The world in a book

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Book Title: The World in a Book: Al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition
Author: Elias Muhanna
Published: 05 December 2017

Publisher: Princeton University Press

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.

In the first study of this landmark work in a European language, Elias Muhanna explores its structure and contents, sources and influences, and reception and impact in the Islamic world and Europe. He sheds new light on the rise of encyclopedic literature in the learned cities of the Mamluk Empire and situates this intellectual movement alongside other encyclopedic traditions in the ancient, medieval, Renaissance, and Enlightenment periods. He also uncovers al-Nuwayri’s world: a scene of bustling colleges, imperial chanceries, crowded libraries, and religious politics.

Based on award-winning scholarship, The World in a Book opens up new areas in the comparative study of encyclopedic production and the transmission of knowledge.


About the Author
Elias Muhanna is the Manning Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University. He earned his doctorate in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations from Harvard University and has held fellowships from the American Council of Learned Societies and the Whiting Foundation. His research focuses on encyclopedic literature in the Islamic world and Europe, the cultural production of the Mamluk Empire, and the problem of the vernacular in different literary traditions. Muhanna writes frequently for the mainstream press. His essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The Nation, Foreign Policy, and other periodicals