The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition

Sometime around the year 1314, tired of his daily duties in the financial administration of the Mamluk empire (1250 to 1517), a government bureaucrat in Cairo decided to retire and devote the remainder of his life to the compilation of a gigantic cross-disciplinary compendium of existing knowledge. This textual museum was composed by Shihab Al-Din Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab Al-Nuwayri (1279-1333) during a period of political stability and economic prosperity.

Early fourteenth-century Cairo was the cultural and intellectual centre of the Islamic world (the glorious Baghdad had been besieged by Ilkhanate Mongal forces earlier in 1258) with a large variety of books being circulated among its scientists and litterateurs in its colleges and libraries.

The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World  by Al-Nuwayrī (1279-1333) translated and edited by Elias Muhanna (2016, Penguin Classics)

Such was the proliferation of lexicons, historical chronicles, legal manuals, biographical dictionaries and literary anthologies during this era that the Mamluk period has earned the epithet “the Age of Encyclopedias”. Al-Nuwayri’s towering humanistic achievement emerges out of this wondrously inquisitive context of the Islamic Golden Age. The encyclopedia contains “poetry, literary epistles, historical narratives, taxonomies, pharmacopoeial antidotes, ancient fables, and much more” – all this in about two million words, 9,000 pages and 33 volumes.

The original sprawl was recently abridged and translated into English as The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition: A Compendium of Knowledge from the Classical Islamic World by Elias Muhanna (@QifaNabki), a scholar of classical Arabic literature and Islamic intellectual history at Brown University. Muhanna obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard in 2012 and has, since 2008, been running a blog called “Qifa Nabki” – a forum for intellectual exchange and debate on Levantine politics. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Nation and The New Yorker


The Mamluk Sultanate ruled Cairo from 1250 (when it overthrew the Ayyubid Dynasty) until 1517 (when it was conquered by the Ottomans). The Mamluk rulers were known for their construction projects. This painting shows the interior of the Mosque of Sultan al-Ghuri, Cairo built by the second last Mamluk Sultan, Qansuh al-Ghuri who ruled from 1501 to 1516.


A Mamluk Nobleman by William Page (1794-1872), Wikipedia

Professor Muhanna first encountered The Ultimate Ambition as a graduate student. He writes in the introduction: “Unfettered by the doctrinal shackles that moderns tend to associate with the medieval era, the world that The Ultimate Ambition presents is full of paradox and pleasure -which is to say, alive.” Al-Nuwayri’s style is ecumenical; he is unafraid of contradictions and frequently provides multiple viewpoints on one issue. He is also a humble editor. In his preface, he admits: “My own words in it are like the night clouds leading the rain clouds, or the patrol followed by the squadron.” The project is comparable to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies

In the delightful new Penguin Classics edition that preserves the eclecticism of the original, we read about the marriage contract between two deaf-mutes, a method of urination that can save one from a rhinoceros attack, omelettes that increase sexual potency and jams that strengthen sexual appetite. Al-Nuwayri talks about the wildlife in India, the curios of China. He mentions Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Physics. Even the constant rain that covers the island of England!


Al-Nuwayri writes: “The island of England has prosperous cities, lofty mountains, valleys, and plains. The rain there is constant. Between this island and the continent is a distance of twelve miles.” Wrong on the distance (the shortest route is about 20.6 miles) but spot-on with climate! (Photo: Pixabay)


The compendium is arranged in sophisticated hierarchical and classificatory schemes. Its five principal divisions are: (i) the cosmos , (ii) the human being, (iii) the animal world (iv) the plant world and (v) universal history.

I will share a few words from the beginning of the last part in which Al-Nuwayri discusses the importance of the study of history. His words are wise and wonderful, useful to anyone, anywhere, at any time.

The Fifth Book: On History

The study of history is required for the king and the minister, the general and the prince, the scribe and the counselor, the rich man and the poor man, the desert dweller and the city dweller, the sedentary and nomadic. The king gains experience by contemplating former states and peoples. The minister imitates the actions of his predecessors who successfully wielded both the sword and the pen. The general may learn, from history, about the stratagems of war and different battle positions. The counselor considers his opinion and only offers it after much reflection; he studies a matter as a member of the ruler’s entourage, possessed of a sharp mind.


“The counselor considers his opinion and only offers it after much reflection…” [Painting is Arab Chieftains in Council (1834) by Horace Vernet, Wikimedia Commons]

The scribe bears witness to history in his letters and other writings, and may expatiate upon it in straitened conditions. The rich man praises God for what He has conferred upon him in the way of blessings and prosperity, and he spends what God has given him when he understands that there is no escape from his own end and passing. And the poor man desires asceticism because he knows that the world is not eternal. Every other person hears about history through evening conversations, desiring to learn the stories of the different nations, the battle days of the Arabs, and the wars with the barbarians.

Watch a webcast from Brown University on the book (lecture + reading) from October 5, 2016 to learn more. Immerse yourself in this splendid book if you are a lover of human culture. As it opens a window on the past, it illuminates our present, showing that our ancestors were preoccupied by the same concerns and mysteries that trouble and dazzle us today.


Image Credit:

Featured: Penguin Classics (Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY)



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