Elias Muhanna


Elias I. Muhanna

Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature

Mike Cohea/Brown University
Different periods of the world’s history have witnessed explosions in encyclopedic activities; ancient Rome had them. Elias Muhanna explores 14th-century Arabic efforts at assembling the universe of knowledge. What are we to make of Wikipedia?

Nine thousand pages. Two million, three hundred thousand words. That’s the volume of material that Elias Muhanna read, digested, catalogued, and assimilated in order to make sense of the 14th-century Arabic text that formed the basis of his doctoral research. It took Muhanna three years to dissect the massive work — a 30-volume encyclopedic compendium entitled The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition — gaining insight into its author’s views on history, geography, zoology, botany, medicine, sex, wine, music, and much more. He was awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard in May 2012 for his dissertation Encyclopaedism in the Mamluk Period: The Composition of Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri’s “Nihayat al-arab fi funun al-adab”.

Muhanna describes encyclopedism as “just a fancy name for the obsession with producing these enormous collections of knowledge.”

“My work began by looking at this particular work. I was interested in why and how its author produced such a book, who his audience was, what is in the book and what’s not in it,” said Muhanna.

“There have been different moments in history that witnessed explosions of encyclopedic activity: late antique Rome, the Renaissance, and Mamluk Egypt and Syria, for example. We live in a similarly encyclopedic moment today: Just look at Google Books and Wikipedia. We have a similar kind of itch to scratch.”

Muhanna’s academic interests started early, as a child growing up in the eastern Mediterranean. Born in Lebanon, he moved with his family to Cyprus during the Lebanese Civil War, where Muhanna did most of his schooling before coming to the United States for college. After graduating magna cum laude in linguistics and philosophy from Duke University, he spent a year living in Morocco on a Fulbright scholarship.

When Muhanna returned to the United States, he attended the University of Pennsylvania where he earned an A.M. in comparative literature and literary theory, and then completed a Ph.D. in Near Eastern languages and civilizations at Harvard.

“As a graduate student, one of the things that I was consistently drawn to was medieval compilatory literature: anthologies, manuals, dictionaries, and encyclopedic texts. I was fascinated by the polymathic aspect of these authors and the intellectual ambitiousness of somebody who might set out to do something so monumental — so crazy in a way.”

At Brown, Muhanna’s principal focus will be on classical Arabic literature. In the fall, he will teach courses on the Arabian Nights and on the concept of civilizational decline in Arabic literary and intellectual history. In the spring, he’ll teach a survey of classical Arabic literature and a graduate seminar on the encyclopedic production of different cultures.

Like those he studies, Muhanna is an avid researcher, writer, and compiler. He is the author of Qifa Nabki, a widely read blog on contemporary Lebanese politics, and he writes frequently on political and cultural topics for The New York Times, The Nation, The Guardian, and others.

Muhanna was drawn to Brown because of its reputation as a research institution but also by the mystique of its students — curious, intellectually adventurous, and very creative — and looks forward to beginning his duties in the fall.

“I love to teach. One of the best things about working at a university is the chance to exchange and debate ideas with smart young people. I find that tremendously fun. So Brown is a dream job in all respects.”

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