The Magazine

An Unsurpassed Scholar

Muhsin S. Mahdi, 1926-2007.

Sep 3, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 47 • By STEVEN J. LENZNER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Muhsin Mahdi, the world's foremost scholar of medieval Arabic and Islamic political philosophy, died last month at the age of 81. Not a single national publication has seen fit to print an obituary of Mahdi. This failure to do justice to a rare scholar, teacher, and human being underscores how little attention is being paid to something we are in dire need of today: the liberalizing and humanizing strands within the Islamic tradition, the topic to which Mahdi devoted his scholarly career.

Mahdi was born and reared in Iraq. After a sterling undergraduate career at the American University in Beirut, he was awarded a scholarship to study economics at the University of Chicago. Under the influence of gifted teachers like Nadia Abbott and Leo Strauss, he turned to philosophy and eventually to the study of Islamic political philosophy. He entered the Committee on Social Thought and earned his doctorate in 1954. His masterful dissertation was published in 1957 as Ibn Khaldun's Philosophy of History: A Study in the Philosophical Foundation of the Science of Culture.

Mahdi's academic career was spent at Chicago (1957-69) and at Harvard (1969-96), where he held the James Richard Jewett Professorship in Arabic. He was an enormously influential teacher, and one who inspired great loyalty from his students. Some of us who took only a single course from Mahdi--typically, at Harvard, his survey of medieval political philosophy--found our lives markedly touched by his influence. (For a sense of Mahdi's teaching, see the impressive 1992 festschrift, The Political Aspects of Islamic Philosophy, edited by one of his closest students, Charles Butterworth.)

Insofar as I can discern, the key to the almost universal respect in which Mahdi was held by his colleagues--for brilliance and deep learning, even when supplemented by considerable personal charm, are insufficient as an explanation--was his remarkable archival and philological work. Among other things, his rediscovery of many of Alfarabi's works (and his editing and translating of critical editions) rescued a thinker whom Mahdi, following a path laid down by Leo Strauss, showed to rank among both the great philosophers and the great authors.

Mahdi's most celebrated achievement was the outcome of almost superhuman scholarly labor: a critical edition of the single greatest work of Arabic literature, The Thousand and One Nights. Husain Haddawy, who translated the edition into English, described Mahdi's achievement thus:

After years of sifting, analyzing, and collating virtually all available texts, Muhsin Mahdi has published the definitive edition of the fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale (Alf Layla wa Layla, Leiden, 1984). Mahdi fills lacunae, emends corruptions, and elucidates obscurities. .  .  . What emerges is a coherent and precise work that, unlike other versions, is like a restored icon or musical score without the added layers of paint or distortions, hence, as close to the original as possible. Thus a long-standing grievance has been finally redressed, and redressed with a sense of poetic justice, not only because this edition redeems all others from a general curse, but also because it is the work of a man who is at once the product of East and West.

In his life and work, Muhsin Mahdi also transcended the idea of East and West. He was, as a mutual friend put it after his death, a liberal in the old-fashioned and elevated sense--a man with a true liberal education, deeply versed in, and shaped by, the world's great books. In no way did this show itself more clearly than in Mahdi's devotion to his teacher Leo Strauss. Mahdi's last book, Alfarabi and the Foundation of Islamic Political Philosophy (2001)--the fruit of a lifetime of study and unsurpassed on the subject--bears the dedication: "For L.S.--If we had to repay the debt of gratitude incurred by his kindness to us, not even the whole of time would suffice."

In the classroom, I remember Mahdi taking a seemingly dead and wooden work like Alfarabi's Summary of Plato's "Laws" and showing why, when read with care and imagination, it was anything but. That is a rare gift. But it was made possible by his having engaged Alfarabi's work in the spirit intended by the author--namely, with a view to the problem caused by the need for a serious politics to address the question of the divine without falling prey to the simple-minded and/or tyrannical impulses that frequently accompany some of the most typical answers to that question. That is to say, Mahdi counseled practical moderation while allowing one to appreciate theoretical greatness. Everyone who learned from him, or who will learn from his writings, owes him a debt of gratitude that cannot be repaid.

Steven J. Lenzner is a research fellow in political philosophy at the Henry Salvatori Center of Claremont McKenna College.