Shihab Al-Din Ahmad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab Al-Nuwayri was an encyclopaedist. The son of a civil servant, Al-Nuwayri was born in Upper Egypt but studied in Cairo, where he distinguished himself in jurisprudence and calligraphy. He followed in his father’s footsteps, serving as a financial administrator in Syria and Egypt, where he ended by having responsbility for two provinces. A change of heart led him to abandon the secretary’s profession for study of the humanities, which he has earlier scorned, and he composed his great encyclopaedia, the Nihayat al-arab fi funun al-adab (The Heart’s Desire in the Arts of Culture), partly for his own use as an aide-memoire of what he had read.
The Nihayat al-arab consists of five books, each one of which is divided into five sections which themselves contain several subsections: (1) the Heavens and the Earth, including a description of the world; (2) Man, his nature and especially his self-expression through poetry, and his instutions of government; (3) the Animal world; (4) the Vegetable World; (5) History. This last book is by far the longest, occupying twenty-one of the work’s thirty-one volumes. The whole reflects a carefully thought-out view of man and his place in the world and history. Unlike his sources, which include the major works of Arabic literature then extant, al-Nuwayri avoids digressions, abbreviating his material where necessary and never losing sight of the plan of his book. Rather than writing to conserve the memory of a threatened civilisation, he was probably trying to encourage the formation of a class of humanist secretaries at the height of Mamluk power.
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