The encyclopedia and the medieval Arab-Islamic world

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The world of encyclopedias has always fascinated every human being eager for knowledge, so let’s go and discover, through an essay by Bausani, those of the Arab-Islamic world

The idea of encyclopedia

Before proceeding in the discourse, it is necessary to make a small but necessary promise regarding the concept of “encyclopedia”, without which it would be extremely complicated to go into the discourse. The modern encyclopedia, which follows the alphabetical order, was born in Europe in the 17th century, nevertheless, this concept was already present in the medieval Arab-Islamic world, borrowed from the Hellenistic world, which was the first to theorize the encyclopedic idea. But what, then, does this conception consist of?


To answer this question, Bausani quotes the great Mariateresa Beonio Brocchieri Fumagalli, who states that the encyclopedia is: the balance between a framework as generic as possible on knowledge and the attempt to give a “meaning” to what is being told ; characteristics more than ever present in the medieval Islamic world.

2 major types of encyclopedias

Many great historians and essayists, in fact, tended to express their knowledge through works more than ever similar to our modern conception of encyclopedia, giving life to colossal texts that aimed both at gathering all human knowledge and at trying to give it the aforementioned “meaning. “. Having therefore recognized the presence of this literary genre, it is however necessary to divide it into two different strands: the first of a historical-ethnographic nature and the second of a scientific-philosophical nature.


The first category includes texts such as “The wonders of creation” by Zakariyya ibn Muhammad al Qazwini, “The Meadows of Gold ” by Mas’udi and all Tabari; to the second, instead, works such as “Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity” and “Key to the Sciences” by Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Khwarizmi.

The difference beyond the themes

The two categories, however, not only differ in a mere thematic aspect, but also vary greatly as regards their organization, an indication of two precise yet profoundly different purposes. The former, in fact, do not follow a very precise order, getting much closer to the contemporary concept of encyclopedia, while the latter make of their order a sort of small “initiatory path”.


These differences are motivated by the different final objective: in the second case, in fact, this order serves to build in the reader a path to be able to answer the fundamental questions of existence such as “Why did God create the world?” and other similar; this is precisely because the purpose, in this case, is much more than precise. In the first case, however, this discourse is completely lacking, consequently leading to a causal order: it is not intended, in fact, to steal hidden messages, but only to observe God and his creatures in the most precise and clear way possible.

The “other” encyclopedias

Before concluding his speech, however, Bausani makes a small digression, in order to provide us with an overview as correct as possible of what were the encyclopedic texts of that historical period. In addition to the two aforesaid typologies, in fact, there were also two others: the “encyclopedias of the adab” and the “biographical dictionaries”. The first sees as its first representative the Persian Ibn Qutayba (in particular his work “Uyun al Akhbar”) and is de facto a schematic collection of various poetic, sententious and anecdotal material of Arab origin and of peoples such as Greeks, Persians and Indians .

Abdul Alhazred
Abdul Alhazred

The second, on the other hand, has Ibn Khallikan as its maximum exponent who, with his “Obituario of illustrious men”, will even inspire the American horror author H.P. Lovecraft. This type of encyclopedia, on the other hand, sets itself the task of telling the story of “illustrious men”, thus detaching itself definitively from our encyclopedic imaginary, often linked to “things” and “facts”, and focusing only on the “greats” of a certain area.

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