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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Polymath

Bensalem Himmich

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To purchase The Polymath

Title: The Polymath
Author: Bensalem Himmich
Genre: Novel
Written: 2001 (Eng. 2004)
Length: 228 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Polymath - US
The Polymath - UK
The Polymath - Canada
  • Translated by Roger Allen
  • Awarded the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, 2002

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Our Assessment:

A- : interesting approach, interesting life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Middle East Journal . Fall/2004 Sabeen Virani
Newsweek . 17/5/2004 Liat Radcliffe

  From the Reviews:
  • "Readers have to plow through a long introduction to Ibn Khaldun's ideas before reaching the best part of this work, translated from Arabic: the personal history of a still-influential polymath." - Liat Radcliffe, Newsweek

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Polymath is an historical fiction about the life of Ibn Khaldun, a leading Arabic thinker and writer of his times who lived 1332 to 1406 (Hijra: 732 to 808). Historian, philosopher, judge, he was a significant figure and certainly led an interesting life, allowing Himmich to present both an appealing life-story as well as issues faced by intellectuals both in Ibn Khaldun's as well as modern times, especially regarding the role of the intellectual in relation to the state. As in his earlier novel, The Theocrat, Himmich relies on extensive quotes from classical sources about his subject, but here he also has more of Ibn Khaldun's own words to work with.
       The Polymath is divided into four parts. A short Preface introduces Ibn Khaldun (also often called 'Abd al-Rahman) and sets up the first section, a rather contrived situation that introduces the thinker to Umm al-Banin and her husband, the scribe Hammu al-Hihi. The couple have a small domestic problem with which they come to Maliki-law-expert Ibn Khaldun, and his solution leads to Hammu al-Hihi becoming his amanuensis.
       The first long section of the book goes on to relate 'Seven Nights of Dictation', describing Ibn Khaldun's nights with his amanuensis. It's a fairly clever way of introducing what's on the thinker's mind, allowing for exposition of many of his ideas -- but, presented like this, leaving it not simply as dry philosophical text, but rather offering also dialogue that clarifies some of his points and concerns, as well as presenting Ibn Khaldun not merely as a thinker, but also as a human being. Unmarried, he relies only on his much older servant Sha'ban, and the scribe now becomes an actual friend and conversation-partner. Some of this is still fairly heavy going, but as intellectual biography it is very effective.
       Ibn Khaldun is a surprisingly modern thinker -- a point Himmich takes care to emphasise. Though his expertise is history and law, he is presented as a scientific thinker:

In deciding between what is possible and impossible, as in all matters of disputation, there is no avoiding an empirical approach. [...] That is the only way to deal with all these implausible myths that go against the natural order of things and impede the advancement of knowledge.
       History, of course, poses particular problems -- from the fact that it is written by the victors, to all the glorifying embellishment that inevitably accompanies the dominant self-serving accounts. Ibn Khaldun is particularly bothered by how rulers treat (or rather: ignore) history:
Whether the brand of authoritarianism they apply is effective or atrocious, to me they all seem to be ruling with no memory, almost vying with each other to forget the errors and calamities of past eras or to grab onto them. It's as though, Hammu, they're refusing point blank to listen to history -- in other words, to the past -- as being an authoritative source of object lessons and cautionary tales, as a veritable anthology of standards and yardsticks that stands totally in opposition to warped and crooked desires and instincts. And it is precisely here that the primary issue resides: the vast majority of people ignore history because it specifically goes against current trends and necessities.
       All of which leaves him wondering in frustration: "What is left for a historian ? What is he supposed to do ?" But as a leading thinker he is kept fairly busy -- also in official positions, depending on how much in favour he is with the current regime
       Among the interesting issues Ibn Khaldun also considers is the connexion between Islam and the state, and specifically politcal necessity (or expedience) changing many of the fundamentals of Islam, shaping them to local (or personal) realities.
       The next two sections of the book focus less on the abstract, following Ibn Khaldun's life after he has made the pilgrimage to Mecca (which is where he set out after the seven days of dictation). Returning home from the hajj, he learns his scribe has died, and that Umm al-Banin is having problems with her brother, whom her family sent to keep the widow company (a somewhat odd side-story, as the brother turns out to be a debauched transvestite; eventually Ibn Khaldum has him institutionalised -- which then also provides him with opportunity to comment on the terrible conditions the patient has to deal with).
       Eventually, Ibn Khaldum does become a family man, marrying Umm al-Banin and then blessed with a child. But his renown also mean he is an (occasionally) important figure, called upon to serve the state or teach -- and then generally being ousted by the corrupt powers that be. (Amusingly, when he gets appointed Maliki judge in Cairo for the third time he doesn't really want to be in that position, and so connives to lose it: "The best way I could think of was to insist on the strictest possible application of the law" -- and presto, "not even a year went by before I was dismissed from the position yet again"; naturally then: "The position was sold to the person who paid for it in a kind of financial dog-fight".)
       The final section focusses on 'The Journey to Timur Lang, the Scourge of the Century', focussed on Ibn Khaldun's major diplomatic mission -- allowing for descriptions of much of the Middle East beyond Cairo, and the turbulent times. Separated from wife and child for a long time, there's also more of the personal here again, all fairly well balanced by Himmich.
       Much of The Polymath feels slightly off, particularly the occasioanlly rough writing and transitions. The rich life of Ibn Khaldun also sometimes feels forced into too limited a space, much jumped over or mentioned only in asides -- which is especially noticeable when Himmich presents other scenes in such close detail. And some of the ideas are a bit awkwardly presented, and/or feel almost forced into the novel:
     Another area in which I have gone astray, Hammu, is in my dogged insistence on the importance of group solidarity by raising it to paradigm status. It allowed me to perceive some things, but it blinded me to others.
       Himmich means The Polymath to be a novel of ideas, and that's occasionally a tall order, given the breadth of Ibn Khaldun's thinking. Yet the novel succeeds despite its shortcomings because Himmich clearly feels so comfortable with Ibn Khaldun's thought, so that even when there's talk of "paradigm status" (probably not the terminology Ibn Khaldun would have used ...) it's appropriate enough to convince. Aside from being a novel of ideas, the life-story on offer here is also fascinating one, and Himmich writes a good story, making a 'real' person out of his character.
       So, despite all the rough edges, The Polymath is an impressive achievement, and well worthwhile.

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The Polymath: Other books by Bensalem Himmich under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Bensalem Himmich (بنسالم حميش) is a leading Moroccan author. He was born in 1949.

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