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

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