My published work explores the history of encyclopedic writing in the Islamic world, the cultural production of the late medieval and early modern Arabic-speaking lands, and the problem of the vernacular in different literary traditions. Following the descriptions of my books is a list of select academic articles. More information is available at my Academia page.
The World in a Book: Al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2018)
Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri was a fourteenth-century Egyptian polymath and the author of one of the greatest encyclopedias of the medieval Islamic world―a thirty-one-volume work entitled The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition. A storehouse of knowledge, this enormous book brought together materials on nearly every conceivable subject, from cosmology, zoology, and botany to philosophy, poetry, ethics, statecraft, and history. Composed in Cairo during the golden age of Islamic encyclopedic activity, the Ultimate Ambition was one of hundreds of large-scale compendia, literary anthologies, dictionaries, and chronicles produced at this time―an effort that was instrumental in organizing the archive of medieval Islamic thought.
“A thirty-volume encyclopedia composed in Cairo in the early fourteenth century contained the world of knowledge available to a Mamluk clerk. Muhanna’s delightfully readable book guides us through the intellectual, institutional, and practical circumstances of the composition and circulation of this wide-ranging work. We gain a new interpretation of an old genre, informed by careful scholarship and probing questions about the politics of knowledge.” — Ann Blair, Harvard University, author of Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age
“A significant and careful analysis of a previously neglected but crucial text, The World in a Book makes a fascinating argument about the rise of Islamic encyclopedism. Writing with great clarity, Elias Muhanna tackles a very important topic, which had been waiting for its book for a long time.” — Konrad Hirschler, Freie Universität Berlin
“The World in a Book is a superb, original study that makes a major contribution to the understanding of Arabo-Islamic cultural production, Mamluk history, and Arabic literature. Elias Muhanna’s book is the first about al-Nuwayri’s work in English and by far the finest in any language.” — Li Guo, University of Notre Dame
“In this erudite book, Elias Muhanna deftly analyzes the epistemological structure of al-Nuwayri’s immense encyclopedia and places it into its many rich intellectual, cultural, and historical contexts.” — Nasser Rabbat, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“A delightfully readable and careful study… A valuable and original contribution to the study of premodern Islamic literature and history that calls attention to the texts, until recently largely neglected, of the Mamluk period… Strongly recommended.” — International Journal of Middle East Studies
“Elias Muhanna’s The World in a Book: Al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition is an erudite, scrupulously researched, and eminently readable book that marks a significant contribution to studies in Arabic literature, Mamluk history, and the production and circulation of knowledge in the medieval Islamicate world.” — American Journal of Islamic Social Science
“There are few books in the field of pre-modern Islamic intellectual history that are both original contributions to scholarship and such a pleasure to read that they would interest a broad audience of non-specialists. This book is one of them.” — Arab Studies Journal
The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition (Penguin Classics, 2016).
NPR: Best Books of the Year
The Guardian: Best Books of the Year
An astonishing record of the knowledge of a civilization, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition catalogs everything known to exist from the perspective of a fourteenth-century Egyptian scholar and litterateur. More than 9,000 pages and thirty volumes—here abridged to one volume, and translated into English for the first time—it contains entries on everything from medieval moon-worshipping cults, sexual aphrodisiacs, and the substance of clouds, to how to get the smell of alcohol off one’s breath, the deliciousness of cheese made from buffalo milk, and the nesting habits of flamingos.
Similar works by Western authors, including Pliny’s Natural History, have been available in English for centuries. This groundbreaking translation of a remarkable Arabic text—expertly abridged and annotated—offers a look at the world through the highly literary and impressively knowledgeable societies of the classical Islamic world. Meticulously arranged and delightfully eclectic, it is a compendium to be treasured—a true monument of erudition.
