Taking Measure of a Forest with too Many Trees

Sampling problems often tell researchers about the topic they are studying.

Gaye Tuchman and Nina Fortin, Edging Women Out, 1989

All categories of evidence available to scholars are heavily dependent on patterns of recording and publication.

Christopher Howgego, Ancient History from Coins, 1995

For the next twenty-three months I will use this blog to report regularly on the research project of my Marie Curie Fellowship at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) in Madrid.  At the Instituto de Lenguas y Culturas del Mediterráneo y Oriente Próximo (ILC) of the Centro de Ciencias Humanas y Sociales (CCHS) I will be working on the transmission and reception of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ bi-taʿrīf huqūq al-Muṣṭafā (“The book of healing concerning the recognition of the true facts about the chosen one”) by ʿIyāḍ b. Mūsā Abū’l-Faḍl al-Yaḥṣubī al-Sabtī (1083-1149), a highly regarded authority of Maliki Islam, also known as Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ.  At the CSIC, the project is sponsored by Professor Maribel Fierro, and its origins are our shared interest in the Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s continuing popularity with Muslim readers in the early twenty-first century.

In Middle Eastern and Islamic studies there is a marked preference for works for which at most a few copies have been preserved.  The situation reflects in part the pragmatism of a field with fewer scholars than fields such as history or English studies.  We do know that there are still too many texts in Arabic, Persian, or Turkish, as well as in the languages of Muslim communities in Africa, Central Asia, China, and the Pacific Rim, which have not yet received any scholarly attention at all.  While the discovery of new texts and unknown authors will make an obvious contribution to the human knowledge base, the focus on the not yet discovered is not without drawbacks.  Familiar works and authors are deeply integrated into our research infrastructure, because they constitute the foundations of our knowledge of the history of Muslim societies.  Consequently, the assumptions upon which this received disciplinary consensus rests is rarely questioned.  On the one hand, it is difficult to be critical of that which is familiar.  There is simply not enough distance to see the rough edges and contractions that are so obvious from afar.  On the other hand, time and funding is always limited.  In order to complete research projects on a tight schedule, it is important to be careful about the battles we pick.  Not every fight is worth having – whatever the whisperings of our heroic id.

Against this backdrop, my project tries to accomplish two goals.  The first is to use the Kitāb al-shifāʾ as a test case for the practical challenges of how to study a work with an extraordinarily rich transmission history.  Luckily, these practical challenges are not unique to the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, and I can draw on research in quantitative codicology, enumerative bibliography, and the digital humanities in order to design my own approach.  The second goal is to explore the reception of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ outside the Islamic West and the strongholds of Maliki Islam.  My working assumption is that the diachronic study of a work’s reception provides insights into changing interpretations of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ which, in turn, serve as indispensable safeguards against any facile explanation for the enduring popularity of a twelfth-century work of hadith scholarship in the early twenty-first century.  In this context I will also explore questions about the Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s literary genre.  How does the Kitāb al-shifāʾ fit into the system of learned Islamic literature in the early twelfth century?  I am furthermore keen to consider the Kitāb al-shifāʾ within the larger context of comparative hagiography, as literature about the lives of exceptionally holy men and women can be found in most religious traditions.

The Marie Curie Fellowship will allow me to conduct this research at one of the most important centers for the study of Islam in Iberia and Africa.  Having arrived at the CCHS on 31 January 2017, for the last month I was very much preoccupied with getting settled in a new environment.  At the end of March, the project’s first deliverable will be due in Brussels: the cataloguing template of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ‘s online database.  One of the methodological challenges of any quantitative, cliometric approach is how to account for the truism that each corpus is also the outcome of chance and serendipity, although their importance varies from case to case.  At the same time, the complimentary risk of missing the forest for the trees is equally grave.  Nonetheless, the definition of the fields of the cataloguing template must happen at the beginning of the project, as the online database will unite the circa two-hundred references to manuscript copies and printed versions of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, which Maribel Fierro and I have collected independently for years.  The template’s fields will determine how the database can be sorted, and thus their definitions will predetermine how this corpus can be examined and analyzed.

To illustrate these abstract considerations with a concrete example, in October 2015 Madrasa Editorial published in Granada the first Spanish translation of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, which had been prepared by the prolific translator Abdelghani Melara Navío.  Since I am focused on the Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s reception before 1900, the logical conclusion would be to exclude all printed versions, in whatever language, from the corpus published after 1900.  Unfortunately, at this point it is difficult to assess the downside of excluding the continuing publication of new versions of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in Arabic, as well as in new English and French translations since 1900.  How important are these contemporary versions for a deeper understanding of the roles of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in the spiritual and intellectual lives of earlier generations of Muslim readers?

The record of the first Spanish translation in the online catalogue of the Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE) indicates that the library owns not just one, but two copies:

The visual teaser that accompanied Abdelghani Melara Navío’s announcement of his new translation, posted on 30 October 2015 on the blog Islam Hoy, stresses that Spanish reading Muslims have now access to the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in their own language:

One of three images that accompanies the listing of the Spanish translation on AMAZON’s Spanish website shows the book against the backdrop of the Alhambra, one of the important lieux de memoires of Islam on the Iberian Peninsula which is connected with the biography of Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ:

One of the images in the banner of the translation’s publisher Madrasa Editorial, which is located in Granada, indicates which exalted company Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ and his Kitāb al-shifāʾ are keeping:

NB – I would like to thank Javier Albarrán Iruela for bringing the Spanish translation to my attention.

“All You Can Do with Catalogs”

In 2015 the Forum Transregionale Studien (TraFo) in Berlin awarded Paola Molino, at that time Alexander von Humboldt Postdoctoral Fellow at the Ludwig Maximilians Universität (LMU) in Munich, a grant for the organization of an exploratory workshop on information management in early modern societies.  While working on her application, Paola Molino had invited Martina Siebert, Guy Burak, and me to join her as co-convenors.  The workshop was held in Berlin on 6 October 2016 in the Staatsbibliothek (SBB), and on 7 October 2016 in the rooms of the TraFo.

In February 2017 Paola Molino submitted her official final report about the workshop to the TraFo.  Her version was written with the co-convenors, with contributions by Anne MacKinney, and is available here.  The following text includes sections from earlier interim drafts, and is therefore more detailed.

This project began with a serendipitous crossing of the paths of four scholars working on the transmission of knowledge and the history of science in European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian societies.   All of us have extensive experience with libraries—as readers, catalogers, and librarians—and hence quickly found common ground in our abiding interest in the composition of finding aids between 1400 and 1800 ce.  In western Europe, during the early modern era, the transformation of feudal societies into territorial states prompted the ruling elites to invest into the construction of imperial libraries and archives, whose design projected transregional connections and supranational ambitions to the world at large.  Although new cataloging principles emerged for the collections housed within these new physical spaces, they did not explicitly break with the already recognized knowledge traditions, and rather attempted to integrate the established authoritative epistemes into new classificatory regimes.   These finding aids are fascinating objects in their own right: as artifacts they are primarily paper tools and, yet, their written contents can also be understood as a graphic representation of ideas.  Therefore, we decided to focus our exploratory workshop on the catalogues themselves.  One of our goals was to cross over the institutional barriers of memory institutions such as libraries, archives, and museums, as they often generate a confrontational relationship between readers and librarians.   We invited colleagues with a wide range of expertise to reflect on the roles of finding aids within the history of their own academic disciplines.  The transformation of concepts of knowledge—from fifteenth-century Humanism to eighteenth-century Enlightenment and nineteenth-century Positivism—has already received significant scholarly attention, and it has been studied from the bottom-up through tracking the interpersonal transmission of knowledge, and from the top-down by analyzing how imperial institutions, such as academies and universities, supported the diffusion of knowledge.  Against this backdrop, the workshop pursued the nexus between the catalogued items—whether written texts or material artifacts—and the concrete, practical power of a catalogue.  How were finding aids employed as instruments for transforming amassed holdings into a collection’s apparent order?  Conversely, how were cataloging ventures expressions of a ruler’s sophistication through the effective control of precious, rare assets?  In the daily business of doing research catalogues are usually experienced as humble tools and inevitable intermediaries operating as transparent, and thus seemingly neutral, interfaces between readers and written texts.  We wanted to use the exploratory workshop for comparing finding aids in different cultural traditions in order to open fresh views of these very familiar resources—as if they had suddenly changed into unexplored territories.

