Encyclopaedism in Mamluk Egypt

A review of Encyclopaedism in the Mamluk Period: The Composition of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī’s (d. 1333) Nihāyat al-arab fī funūn al-adab, by Elias I. Muhanna.

Elias Muhanna’s 2012 dissertation Encyclopaedism in the Mamluk Period takes as its object of study the Nihāyat al-arab fī funūn al-adab, a 31-manuscript-volume encyclopaedia written in the early fourteenth century by the Mamluk Egyptian bureaucrat Aḥmad b. ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Nuwayrī (d. 733/1333). By examining the text through a sophisticated methodological lens, Muhanna’s study reminds us of the literary merits of compilatory texts like the Nihāya while also serving as an inspiring model for present-day scholars of “post-classical” Arabic literature. At times bordering on the poetic, the author’s clear writing style succeeds in communicating his analysis concisely without sacrificing detail or sophistication.

Al-Nuwayrī, “a fundamentally bookish compiler” (p. 133), dedicated the last twenty years of his life to writing the Nihāya, and though technically he would remain a single book author, his 2.3-million-word opus rivals the output of Mamluk scholars with dozens of titles to their names. For its part, the Nihāya is divided into five books (funūn): (i) the cosmos; (ii) the human being; (iii) animal life; (iv) plant life; and (v) a universal history of the world. The fifth book appears over twice as long as the other four combined, and to improve upon its navigability, al-Nuwayrī would divide its contents according to political dynasties – an innovation “that seems to have been unprecedented in Islamic historiography” (p. 147) in which the chronicle otherwise reigned supreme. Although the cosmographical encyclopaedia Mabāhij al-fikar of Jamāl al-Dīn al-Waṭwāṭ (d. 718/1318) was the “principal structural inspiration” (p. 163) for the Nihāya, which effectively “swallowed the Mabāhij whole” (p. 166), al-Nuwayrī himself viewed his encyclopaedia as a work of adab. As Muhanna explains, “Reading the Nihāya as an instantiation of a single medieval genre is problematic” as “the text is an amalgam of several genres” (p. 179).

Chapter 1, “Approaching Mamluk Encyclopaedism,” extends to the Mamluk period a discussion of the methodological difficulties that scholars in other fields have encountered when defining encyclopaedism. Although the Mamluk period is regarded as the “golden age of Arabic encyclopaedic literature” (p. 10), Muhanna charts new scholarly territory by asking “deceptively simple questions” (p. 12) of Mamluk encyclopaedism with an eye towards definitions and genealogies. Is the Mamluk encyclopaedia a distinct genre of literature or a grouping of features that appear in a variety of genres and disciplines? By examining how historians of European encyclopaedism have approached this question, Muhanna identifies the benefits and liabilities of both the top-down “analytical” definition of the encyclopaedia, in which a set of features define the phenomenon irrespective of anachronism or an author’s own terminology, and the bottom-up “empirical” definition, which privileges a text’s self-conscious terminology in defining the encyclopaedia but exposes itself to conceptual myopia. The analytical definition has been applied almost exclusively to Arabic encyclopaedism to date, although “it risks glossing over essential differences between texts that are grouped together in an abstract fashion” (p. 28). In response, and while acknowledging that “there is no escaping the methodological problems raised by both” approaches, Muhanna applies the term encyclopaedism “as a corral within which we might examine the diverse menagerie of multidisciplinary texts” of the Mamluk period while remaining sensitive to “indigenous nomenclature” (p. 31) at the same time.

A concluding section of the chapter makes a case for the study of Mamluk encyclopaedism in the first place and expands upon the author’s earlier discussion of the intellectual decline narrative that has hampered the study of “post-classical” Arabic literature for too long. It is truly unfortunate (albeit necessary) that Muhanna must respond to the self-fulfilling sentiment of twentieth-century scholars that Mamluk “encyclopaedism is inherently not interesting precisely because it is a token of intellectual decline” (p. 36). Though clearly on the wane in the field of Mamluk Studies thanks to the efforts of scholars like Muhanna among others, such a sentiment still taints the received scholarly tradition in Arabic and Islamic studies – including, ironically, the Encyclopaedia of Islam’s entry on the Arabic encyclopaedia! As Muhanna mentions in his introduction, his research approaches al-Nuwayrī’s Nihāya as “an object of inquiry in and of itself” (p. 3), and his dissertation thus stands as a much deserved corrective to the study of Arabic encyclopaedism after the thirteenth century.

