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 Yorker's online edition, as well as in The New York TimesThe Nation, The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and other periodicals.

Muhanna earned his Ph.D. in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations from Harvard University in 2012.  He is the creator of the Digital Islamic Humanities Project at Brown, a multi-year initiative that convenes an annual conference and hosts a variety of research activities. 


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


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)


  • COLT 1440G - Islam and Liberalism - Spring 2014.

  • COLT 0811O - Desire and Sexuality in Arabic Literature - Fall 2013.

  • COLT 0510K - The 1001 Nights - Spring 2014, Spring 2015.

  • COLT 2820Z - The Encyclopedic Imagination from Pliny to Google Books - Spring 2013.

  • COLT 1813K - The Problem of the Vernacular - Fall 2013, Fall 2014.

  • COLT 1310E - A Classical Islamic Education: Readings in Arabic Literature - Fall 2014.

  • COLT 0610Q - Before Wikipedia - Spring 2015.

  • COLT 1310A - The Classical Arabic Literary Tradition - Spring 2013.

News|Recent News

Aphrodisiacs? Search This Medieval Islamic Encyclopedia (Elias Muhanna book review)

October 7, 2016 The New York Times

"Sprawling over two million words and 33 volumes, al-Nuwayri’s “The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition” has long been considered a monument of classical Islamic learning. A significantly abridged version is now available in English, translated by Elias Muhanna, a professor of Arabic literature at Brown University."