Al-Nuwayri: The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition

December 18, 2016

51vj4rksg2l-_ac_us160_I have been curious about how people saw and tried to understand the world in the past, for a very long time. When I studied Latin in the sixth form, I came across Virgil’s recipe for bees in his fourth Georgic: to make bees, you stop up all the bodily orifices of a young calf and beat it to a pulp, and leave it in a tower with windows facing the four cardinal points: come back a week later and there will be bees! And it turned out it wasn’t that bonkers a theory as there’s a type of fly that looks very like a bee that lays eggs in carrion in that part of the world…

Writers have compiled compendia of knowledge over the centuries, until the time came at some point around the sixteenth century when it was no longer possible for one person to know everything that was known about the world. There’s a man from those times called Athanasius Kirchner who I’ve come across a few times. So there was Pliny’s Natural History, which is a fascinating collection of information that the Romans knew or speculated, and Isidore of Seville’s marvellous Etymologies, in which he tried to write down everything that was known in his time (seventh century) and for which he has become the patron saint of the internet.

And here is one of the Islamic world’s similar ventures. The original runs to 33 volumes, apparently, so this is a brief but carefully chosen selection, well translated and annotated, giving a feel of the original. Hazelnuts enlarge the brain, according to our fourteenth century author, but for me the most wonderful insight was that, if you are ever bitten by a panther, you must be very wary of mice, who will be attracted to you and come to urinate on you, and if one does, you will certainly die…

The sections on the natural world are probably the most fascinating; there are all sorts of bizarre recipes for enhancing sexual prowess, which make today’s spam e-mails seem positively dull. And the Islamic version of the Adam and Eve story is also an eye-opener, far more detailed and elaborate than the Genesis version. It’s not all from the Qur’an, but I’m unsure where the embellishments are from.

What come across to me quite clearly in all these authors and other that I’ve come across, is that there are things which they know for certain, and we can recognise these because they are correct and accurate to our understanding too, things that they are unsure about, and admit they are unsure about – here, our author concludes such sections with ‘God knows best’ which seems fair enough to me, and then things they clearly don’t know at all, have come across through hearsay or are just guessing. Today, in our scientific age, we are given the impression that everything is known; I think modern writers ought to be similarly modest and humble, but instead they usually present themselves as experts, founts of all knowledge and wisdom, or else we lend them that kind of authority unquestioningly. There are surely many things which we don’t know yet, and many things which we write of today as if we are certain of them, but which will come to be corrected in the future. I sometimes wonder what our generation’s equivalent of Virgil’s bees or Al-Nuwayri’s hazelnuts will turn out to be…

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