and attain wealth is popular even today and will most likely remain popular long into the future.
Luck and Good Fortune
Usually, a character finds success in these stories through some rare stroke of good luck. Ali Baba just happened to be in the vicinity of the robbers when they opened the cave, so he knew how to access it and take treasure. The vizier Ja'far in "The Three Apples" happened to find the slave who was responsible, therefore avoiding his own execution. In these stories, the power of luck and fate is explored very often, because people everywhere love to believe that good fortune can befall anyone. And yet most of the stories add one twist to the theme - in most of these cases, the characters have to capitalize on the luck in order to succeed. For instance, Aladdin falls into good luck several times, but has to use his cleverness and perseverance to eventually come out on top. Luck (good or bad) affects us all, but the most successful of us know take advantage of whatever befalls us.
A common theme of adventure and daring is present throughout nearly all of these stories. In "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor," Sinbad has a thirst for adventure on the open sea that cannot be quelled with merely a voyage or two; he goes out trading on a ship seven times before he finally decides to quit seeking excitement. Other major characters regularly face obstacles that test their wits, strength, and agility, all elements of adventure tales. Adventure stories such as these will always be appealing to readers, since we often like to imagine our lives as more exciting than they are. What is remarkable about The Arabian Nights is that the stories comment so poignantly on universal human nature even in the midst of such extraordinary adventures.
In a collection of stories that focuses so strongly on wealth and riches, greed naturally arises as a human vice that characters must counter in themselves and others. The antagonists in these tales are almost always evil, and their danger is usually attributed to their greed. Consider the magician in Aladdin, the forty thieves, or King Yunan's vizier - all characters who cause trouble in order to satiate their own greed. However, the stories are arguably most profound when the protagonists must counter their own greed. In some cases, like with Sinbad, their victory over greed secures their survival. In others, like with Ali Baba, the protagonists end up happy despite the vice. The main difference between the protagonists and antagonists overall that the protagonists seek wealth in order to better their lives; the antagonists continuously want more even when they have enough, and refuse to share. Overall, The Arabian Nights values the pursuit of wealth, but lays down its fair share of warnings along the way.
In many ancient and classical cultures, hospitality was considered sacred. Though this collection does not make many explicit comments on hospitality, it is nevertheless a recurrent and important theme. In particular, hospitality in these stories suggests an individual's connection to his greater community. For instance, Sinbad the Sailor feeds Sinbad the porter every single night as he tells his story, and gives him a large sum of money as he leaves. Further, his stories have an implicitly didactic purpose - he wants to teach the impoverished porter what he has learned about life. Similarly, Sinbad received wonderful hospitality from the many kings he encountered during his journeys.
The collection does not always present positive instances of hospitality, however. It can certainly be exploited, usually to the detriment of the exploiter. In "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," the thief captain takes advantage of Ali Baba's hospitality, and ultimately dies in the attempt. Without making an explicit comment on the theme, The Arabian Nights reflects its culture by presenting hospitality as sacred.
Contests and Competition
The protagonists of many of these stories take competition very seriously; the most prominent example is in "The Three Princes and the Princess Nouronnihar." All three princes universally accept the idea of competing for the princess's hand in marriage, despite their family connection. There are also instances of less healthy competition, as between Ali Baba and Cassim. (Often in these stories, poor men see themselves as in competition with richer men.) In most cases, however, a competitive spirits helps men to discover their inner strength and thereby prosper. Competition was considered one of the best ways for a man to prove his honor and strength, and this idea is very much reflected in the tales of The Arabian Nights.
The Power of Storytelling
Storytelling is arguably the collection's most poignant and lasting theme. In the frame story of The Arabian Nights, Scheherazade believes that the power and intrigue of her stories will be able to keep her husband from killing her or any more of his wives. This sentiment - that stories are not only entertaining but powerful, capable of changing people - is reflected throughout the many stories she tells. One can read the collection's stories as various attempts to convince Shahrayar to change his ways, and can see in the multiple framings the importance of constructing various narratives to help us understand ourselves.
For instance, Sinbad believes that his stories will help lead the impoverished porter to a better understanding of the world. Further, stories are very often used as a means of persuasion, such as in "The Three Apples" and "The Fisherman and the Jinni." The works in this collection emphasize the power behind words, and reflect how important storytelling was in Islamic society during this time period. Without them, hope would have been lost in a number of different cases.
The Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.