“Sparkling . . . Marvelous . . . Wondrous . . . A monument of classical Islamic learning . . . Muhanna renders what might have been a rather baroque text in elegant prose. . . . The text opens a window into a lively and eclectic world of scholarship, a realm of humanist scribes and poetry-spouting polymaths. . . . Reading this compendium is like exploring a cabinet of curiosities, each section home to uncanny and startling mirabilia. . . . The pleasure of The Ultimate Ambition lies in exploring its bewildering scope, a range emblematic of the broad imaginations and curiosities of the 14th-century Islamic world.” — The New York Times Book Review
“This bizarre, fascinating book . . . illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam, so different from the crude puritanical myths purveyed by modern-day jihadis. . . . Reading it is like stumbling into a cavernous attic full of unimaginably strange artifacts, some of them unforgettable. . . . The book is full of strange myths and nostrums that hint at what mattered to people in the fourteenth century: sex, money, power, perfume. . . . From the alleged self-fellation of monkeys to the many lovely Bedouin words for the night sky . . . nothing seems to escape Nuwayri’s taxonomic ambitions.” — The New York Review of Books
“Encompassing everything from the dimensions of the sky to the forgetfulness of the ostrich, from an account of Adam’s first sneeze to advice on how to manage the Sultan’s buttery, al-Nuwayri’s Ultimate Ambition lassos centuries of learning – scientific, poetic, historical, Quranic – into something like an enormous encyclopedia… What is missing from the encyclopedia is a chapter on the heroism of translators.” — The London Review of Books
“This energetic primer to a staggeringly rich moment in time might end up being an indispensable addition to your library. . . . [It] is a celebration of knowledge for its own sake. . . . For feeding your curiosity, it handily succeeds.” — NPR.org
“Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head.” — The Paris Review Daily
“[It] spills over with insatiable curiosity at its most irrepressible: an elixir for dark days.” — Marina Warner, The Guardian, “Best Books of the Year”
“A reader-friendly translation . . . with an extensive introduction and explanatory notes . . . There seems no reason why Al-Nuwayri’s vast compendium of useful, useless and curious knowledge should remain the province of scholars alone.” — Al-Ahram Weekly
“A fascinating peek at the minds of our ancestors. You can see how man’s understanding of the world has changed drastically in some ways and remained startlingly constant in others. Plus the book is just plain fun to read.” — A. J. Jacobs, New York Times bestselling author of The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically
“A smart, exhilarating selection from a vast work. The scholarship is solid but unobtrusive, and the style, clear and flavorful, draws the reader in. Al-Nuwayri’s encyclopedia, somewhat like Vincent of Beauvais’s a hundred years before him, delights as it moves between learned tradition, jaw-dropping anecdote, and elegant (and elegantly translated) poetry. Dip in, and a distant world, endlessly colorful, comes to sparkling life.” — Andras P. Hamori, Princeton University
“From the structure of the heavens to the curious anatomy of the hippopotamus, with stops to view everything from book-keeping to aphrodisiacs, this charming fourteenth-century encyclopedia gives a glimpse of the entire world as seen by a very learned Egyptian summing up the powerful tradition of medieval Islamic scholarship known in his time. Elias Muhanna’s very readable translation allows the reader to gain a rounded experience of a deeply interesting bygone world.” — Roy P. Mottahedeh, Harvard University
“Finally, thanks to Elias Muhanna’s expert translation, editing, and explanatory notes, we have access to a real encyclopedia to place alongside Borges’s mythical Chinese text. An extraordinary work, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition strives for nothing less than an orderly, total account of the world, and Al-Nuwayri’s unique accomplishment in the encyclopedic tradition is not to suggest that wonder is to be found in the many oddities, rarities, and exceptions of the given world, but to show how, beneath these features, there is a deeper and more marvelous order.” — Elliott Colla, Georgetown University
“This engaging volume lets you dip into the world of a fourteenth-century Egyptian encyclopedist who knew about the endless rain in England, the skillfulness of artists in China, how a woman can get away with claiming to be a prophetess, why a bureaucrat should never commit the size of the army to writing, and anything else worth knowing.” — Michael Cook, Princeton University
“This delightful volume offers readers of English the first opportunity to sample the vast and varied literature of Arabic encyclopedism. Under Elias Muhanna’s expert guidance you will encounter advice and information strangely foreign and occasionally familiar, drawn from al-Nuwayri’s 14th-century perspective on history and politics, medicine and the natural world.” — Ann Blair, Harvard University
“A veritable Wikipedia of its time . . . The erudition and breadth of the book is staggering, and it is a positively entertaining collection. . . . A valuable addition to the library of those who are interested in medieval miscellany [and] a corrective to narratives that might isolate the Islamic world from the wider cosmos of medieval thinking.” — Publishers Weekly
“Fascinating . . . This condensed, abbreviated English-language rendition more than does justice to the Arabic text. . . . [A] clear, accessible translation . . . with copious notes and suggested further readings.” — Library Journal
The Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies (De Gruyter, 2016).
