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.
Elias Muhanna is the Manning Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University. He is the editor and translator of an abridged version of al-Nuwayri’s The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition (Penguin) and the editor of The Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies.
"In this erudite book, Elias Muhanna deftly analyzes the epistemological structure of al-Nuwayri’s immense encyclopedia and places it into its many rich intellectual, cultural, and historical contexts."--Nasser Rabbat, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
"A thirty-volume encyclopedia composed in Cairo in the early fourteenth century contained the world of knowledge available to a Mamluk clerk. Muhanna’s delightfully readable book guides us through the intellectual, institutional, and practical circumstances of the composition and circulation of this wide-ranging work. We gain a new interpretation of an old genre, informed by careful scholarship and probing questions about the politics of knowledge."--Ann Blair, author of Too Much to Know: Managing Scholarly Information before the Modern Age
"A significant and careful analysis of a previously neglected but crucial text, The World in a Book makes a fascinating argument about the rise of Islamic encyclopedism. Writing with great clarity, Elias Muhanna tackles a very important topic, which had been waiting for its book for a long time."--Konrad Hirschler, Freie Universität Berlin
"The World in a Book is a superb, original study that makes a major contribution to the understanding of Arabo-Islamic cultural production, Mamluk history, and Arabic literature. Elias Muhanna's book is the first about al-Nuwayri's work in English and by far the finest in any language."--Li Guo, University of Notre Dame