My articles

Orientalism and Encyclopedism


Just a note about a talk I’m giving tomorrow evening at Brown, in the Medieval Studies lecture series. It’s at 5:30pm in Providence, in case any Boston-area medievalists are interested. And here’s an essay on a related topic (“Why was the 14th century a century of Arabic encyclopedism?”) that just came out a few months ago in a edited volume from Cambridge Univ. Press.

We return to regular programming this weekend.


28 thoughts on “Orientalism and Encyclopedism

  1. Does the term موسوعة mean encyclopedia to anyone? See your article pages 4, 5 and 6.


    Posted by Mustap | March 5, 2014, 12:36 pm
  2. Hi Mustap

    Mawsūʿa means encyclopaedia, but it’s a modern word. It wasn’t used to designate such works prior to the 19th century.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 5, 2014, 12:40 pm
  3. A nice article. Thanks to work like yours the post-Mongol period of Arabic letters is emerging from the shadows of Nahda and Nationalist condescension. As someone who researches and teaches about the Ottoman era, I’ve been struck by the wealth of sources that Arab literati produced across those centuries. Yet it’s frustrating still to read (in some modern Arabic historical writing) about the allegedly “stagnant” and “imitative” character of pre-19th century work — thus characterized, I suppose, in order to highlight the undoubted virtues and new departures of the Nahda. But why run down one’s predecessors in the process? (A lot of the impetus is ideological, I suppose.)

    Posted by Jim Reilly | March 5, 2014, 3:17 pm
  4. Awesome. i look forward to reading this.

    Posted by dontgetit | March 5, 2014, 3:41 pm
  5. Lebanon was part of Greater Syria. Putin is in full agreement with that.

    No deal with West on its creation of the state of Israel in Palestine.

    Fully agree.

    Posted by Balesh | March 5, 2014, 4:14 pm
  6. Crimea is Russian and the Lebanon is Syrian. The Maronites should have carved out their bay of Monaco with the French but got greedy.

    Too bad for them.

    Posted by Balesh | March 5, 2014, 4:27 pm
  7. Thanks Jim! Thanks dontgetit!

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 5, 2014, 6:38 pm
  8. Why would the author(s) of Ras¯aʾil Ikhw¯an al-S. af¯aʾ (Epistles of the
    Sincere Brethren) choose to remain anonymous? And who are these Ikhwan al-Safa?

    Posted by Mustap | March 12, 2014, 2:30 pm
  9. In all likelihood, a confraternity of Isma`ili scholars and dilettantes interested in Neo-Platonic, Neo-Pythagorean, and gnostic thought.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 12, 2014, 2:38 pm
  10. Resistance Pro Update

    No deal with West on its creation of the state of Israel in Palestine.


    After Zio attack on Gaza, the brave Iranian military, still, at this very hour, has its finger on “trigger” to take care of Entity once and for all.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | March 12, 2014, 11:52 pm
  11. Today’s Trivia: Guess which QN participant this is…

    Posted by Akbar Palace | March 13, 2014, 10:29 am
  12. 3issa,

    Can you explain why no Jordanian king ever gave palestinian land back to the palestinians when they controlled the land?

    Posted by Akbar Palace | March 13, 2014, 9:46 pm
  13. King = just following orders

    Posted by 3issa | March 14, 2014, 3:49 am
  14. 3issa,

    Can you provide information on this? When Jordan illegally occupied the West Bank from 1950 to 1967, he

    a.) never offered it to the PLO
    b.) was never following anyone’s orders

    Jordan claimed the West Bank as part of Jordan. Where were the BDSers crying “occupation”?

    Also, Jordan was told not to enter into hostilities against Israel during the Six Day War, but did so anyway, despite what he was “told”.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | March 14, 2014, 10:18 am
  15. Lebanese PM could quit over Hezbollah resistance demand…,7340,L-4499088,00.html

    Posted by Akbar Palace | March 14, 2014, 10:25 am
  16. Quote of the day,

    بلا اكل هوا حاجي يتفلسف

    On Assad demanding resistance president for Lebanon

    Posted by Mustap | March 14, 2014, 11:07 am
  17. ….”In other news, regime and Hezbollah thugs are losing in Yabroud,”


    Posted by danny | March 14, 2014, 11:52 am
  18. Chag Purim Sameach! To all our Jewish friends, here and everywhere.

    Posted by Vulcan | March 14, 2014, 12:59 pm
  19. Vulcan,

    Thanks. Looks like history repeats itself.

    Posted by Akbar Palace | March 14, 2014, 1:21 pm

    QN: Balesh/R2D2, please take a break from this blog again, as you have evidently not learned how to control yourself. Thanks.

    Posted by Balesh | March 14, 2014, 3:50 pm
  21. Lebanon succeeds in making another farce.