The workshop comprised five sessions.  We were joined by fifteen established scholars and around two dozen registered guests.  In addition, we included four lightning talks by Sebastian Felten, Celeste Gianni, Anne MacKinney, and Julian zur Lage, since they are currently working on research projects related to the history of information management in a transregional perspective.  On the first day the workshop was held in the Simón Bolívar Lecture Hall, generously made available by the Berlin Staatsbibliothek.  Since the hands-on examination of a catalog’s handwritten or printed copy is an indispensable part of research on their intellectual history, we are grateful that the Staatsbibliothek allowed us to draw on its rich collections for a show-and-tell.  For the second day we convened in the rooms of the Forum Transregionale Studien.

The workshop opened with a session on the epistemology of catalogues, and was chaired by Nur Sobers Khan, a curator at the British library and a historian of Turco-Persian societies after 1500.  Paola Molino, Islam Dayeh, and Martina Siebert investigated how the construction of libraries and the design of their research facilities developed in conjunction with the organization of finding aids.  Molino focused on early modern Europe, Dayeh examined Arabic finding aids from the Arab world before 1500, and Siebert surveyed the development of Chinese bibliography between the first and the nineteenth century.  The speakers agreed that the refinement of classification schemes went hand in hand with a growing demand for the systematization of knowledge.  Particular attention was given to the technical terminology of classification schemes vis-à-vis the various purposes of bibliographical information, and to the appreciation of finding aids as intellectual achievements in their own right.  In the discussion, we explored the possibility of a methodology for the study of finding aids as sources for a transregional history of knowledge.   What is the impact of ideology on classification schemes?  To which degree are cataloging ventures driven by the universal human experience of loss and the complimentary desire to prevent the destruction of cultural heritage?  What is the relationship between technological change in the reproduction of written language (e.g., manuscript books, blockprinted books, books printed with moveable letters), levels of book production, and approaches to the compilation of bibliographical information?

The show-and-tell highlighted some of the important Latin, Arabic, and Japanese finding aids in the Staatsbibliothek’s collections.  Ursula Winter presented the holograph of the Catalogus manuscriptorum by Johann Raue (1610–1679), the first librarian of Berlin’s Kurfürstlicher Bibliothek (Electoral Library, est. 1661).  In 1668, after Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg (r. 1640–1688) had opened his Electoral Library to outside readers, Raue compiled the first catalogue of the new library’s manuscript holdings, arranging these codices according to how they were shelved within the library.   Raue’s Catalogus illustrated the possible interdependence between library architecture and a catalogue’s systematic arrangement.  Christoph Rauch und Dagmar Riedel explored how bibliographical information was transmitted in Muslim societies by contrasting two Arabic manuscript copies (dated 1724 and c.1840 respectively) of the Kashf al-ẓunūn ʿan asāmī al-kutub wa’l-funūn (“The removal of doubts from the titles of books and the scholarly disciplines”) with an Arabic fragment (dated 14th or 15th cent.) of the Wafayāt al-aʿyān (“Death dates of notables”).  The Wafayāt by Ibn Khallikān (1211–1282) is a bio-bibliographical dictionary and the Kashf by Katib Çelebi (1609–1657) a title catalogue in alphabetical order, but neither the Wafayāt nor the Kashf was designed as a finding aid for the holdings of a particular library.  Exploring the affinities between catalogues, anthologies, and book collections,  Ronny Vollandt showed an Arabic manuscript (dated 1325) with an anthology of prophetic books from the Old Testament, al-Jawhar al-muḍīy fī’l-sittat-ʿashar al-nabī (“The essential content of the sixteen prophets”), and Christian Dunkel explained a private collection of Japanese bookseller catalogues.

The second session investigated catalogues as means to the mastery of knowledge, and featured presentations by Christian Jacob, Seth Kimmel, and Alberto Cevolini.  Arndt Brendeke, a historian of early modern Europe, presided over this session.  Drawing on Kantian epistemology, Jacob highlighted the power of catalogues.  He argued that knowledge is always bound to specific historical circumstances, so that the organization of finding aids reflects concrete human practices of the transmission of knowledge.  Comparing finding aids and maps, Jacob suggested that insights gleaned from research on maps can be employed to advance our understanding of information management through catalogues.   Kimmel used the ultimately failed project of a grand universal library, which the Spanish cartographer, explorer, and bibliophile Hernando Colón (1488–1539) had pursued in Seville, to explore tensions between the Humanist ideal of universal knowledge and Spain’s politics of conquest in the Americas.  In contrast, Cevolini focused on a mechanical indexing device for the storage of written notes and excerpts, known as the “ark of studies“ and designed by the otherwise obscure Thomas Harrison (1595–1649) in the midst of the English Civil Wars.  Cevolini described the “ark“ as an external memory, and interpreted it as a disruptive invention which showed how new cognitive habits were accompanied by new organizational strategies.  Approaching the  “ark“ from the perspective of the sociology of knowledge, Cevolini argued that from the 1450s onwards, after the invention of letterpress printing in western Europe, readers had to confront a dramatic information overload because of steadily increasing levels of book production.  In the discussion, Cevolini’s interpretation of the “ark“ was challenged for its rather negative view of information management in manuscript cultures and its complimentary teleological belief in the inevitable progress of technological change.

The second day opened with a session dedicated to the cataloging of books, handwritten or printed, in Arabic, Hebrew, and Persian.  The presentations by Christoph Rauch, Emile Schrijver, and Francs Richard, who all have worked as catalogers and librarians, combined an examination of the historical development of cataloging standards with observations about the impact of digitization on the access to books in the twenty-first century.  Its chair was Guy Burak, a librarian at New York University and a legal historian of the Ottoman empire.  Rauch used the history of  the Berlin Staatsbibliothek’s Arabic manuscript collection to highlight the importance of scholarly expertise for the cataloging of texts in Semitic languages which were not widely taught at nineteenth-century German universities.  While Rauch presented the cataloging history of a state-owned collection, Schrijver explored the challenges posed by cataloging the books of a religious minority, and surveyed how the history of Hebrew bibliography reflects the precarious life of the Jewish diaspora in western Europe.   Because of the hearty embrace of digitization for the preservation of Jewish Schriftkultur Schrijver examined how digital surrogates are changing the roles of both libraries and catalogs.  Since readers increasingly rely on global online catalogs in order to access books as digital surrogates in global online collections, such as those of the National Library of Israel, what will happen to the relationship between a library’s spatial organization and the systematics of its catalogs?  Richard‘s presentation took as its starting point the cataloging practices in Muslim societies since the tenth and eleventh centuries.  Although there is much evidence for vibrant library traditions in Turkey, Iran, and India, very few catalogs of historical library collections have come down to us.  Richard observed that the librarian’s personal responsibility for a collection under his care might have worked as a disincentive for the compilation of publicly available finding aids, since a catalog can also be used to control the work of the librarian.  At the same time, Richard was sceptical about the current practice of ‘digitize first, catalog later‘, arguing that digital surrogates of uncatalogd books are effectively inaccessible as no catalog can be searched for unidentified items.  The discussion was dominated by questions about digital screens as today’s omnipresent interface between readers, catalogs, and books, since some well-funded western libraries are encouraging readers to set up online accounts in order to create their own digital collection of the depository’s holdings.  Does the access to the contents of books through digital surrogates imply changing ideas of who owns the physical artifacts and consequently pays for their cataloging?  What is the reader’s responsibility for the physical artifact if she only is engaging with its digital surrogate as downloaded unto her own computer?  We also observed that digital surrogates are accompanied by their own access barriers, since readers need a working internet connection in order to benefit from Open Access depositories such as Gallica.

The fourth session approached catalogs from the micro perspective of individual sample entries, and juxtaposed the British cataloging of Persian literature with the Ottoman cataloging of North African literature.  It was chaired by Ronny Vollandt, a Semitist and a specialist of biblical manuscripts.  Nilanjar Sarkar’s case study was the entry on a manuscript copy of the Fatāwā-yi jahāndārī (“Imperial legal opinions”) in the highly regarded and still indispensable Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the India Office (1903) by Hermann Ethé (1844–1917).  Although Ethé was a very accomplished scholar of Persian literature, he did not recognize that the Fatāwā is a work of advice literature which originated in Dehli around 1350, and wrongly identified a work of belles-lettres as an anthology of historical legal opinions.  Sarkar examined to which degree Ethé‘s cataloging error reflected British colonial attitudes to the knowledge traditions of pre-colonial Muslim India.  Guy Burak and Dagmar Riedel used the entry on the Dalāʾil al-khayrāt (“Signs of good deeds”) in the aforementioned Kashf al-ẓunūn to demonstrate that scholars inside and outside Muslim societies approached this alphabetic title catalog as a work of pragmatic literature which everyone could adapt and correct in accordance with their own particular needs.  In different manuscript copies and printed versions of the Kashf, the entries on the Dalāʾil, which is a widely used prayerbook by the North African Sufi Ibn Jazūlī (1404–1465), vary considerably.  These variances can nonetheless seem insignificant, since this prayerbook is so well known.  In the discussion we returned to the point, made by Christian Jacob during the second session, that catalogs are never neutral collections of facts as their production cannot be independent from the ideological commitments of their compilers.  But we also explored the importance of errors and misreadings for the transregional diffusion of knowledge.

