From One Thousand and One Nights to Safavid Iran: A Persian Tawaddud

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Shāh Tahmāsp Safavī (r. 1524-1576) patronized the translation of Arabic works into Persian in an effort to convert society to the Twelver Shī'ī outlook. According to modern Iranian literary history, one of the works that came to his attention for translation was Risālah-i Husnīyah (Husnīyah's Treatise (Husnīyah)), the story of a scholarly Shī'ī slave-girl and former student of the sixth imām Ja'far al-Sādiq (d. 765), who debates the Sunnī scholars of the fifth 'Abbāsid caliph Hārūn al-Rashīd (d. 805) on religious law, and roundly defeats them all. The date of this narrative's appearance in Iran is 958/1551, according to the manuscript introduction. A link between Husnīyah and the "Tale of Tawaddud," the story preserved in One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights), and in independent form, which tells of a scholarly Sunnī slave-girl who debates the scholars of al-Rashīd's court, had gone unnoticed in Iranian scholarship until recently, and was known to western scholars only through the summary and partial translation of Sir John Malcolm in his 1815 The History of Persia. From the Early Period to the Present Time. The comparison of a portion of the two tales illustrates not only a shared frame story but also the ideological common ground between the two. Since no Arabic original of Husnīyah has been found, however, nor has scholarship located a sixteenth-century manuscript to date, the appearance of this story in Iran poses more questions than it provides answers. Husnīyah is both an obvious artifact of the Safavid legitimization project and a story linked to an earlier polemical narrative, and these two characteristics raise its importance for further study of its transmission as well as for the ideological intents of both stories.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)158-191
Number of pages34
JournalIslam - Zeitschrift fur Geschichte und Kultur des Islamischen Orients
Issue number1
StatePublished - Apr 30 2017

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH, Berlin/Boston.


  • Arabian Nights
  • Folklore
  • Husnīyah
  • Safavid
  • Sunnī/Shī'ī Polemic
  • Tawaddud


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