The Public Accountability of a Marie Curie Fellowship

On 31 January 2019, my Marie Curie Fellowship ended after twenty-four months.  The Horizon2020 rules for the MSCA Individual Fellowships stipulate that after sixty days the host institution and its Marie Curie Fellow have to submit a final report to the European Commission. This report comprises a public summary, eventually to be published on CORDIS (https://cordis.europa.eu/project/rcn/206308/factsheet/en), and a confidential technical account, the financial part of which is inaccessible to the fellow.  The grant’s final installment will only be released to the host institution, if it is decided, on the basis of this final report, that the fellowship was successful.  Below follows an advanced draft of the public summary, which is not yet structured in accordance with the public summary’s checklist. For the time being, scholars can apply for a Marie Curie Fellowship at any point of their career.  In keeping with the terminological conventions of Horizon2020 and the MSCA, Marie Curie Fellows are called Experienced Researcher (ER), even if they are less than seven years after the receipt of their degree (cf. the NEH distinction between junior and senior scholars).  However, a Marie Curie Fellow cannot be the Principal Investigator (PI) of her grant, since the fellowship is awarded to the host institution where her sponsor is responsible for the budget.  

Making Books Talk: The Material Evidence of Manuscripts of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ by Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ for the Reception of an Andalusian Biography of the Prophet between 1100 and 1900  

The project explored the transformation of an early twelfth-century Arabic treatise on Islamic dogma (Ar. ʿaqīda), which was written in the Islamic West, probably in the port city of Ceuta (Ar. Sabta), North Africa, into a work of pious literature that today is studied by Sunni Muslims all over the world.  The Kitāb al-shifāʾ bi-taʿrīf huqūq al-Muṣṭafā (“The book of healing concerning the recognition of the true facts about the Chosen One”) was composed by ʿIyāḍ b. Mūsā al-Ḥāfiẓ Abū’l-Faḍl al-Yaḥṣubī al-Sabtī (1083–1149 CE), also known as Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ.  Serving as a judge (Ar. qāḍī) in his hometown Ceuta between 1121 to 1147, as well as for less than a year, between 1135 and 1136, as a judge in Granada, Spain, Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ was a celebrated jurist of the Maliki school of law with a particular interest in historical accounts (Ar. ḥadīth “story, tradition”) about the prophet Muḥammad (d. 632). 

Societal Relevance.  The project’s publications provide concrete historical context for the current debates on religious diversity and Islamophobia in western societies.  On the one hand, the Kitāb al-shifāʾ is associated with Iberia before 1500, when Jews, Christians, and Muslims were still living, mostly peacefully, next to each other in societies with a high degree of religious and linguistic diversity.  Consequently, the project used a comparative approach to situate the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, as a biography of the prophet Muḥammad, in interdenominational discussions about false and true prophets, because Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the three monotheistic religions, agree that prophecy is one means of divine revelation.  On the other hand, the project traced the diffusion of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in a long-term perspective, from the twelfth century to the present.  The focus on the work’s reception allowed the project to refute the widely repeated claim of Islam’s essentially unchanging and unchangeable “medieval nature,” commonly adduced as the reason as to why Islam and modernity are irreconcilable, by documenting how over time Muslim readers changed their approaches to and their understanding of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ.  

Scholarly Relevance.  The project selected the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, because it is an important twelfth-century source for the history of the Islamic West which never dropped out of circulation.  In publications on the legal and political history of Iberia and North Africa during the transition from the rule of the Almoravids (1061–1147) to that of the Almohads (1130–1269), scholars of Islam in Iberia—among others, Maribel Fierro, Cristina de la Puente, Delfina Serrano, Camilo Gómez-Rivas, and Javier Albarrán—draw on the work.  To this day Malikis continue to teach the book as a work of hadith scholarship and theology (Ar.ʿilm al-kalām), and yet, it has also transcended its historical and regional origins.  As documented by dated manuscript evidence, the Kitāb al-shifāʾ circulated widely in the Islamic East, outside Maliki circles, from the thirteenth century onwards, and became—in the words of  Annemarie Schimmel (1922–2003), a renowned scholar of Islam on the Indian Subcontinent—“perhaps the most frequently used and commented-upon handbook in which the Prophet’s life, his qualities, and his miracles are described in every detail” (And Muḥammad is his Messenger, 1985, p. 33).  Muslim publishers continually issue new printed versions, ranging from various editions of the Arabic text to translations into English, French, German, Spanish, Urdu, or Malay, while the number of digital surrogates of manuscripts and nineteenth-century printed versions available in digital depositories on the Internet is steadily increasing. 

