Elias Muhanna, The World in a Book: Al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Elias Muhanna (EM): I was introduced to the encyclopedic literature of the Mamluk Empire while I was a student. I found these enormous texts fascinating. They were thousands of pages long and seemed to include more knowledge about the world than anyone could acquire in a lifetime. Besides the compendium of Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri (d. 1333), who is the focus of my book, there were other, similarly encyclopedic, works by Ibn Fadl Allah al-‘Umari, al-Qalqashandi, al-Dhahabi, Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, al-Suyuti, and hundreds of major figures. I was interested in understanding what motivated the production of these texts, and how their authors compiled them. What knowledge was considered worth preserving and transmitting? What forms of argumentation and evidence are discernible? And what does the structure of a medieval Arabic encyclopedia tell us about the vision of the world that its author possessed?
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
EM: My book examines the composition and reception of a single encyclopedia, al-Nuwayri’s Nihayat al-arab fi funun al-adab (The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition), as a way of understanding the rise of a broader literary movement in thirteenth- to fifteenth-century Egypt and Syria. It explores the life of this figure, al-Nuwayri, his professional and intellectual background, and his reasons for his composing the encyclopedia. I was interested in uncovering al-Nuwayri’s working methods—the physical process of compiling a thirty-one-volume text in an era before print technology—as well as his intellectual inspirations. Which books did he turn to as references? What sorts of knowledge are found in his own book, and what has been left out? Al-Nuwayri was, for most of his professional life, a government clerk in the employ of the Mamluk sultanate. How did this professional background inform his life as a scholar? What sorts of links are there between the world of statecraft and bureaucracy, on the one hand, and the intellectual milieu?
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
EM: Naturally, I hope that this book will find its way to other scholars working on the late medieval and early modern Near East. However, as I’ve learned a good deal about encyclopedic traditions in other historical and linguistic contexts—including Ancient Rome, China, Byzantium, Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment Europe, and other places—I look forward to seeing my book in dialogue with the work of scholars in those traditions.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
EM: I’m at work on a translation for the Library of Arabic Literature, as well as a book project related to the problem of the vernacular in different literary traditions, with a focus on Arabic.
Excerpt from the Introduction:
This is a small book about a very large book, composed in the early 14th century by an Egyptian bureaucrat and scholar named Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Nuwayrī. After a high-flying career in the financial administration of the Mamluk Empire, al-Nuwayrī retired to a quiet life of study in Cairo, devoting his remaining years to a project of literary self-edification. This took the form of a compendium of universal knowledge entitled The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition (Nihāyat al-arab fī funūn al-adab). Containing over two million words in thirty-one volumes, the Ultimate Ambition was a work of enormous scope, arranged into five principal divisions: (i) the cosmos, comprising the earth, heavens, stars, planets, and meteorological phenomena; (ii) the human being, containing material on hundreds of subjects including physiology, genealogy, poetry, women, music, wine, amusements and pastimes, political rule, and chancery affairs; (iii) the animal world; (iv) the plant world; and (v) a universal history, beginning with Adam and Eve, and continuing all the way through the events of al-Nuwayrī’s life. Perusing the Ultimate Ambition’s pages, one comes across such varied topics as the substance of clouds; the innate dispositions of the inhabitants of different climes; poetry about every part of the human body; descriptions of scores of animals, birds, flowers and trees; qualities and characteristics of good rulers and their advisors; administrative minutiae concerning promissory notes, joint partnerships, commercial enterprises, loans, gifts, donations, charity, transfers of property, and much more.
Why did al-Nuwayrī compose this work? What disciplines did it encompass and what models, sources, and working methods informed its composition? How was it received by al-Nuwayrī’s contemporaries as well as by later readers in the Islamic world and Europe? These are the principal questions of this book. Through a study of al-Nuwayrī’s work, I aim to shed light on a tradition of Arabic encyclopedism—of which the Ultimate Ambition was one of the most ambitious exemplars—that witnessed its fullest flowering in Egypt and Syria during the 13th-15th centuries. The contents, methods of cross-referencing and synthesis, and internal architecture exhibited in this book reveal much about the sources of authoritative knowledge available to al-Nuwayrī and to other large-scale compilers at this time, while the reconstruction of his social and professional environment offers us a glimpse into the world of the Mamluk civilian elite, an educated class of religious scholars, government bureaucrats, and litterateurs who were the main producers and consumers of this literature.
By virtue of its multi-faceted character, al-Nuwayrī’s compendium has been exploited by readers in different ways over the course of its history. The manuscript record shows that it was copied for several centuries after al-Nuwayrī’s death; other compilers quoted liberally from it and historians used it as a source for their own chronicles. In Europe, the Ultimate Ambition became known as early as the 17th century, when several manuscripts found their way to Leiden and Paris. The first complete edition of the text was begun in Egypt in 1923 by Aḥmad Zakī Pāsha and completed in the 1960s, but its final volumes were only published in 1997. In more recent times, the Ultimate Ambition has been drawn upon mainly by historians of the Mamluk Empire because of al-Nuwayrī’s extensive treatment of the events of his own lifetime. With few exceptions, the work has been approached instrumentally, as a source for other scholarly projects rather than an object of inquiry in and of itself.