The global historian Sebastian Conrad chaired the workshop’s fifth and final session on catalogs of books related to East Asian societies. Michael Facius, Florence Hsia, and Joachim Kurtz discussed synchronicity in knowledge management, and challenged the evidence of transregional influence and interdependence in order to probe the nature of knowledge circulation.  Facius analyzed how the library of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603–1867) served as an important node in the knowledge networks of early modern Japan.  He examined the relationship between the catalogs of the Shogunate Library and the Nagasaki commissariat’s control of the import of books in Chinese and other foreign languages.  Hsia used the historical development of sinological archives in early modern Europe to pursue the sociological dimensions of list-making.  She examined in particular the challenges posed by the task of cataloging Chinese texts within the Jesuit tradition of bio-bibliographies, and the efforts of Thomas Hyde (1636–1703) to identify the Chinese books held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.  Joachim Kurtz took the torrent of publications translated into Chinese between 1895 and 1911 as an indicator and a factor in the drastic remaking of China’s intellectual landscape in the waning years of the Qing dynasty (1644–1912).  These catalogs were compiled by publishers as well as scholars and reformists, and range from thinly veiled advertisements to analytical reviews of new branches of learning.  Taken together, they provide ample evidence for changing intellectual emphases, new epistemic ideals, and consequential taxonomic shifts that hastened the demise of China’s imperial order with the end of the Qing dynasty.

In sum, we organized the workshop in order to examine catalogs as intellectual enterprises and material artifacts within a transregional framework.  Its starting point was a gesture of inversion, since usually catalogs are consulted for reference purposes, and not studied in their own right.  The workshop’s focus on the comparative analysis of catalogs from a wide range of European, Middle Eastern, and East Asian societies allowed us to explore similarities and differences in their compilation, while being mindful of the dynamics between catalogers and readers.  The intellectual generosity of all participants ensured stimulating debates that revealed the potential of not yet explored sources and yielded numerous new ideas for future research projects.  Venturing beyond the comfort zone of one’s own discipline is always a challenge, and we deeply appreciate that the Forum Transregionale Studien gave us the unique opportunity to take this risk.

Working with Islamic Manuscripts in the Best of All Possible Worlds

From the last decades of the eighteenth century and for at least a century and a half, Britain and France dominated Orientalism as a discipline.  The great philological discoveries in comparative grammar made by Jones, Franz Bopp, Jakob Grimm and others were originally indebted to manuscripts brought from the East to Paris and London.  Almost without exception, every Orientalist began his career as a philologist.

Edward W. Said, Orientalism, 1979

Historiographical debates, when they stray beyond the internal logic of the field, generally discuss the social or political relevance of new paradigms or approaches, but rarely do they examine the extent to which our scholarship may be shaped by the institutional makeup of our profession.

Nicholas Barreyre et al., “‘Brokering’ or ‘Going Native’: Professional Structures and Intellectual Trajectories for European Historians of the United States,” American Historical Review 119.3 (2014)

In the historiography of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies we concentrate on Orientalism and Islamophobia, since self-critique is even harder, when a scholarly discipline feels unfairly singled out and criticized.  We are vocal in our critique of Orientalist scholarship which produced the Western mirage of the timeless Orient in the nineteenth century.  But we are reluctant to provide further ammunition to those who are already gunning for us, since we are continually confronted with the question of why on earth anyone would study a civilization or a religion that is responsible for …—and everyone will draw on their own experience for the completion of this sentence: terrorism, oppression of women, religious fanaticism, etc.  While much research in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies necessarily focuses on contemporary Muslim societies, I find curious that in the last decade manuscripts and books in Arabic script have begun to attract much more attention.  During the last years, François Dèroche, Adam Gacek, and Jan Just Witkam have regularly offered five-day introductions to Islamic codicology in Europe and North America.  Historians and literary critics have published studies about Islamic book culture, drawing on statements preserved in literary sources and paratexts, such as ownership statements and reading certificates, though rarely connecting the literary evidence with the material evidence of the manuscripts and printed books themselves (e.g., the Special issue of JAIS 2012 on “The Book in Fact and Fiction in Pre-Modern Arabic Literature”).  In research on the history of science, technology, and medicine, the trend is still to explore how a certain intellectual milestone was first reached in Muslim societies before anyone in Christian Europe managed to do so (e.g., the project on “Scientific Traditions in Islamic Societies: Intellectual, Institutional, Religious, and Social Contexts,” McGill University).  The follow-up question of what happened to all these grand ideas after their initial conception seems much less popular (e.g., the project of Sonja Brentjes and Jürgen Renn on “Islamicate Transformations of Knowledge,” Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte).  Moreover, there is little interest in harnessing the advances in Humanities computing to improve access to this material evidence through the creation of digital catalogs.  For the time being, we cannot match literary works with identified copies, whether these are accessible, alleged to be extant, or assumed to be lost, as there is neither a complete inventory of documented works written in a language that uses Arabic script (cf. Leuven Database of Ancient Books), nor a catalog of known copies of manuscripts in Arabic script (cf. Universal Short Title Catalog).

As regards the role of the Digital Humanities in research on the Islamic book, we seem largely content to limit their application to publishing on the Internet, though primarily as digitized book or article, and not as born-digital publication.  While many scholars in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies are maintaining personal websites and weblogs, employing Computer Science to answer research questions need be distinguished from digital publishing on the Internet.  Significant resources continue to be dedicated to the production of digital surrogates, and the number of digitized manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script, many of which are available for free on the Internet, is steadily increasing.  It is rarely noted, though, that free online access to the digital surrogates of insufficiently cataloged manuscripts and printed books does not automatically make their contents available.  The proud press releases are usually very reticent about the indispensable cataloging, which has become a little appreciated and largely ignored activity since Edward Said first associated manuscripts with philology.  Nonetheless, the consequences of insufficient cataloging in combination with poor bibliographical reference works are severe and far-reaching.  As long as we have at best some random bits of information about some works and their extant copies, we have a very limited grasp of how the works to which we happen to have access are related to the intellectual life of any particular period of Middle Eastern history between the seventh century CE and the present.  For example, there is no research on the best practices for assessing survival bias in any corpus of manuscripts or printed books in Arabic script.

Against this backdrop, it seems rather unlikely that in the foreseeable future scholars in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies will obtain the institutional resources to embark on even one of these cataloging projects, be it the inventory of works or the inventory of their copies, however urgently they are needed.  Their coordination will demand not only expertise in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies but also experience with large-scale Digital Humanities projects and the development of a global network of participating institutions in order to guarantee its financial viability.  The funding mechanisms for research in the Humanities in general and in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies in particular provide few incentives for embarking on such a complex project which will primarily benefit future generations.  Aside from the practical challenge that even the most generous grant cycle will be unable to accommodate a decades-long project, whoever will finally manage to embark on either project will probably not live long enough to see it reach maturity.

This dispiriting situation raises the practical question of how to design meaningful research projects that make the most creative use of the already available resources and digital tools.  What seems feasible are clearly limited studies that examine Islamic books in synchronic and diachronic contexts.  Synchronic projects would focus on book production in order to establish criteria for the cataloging of both the literary works and their material support, whether they are manuscripts or printed books, while diachronic projects would trace the circulation and reception of a range of literary works in Arabic and Persian from the Abbasid era (750-1258 CE) to the present.  Both types of project necessitate the codicological analysis of manuscripts and bibliographical research on printed books, so that the project outcomes should combine the publication of a study, whether a book or an article, with an online depository for the accumulated codicological and bibliographical data.  To establish these new publication standards for research about manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script could perhaps even serve as the first baby step towards the organization of an inventory of either works or copies, if scholars working on related subjects agree to contribute their codicological and bibliographical data to a shared Open-Access depository (cf. Open Context which organizes the review, documentation, and Open-Access publication of primary data in cultural heritage related fields).

