Can Reading Animate Justice?

A Conversation from Alf Layla wa-Layla (The Thousand and One Nights)


  • Enass Khansa The American University of Beirut



In this study, I make audible a conversation in Alf Layla wa-Layla (The Thousand and One Nights) on the meaning and application of justice. Without assuming that Alf Layla constituted an organized whole, the study identifies, in the frame narrative and the first two chains of stories—all three understood to belong to the earliest bundle—a debate on the coincidence of successful interpretation and just rulership. By the end of these tales, i.e., by the twenty-seventh night, a complete tale is told. In these stories, I propose, Alf Layla adopts an attitude that privileges multiplicity over singular interpretation, in a fashion that affirms the
contingency of ethical questions.
  The popularity of Alf Layla and the afterlives it enjoyed up to our present times—in the Arab world and the West—need not eclipse or substitute the Arabo-Islamic character the work came to exhibit, and the ethical questions it set out to address. In what has been read as fate, arbitrary logic, enchantment, magic, irrational thinking, and nocturnal dreamlike narratives, I suggest we can equally speak of a concern for justice. The study looks at Alf Layla’s affinity with advice literature, but stresses the need to read it as a work of (semipopular) literature that pays witness to societal debates on justice.
  Alf Layla, I suggest, belongs to Islamic culture in that the act of reading has been construed within hermeneutics that are largely informed by the ethical implication knowledge sharing entails. In how the stories find resolution to the crisis of the king, Alf Layla understands justice as an artificial and communal enterprise. The stories, more urgently, seem to suggest reading gears us towards a concern for the greater good.


Keywords: The Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights, 1001 Nights, Alf Layla wa-Layla), Adab, Justice, Rulership, Readership, Advice Literature, Interpretation, Multiplicity, Legitimacy




How to Cite

Khansa, E. (2021). Can Reading Animate Justice? A Conversation from Alf Layla wa-Layla (The Thousand and One Nights). Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies, 21(2), 289–312.