Compiling Knowledge in the Medieval Islamic World

with Elias Muhanna

hosted by Chris Gratien and Zoe Griffith

readings by Nora Lessersohn

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Classical encyclopedias and compendia such as Pliny’s Natural History have long been known to Western audiences, but the considerably more recent works of medieval Islamic scholars have been comparatively ignored. In this episode, we talk to Elias Muhanna about his new translation of a fourteenth-century Arabic compendium by Egyptian scholar Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri, which covers everything from astrological and natural phenomena to religion, politics, food, animals, sex, and of course history. Al-Nuwayri’s compendium, entitled The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition (Nihayat al-arab fi funun al-adab), is rare glimpse into not only the worldview of a 14th century scholar but also the centuries of texts and learning available to the literati of the Mamluk Empire and the medieval Islamicate world.

This episode is part of an ongoing series entitled "History of Science, Ottoman or Otherwise."

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Elias Muhanna is the Manning Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University. He is a scholar of classical Arabic literature and Islamic intellectual history.
Chris Gratien holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University's Department of History and is currently an Academy Scholar at the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies. His research focuses on the social and environmental history of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region from the 1850s until the 1950s.
Zoe Griffith is a doctoral candidate in History at Brown University working on political economy and governance in Egypt and the Ottoman Mediterranean. Zoe is a co-curator of the OHP series on legal history in the Ottoman Empire and Islamic world.   
Nora Lessersohn is a Ph.D. student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University.  Her work focuses on Ottoman Armenians in Anatolia, Istanbul, and the United States during the 19th and 20th centuries. 


Episode No. 282
Release Date: 16 November 2016
Recording Location: Brown University
Editing and production by Chris Gratien
Sound excerpts: from - Baglamamin Dugumu - Necmiye Ararat and MuzafferKatibim (Uskudar'a Gider iken) - Safiye Ayla
Special thanks to Kara Güneş for allowing us to use the composition "Istanbul" in the intro music
Additional music recordings of Charbel Rouhana (oud) and Samir Siblini (nay), July 2003, courtesy of Elias Muhanna
Bibliography courtesy of Elias Muhanna

click for The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition translated by Elias Muhanna on Penguin Classics website
courtesy of Elias Muhanna


al-Nuwayrī, Shihāb al-Dīn Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb. Nihāyat al-arab fī funūn al-adab. Cairo: al-Muʾassasa al-Miṣriyya al-‘Āmma lil-Ta’līf wa-‘l-Tarjama wa-‘l-Ṭibā‘a wa-‘l-Nashr, 1923-97.
———. Nihāyat al-arab fī funūn al-adab. Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-ʿIlmiyya, 2004.


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Biesterfeldt, Hans Hinrich. “Arabisch-islamische Enzyklopädien: Formen und Funktionen.” In Die Enzyklopädie im Wandel vom Hockmittelalter bis zur frühen Neuzeit, edited by Christel Meier, 43-83. München: Wilhelm Fink Verlag, 2002.
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