PS – On 7 July 2014, Nur Sobers-Khan and Ursula Sims-Williams published their post about “A Newly Digitised Unpublished Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts” on the Asian and African Studies Blog of the British Library (BL).  The draft of of the never completed third volume of the Catalogue of the India Office Library‘s Persian manuscript collection, written by C. A. Storey (1888-1968), Reuben Levy (1891-1966), and A. J. Arberry (1905-1969), is now available as a digital surrogate on the BL’s website (Mss Eur E207/1-38).  The unit of digitization is the individual page, and it is impossible to use full-text search for finding information about particular works or specific copies.  In their blog post, the authors explain which indices are available and how the catalog’s 38 separate folders can be browsed by topic or searched by call number.

Partial subject index to folders 5-9, History, by C. A. Storey.
London, British Library, Mss Eur E207/5, fol. 1a,
available at: https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=mss_eur_e207!5_f001r.
Screen capture, 9 July 2014.

C. A. Storey’s notes about MS pers. India Office Islamic 3739.
London, British Library Mss Eur E207/8, fol. 75a,
available at: https://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/Viewer.aspx?ref=mss_eur_e207!8_f075r.
Screen capture, 9 July 2014.

The decision of the British Library to rather obtain a grant for the creation of 3,778 digital images suggests that British manuscript curators did not consider it feasible to integrate these draft descriptions into Fihrist, the British union catalog for manuscripts in Arabic script.

Updated, 9 July 2014

Corrected, 6 August 2014

Literary History and the History of the Book in Arabic Script

Sabine Schmidtke of the Freie Universität Berlin and Sarah Stroumsa of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem observe in their prospectus of a special volume of the journal Intellectual History of the Islamicate World that “[D]espite the constantly growing research regarding the literary history of the Islamicate World, our knowledge about what was available/popular/read in different periods and regions is still dismally patchy.”  While I share their dissatisfaction about the state of research on manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script, I do not see a contradiction between the flowering of scholarship on the literary history of the Islamicate world and the lack of interest in the material and social history of the book in Arabic script.  Research on literary history has benefited from the improved access to extant written sources thanks to the continually growing number of digital surrogates.  As there is little interest in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies in integrating manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script into the research programs of Critical Bibliography and Book History, there is less competition for funding and significant resources can be invested into the digitization of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script.

The dramatically increased availability of digital surrogates of Islamic books is not only a consequence of the wide range of digitization initiatives in Europe and North America.  Since the Islamic tradition combines the reverence for written texts, which originated with the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet, with strong oral traditions, the digitization of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script has been smoothly integrated into the pragmatic traditions of Islamic bookmaking that for centuries focused on facilitating the access to written texts by whatever means necessary.  The adaptation of digitization to bookmaking was not hampered by theoretical concerns for the ontological differences between nineteenth-century manuscript copies of much older manuscripts, lithographs, typeset books, microfilms, or digital surrogates: they are all texts.  Historicist awareness for the authentic material artefact and its facsimile or forgery is as irrelevant as legal concerns about copyright law and best practices within the Digital Humanities: as long as the text itself seemingly does not change, it does not matter in which medium a text is reproduced so that it can be studied.  Against this backdrop it is only sensible that source criticism in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies does usually not consider codicological and bibliographical evidence, and is, with the qualified exception of Quranic Studies, mostly practiced as an ahistorical evaluation of content.  Recent publications about editorial practice focus on matters such as transcription, while carefully sidestepping a critical examination of any underlying tacit editorial theory.

At the same time, research on the Islamicate world continues to be defined by the conceptual predicament that follows from placing Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies into a geography-based curriculum that was derived from the nineteenth-century division of subject matter into western and non-western topics.  Almost forty years after the publication of Edward Said’s seminal Orientalism, specialists of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies do not easily relate themselves to Classicists, Medievalists, or Renaissance scholars.  Regional expertise is more highly valued than interdisciplinary and transnational collaboration to conduct research on a particular historical period.  Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at large are committed to overcoming the Cold War Area Studies paradigm according to which “the West” generated knowledge about “the East” in order to perpetuate its global economic and political power.  Undergraduate and graduate training is focused on providing students with language skills and critical methodologies that allow for research on, and in, Muslim societies, but Critical Bibliography and Textual Studies in fields such as Classics or Medieval and Renaissance Studies seem too closely associated with philology and are thus rejected as Orientalist approaches to the literary heritage of the Islamicate world.  Moreover, it seems insensitive to study printed books and manuscripts in Arabic script as mere material objects and quotidian commercial commodities, since scholars of Muslim societies take enormous pride in the Islamic manuscript tradition as a major cultural achievement of the Islamicate world.

The Visual Rhetoric of Scale

Charles E. Stevens, “Confronting the Past … Cautionsly.”
Neue Wache, Berlin, 11 June 2012.
Digital photograph.
With permission, all rights reserved.

In October 2013 this photograph was used on the cover of Perspectives on History, the newsletter of the American Historical Association, and in a short note on p. 5, the cover was explained.  (By the way, this explanatory note is currently missing from the newsletter’s digital edition.)  The photograph shows the interior of the Neue Wache in Berlin, which since 1993 serves as the central memorial of the Federal Republic of Germany to the victims of war and tyranny.  The Neue Wache (lit. “New Guard House”) was the first government commission of Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) in the Prussian capital.  Schinkel’s building near the eastern end of Unter den Linden, the tree-lined avenue leading from the Brandenburger Tor to the Stadtschloss, is considered one of the major works of Greek revival architecture in Europe.  The Neue Wache was designed to form an ensemble with the adjacent Zeughaus and the Kronprinzenpalais, the residence of Friedrich Wilhelm III. (r. 1797-1840), diagonally across the street.  Nowadays an enlarged copy (h. ca. 1.6 m) of “Mutter mit totem Sohn,” a small sculpture that Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) created between 1937 and 1938 in memory of her son Peter (1896-1914), stands at the center of the rectangular room below a round skylight (Lat. oculus).  In early 1990s Germany, the repurposing of Schinkel’s Neue Wache generated a heated public debate on how Germans can, and should, remember the enormous bloodshed and suffering inflicted on millions of people by German political ambition.  About twenty years after this debate, there is a significant body of critical scholarship on this memorial, as is indicated by the bibliography of the German Wikipedia entry on the Neue Wache.

The choice of this memorial was an apt visual opening for a newsletter issue which offered its readers four different contributions on historical empathy and imagination.  Stevens’ photograph captures a moment of reflection, and serves therefore as a brilliant visualization of the emotional and intellectual difficulties posed by every memorial in post-unification Germany.  Still, I was bothered by the image and its use on the Perspectives cover.  This interior view provides no clue whatsoever to the entire room, and there is no obvious explanation for the shadow in the corner between the man and the sculpture.  This missing information makes it impossible to gauge how small or large this early nineteenth-century interior is and whether a person stepping into this space will experience the room, for example, as monumental or grand.

Neue Wache, Berlin, 8 October 2006.
Digital photograph by Luukas.
Wikimedia Commons.

Neue Wache, Berlin, 27 August 2007.
Digital photograph by Daniel Schwen.
Wikimedia Commons.

My own experience of the interior, on a sunny afternoon in October 2012, was dominated by darkness, stillness, and modesty – despite the blown-up copy of the Kollwitz sculpture and despite my own objections to the memorial’s 1993 repurposing.  Whatever political abuse Schinkel’s Neue Wache suffered in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, this is a well-proportioned beautiful building designed on a human scale.  I had not planned on visiting the memorial and happened upon the building, which appeared surprisingly small, when walking from the Museumsinsel to the Brandenburger Tor.  Stepping from the hustle and bustle of Unter den Linden into this quiet room, which is more or less on street level, I entered a somber space which did not attempt to impress, or even dominate, its visitors.  The central skylight in the rectangular ceiling reminded me of the oculus in the dome of the Pantheon in Rome.

My discomfort with the presentation of the Neue Wache memorial in the October 2013 issue of the Perspectives on History did not stir me into writing a letter to the editor.  Instead I have clipped the cover with the accompanying note and put them into my copy of Peter Burke’s Eyewitnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001) in order to keep these pages as an important reminder of my own limitations:  How often do I misunderstand an image related to books in Arabic script or any aspect of Middle Eastern and Islamic history because I myself have no personal hands-on experiences of the relevant artifacts or places?