Feasibility.  For some of the most important works of Islamic literature that were written in the Islamic West, just a single manuscript has been preserved.  Famous examples are the only known Arabic translation (ed. ʿA. al-Badawī, Beirut, 1982; and ed. M. Penelas, Madrid, 2001) of the Latin universal history Historiae adversum paganos (“History against the pagans”) by the Christian historian Orosius (active early 5th century); the love story of Bayāḍ and Riyāḍ (ed. A. d’Ottone, Vatican City, 2013); and the Ṭawq al-ḥamāma (“The ring of the dove”), a treatise on love by the philosopher Ibn Ḥazm (994–1064; cf. J. J. Witkam, “Establishing the stemma,” Manuscripts of the Middle East 3, 1988, pp. 88–101).  In contrast, hundreds of Kitāb al-shifāʾ manuscripts are preserved in accessible collections worldwide.  The rich manuscript tradition offers the invaluable opportunity to study the Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s diffusion in a long-term perspective.

State of the Art.  The Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s enduring popularity with Muslim readers from the thirteenth century onwards had not yet received any attention from scholars in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.  On the one hand, popularity is often mistaken as an indication that a literary work has already been comprehensively studied.  But so far, the Kitāb al-shifāʾ has been primarily valued as a source, which seems so well-known that nothing really new or original could be said about it.  On the other hand, the Kitāb al-shifāʾ is a comparatively late addition to the already substantial corpus of literature about the prophet’s life (Ar. sīra), of which the oldest known works were compiled in the late seventh century.  Even though Middle East historians are nowadays firmly committed to overcoming the Orientalist paradigm according to which “the West” generated knowledge about “the East” in order to perpetuate its global economic and political power, the contemporary western discourse on Islam and Muslim societies has remained anchored to the premise that the intellectual decline of the 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 Eurasia and Africa.  The negative view of the Islamic civilization between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries has ensured that these centuries are perceived as a middling period and attract fewer scholars so that much less is known about them.

Objective.  Taking as a starting point the observation that the Kitāb al-shifāʾ is effectively invisible in scholarship as a work in its own right, the project adopted a change of perspective.  The work’s rich manuscript tradition was approached as a hitherto neglected opportunity to review established notions about the work and its author.  On its most general level, the project is designed as a proof-of-concept study.  Its main objective was to demonstrate that even for a well-known work like the Kitāb al-shifāʾ examining accessible manuscripts will generate fresh insights which, in turn, significantly advance our understanding of the intellectual and cultural history of the Islamic civilization, since they challenge, and often outright refute, received opinion.  In addition, the project highlights that manuscripts of popular works in accessible collections in Europe and North America are an underused “hidden” resource with great research potential.

Methodological Contributions.  The project’s methodological approach was based on the hermeneutic principle that historical facts about a work’s origins cannot be deduced from historical evidence for its later circulation, as composition and reception are different stages in a work’s life cycle.  But historical facts about a work’s circulation can, in a second step, support conjectures about its origins, thereby opening new avenues for further research.  With regard to the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, the project confronted two diametrically opposed challenges: on the one hand, the complete lack of internal or external evidence for the concrete circumstances in which Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ wrote the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in the first half of the twelfth century, and, on the other hand, a rich manuscript tradition for the book’s diffusion from the thirteenth century onwards.  In order to address both challenges simultaneously, the project combined the methodologies of manuscript studies with those from the Digital Humanities.  New concrete facts for the Kitāb al-shifāʾ’s diffusion were gleaned through the hands-on examination of its manuscripts, in particular dates and places for the production of manuscripts, or proper names and places for owners or readers.  With the help of a cataloguing template and a Data Management Plan (DMP), these diverse historical facts were systematically recorded as “data” so that they can be preserved in online repositories for future reuse (e.g., computational semantic analysis).

