Owning Books in Arabic Script inside and outside Muslim Communities

In all literate societies, the vast majority of books are utilitarian commodities whose most important feature is their reproducibility, be it in the same medium (e.g., manuscript to manuscript) or be it in a new medium (e.g., manuscript to digital surrogate).  The technology of writing allows for the manufacture of new copies, irrespective of a book’s format (that is: tablet, scroll, roll, codex, e-book), whenever it seems opportune or necessary to replace an old copy with a new copy.  At the same time, books and their contents are continually destroyed in the course of natural disasters, warfare, censorship, deaccession, or wear and tear.  Between these extreme poles of unlimited reproducibility and pending permanent disappearance, we can recognize the contours of two different book cultures: utilitarian books with texts for readers and rare or bibliophilic books regarded as valuable.  But what we think about particular texts and artifacts changes over time, and thus books move back and forth between these two cultures.

In their introduction to Provenance: An Alternate History of Art (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2012), Gail Feigenbaum and Inge Reist conceive of provenance as “a kind of shadow social history of art” (p. 3).  Books, though, are different from works of art – if we are disregarding livres d’artistes.  While works of art nowadays require provenance records as documentation of legal ownership, David Pearson observes in the introduction to his handbook about Provenance Research in Book History (2d ed. Oxford: Bodleian Library, 2019) that the complete absence of any information about earlier owners is as common as the preservation of some details indicating a book’s social history (pp. 9–10).

It is against this backdrop that I will draw on selected holdings of Columbia University Libraries in order to explore how the officially available information about the provenance of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script provides new insight into changing perceptions of their international trade and their value.  The investigation of their provenance and sale cannot be separated from the interrogation of the legitimacy of their ownership, because their social history inside and outside Muslim communities is linked to contemporary debates about Orientalism and Islamophobia.  I argue that the dual nature of books – they can be cultural heritage and run-of-the-mill cheap copies – necessitates a reflection about different concepts of individual and collective ownership vis-à-vis representations of power and historical responsibility.  

Note 1. With regard to the methodological challenge which is posed by the economic reality that books are commodities, and this economic reality comprises even rare luxury volumes which are manufactured to order for wealthy patrons or religious institutions, I find it useful to contrast the heritage value of mobile commodities such as old books to the heritage value of old buildings which can be neither replaced by a new copy nor picked up and whisked away; see Jaume Franquesa, “On Keeping and Selling: The Political Economy of Heritage Making in Contemporary Spain, Current Anthropology 54.3 (June 2013): 346-369; DOI: 10.1086/670620.

Note 2. While scholars investigate an artefact’s provenance when determining its authenticity or its legal owner, antiquarian book dealers explore the associations which form a book’s web of human relations in order to possibly enhance its emotional or intellectual value in the eyes of its customers. Three contemporary glossaries on book collecting, western codicology, and bookselling illustrate different perceptions of provenance vis-à-vis association, documenting that in the world of books provenance and association are complementary concepts.

John Carter and Nicolas Barker, ABC for Book Collectors, 8th ed. with corrections, Newcastle, Del.: Oak Knoll, 2006. 1t ed. in the UK, London: R. Hart-Davis, 1952.

Michelle P. Brown, Understanding Illuminated Manuscripts: A Guide to Technical Terms, London: BL, 1994.

Glossary on the website of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB), available at: https://ilab.org/glossary

* Abstract of my talk at the workshop about Provenance: Interdisciplinary Conversations, organized by Emma Hagström Molin at the Centre for Integrated Research on Culture and Society (Circus) of Uppsala University (Sweden). The ZOOM workshop will take place on 20-21 August 2020.

Enlarged, 16 August 2020

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 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