The Digitization of Books in Arabic Script and the Digital Divide in Muslim Societies

How could future initiatives for the digitization of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script respond to the practical and ethical challenges posed by the digital divide between rich and poor in Muslim societies in Eurasia and Africa?  Despite the naturalization of e-texts in Arabic script among those who have managed to cross over, the current uses of digitization in Muslim societies do not address this digital divide.

It is well publicized in the mainstream media in Europe and North America that poverty and underdevelopment in many Muslim societies continue to be exacerbated by bad governance as well as political instability, religious and ethnic violence, civil wars, and occupations by foreign powers.  While the importance of digital literacy beyond the sophisticated uses of smart phones is increasingly stressed in Europe and North America, the digital divide in Muslim societies is rarely noticed.  Its invisibility to outsiders seems to follow from the fact that the western perception of Muslim societies is dominated by the actions of either westernized elites or Islamist terrorists, and both groups are committed Internet users.  Since 2009 the news about democratic protest movements in Iran, Tunisia, Egypt, or Turkey have been associated with their savvy employment of social media, in particular FaceBook, YouTube, and Twitter.  At the same time, the broad surveillance of all forms of digital communication by organizations such as the NSA is still justified by the observation that al-Qaeda and other Islamist movements too rely on the Internet to organize their followers.  But across the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa the engagement with social media and the Digital Humanities is limited to small and highly privileged segments of the population.  Only a minority of students does manage to gain access to prestigious institutions of higher learning such as the American University of Beirut (AUB) where earlier this year the Faculty of Arts and Sciences organized a first Digital Humanities workshop.  Unfortunately, this workshop was hosted by AUB’s Department of English, and not by its Department of Arabic and Near Eastern Languages.

Independent of the uses of digital media and the Internet in the political discourse, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the digitization of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script has been smoothly integrated into the pragmatic traditions of Islamic bookmaking that for centuries focused on facilitating the access to written texts by whatever means necessary.  For Islamic civilization combines the reverence for written texts, which originated with the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad in the early seventh century CE, with strong oral traditions.  Consequently, the adaptation of digitization to bookmaking was not hampered by theoretical concerns for the ontological differences between books such as the nineteenth-century manuscript copies of thirteenth-century manuscript originals, lithographs, typeset books, microfilms, or digital surrogates: they are all texts.  Historicist awareness for the authentic material artefact and its facsimile or forgery is as irrelevant as legal concerns about copyright law and best practices within the Digital Humanities: as long as the text itself seemingly does not change, it does not matter in which medium a book is reproduced and can be read (see the report of David Hirsch (UCLA) about his 2012 workshop for Iraqi librarians in the TARII Newsletter 8/1 (2013): 22-23).  Nor is there any debate about the carbon footprint of digital hardware and software and about the technical problems of the secure long-term preservation of e-texts in societies where many citizens are struggling with access to electricity.

Since the late 1990s the number of websites that offer free access to Arabic, Persian, Ottoman, or Urdu literatures – delivered in a range of formats, though with a slight preference for downloadable pdf-files – has been steadily increasing (see the list of Textual Databases on the resource website of the Digital Islamic Humanities Project at Brown University).  In addition, foundations such as the Imam Zayd Cultural Foundation and the Iran Heritage Foundation (IHF), as well as philanthropists like Yousef Jameel are underwriting the digitization of illustrated manuscripts in Arabic script, together with the digitization of other Islamic or Middle Eastern artefacts, in public and private collections in Europe and North America, thereby reclaiming these material objects as their cultural heritage.  It depends on the mission of the respective private sponsor to which degree these digital surrogates are also intended as means to the end of giving a boost to particular religious or national goals through pretty pictures on computer screens (see for example the Persian Manuscript Digitization Project at the British Library).

The extent to which the reading of e-texts has become the new normal among those with access to small personal computers or smart phones can be gauged by the lavish indices that have become a distinctive feature of academic books published in print in Muslim societies.  Considering the amazing power of relatively straightforward full-text search engines for text files, it is now customary to find in scholarly books specialized indices for personal names, tribal names, place names, Quran verses, first lines of classical poetry, and so forth.

It seems to me that as long as scholars who specialize in Middle Eastern, North African or South Asian Studies remain on the sidelines as the happy consumers of digital surrogates – which are, admittedly, great time-savers – digitization will not receive the critical attention which is urgently needed to address the practical question whether digitization is really the best and most responsible use of limited financial resources in order to improve access to the written texts of the Islamic civilization within the Muslim societies themselves.

PS.  On June 4, 2013, Sarah Zakzouk published an announcement on the blog Muftah about the Media and Digital Literacy Academy of Beirut (MDLAB) at the AUB.  The MDLAB is an extension of AUB’s Media and Digital Literacy University, and will focus on digital media literacy in Arabic.  In August 2013 it will hold its first session for fifty media scholars and students from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria.  The working language of the MDLAB is Arabic, but for the August session the MDLAB has also invited communications scholars from Europe and North America, and they will teach in English.

Updated, 28 July 2013

PPS.  In early July 2013, a slightly different version of this essay was submitted to The First University of Lethbridge, Global Outlook::Digital Humanities, Digital Studies/Le champ numérique Global Digital Humanities Essay Prize.  The results were announced on 1 December 2013: 53 essays or abstracts in seven languages were entered into the competition, and the jury awarded four first and five second prizes; the essay’s older version was among the 16 submissions which received a honourable mention.

Updated, 1 December 2013

Prosopography and Social Networks in the Digital Age

On 17-18 May 2013, Will Hanley of Florida State University (FSU) led the First Workshop for PROSOP, which was held at Brown University.  The workshop was supported by a start-up grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) and by Brown’s Middle East Studies program.  Will is a Middle East historian, and his research has, for example, explored Egyptian legal records from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century CE.   As the administrator of the ArchivesWiki of the American Historical Association (AHA), his hands-on experiences with this crowdsourced Wiki are informing his plans for this new Digital Humanities project.

I had applied to the PROSOP workshop because research on manuscripts and printed books in Arabic can yield significant prosopographic knowledge that is not limited to the names of authors.  Many books preserve paratexts such as ownership notes, statements about endowments (Arabic sing. waqf), certificates of transmission (Arabic sing. ijāzah), marginal notes (Arabic sing. ḥāshiya), or study and reading notes.  The paratexts reveal the names of people related to one specific copy of a written text, such as
•       author of a commentary on a specific work
•       author of an abridgement or epitome of a specific work
•       person who rewrites, revises or edits a specific work
•       scribe of a specific copy
•       illuminator of a specific copy
•       binder of a specific copy
•       publisher of a specific copy
•       owner of a specific copy (e.g., institution, dealer, private person)
•       reader of a specific copy
These names can be examined as concrete historical evidence for the production, circulation, and uses of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script, providing insight into book production and the book trade as one aspect of the transmission of knowledge in Muslim societies.  Considering the overall scarcity of archival sources for the history of premodern Muslim societies, the systematic study of paratexts has the potential to dramatically increase our understanding of the social, intellectual and economic history of Muslim societies.  But two formidable obstacles continue to impede the study of paratexts, since few Middle East historians and literary critics are trained in the quantitative research methods commonly applied in the Social Sciences.  The first obstacle is the methodological evaluation of an assembled corpus of manuscripts and printed book as a statistically valid sample for both quantitative and qualitative analyses.  The second obstacle is the technical skill needed for a meaningful organization of the raw prosopographic data gleaned from paratexts.  Consequently, Stefan Leder’s collection of ijāzah from medieval Damascus (Les certificats d’audition à Damas 550 –750 h./1155–1349, 2 vols. Damascus: Institut français d’Etudes arabes & Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, 1996-2000), did not initiate further publications of paratexts from manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script, even though in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies it has been long recognized that paratexts are unique sources of historical evidence.  (For more about Islamic books as sources of prosopography, see the notes of my workshop presentation.)