Historical Contributions.  The project has yielded surprising new insights into the evolution of pious literature, reading practice, and religious education in connection with the veneration of the prophet Muḥammad from the twelfth-century onwards.  The diffusion of the Kitāb al-shifāʾ was plurilinear, since the work could accommodate orthodox Maliki as well as more fluid Sufi readings.  In other words, the general Sunni reverence for the Kitāb al-shifāʾ, which is so richly documented from the fifteenth century onwards, was independent from the work’s Maliki origins in the Islamic West.  But the recent attention paid to possible connections between the Kitāb al-shifāʾ and Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ’s tenure as a judge in Granada—the city which thanks to the Alhambra is perhaps most vividly associated with the flowering of the Islamic civilization in Iberia—marks a new stage in the work’s reception, as it reflects the active appropriation of “al-Andalus” as a central site of communal memory for Muslims in Europe and North America in the twenty-first century.

Work and Dissemination.  The Experienced Researcher (ER) and her sponsor worked on the project.  In consultation with the Digital.CSIC, the ER wrote a cataloguing template and a DMP to organize and standardize the manuscript descriptions for a future online database, which will supplement the project’s publications about the Kitāb al-shifāʾ and can be analyzed with computational tools (e.g., mapping, visualization).  In collaboration with a colleague from the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, the ER organized in Madrid a two-day international workshop about the comparative study of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim literatures about prophets and saints from Iberia between 600 and 1600.  They are now preparing for publication in 2020 a co-edited collective monograph with articles based on selected presentations.  The ER examined Kitāb al-shifāʾ manuscripts in Spanish, German, American, Dutch, and British libraries.  She participated in six conferences in Spain, Germany and the USA; in four workshops in Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands; in two seminars in the USA and in Spain; and in one panel discussion in Germany.  As regards outreach and dissemination, the ER wrote about the project on her research blog, and selected posts are available in the Digital.CSIC and the Academic Commons of Columbia University (USA).  She completed one article about the Kitāb al-shifāʾ in Ottoman book culture, which is in press and will be published later this year, and is currently completing two more articles; the three articles will be made available in Green Open-Access.

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 706611.

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 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

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

Quran.
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.

How Digitization Has Changed the Cataloging of Islamic Books

Once the [micro-] films are made, there is seldom any need for the scholar to go back to the books and documents themselves.

Richard D. Altick, The Scholar Adventurers, 1950, chap. VII

The Major had told him one day that in five years’ time no one would read any more.  Later, archaeologists would ponder on, argue about, what books had been for.  ‘It’ll all be telly; visual aids.’  ‘Then why are more books published every year?’ Ludo had asked, annoyed with him as usual. ‘Show me the figures, laddie.  Show me the figures.’

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, 1971, chap. 9

The total number of all extant and accessible manuscripts in Arabic script is not known (Adam Gacek, Arabic Manuscripts: A Vademecum for Readers, Leiden: Brill, 2009, p. x).  Scholars whose research focuses on the history of the book in Muslim societies are of course aware of this fact, and there are at least two rough estimates on the table.  Geoffrey Roper (“The History of the Book in the Muslim World,” in The Oxford Companion to the Book, eds. Michael F. Suarez and H. R. Woudhuysen, 2 vols., Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, vol. 1, p. 323) has recently suggested that “more than 3 million MS texts in Arabic script” have been preserved in accessible collections worldwide, while the number of inaccessible manuscripts in private collections is anybody’s guess.  Roper pulled this number out of his hat, providing no explanation whatsoever as to how he derived at it: What (catalogs and internal shelf-lists?) did who (staff or outside researchers?) analyze to determine the holdings of manuscripts in Arabic script all around the world?  What was counted (parchment and paper? fragments and complete codices?) and what was excluded (papyri and archival documents on paper?).  But Roper’s number is important, because he was the general editor of the World Survey of Islamic Manuscripts (5 vols., London: Furqan, 1991-1994).  Moreover, his number is comparable to François Déroche’s estimate of about 4 million extant manuscripts in Arabic script (oral communication, Christoph Rauch, 5 January 2010), though I do not know in which context Deroche has suggested this number.  Since an estimate in the millions has an accordingly wide margin of error―for example, 1 percent of 1,000,000 is 10,000―the numbers put forward by Roper and Déroche serve, depending on one’s point of view, as rhetorical sleights of hand or effective didactic devices by adding a fleeting sense of fact-based mastery to the much more low-key observation that there are lots and lots of manuscripts in Arabic script dispersed in public and private collections worldwide.  I find remarkable, though, that the estimates by Roper and Déroche leave room for optimism.  In the times of big data, collecting cataloging metadata for manuscript holdings in the low single-digit millions should be manageable.  Indeed, these holdings in Arabic script seem rather modest if compared to the estimate of more than 30 million Indian manuscripts, written in Sanskrit or vernacular Indic languages and preserved in India alone (Sheldon Pollock, “Literary Culture and Manuscript Culture in Precolonial India,” in Literary Cultures and the Material Book, eds. Simon Eliot et al., London: British Library, 2007, p. 87; for a discussion of the empirical data in incunable research, see Joseph A. Dane, The Myth of Print Culture: Essays on Evidence, Textuality, and Bibliographic Method, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003, in particular chapter 2 on “Twenty Million Incunables Can’t Be Wrong,” pp. 32-56).

