687—688 Ishaq al-Mausili and his visitor • 695—696 Ishaq al-Mausili and the devil
The stories of Delilah the Wily and her daughter took up the entirety of my mental bandwidth in yesterday’s recap. However, two of the other stories in this week’s sequence shared an important trait that should be acknowledged: an appearance by The Devil.
The Arabian Nights has presented us with plenty of malevolent dæmons and marids; and we’ve met biblical angels. But no actual Satan… until now.
It is on Night 687, that ‘Abu Murra’ (meaning ‘father of bitterness,’ a nickname for the devil) makes an appearance. He turns up, without invitation, to the house of Ishaq al-Mausili and teaches him a beautiful song for the lute. Ishaq then plays the song for caliph Harun al-Rashid, who rewards him.
Ishaq is the protagonist and narrator of a similar tale on Night 695. This time, a strange woman and a blind man appear at the house. The blind man is also an accomplished lute player and is able to sing songs describing the Ishaq’s fornication with the strange woman, in the next room. From this, Ishaq is able to identify the blind man as being ‘Iblis,’ the devil.
At first glance this seems like The Arabian Nights has put a spin on the old tales about selling one’s soul to the devil, in exchange for sex, fame or riches—see Goethe’s Faust, The Monk by Matthew Lewis, or the myths surrounding the life of Blues singer Robert Johnson. But Ishaq’s encounters are missing the crucial ‘soul-selling’ element of those other stories. The beautiful song is given over freely, and Ishaq experiences no negative consequences for exploiting it with the caliph. This seems to miss something rather fundamental about The Devil as we know him. If he has a nefarious reason for giving away a song gratis, it is not explained in this story. Abu Marra/Iblis is less the embodiment of evil—more like trickster, who descends on unsuspecting humans, causing confusion and stirring the pot.