14th Century Arabic Encyclopedia Finally Translated

Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri began as a civil servant of the Mamluk Empire. In 1310, the ancient Arabic scholar retired from his post and sought to work towards a Herculean intellectual feat, the product of which we are only now getting the chance to enjoy in English.

From the extensive categorization of dust to instructions on escaping Rhino attacks, al-Nuwayri authored an encyclopedia attempting to catalogue everything known to exist. Coming out at a whopping 9,000 pages and 33 volumes, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition is an astounding accomplishment.

Flipping through its pages you’ll find biographies of great individuals, observations on eyebrows, and the recipe for a male enhancing omelette. al-Nuwayri writes describes his opus as an attempt to secure “… the essential and banishing the incidental, adorning it with the necklace of my own sayings, and the pearls of my predecessors”.

Translating the behemoth can’t have been an easy task, which could explain the 600-plus year delay on the English version. Brown professor Elias Muhanna, the person in charge of translating and editing the the work into a single volume, said this of the process:

Settling on what parts of The Ultimate Ambition to include and exclude was one of the great challenges… The original work encompasses over 30 volumes, and I felt it was important to give the reader as broad a sampling of its contents as possible. That meant that I tried to include something – even just a snippet – from as many discrete chapters of the work as I could.

Muhanna was forced to edit out most of the original text’s history of the world, a difficult but necessary decision. The editor calls attention to the vibrant contradictions within the text, citing a chapter that report authoritatively on the prohibition of singing preceding a chapter that delves just as deeply into the praise of song.

A testament to the incredible intellectual history of Islamic cultures, this text depicts a complex worldview that is in stark contrast to what is normally expected of Medieval literature. As Muhanna puts it, the freedom and breadth of the work helps to make it’s depiction of an ancient worldview feel “alive”.


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