> Skip to content
  • Published: 1 September 2016
  • ISBN: 9780143107484
  • Imprint: Penguin Classics
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $38.00

The Ultimate Ambition In The Arts Of Erudition

A Compendium Of Knowledge From The Classical Islamic World



This groundbreaking translation of a remarkable Arabic text—expertly abridged and annotated—offers a look at the world through the highly literary and impressively knowledgeable societies of the classical Islamic world. Meticulously arranged and delightfully eclectic, it is a compendium to be treasured—a true monument of erudition.

For the first time in English, a catalog of the world through fourteenth-century Arab eyes—a kind of Schott’s Miscellany for the Islamic Golden Age

An astonishing record of the knowledge of a civilization, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition catalogs everything known to exist from the perspective of a fourteenth-century Egyptian scholar and litterateur. More than 9,000 pages and thirty volumes—here abridged to one volume, and translated into English for the first time—it contains entries on everything from medieval moon-worshipping cults, sexual aphrodisiacs, and the substance of clouds, to how to get the smell of alcohol off one’s breath, the deliciousness of cheese made from buffalo milk, and the nesting habits of flamingos.

Similar works by Western authors, including Pliny’s Natural History and Diderot’s Encyclopédie, have been available in English for centuries. This groundbreaking translation of a remarkable Arabic text—expertly abridged and annotated—offers a look at the world through the highly literary and impressively knowledgeable societies of the classical Islamic world. Meticulously arranged and delightfully eclectic, it is a compendium to be treasured—a true monument of erudition.

For more than seventy years, Penguin has been the leading publisher of classic literature in the English-speaking world. With more than 1,700 titles, Penguin Classics represents a global bookshelf of the best works throughout history and across genres and disciplines. Readers trust the series to provide authoritative texts enhanced by introductions and notes by distinguished scholars and contemporary authors, as well as up-to-date translations by award-winning translators.

  • Published: 1 September 2016
  • ISBN: 9780143107484
  • Imprint: Penguin Classics
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $38.00

Praise for The Ultimate Ambition In The Arts Of Erudition

From the structure of the heavens to the curious anatomy of the hippopotamus, with stops to view everything from book-keeping to aphrodisiacs, this charming fourteenth-century encyclopedia gives a glimpse of the entire world as seen by a very learned Egyptian summing up the powerful tradition of medieval Islamic scholarship known in his time. Elias Muhanna’s very readable translation allows the reader to gain a rounded experience of a deeply interesting bygone world

Roy P. Mottahedeh, Harvard University

Finally, thanks to Elias Muhanna’s expert translation, editing, and explanatory notes, we have access to a real encyclopedia to place alongside Borges’s mythical Chinese text. An extraordinary work, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition strives for nothing less than an orderly, total account of the world, and Al-Nuwayri’s unique accomplishment in the encyclopedic tradition is not to suggest that wonder is to be found in the many oddities, rarities, and exceptions of the given world, but to show how, beneath these features, there is a deeper and more marvelous order

Elliott Colla, Georgetown University

This engaging volume lets you dip into the world of a fourteenth-century Egyptian encyclopedist who knew about the endless rain in England, the skillfulness of artists in China, how a woman can get away with claiming to be a prophetess, why a bureaucrat should never commit the size of the army to writing, and anything else worth knowing

Michael Cook, Princeton University

Related titles