In Chapter 2, “An Encyclopaedist at Work: Al-Nuwayrī’s Intellectual and Institutional Milieus,” Muhanna seeks to identify the motives that prompted al-Nuwayrī to compose his Nihāya. Rather than view encyclopaedic works like the Nihāya as an attempt to stem the intellectual trauma that followed the Mongol conquests, as other historians have posited, Muhanna looks to the stability of Mamluk Cairo and the sultans’ push for administrative centralization in the fourteenth century as catalysts for a parallel “consolidation in the sphere of textual production” (p. 47). In this light, the author sketches the biography of al-Nuwayrī particularly as it intersects with Mamluk educational and administrative institutions, which had expanded greatly during this period of imperial centralization. Here Muhanna demonstrates persuasively that “the Nihāya was, like its author, something of an institutional product” (p. 97). Al-Nuwayrī’s text moreover exemplifies the “aggregative ethos” that would emerge at this time as Mamluk scholars negotiated their relationship with a broader understanding of the Islamic intellectual heritage. No longer viewed through the lens of a particular region or era, this expansive heritage brought with it “the feeling of an overcrowding of authoritative sources” (p. 97), which in turn precipitated a host of compilatory works like the Nihāya to systematize it “while also finding ways to renew, contest, and surpass it” (p. 7).

Chapter 3, “The Shape of the Nihāya,” opens with the metaphor of a city park to illustrate how the Nihāya’s purposeful structure can only be recognized at a distance. In this vein, Muhanna employs a wide-lens analysis to the text as a unitary whole to demonstrate its coherence while still acknowledging the merits of mining the text for particular bits of information, as has been the traditional approach to it. The Nihāya’s first unique feature that emerges from such an analysis is its enormous size, which makes it tower over its cohort of Mamluk encyclopaedias “like an elephant in a long train of mules” (p. 102). This suggests that al-Nuwayrī did not intend his text to function like other compilations but rather meant it to be consulted like a dictionary or copied in part. A second unique feature is its “relentlessly hierarchical” arrangement in which “structural textures are foregrounded rather than hidden in the shadows” (pp. 103-4). The Nihāya, in other words, “wears hypotaxis on its sleeve,” thus leaving the reader “in no doubt as to how things rank” (p. 126). As such, while maintaining the consistency of the Nihāya’s chapter themes, al-Nuwayrī relies on an unusually specific cross-referencing mechanism in place of tangents and digressions, which might otherwise throw off the hierarchical arrangement of his text. Muhanna here provides us with a series of creative diagrams to represent these cross-references visually and show that the Nihāya is meant ultimately to be navigable and thus read selectively and not linearly. In a final section that includes a helpful series of stacked bar charts which dissect the Nihāya’s subdivisions according to their respective word counts, Muhanna reapplies his wide-lens analysis to the contents of the Nihāya in order to understand “what this work that aims for comprehensiveness is comprehensive of” (p. 136).

Finally, Muhanna takes the “clear synthetic vision” (p. 7) that emerges from the latter analysis as his focus in Chapter 4, “Cosmography, Anthology, Chronicle, Commonplace Book: The Nihāya’s Sources and Compositional Models.” The Nihāya, written by a novice adīb like al-Nuwayrī, is unique not on the basis of its literary merits per se but rather in its expansive take on adab, here understood as “an umbrella for a huge range of disciplines and genres, including history” (p. 190). By extrapolating from the inclusions and omissions that inform al-Nuwayrī’s Nihāya, Muhanna identifies multiple motives to explain the text’s existence. Although the Nihāya would have had a clear utility for Mamluk professionals and administrators, Muhanna points to the text’s propensity for delightful anecdotes and trivia, along with its endeavoring to encapsulate the totality of cultural habits that the Mamluk scholarly elite would hold dear, to conclude that “the contents of the Nihāya should be read as a reflection of culture rather than practice” (p. 191). What’s more, through his tacit embrace of competing truth claims and inimical worldviews throughout his Nihāya – an embrace that Muhanna traces back to his training in ḥadīth – al-Nuwayrī would leave to posterity a text “unfettered by the conventions and constricted vision of individual disciplines, but structured enough as to enable the access and retrieval of its content” (p. 200).

Muhanna’s dissertation meanwhile leaves posterity with a new appreciation for the structural analysis of massive encyclopaedic works. Muhanna has asked the right questions of the Nihāya, and the results that he has obtained promise to redefine the study of “post-classical” Arabic compilatory texts of all types and genres. What’s more, through his creative scholarly methodology, his keen eye for figural representations of complex structural phenomena, and his scholarly tenacity in the face of 2.3 million-word tomes, Muhanna has redirected our attention to an underappreciated area of scholarship, hammering thereby yet another nail in the decline narrative’s coffin.

Matthew B. Ingalls
Department of Religion
University of Puget Sound

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2012. 262 pp. Primary Advisor: Wolfhart P. Heinrichs.

Image: Cover detail of Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri, Nihayat al-Arab fi Funun al-Adab, ed. Mufid Qumayha et al., Beirut, 1424/2004.

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