For the PROSOP workshop Will had brought together scholars with very different approaches to prosopography and a wide range of experiences with computer based research and the Digital Humanities.  The goal of PROSOP is the aggregation of datasets generated by microhistorical research so that the aggregated datasets can be subjected to macrohistorical analysis (see this 2010 poster illustrating Will’s vision for PROSOP).  The need for aggregation reflects the insight that every local event has international and transnational dimensions because all human beings are affected by violent conflicts and trade, whether this impact is consciously recognized (e.g., military engagements, commodity prices, climate change, epidemics) or not.  Will himself is right now working with computer scientists on a PROSOP prototype that will provide a website with a template which contributors can adapt to the needs of their specific prosopographic datasets.  The site’s search engine will execute global searches across all uploaded datasets.  In order to allow for flexibility in such a globally conceived data collection it will be necessary to avoid fixed category requirements, and Will expects that PROSOP will employ the Linked Data framework provided by the Semantic Web.

Will had structured the workshop as a series of presentations about different types of prosopographic datasets.  Most of our discussion therefore focused on how the website design and the technical requirements of the database template and its variable fields could be organized in order to accommodate our own idiosyncratic datasets and research needs.  With the hope that the debate will continue and that PROSOP will flourish, here are some reflections about PROSOP’s organizational challenges – just my two cents.

PROSOP’s Mode of Operation

Our own reasons for contributing prosopographic datasets to PROSOP indicated that we were interested in submitting datasets to a website that would serve two different purposes: the first is the safe depository for prosopographic research data which are no longer needed for our current work, and the second is an aggregated database whose big data collection promises synergy and serendipity.  Accordingly, the PROSOP website should have concise how-to pages for submitting and extracting datasets (cf. the Wiki “Contributing to Wikipedia“), as well as for searching PROSOP and for citing from its datasets and search results.

Will is passionate about his commitment that PROSOP be open to all, with no professional barriers to the submission of prosopographic datasets.  PROSOP will accommodate the research of bone fida historians and social scientists, as well as the work of genealogists who conduct their historical research as autodidacts and amateurs.  This debate was oddly self-referential, as we were discussing the social structure of digital data sharing in order to build a digital repository for social network research data.  Will distinguished between data sharing as collaboration among academic peers (e.g., Prosopography of the Byzantine World) and general-audience crowdsourcing, favoring non-commercial general-audience crowdsourcing over strictly academic data sharing (e.g., Open Context).  But in fields such as Anglo-Saxon literature and cuneiform studies, the interpretation of relatively scarce and arcane documents demands a high degree of scholarly expertise which in turn exerts a tyranny of quality over any collaborative project.  Nonetheless, a site open to all is bound to raise considerable anxiety, not only among contributing academics but also among those individuals and organizations whose funding will keep the project running, about the reliability of the submitted datasets.  During our discussion the Americanists were most eager to keep PROSOP accessible to researchers outside academia, as for them the painstaking genealogical research of autodidacts and amateurs is an enormously valuable resource (see Gordon S. Wood, “In Quest of Blood Lines: Review of François Weil’s Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America,” New York Review of Books, 23 May 2013), even if much of this extramural research primarily generates fuzzy data (see Peter Hajek, “Fuzzy Logic,” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2002, rev. 2010).

The two crucial issues for PROSOP’s mode of operation are the recruitment of collaborators and the site’s concrete uses, while the functional questions of how datasets be entered, stored, and extracted can be treated separately as a technical challenge.  Throughout the workshop we did not worry much about how to win active participants from all walks of life; after all, we ourselves were willing to give PROSOP a chance.  Will, however, had thought hard about the issue, which he addressed by highlighting the concrete scholarly benefits of data sharing.  My own sense of the situation is that the acceptance of and engagement with the project will depend not only on the site’s research utility but also on PROSOP’s association with professional organizations and its institutional ties, since both will directly impact the project’s social prestige in the academic community.  (For more thoughts about the social history of knowledge production, see my 2010 conference paper about the Encyclopaedia Iranica).

Will envisions PROSOP as a project without any top-down quality control so that possible contributors without formal credentials would not be scared off or censored.  But even a bottom-up project such as Wikipedia has a rating system for entries, and Will therefore insisted that all datasets in PROSOP will receive a “confidence score.”  The group accepted as practical and efficient the device of a straightforward questionnaire with control questions which would allow for a modicum of critical evaluation.  The questionnaire would ensure that contributors describe and evaluate datasets prior to their submission to PROSOP.  I found salient that among a group of Humanities scholars there was a clear preference for a computer’s judgment calls.  Most of us had no problem with surrendering the final judgment of their datasets to an algorithm that would calculate the results of the questionnaire as a dataset’s numerical confidence score.  While I am still surprised by this trust in an algorithm, the preference may reflect the perception that a computer is less fallible and more transparent in its decisions than a (human) editor.

PROSOP’s Professional Associations

In order to provide Will’s vision of a continually growing international website with additional support, it seems to me that PROSOP would benefit from being already in this early stage more closely linked to professional associations, even if these associations would come at the prize of an additional layer of administrative duties.  As a project that Will single-handedly started in the USA it would seem logical to approach the professional organizations of American historians, archivists, and librarians, while reaching out to the Library of Congress (LoC) and the National Archives and Records Administrations (NARA).  The conversation opener could be the fact that Will has received the blessings of a NEH start-up grant for PROSOP, while the concrete matter at hand would be the formal establishment of an advisory board, or something similar (cf. the division of labor among the collaborators of the Social Network and Archival Context Project).  The AHA may be of particular importance to PROSOP since the AHA does not limit its membership to academics.  How many of the workshop participants were, for example, AHA members in good standing?  In addition, the AHA has been actively engaged in fostering Digital History for more than a decade, and among its members are historians from other countries and continents.

PROSOP’s Institutional Ties

At the moment, PROSOP has a freestanding website at http://www.prosop.org.  In order to guarantee the secure storage of datasets contributed to PROSOP it seems necessary to plan already during the development phase for secure and regular backups of the site’s continually growing contents as well as for mechanisms that will allow for the uploading of datasets, the downloading of the template, and the extraction of individual datasets.  The secure storage of the uploaded datasets will be one of the incentives for contributing to PROSOP, but the secure storage presents a technical challenge because PROSOP will not merely aggregate a huge collection of individual files saved as text, PDF, or spreadsheet.  Since successful collaborative Digital Humanities projects such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/) or the Social Network and Archival Context Project (http://socialarchive.iath.virginia.edu/) are hosted on university servers, the question arises whether PROSOP would also benefit from an explicit institutional link with FSU where Will is a professor in the History Department.

PROSOP’s Model of Financing

PROSOP’s future depends on its financial viability.  Irrespective of where the website be hosted on the Internet, the maintenance of an actively growing website, which is designed as a digitally-born resource, is cost- and labor-intensive.  Columbia University Libraries, for example, only accepts active, web-based research projects, if a project has its own endowment dedicated to covering all costs associated with hosting the associated websites.  Aside from the daily maintenance costs which range from electricity to salaries for technicians, money will be needed for a separate research and development (R&D) team so that there will be regular updates to PROSOP’s underlying technology and visible web interface.  While the NEH stipulates that its projects are available as Open Access resources since they have received financial support from the US government, it may be worthwhile to explore not only the options of fundraising for a dedicated endowment and of an institutional sponsorship program (cf. the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy International Association) but also the possibility of cost-recovery for nonprofit institutions (e.g., the secure storage of prosopographic research data; cf. that in the US the libraries of nonprofit colleges and universities rely on cost-recovery to give students and faculty affordable access to very expensive services such as InterLibraryLoan).

PROSOP’s Copyright and Licensing

The current version of the PROSOP website does not have any statement about the site’s copyright and licenses.  Considering the importance of copyright laws for education and research in the US, it may help with the further development of PROSOP if at least the most basic copyright and license issues are addressed, while the first PROSOP prototype is still under development.  It is my understanding that Will’s contract with FSU as well as the stipulations of his NEH grant are relevant for determining the copyright of the website and the database design.  But I would otherwise expect that Creative Commons licenses should be able to solve most of the copyright issues related to the prosopographic datasets.  It may provide an additional incentive for the collaboration with PROSOP if the website has a section which explains, for example, the intellectual property rights of a researcher’s own datasets, or the legal status of prosopographic research based on archival documents and artifacts that are not in the public domain.  Since the goal of PROSOP is the aggregation of of the greatest number of available prosopographic datasets, it may not be possible, though, that collaborators can freely chose a particular Creative Commons license for their individual datasets.  In any case, the section about PROSOP’s section about copyright and licensing should be clearly linked to the how-to page about citing from PROSOP’s search results and datasets.