My interest in the Ultimate Ambition has been motivated from the outset by a curiosity about why this time and place in Islamic history witnessed an explosion of compilatory texts: dictionaries, manuals, onomastica, anthologies, and compendia of all shapes and sizes. In earlier decades, such texts were generally seen as tokens of intellectual stultification and a lack of originality—the baroque sputterings of a civilization content to collect and compile the writings of earlier centuries. In recent years, the growth of scholarship on late medieval Islamic history has led to a recognition of the important role played by compilers like al-Nuwayrī, whose works served as the primary custodians of the Islamic tradition in the early modern period and remain among the most important interpreters of that tradition for modern scholarship and Islamist thought.
Still, the motivations and working methods underlying this movement remain little understood, as are the ways that the Mamluk compilers positioned themselves vis-à-vis the archive they were assembling. I take up this subject in Chapter 1 in the course of situating al-Nuwayrī and his text within the landscape of encyclopedic production around the turn of the 14th century. As a bureaucrat, scholar, and aspiring litterateur who traveled all around the empire and held various administrative offices, al-Nuwayri’s biography reflects many of the forces that shaped cultural attitudes towards large-scale compilation at this time. What it does not seem to reflect at all is a fear of civilizational catastrophe brought on by the Mongol conquests, which was long thought to be a principal cause for encyclopedic production in the Mamluk Empire. While the trope of the encyclopedia as a defender and guarantor of civilizational heritage is certainly widely attested in Renaissance and Enlightenment intellectual history, I propose that it did not motivate the Mamluk compilers to write their books.
Rather, encyclopedists such as al-Nuwayri were moved by other factors entirely, chief among them the feeling of an overcrowding of authoritative knowledge in Cairo and Damascus, the great school cities of the empire. The explosion of investment in higher education and the changing migration patterns of scholars in West and Central Asia had a transformative impact on the sociology of scholarship at this time, making new texts available for study and prompting the formation of new genres and knowledge practices. In Chapter 2, I present a bird’s eye view of al-Nuwayrī’s work—its internal arrangement, structural divisions, and overall composition—comparing it to other Mamluk encyclopedic texts as well as earlier exemplars within the adab tradition. What emerges from this panoramic view of the work is a sense of how dramatically it brought together compositional elements from different genres—the classical literary anthology, the chronicle, the cosmographical compendium, and the scribal manual—and fashioned something altogether new by combining them. This generic hybridity was not unique to the Ultimate Ambition; I argue that the processes of summary, concatenation, and expansion on display in al-Nuwayrī’s work can be seen as productive of encyclopedic forms throughout the 13th-15th centuries.
In Chapter 3, I explore the influence of the scholarly milieu on encyclopedic compilation. The cities of the Mamluk Empire were flourishing centers of learning: in the mid-14th century, there were nearly one hundred colleges in Damascus, while, a century later, Cairo could boast of seventy colleges operating on its famous Bayn al-Qaṣrayn street alone. As scholars have shown, these institutions of learning produced and consumed an astonishing range and quantity of books. Again, al-Nuwayrī is an ideal guide to this world, as he was a resident overseer of two important scholarly institutions, the Naṣiriyya Madrasa and the Manṣūrī Hospital. I address the eclectic range of subjects being taught his environment at this time and the challenges that this eclecticism posed for reconciling diverse authorities in all-encompassing encyclopedic works. After a discussion of al-Nuwayrī’s principal sources, I conclude by discussing the epistemological ecumenism of the Ultimate Ambition: the ways in which al-Nuwayrī managed diverse and often contradictory truth claims.
Having explored the world of scholarly institutions, I turn to the parallel world of imperial institutions, chanceries, and financial bureaus in Chapter 4. As many Mamluk compilers served as clerks in the administrative nervous system of the empire, they were particularly attuned to the processes of centralization and consolidation that transformed the politics of their time. Extensive portions of Ultimate Ambition were written with such an audience in mind, and serve as a kind of testament to the connections between encyclopedism and the imperial state, as observed in other historical contexts by scholars such as Trevor Murphy, Jason König, Greg Woolf, and Timothy Whitmarsh. I consider the differences between scholarly and administrative knowledge, which reflect not merely a distinction in subject matter but a different epistemological valence and standards of corroboration.
In Chapter 5, I address the strategies of collation, edition, and source management used to produce large compilations in the Mamluk period. What working methods did copyists use to assemble multi-volume manuscripts? How did one distinguish one’s own copies of authoritative texts from those of other copyists? What kind of training was necessary to become a successful copyist? Al-Nuwayrī’s Ultimate Ambition offers us an ideal opportunity to consider these questions, as several autograph volumes of the text have been preserved, which allow us to reconstruct its composition history, shedding light on the mechanics of encyclopedic compilation in a world before print. Furthermore, al-Nuwayrī addresses the education and practice of the copyist in his enormous discussion of secretaryship, which lies at the heart of the Ultimate Ambition and in certain ways is its raison d’être.
My book concludes with a discussion of the Islamic and European reception of al-Nuwayri’s great compendium. Which of his contemporaries read this work and cited it? What portions of it were of greatest interest to European orientalists? Focusing primarily on the Dutch reception, I explore the engagements with the Ultimate Ambition by such figures as Jacobus Golius, Johannes Heyman, Albert Schultens, and others, which set the stage for the modern edition and publication of the book by Aḥmad Zakī Pāṣha in the 20th century.