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:!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:!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 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