PROSOP’s Design

The debates about the design of PROSOP’ interface and database template were particularly fascinating because they revealed the extent to which knowledge production and knowledge transmission is culturally determined.  Some favored a user-friendly simple interface design, while others asked for truth in advertising, insisting that no glossy layout be used to hide the nitty-gritty complexity of a serious dataset template.  There was, however, agreement that it be important that there be as few clicks as possible between the homepage and the search form or a particular dataset.

Within the group there were still some proponents for developing PROSOP as a relational database, even though Will and his computer science collaborators have already rejected this option.  Another recurrent theme in the discussion was the question whether a person’s name or a person’s association with a specific place and time would be the primary categories for organizing the prosopographic datasets.  This question strikes me as particularly important, since Will expects that PROSOP will allow for the spatial mapping of search results.

Since I myself I have no practical experience with the setting up of databases, I have no specific wishlist for PROSOP’s database design.  But I am very much looking forward to the first PROSOP prototype going live so that I can start using its database template for my research on the production and trade of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script.

PROSOP and the Ethics of Humanities Research in the Digital Age

Most of our discussion was taken up with very concrete questions about the quantitative and qualitative analysis of prosopographic research data.  Conversely, we had little time and energy left for a more general reflection on PROSOP within the concrete political and social realities of the second decade of the twenty-first century.  Of course, Will’s decision that PROSOP will not rely on relational database design is based on his philosophical rejection of essentialist categories in historical research.  My most general expectation is that PROSOP will manage to remain as transparent as possible about its organization, its funding, and its collaborators.  In addition to an active outreach to genealogists and scholars outside North America and Europe, I would find particularly important that the future development of PROSOP will take into account its carbon footprint and the digital divide inside and outside the US.

The Anxiety of Influence: Framing the Blue Quran

Folio of the Blue Quran, Metropolitan Museum of ArtQuran.  MS arab., parchment, 30.5 x 40.3 cm.  North Africa, late 9th-early 10th century.
MMA 2004.88 – Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2004.

In the spring and summer of 2012, three leaves of the famous Blue Quran were shown in New York City, in two unrelated exhibitions in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Rubin Museum of Art.  The unusual Quran manuscript was first brought to the attention of Western scholars by the Swedish diplomat and Orientalist Fredrik Robert Martin (1868-1933), who had purchased a few of its leaves in Istanbul before 1912.  Today the largest part of this luxury manuscript from the ninth or tenth century CE is preserved in the National Library, Tunis, while about a hundred detached leaves and bifolia are held in private and public collections, such as the Chester Beatty Library Dublin, the Agha Khan Museum (AKM248), the Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art (2 fols. Acc. no. KFQ 53; cf. F. Déroche, The Abbasid Tradition, Oxford: Azimuth, 1992, pp. 92-95), the Seattle Art Museum (69.37 – Purchased from Mark Lansburgh, Colorado College, 30 January 1969), or Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Two leaves are owned by New Yorker institutions: the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MMA 2004.88 – Purchase, Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 2004) and the Brooklyn Museum of Art (BMA 1995.51a-b – Gift by Beatrice Riese).  During the last decades, leaves were repeatedly sold in auction, for example, by Quaritch (catalog 1213, items 13-14), Sotheby’s London (24 Sept. 2007, lot 7; 5 October 2010, lot 7; 4 October 2011, lot 2), and Christie’s (26 April 2012, lot 39); for an almost complete list of published leaves in public and private collections until 2008, see Alain George, “Calligraphy, Colour and Light in the Blue Qurʾan,” Journal of Qurʾanic Studies 11/1, 2009, pp. 110-111.

The Blue Quran has attracted considerable attention, and the manuscript’s authenticity has been doubted.  One reason is the technical challenge of dyeing deeply saturated parchment leaves, even though there are Quran fragments written on parchment leaves dyed yellow, safran, pink or violet (see F. Déroche, The Abbasid Tradition, Oxford: Azimuth, 1992, pp. 58 and 93).  The use of a dyed writing surface continued in later times, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France owns an incomplete set of a late fourteenth-century Quran from North Africa, written in silver on purple paper (BNF MSS arabe 389-392).  Another reason for the doubt’s persistence is the choice of color for its writing surface.  There is not any other known example of an Islamic book, written on parchment or paper, whose leaves were dyed in such an intensive blue, and so historians of Islamic art have searched for the Blue Quran’s precedents in other book cultures.  Since the largest part of this manuscript is nowadays dispersed among North African collections, it seems plausible that the Blue Quran reflects the impact of Byzantine luxury manuscripts of the Bible, written in silver and gold on parchment dyed purple, and was produced in the early tenth century CE for a Fatimid patron in Egypt or North Africa.  But luxury manuscripts were always a widely circulating commodity, and a manuscript’s current location does not necessarily provide any clue to its date and place of production.  Alain George (“Calligraphy, Colour and Light,” op. cit. ) has recently speculated that the manuscript was produced for a high ranking patron at the Abbasid court in Baghdad in the early ninth century.  As there is indirect evidence for the production of canonical Buddhist scriptures in gold script on a dark blue surface in the eighth century CE, George raises the question, though merely as an afterthought in the first appendix (ibid., p. 109), whether Chinese artisans in the Abbasid capital Baghdad might have acquainted their Abbasid patrons with the Chinese taste for chrysography on a dark opaque surface.  After all, the impact of Chinese artisanship on the Islamic ceramics industry is well documented.

In the MMA two leaves of the Blue Quran were featured in the large Byzantium and Islam exhibition, while in the Rubin Museum the third leaf was included into in a small exhibition of illuminated sacred books.  In neither exhibition, the audience was given any information about the scholarly controversies triggered by the hermeneutic impossibility of making sense of a unique object.  Experiencing these three leaves in two different contexts elicited mixed emotions. It was frustrating and stimulating, since a book is always also defined by its material characteristics and its appearance.  Although the arguments about the place and time of the Blue Quran’s production cannot be settled with a visual argument, showing leaves of the Blue Quran together with other books creates a paratactic narrative in the course of which possibilities of causation are implied through sequence and context.  It is of course a logical fallacy to argue “post hoc ergo propter hoc,” and yet, the power of sequential narratives in all pictorial art is derived from this logical fallacy.

fol. 3

Gospel.  MS greek, parchment, 32 x 26.5 cm.  Syria or Constantinople, 500-600 CE.
Codex Cottonianus fragment of the Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus (N, Uncial 022).
British Library, MS Greek Cotton Titus C. XV, fol. 4.

Folio of a Quran, Metropolitan Museum of ArtQuran.  MS arab., parchment, central Islamic lands, probably 9th century.
MMA 40.164.1b – Rogers Fund, 1940.

Leaf from the Blue Quran, Brooklyn Museum of Art

Quran.  MS arab., parchment, 28.4 x 38.1 cm.
Egypt, North Africa, Sicily,  or Spain,, 9th-10th century.
BMA 1995.51a-b – Gift of Beatrice Riese.

The Noble Mahayana Sutra Named Boundless Life and Knowledge

Amitayus Sutra.
MS tibetan, silver on dark blue paper, ca. 7 x 25 cm.
No place and no date; probably 18th or 19th century CE.
Library of Congress, Asian Division, William Rockhill Tibetan Collection, uncataloged.

In the MMA, the two leaves of the Blue Quran were shown in the last room, surrounded by other fragments of large-format Quran codices. The curators obtained these two leaves as loans from the BMA and LACMA, and decided not to add the example of a Quran also written on parchment though dyed in another color, such as the leaf shown above (MMA 40.164.1b).  Consequently, the Blue Quran appeared as an exceptional object, following the traditional narrative of Islamic art while reinforcing the mission of the MMA as an institution dedicated to art of the highest order.  But in this very well received exhibition (e.g., Peter Brown, “The Great Transition,” NYRB, 10 May 2012), the different religious denominations were kept in splendid isolation.  Even though the exhibition explored how artistic traditions of the Byzantine Empire were transformed during the emergence of Islamic civilization from the seventh century onwards, there was no mingling, mixing, or matching of the artifacts of Greek-Orthodox Christians, Nestorians, Copts, Jews, or Muslims.  This segregationist approach created the maddening situation that the curators united in one exhibition two leaves of the Blue Quran with two leaves of the Codex Petropolitanus Purpureus, a Greek Gospel from the sixth century CE written in gold and silver on purple parchment, and yet they did not use the opportunity to examine the possible influence of Byzantine luxury manuscripts on the Blue Quran.  Not only were the leaves of the Byzantine Gospel and the Blue Quran shown in different rooms, far away from each other, the viewer was not even encouraged to compare these two manuscripts, since the labels remained silent about the possible connection between them.

