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Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Elias Muhanna

Elias Muhanna

Manning Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature


Elias Muhanna is the Manning Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Brown University, and a Faculty Fellow at the Watson Institute. He is a scholar of classical Arabic literature and Islamic intellectual history, and his research focuses primarily on encyclopedic texts in the Islamic world and Europe, the cultural production of the Mamluk Empire, and the problem of the vernacular in different literary traditions. In addition to his scholarship, Muhanna writes frequently about contemporary politics and cultural affairs for the mainstream press. His essays and criticism have appeared in The New York TimesThe Nation, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and other periodicals. He is a contributing writer for NewYorker.com. In 2017-18, he will be a Public Engagement Fellow of the Whiting Foundation.


Muhanna’s research focuses on the history of encyclopedic literature and the transmission of knowledge in the Islamic world. He has published two books: a selected translation of Shihab al-Din al-Nuwayri's 14th-century Arabic compendium, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition (Penguin, 2016), and an edited volume, The Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies (De Gruyter, 2016). A monograph on the history of classical and early modern encyclopedic literature in the Islamic world is forthcoming in 2017. In addition to his research on classical Islam, Muhanna has written extensively about the contemporary Middle East, particularly about Levantine politics. His essays and criticism have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and he blogs at Qifa Nabki. For a list of selected publications, see here


“The World in a Book: Al-Nuwayri and the Islamic Encyclopedic Tradition (Princeton University Press, 2017)

Translator and editor, The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition (New York: Penguin, 2016)

"The Scattered and the Gathered: Questioning Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi.” In Essays in Islamic Philology, History, and Philosophy, edited by Alireza Korangy, Roy P. Mottahedeh, Wheeler Thackston, and William Granara. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016).

The Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016)

“Contradiction and Diversity,” The Nation (January 6-11, 2016)

“The Fate of a Joke in Lebanon,” The New Yorker (Sept. 26, 2015)

“Hacking the Humanities,” The New Yorker (July 7, 2015)

"Encyclopaedias, Arabic," Encyclopaedia of Islam Three, (Leiden: Brill, 2015)


Fall 2017

  • The Problem of the Vernacular
  • A Classical Islamic Education: Readings in Arabic Literature

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Mashrou’ Leila and the Night Club’s Political Power (written by Elias Muhanna)

August 2, 2017 New Yorker

Elias Muhanna in The New Yorker, "Mashrou’ Leila, the biggest alt-rock band in the Middle East, was formed in 2008 by several students at the American University of Beirut. The group’s early songs—ironic, grungy jams about the nettlesome oppression of bourgeois Lebanese society—made them famous in Beirut’s indie scene."


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