    Posted by Mustap | March 14, 2014, 8:38 pm
  22. A big applause to the Kataeb for refusing to be part of another farce.

    Saad Hariri keeps deluding himself by claiming he accomplished something while in fact he accomplished nothing.

    Posted by Mustap | March 15, 2014, 7:43 pm
  23. QN

    I was finally able to read your text (and consult your dissertation) and I find it very intriguing and a worthy project, especially the attempt to understand the context of mamluk era encyclopedism.

    I had noticed the tendency in Ibn Khaldun to be all encompassing in his analyses, to the point of trying to exhaust all possible connections to his particular subject. But al-Nuwayri pushes that to an admirable extreme (as his subject focus on the cosmology as well as the various dimensions of the human world while Khaldun focuses on culture as such).

    Thank you for starting to engage with the question of the motives for that encyclopedic “style”. I thought initially that neoplatonism compounded with a unifying and all encompassing Arab Islamic cosmology may explain the overall view that everything is interconnected. The subject of knowledge in the early Abbasid era seemed to me to be explaining the cosmos and the interconnectedness of all beings and non beings (the neoplatonist ontology) but also commenting on previous analyses and studies of the human and natural worlds. Al Farabi famously connects everything to politics in his description of THE POLITICAL REGIME (from climate, food, social relations to astronomy, geography, intelligibles, etc.). The religious viewpoint of UNITY supplemented the Platonic and Aristotelean viewpoints to inspire an approach to knowledge that is by definition encyclopedic since it is building on the inexhaustible.

    However, having read your article, i agree that the particular conditions during the mamluk era must have added a lot more to the drive of being as exhaustive as possible in one’s scholarship while moving away from the specialization and separation of subjects of study. Frm the politcal and social instability produced by the Mongol invasions and the threat to libraries, to the centralized bureaucratic model and its influence on the methods of study, to the semi-religious duty of scholarship as building on and collecting previous knowledge, to the change in the audience and reception, etc., all these are quite descriptive of the social context for the particular encyclopedism of the time.

    But also, the individual experience of the encyclopedists of the mamluk era and their centrality to the political systems in place should be contrasted with the instability of the times as well as the “globalization” proper to that time (economic and financial relations between regional systems as well as travels and explorations of geographical and historical discourses and practices that made encountering difference) allowed for the realization that change and movement are at the foundation of an imagined or desired eternal and whole Parmenidean being must have prompted social imaginaries to look for stability and eternity in encyclopedic projects (ibn khaldun started working on his history of Africa once he decided to live a quiet and religious life as both a qadi and an isolated individual, i.e., a local scribe providing wisdom for posterity). The impetus of knowledge as an escape AND an alternative to the social world is not just a psychological phenomenon (khaldun lost his family and his political power and influence) but a historical drive that set “meaning” and “perfection” in complete systems of knowledge and analyses of reality. This phenomenon may be comparable to the pre European Enlightenment conditions (set out by the protestant reformation and its later parallel catholic reformation led by montaigne and other essayists like rochefoucauld, gracian, chamfort..). The individual humanism or the human centered cosmology DID not emerge in Europe first but could and must have been created in the Islamic World System through the valuing of the figure of learned humans that are not onoy religious scholars but encyclopedic men of letters.

    A lot more to say on this but i should not abuse this blog. Needless to say, everyone can understand that the Orientalist fantasy that Arab Islamic societies were NOT creating knowledge but are commenting and perpetuating static systems of knowldge is not onky debunked by individual creators of the social and human sciences like Khaldun but by intellectual currents socially and historically rooted in movements like the encyclopedism that you are studying (as well as in other movements associated with legal, interpretative, medical, economic, cultural and other practices from the Ummayads to the Ottomans, as analyzed by numerous scholars).

    Thank you for sharing this work with us and keep up your determination to investigate the subject further.

    Posted by Parrhesia | March 17, 2014, 3:20 am
  24. Thank you Parrhesia! Very kind of you to go to the trouble of reading the thesis.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | March 17, 2014, 7:34 am
  25. “A big applause to the Kataeb for refusing to be part of another farce.”


    Posted by danny | March 17, 2014, 2:07 pm
  26. Continuing on the “Guess the QN Participant” theme, guess which QN participant this is:,7340,L-4500186,00.html

    Posted by Akbar Palace | March 17, 2014, 11:45 pm
  27. Now that he lost in Crimea, is President Obama trying to score points with Putin in Syria?

    Why did he wait for three years to decide to kick out of the US the so-called diplomatic mission(s) and personnel of the criminal regime of criminal Assad?

    Everyone knew Assad and the regime are criminal from day one. Did Obama just discover that now?

    Posted by Mustap | March 18, 2014, 12:32 pm

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