In contrast, the curators of the Rubin Museum focused on the material aspects of sacred books.  The leaf of the Blue Quran, which was a loan from the Rose Trust, Dubai, appeared quite comfortably in the company of Buddhist and Hindu examples of religious texts written in gold or silver on dark blue or black writing surfaces.  The result of this curatorial decision was surprising, as well as sensible and beautiful.  In Asia Muslims have lived among non-Muslims since the eighth century CE, and despite the complex history of violent conflicts between Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims, Islamic books, like all other sacred books, are a commodity made by humans.  The example of the Blue Quran revealed that the religious segregation of books is as detrimental to the understanding of intellectual and cultural history, as the segregation of humans according to ethnicity, race, religion, or wealth is pernicious to all humans.

Corrected, 29 May 2013

PS – On 9 October 2014, Christie’s sold a seventeenth-century Quran written on blue paper (Sale 1557, Lot 6).

Quran in private collection

Quran in private collection

MS arab., gold and silver on dark blue paper, ca. 24 x 14.4 cm and 19 x 9.4 cm.
328 folios and 4 fly leaves.
Later added envelope binding.
No place is given in the colophon, which is dated 1099/1687-1688
and signed by Muḥammad Afḍal b. Muḥammad ʿAlī.
On one of the fly leaves, a seal impression is dated 1272/1855-1856 and bears the name of Nawāb Malikah Zamaniyyah Begum, the second wife of Nāṣir al-Dīn Ḥaydar Shāh of Lucknow, the builder of the Imāmbārah-i Gūlah-ganj (r. 1827-1837).
Unidentified private collection.

Updated, 9 October 2014

Not a Good Fit: Islam and Book History

In February 2013 I submitted, within the deadline, a proposal for a conference about the scientific author and cultures of scientific publishing, organized by the Program about the History of the Book at Harvard University.  But my proposal for a presentation about scholarly authority in the Ottoman Empire after 1517 was neither reviewed nor rejected.  Harvard’s spam filter flagged my email, and that was that.  The conference program is now posted on the internet, and I am left with the question of what I will do next with the sequestered proposal about the Muslim reception of Euclid’s Elements between the tenth and the seventeenth centuries.  Even though in this instance it was Harvard’s spam filter that decided against a presentation about the changing perception of scholarly authority in the Ottoman Empire, similar proposals of mine have not fared any better.  Irrespective of the merits of my work, it seems that these rejections are not just about me.  Rather they also suggest that in North America and Europe fitting Islam into Book History remains a challenge.  Research on books in Arabic script is difficult to classify for scholars outside and inside Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, as well as well for scholars outside and inside Book History.

One reason for this challenge is practical.  Scholars, librarians, and curators without any prior background in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies have little opportunity to obtain additional training for manuscripts, printed books, archival documents, or ephemera in Arabic script.  At Princeton University and UCLA, where strong Near Eastern Studies departments have access to rich library collections of more than 10,000 manuscripts in Arabic script, there is no tradition whatsoever for using these Islamic holdings for teaching.  In North America only Adam Gacek of the Institute for Islamic Studies at McGill University does regularly teach an introduction to Islamic codicology, such as this 2013 course at Stanford University.  In 2006, Marianna Shreve Simpson offered an introduction to Islamic manuscripts at the Rare Book School, but this course has not been offered since.

Another reason for this challenge is conceptual.  In Europe and North America the study of Islam continues to be located in a geography-based curriculum that was derived from the nineteenth-century division into western and non-western subject matters.  The study of Islam remains strongly associated with research on the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, even though many Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies scholars are strongly opposed to the Cold War Area Studies paradigm according to which “the West” generated knowledge about “the East “in order to perpetuate its global economic and political power.  Undergraduate and graduate education concentrates on providing students with language skills and critical methodologies that allow for research on, and in, Muslim societies (see, for example, the mission statement of Columbia University’s Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies).  Specialists of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies usually have a methodological foundation in disciplines such as Anthropology, History, Linguistics, Literary Criticism, Political Science, or Religious Studies, so that source criticism is generally practiced as the historical evaluation of written texts.  Since regional expertise has remained more important than the focus on a particular period, specialists of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies do not relate themselves to Medievalists or Renaissance scholars, and so are not exposed to their expertise in codicology, paleography, and bibliography.  Conversely, the contemporary western discourse on Islam and Muslim societies has remained anchored to the premise that the intellectual decline of Islamic civilization from the thirteenth century onwards is one of the root causes for the undeniable socio-economic and political problems of twenty-first century Muslim societies in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.  This negative view of Islamic civilization between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries has ensured that this middling period attracts fewer scholars and much less is known about it.

The most twisted reason for the seeming incompatibility of Book History and Islam is the comparatively late acceptance of printing technology in Muslim societies in the nineteenth century.  In its Anglo-American tradition, Book History is so closely linked to research on Gutenberg’s invention of letterpress printing that a contemporaneous book culture without the printing press is hard to stomach.  This hands-off attitude is further compounded by the fact that many Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies scholars shy away from research on the academic study of Islam in early modern Europe.  Since the history of Oriental Studies  appears as merely supplementary to the insights of Edward Said’s Orientalism, it is rarely noticed how little is known about the printing of books in Arabic script in early modern Europe.  Nor do we have a comprehensive history of the European and North American collections of Islamic manuscripts and printed books.  Despite the new Center for the History of Arabic Studies in Europe at the Warburg Institute, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies scholars who focus on Oriental Studies in early modern Europe tend to keep a low profile, often by adopting an antiquarian attitude.

Against this backdrop it is understandable, though nonetheless annoying, that the 1517 defeat of the Mamluk sultans is not yet perceived as a crucial event of the book history of the Ottoman Empire and its neighbors.  The loss of political independence condemned Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq to becoming a backwater of the Ottoman Empire, and the rich libraries of the central Arab lands provided the Ottoman elites in Istanbul with a hitherto inaccessible wealth of manuscript books.  In the course of the sixteenth century, the Ottoman armies pushed into Eastern Europe.  At the same time, Jewish and Muslim refugees from the Spanish Peninsula were settling in the Ottoman Empire, and West European powers―in particular the Italian city states, France, and Britain―began to establish diplomatic contacts with the High Porte in Istanbul in order to obtain trading privileges and to explore political alliances against their Christian rivals.  The mobility of people around and across the Mediterranean was accompanied by the circulation of printed books into the Ottoman Empire, as well as the diffusion of letterpress printing technology to Jewish and Christian communities within Muslim societies.  In 1493, Samuel and David Ibn Nahmias printed the Arba’ah Turim in Istanbul.  But when the first complete Arabic Quran was printed in Venice between 1537 and 1538, the intended export into the Ottoman Empire could not be realized, and the venture became an abject commercial failure.  In 1647, the Armenians in New Julfa, a suburb of Isfahan, printed the first typeset book in Safavid Iran when they published an almanac for their congregation.

In the proposal that was eaten by Harvard’s spam filter I had suggested an analysis of how the Arabic bibliographies of Taşköprüzade (Aḥmad b. Muṣṭafā Ṭāshkubrāzādah, 901-968/1495-1560) and Katip Ҫelebi (Muṣṭafā b. ʿAbd Allāh Ḥājjī Khalīfah, 1016-1067/1609-1657) classify Euclid’s Elements.  Although both bibliographies are still widely used as bio-bibliographical reference works, neither Taşköprüzade’s Kitāb miftāḥ al-saʿādah wa-miṣbāḥ al-siyādah fī mawḍūʿāt al-ʿulūm (The key of happiness and the light of command over the matters of knowledge) which is a comprehensive prospectus of an Islamic curriculum, nor Katip Ҫelebi’s alphabetical title catalog Kashf al-ẓunūn ʿan asāmī al-kutub wa’l-funūn (The disclosure of opinions about book titles and the branches of knowledge) has been studied as evidence for new strategies for information management.  I believe that these comprehensive bibliographies illustrate a seminal break in the intellectual history of Muslim societies, since their authors surveyed the known, though not necessarily accessible, literature in Arabic script, focusing on the classification of the contents and the titles of books.  But since the study of bibliographies falls into the purview of Book History, I will probably peddle this presentation to another Book History conference, curious as to whether at another institution the spam filter will have an equally voracious appetite for a proposal about the transformation of the concept of authorship in Muslim societies.

Revised because of broken hyperlink, 17 July 2014.