Specialists of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies rarely discuss this situation and its impact on all aspects of their research.  We take immense pride in the riches of the Islamic manuscript tradition, and yet, we lament about the primary sources actually available for research (R. Stephen Humphreys, Islamic History: A Framework for Inquiry, rev. ed., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991, p. 25).  Although autograph manuscripts are very rare in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, there is no agreed upon process of ratiocination―comparable, for example, to the distinctions between Folio, Good Quarto, and Bad Quarto in Shakespeare Studies―for the compilation of a manuscript corpus that will allow for the preparation of a scholarly edition, whenever a complete census of all known and extant manuscript copies is neither feasible nor possible.  In subfields, such as Graeco-Arabic Studies and Papyrology, scholars draw on the editorial theory and practice as developed by Classical Philology.  But, in general, research based on manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script remains curiously disconnected from fundamental questions about the material evidence yielded by paleographical, codicological, and bibliographical analysis.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the number of Islamic manuscripts seems as uncountable as the number of Muslims, be it in the US or all around the world, as there is no central organization which can claim authority over the preservation of Islam’s cultural heritage.  The international diffusion of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script reflects the ethnic, linguistic, and denominational diversity of the worldwide Muslim community, and explains why it is so difficult to track Islamic holdings in public and private collections.  Muslims, in contrast, for example, to members of the Roman-Catholic Church, do not belong to a faith tradition that unites its believers within a strictly top-down and binding hierarchy.  Since the Eurasian, African, and Asian nation states which are ruled by Muslim elites or have a Muslim majority population are currently confronted with much more pressing political and economic problems, it is rather unlikely that an Islamic counterpart to the UNESCO will be established any time soon.  The preservation of books and their cataloging must take a backseat when people live in dire poverty and their lives are threatened by sectarian and ethnic violence.

The current state of cataloging manuscripts in Arabic script mirrors this complex political situation.  There is a tacit agreement, especially among western scholars of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, to bravely soldier on with individual research projects without sounding a clarion call for concerted action, as such a call will inevitably raise the specter of Orientalism.  Professional academic organizations, in particular MELCom International, MELA and TIMA, have made the cataloging of Islamic books, whether manuscripts or printed books, a focus of their work, even though they are fighting an uphill battle.  Decades of political pressure on the Humanities in Europe and North America have severely reduced government funding for basic research which does not promise immediate benefits to taxpayers outside the enchanted reading rooms of academia.  It is nice to know which books are in the library.  But a library catalog does not carry the prestige of original research; nor does it help with paying for new acquisitions, salaries, and building maintenance.

The severe funding shortages faced by private and public institutions have created an opening for wealthy individuals who have made the preservation and accessibility of this or that part of Islam’s cultural heritage their responsibility.  The non-profit foundations of their choice exert significant influence over the cataloging of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script.  Since private and public institutions have to make strategic decisions about acceptable funding, sometimes, pecunia olet.  The strategic necessity to design feasible projects that can successfully compete for as much acceptable outside funding as possible does not ensure that the most deserving holdings receive the funding needed for their cataloging, as well as for preservation and digitization.  As long as the fierce competition for limited funding pits institutions against each other, the absolute merit of an Islamic book collection is less important than an institution’s ability to offer acceptable donors and grant-making agencies the best match for their funding priorities.

