Muhsin Mahdi teaches Arabic philosophy

Area studies to Islamic studies 1969

Muhsin Mahdi Teaches Arabic Philosophy

Muhsin Mahdi, one of the world’s leading experts in Arabic history, philology, and philosophy, was born in Karbala, Iraq in 1926. After earning his B.A. from the American University in Beirut and Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, he taught at the University of Baghdad and the University of Chicago. Professor Mahdi then came to Harvard in 1969 as Jewett Professor of Arabic and served as director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies and chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. He taught courses including “Arabic Philosophic Texts,” “Sources, Methods, and Problems in Islamic Intellectual History,” and “Medieval Arabic Political Philosophy.” He also helped to institute and teach Foreign Cultures 14, a core curriculum course aimed at helping students understand the economic and cultural foundations of current political problems, with a focus on the Middle East. Professor Mahdi is especially known for his work on the philosopher al-Fārābī, Ibn Khaldūn’s Philosophy of History (1957), and his critical edition of One Thousand and One Nights (1995). Among his notable students is Professor Emeritus William A. Graham.


Muhsin Mahdi, "Smiling Buddha" and Polymath

William Graham

Mahdi came while I was a student, I remember when he arrived. He came and threw a big party for students who were doing Arabic courses with him in '68, '69, I guess, at his first home out in Bedford. And Mahdi always seemed to draw students to him. I always called him the "smiling Buddha" because he would sit there as a little sort of, somewhat rotund man and he would sit and look inscrutable behind his desk when you were talking with him or asking him about things. And he had this wry smile on his face all the time and then he would ask you a question that just seemed to come completely from left field. You never had any idea why the question came up, or sometimes even what it was about, but he would probe and get you going on something that didn't seem to be relevant at all, but [that] he took great pleasure in. He also was a polymath. I mean, he simply knew the Islamic tradition backwards and forwards, I mean, in so many ways. His long years of work on the Thousand and One Nights and we saw his, you know, the copies of manuscripts of the Thousand and One Nights took up half of a room, up in the old CMES over at 1737 Cambridge Street, and in the old residential hotel building there where all the area centers were for many, many years. And so Mahdi had his whole library eventually moved from his home, outside of town into that library and there was a huge wall of these manuscripts of the Thousand and One Nights. And a whole generation of students, I was not one of them, worked with him on the Thousand and One Nights. And of course he did that magisterial volume on the editions and the paths of transmission of the Thousand and One Nights, a terribly complex piece of work, because it was a popular piece of work, and with so many different manuscript traditions, and so other people would have to tell you about that. But that was one of Mahdi's things. Mahdi, of course, is known for his first book on Ibn Khaldun, maybe better than anything else, and I remember being blown away by that when I read it. And I took his, this course that I took with Mahdi was in '68 or '69, and in that you've got to be able to read that text, which is not an easy text in a lot of ways, just syntactically, because it doesn't reach closure very often. Sentences run into sentences and it rolls on but to read that text with Mahdi, I mean, just made it come alive, the portions of it that we read. And, as I say, Mahdi really had a magisterial command of Islamic intellectual history and could bring in other works and so on, so he was a terrific person to read a text with.

Muhsin Mahdi
Muhsin Mahdi (1926-2007)