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The Polymath

The Polymath

Bensalem Himmich
Translated by Roger Allen
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 256
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt15m7n40
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  • Book Info
    The Polymath
    Book Description:

    This award-winning historical novel deals with the stormy life of the outstanding Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun, using historical sources, and particularly material from the writer’s works, to construct the personal and intellectual universe of a fourteenth-century genius. The dominant concern of the novel—the uneasy relationship between intellectuals and political power, between scholars and authority—addresses our times through the transparent veil of history. In the first part of the novel, we are introduced to the mind of Ibn Khaldun as he dictates his work to his scribe and interlocutor. The second part delves into the heart of the man and his retrieval of a measure of happiness and affection in a remarriage, after the drowning of his first wife and their children at sea. Finally we see Ibn Khaldun as a man of action, trying to minimize the imminent horrors of invading armies and averting the sack of Damascus by Tamerlane, only to spend his last years lonely and destitute, having been fired from his post as qadi, his wife having gone to Morocco, and his attempts at saving the political situation having come to nil. “The elusive simplicity and fluency of style manage to entertain and instruct at once. We learn as we read about Ibn Khaldun: his insights into history and historiography, his views of the rise and fall of civilizations, the principles of his sociological thinking, along with intimate aspects of his life, including his tragic losses and his attitude toward women. We also learn of his response to the major crisis of his time, the Tatar invasion of the Mashriq. In short, Ibn Khaldun, the distant and formidable figure, is humanized—thanks to this novel."—Naguib Mahfouz Medal Award Committee

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-201-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Translator’s Note
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xxii)
  5. Chapter 1 Seven Nights of Dictation
    (pp. 1-54)

    Note One: Hammu al-Hihi who became ‘Abd al-Rahman’s amanuensis can be compared with Ibn Juzayy who served the same function for Ibn Battuta of Tangier. They were both small, ugly to look at, and squint-eyed from reading and writing so much. However, truth be told, the former can be distinguished from the latter by his quickfire intelligence, wit, and perseverance.

    Al-Hihi was not one of those amanuenses who automatically records everything he hears, blesses his employer’s longevity every time he opens his mouth, and composes sentences and paragraphs, or writes down what is dictated even though it may be a...

  6. Chapter 2 Between Falling in Love and Operating in the Shadow of Power
    (pp. 55-110)

    The pilgrimage: from the port on the west coast of Arabia, to the Sinai peninsula, then to Mecca via Yanbu‘.

    The pilgrimage, returning to Egypt from Mecca, passing through Yanbu‘, Qusayr, and Upper Egypt.

    The round trip took about six months. As I’ll explain below, I found myself perpetually lost in a sea of distractions and fantasies.

    On the way there and back I was traveling between the tomb of Imam al-Shafi‘i and the graveyard by the Muqattam Hills when I was stopped by a troupe of horsemen. Their leader addressed me in faulty Arabic: “You greet al-Zahir, our lord....

  7. Chapter 3 The Journey to Timur Lang, the Scourge of the Century
    (pp. 111-168)

    In his spare time the master used to play with his little daughter; her favorites were tickling and playing horsey. One time, when he was getting ready to put her on his back, he suddenly realized to his horror that the worst thing that could possibly happen would be for his wife and child to be exposed to some danger. Thereafter, as he was busy studying and writing, he kept asking himself whether there could possibly be any danger worse than that posed by Timur ibn Chaghatay ibn Genghiz Khan. From Turkestan and Bukhara beyond the River Oxus, terrifying stories...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 169-178)

    Once we reached al-Mahmudiya, I headed straight for my house on foot, without either burnous or possessions. After such a long absence I was longing to hug my wife and daughter. I knocked insistently on the door, and Sha‘ban opened it. There he stood, mouth agape, eyes staring. He was so surprised and shocked he almost fainted.

    I gave him the warmest of embraces as he welcomed my return and gave thanks to the Creator for my safe delivery. I asked him about my wife and daughter, but all he could do was keep saying, “A miracle from God! I...

  9. Glossary
    (pp. 179-190)
  10. Qur’anic References
    (pp. 191-192)
  11. Modern Arabic Literature
    (pp. 193-196)