Over the past few decades, humanistic inquiry has been problematized and invigorated by the emergence of what is referred to as the digital humanities. Across multiple disciplines, from history to literature, religious studies to philosophy, archaeology to music, scholars are tapping the extraordinary power of digital technologies to preserve, curate, analyze, visualize, and reconstruct their research objects.
The study of the Middle East and the broader Islamic world has been no less impacted by this new paradigm. Scholars are making daily use of digital tools and repositories including private and state-sponsored archives of textual sources, digitized manuscript collections, densitometrical imaging, visualization and modeling software, and various forms of data mining and analysis. This collection of essays explores the state of the art in digital scholarship pertaining to Islamic & Middle Eastern studies, addressing areas such as digitization, visualization, text mining, databases, mapping, and e-publication. It is of relevance to any researcher interested in the opportunities and challenges engendered by this changing scholarly ecosystem.
- “The Scattered and the Gathered: Questioning Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi.” In Essays in Islamic Philology, History, and Philosophy, edited by Alireza Korangy, Roy P. Mottahedeh, Wheeler Thackston, and William Granara. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016).
- “Encyclopaedias, Arabic,” Encyclopaedia of Islam Three (Leiden: Brill, 2015).
- “Why was the 14th Century a Century of Arabic Encyclopaedism?” In Encyclopaedias and Encyclopaedism from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Edited by Jason König and Greg Woolf. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. (pdf)
- “Establishing a Lebanese Senate: Bicameralism and the Third Republic,” Stanford Univ. Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law, Working Papers Series, no. 125 (August 2012). Arabic translation available here.
- “The Sultan’s New Clothes: Ottoman-Mamluk Gift Exchange in the 15th Century.” Muqarnas 27 (2010): 189-207. (Winner of the Margaret B. Sevcenko Prize from the Historians of Islamic Art Association)
- “Ilyâs al-Mawsilî.” In Essays in Arabic Literary Biography, c. 1350-1830. Edited by J. Lowry & D. Stewart. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz, 2009.
- Review of Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic, in The Nation, January 11-18, 2016.
- Review of Carl Petry, The Criminal Underworld in a Medieval Islamic Society, in Mamluk Studies Review 18 (2014-15).
- Review of Matthew Ingalls, “Subtle Innovation Within Networks of Convention: The Life, Thought, and Legacy of Zakariyya al-Ansari,” Ph.D. diss., Yale (2011), in Dissertation Reviews.
- Review of Poetry and History: The Value of Poetry in Reconstructing Arab History, eds. Ramzi Baalbaki, Saleh Said Agha and Tarif Khalidi, in Journal of Near Eastern Studies 73.1 (April 2014): 176-78.
- Review of Reza Aslan’s Tablet and Pen: Literary Landscapes from the Modern Middle East, in The Nation (Aug 29, 2011).
- Review of Michael Young’s The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle, in The Nation (July 15, 2010).
- Review of Eugene Rogan’s, The Arabs: A History, in The National (December 4, 2009).