The Arabian Nights and Free Speech

Digressions are baked into the structure of The Arabian Nights. The book trusts its readers, as Shahrazad trusts King Shahriyar, to follow the narrative, despite stories-within-stories or extended theological lectures delivered by one of the characters.

That said, during my most recent recap, I didn’t want to derail the discussion with a diversion into free speech theory. As such, I did not include this quote from Night 79. It is part of a speech spoken by one of Dhat al-Dawahi’s erudite slave girls, to King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man, which is in turn (keep up!) retold to Dau’ al-Malkan by the vizier Dandan:

Know that your enemy is an opponent with whom you can argue, whom you can convince with proofs and against whom you can guard yourself, while between you and your friend the only judge who can adjudicate is good character. Test your friend before choosing him. If he is one of those who lives for the next world, let him follow faithfully the externals of the law, while knowing its secret meaning, as far as this is possible. If he is an adherent of this world, he should be liberal and truthful, and neither ignorant nor wicked. His own parents should flee from the ignorant man, while the liar cannot be a friend, as the word “friend” derives from “truth”. This comes from the depth of the heart, so how can it apply to one Whose tongue speaks falsehood?

(In Arabic the word for ‘friend’ is sadiq and the word for ‘truth’ is sidq.)

This speaks to some current debates about free speech. First, we have a clear endorsement of a ‘marketplace of ideas’, the assumption that through political debate we can convince our opponents of the righteousness of our position. This is a concept that is certainly not beyond criticism, but it is interesting to see it expressed in medieval Arabic literature, many centuries before it was popularised by First Amendment jurisprudence!

Secondly, this passage also warns us that the threat of lies and propaganda comes not from one’s opponents, but from one’s friends. The danger is not that our political opponents will use lies to change our minds; but that we may be damaged by propaganda deployed by our allies. This is desperately important insight for our current discourse, where everyone assumes that ‘fake news’ is something that only influences other people. 

Another free speech gem appears on Night 84. This time it is the scholar Al-Shafi’i who is quoted, but I don’t know if this is a real quote, or whether one of the characters is playing fast and loose with his name. 

“I have never disputed with anyone without wishing that Almighty God might aid him to find the truth and help him to reveal it. I have never held a dispute with anyone except for the purpose of revealing the truth and I don’t care whether God reveals it by my tongue or by that of my opponent.”

This is a glorious elucidation of an essential pillar of free speech: sometimes, we change the minds of others; and sometimes, others change our minds. We should always be open to the possibility that it is we who are wrong, not those on the other side of the debate. And we should endeavour to recognise when we are wrong, and admit as much to ourselves and to others.

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