In theory, institutions with Islamic manuscripts and printed books have access to experts who determine the merit of uncataloged holdings in Arabic script and select items for cataloging, as well as for preservation and digitization.  Even though it seems logical to catalog all known and extant manuscripts and rare printed books before making decisions on those which should, and still can, be digitized, the creation of digital surrogates that are instantaneously made available on the internet irrespective of the quality of their cataloging is often considered a much better investment of limited financial resources.  There are obvious benefits to facilitating the digital access to the texts of manuscripts and rare printed books.  Digital surrogates are so readily accepted by scholars, because their primary function is that of any other book in any other format or medium: to preserve and display written language.  In addition, pretty digital surrogates offer an immediate esthetic gratification on computer screens that is out of reach for highly technical cataloging in a digital database.  No one gets excited about access to correct and detailed metadata for manuscripts and printed books, even though poorly cataloged holdings are effectively lost to scholarship.  I was told by a Columbia University librarian that it would be impossible to obtain funding for the descriptive cataloging of Columbia’s rare Persian lithographs since these printed books already have records, however faulty and incomplete, in Columbia’s online catalog CLIO and are therefore considered cataloged.

The popular perception of digitization is all about convenience in the service of increased scholarly productivity, since fewer library trips mean less time needed for drudgery and legwork which in turn should increase the time available for working on publications.  We happily delegate to our colleagues in Information Science and the Digital Humanities all worries about the long-term preservation of digital surrogates and their long-term interoperability with future electronic databases, portals, or platforms.  It is not uncommon on Middle East and Islamic Studies listservices that scholars look for e-books of works in Arabic script, specifying that they would prefer e-books with full-text search.  Yet I have never noticed any discussion of TEI and other mark-up languages on these listservices, even though full-text search demands a fully encoded text.  After all it would be ungrateful to complain about the steadily growing number of digitized Islamic manuscripts and printed books available for free on the internet.

Appearances, however, can be deceptive.  The easy one-click access to previously rare texts in Arabic script on our computer screens is not cost-neutral.  On the contrary.  It is accompanied by three serious disadvantages.  The first is that digital surrogates seem to diminish the intellectual merit of the original artifacts’ descriptive cataloging, since the texts themselves can now be read on the internet.  A digital text’s direct accessibility makes the material artifact that allowed for its transmission and preservation invisible, as there is no longer any physical obstacle between the reader and the text.  The immediacy of digital surrogates effectively puts an end to the hands-on experience of material books as historical evidence of intellectual practice (David McKitterick, Print, Manuscript and the Search for Order: 1450–1830, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, pp. 18-19).  The Hathi Trust Digital Library, for example, allows its members to download pdf-files of digitized works in the public domain.  But the pdf-file itself will only preserve information about the holding library, without revealing the actual call number (see, for example, the nineteenth-century MS pers. of Vāmiq va ʿAẕrā, University of Michigan Library, Isl. Ms. 1043, cf. the record at Hathi Trust Digital Library at: http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015079131705 and the most recent record with comments on the Islamic Manuscripts at Michigan website).  The fact that the creators of this academic digital library consider call numbers dispensable suggests that the digital surrogate is seen as a complete replacement of the original book, making any further interaction with the material artifact itself unnecessary.  For I do not know of any library where it be possible to request a book without knowing its call number.

The second disadvantage of the easy one-click access to previously rare texts on the internet is the haphazard approach to the cataloging and the digitization of Islam’s cultural heritage.  The funding priorities of acceptable donors and grant-making agencies determine feasibility, while the competition for outside funding pits institutions against each other.  North American and European depositories favor institutional independence, when courting donors and applying to grant-making agencies, and focus, very sensibly, on clearly circumscribed projects.  For small-scale projects with their own dedicated Islamic manuscript portals―examples are the digitization initiatives at the Walters Art Museum Baltimore, Harvard University Library, or the Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig―are more likely to be successfully completed within their grant periods.  In contrast, large libraries, such as the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris (for single pages, see its Banques d’Images), the Bodleian Libraries (for single pages, see their Masterpieces of the non-Western book), or the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich (for complete books, see its Münchener Digitalisierungszentrum), include manuscripts and printed books in Arabic scripts while they are digitizing their most important rare holdings.  Whenever Islamic holdings are included into such comprehensive and long-term digitization projects, the quality and the accessibility of their metadata will determine whether in these vast online collections of digital surrogates search engines can retrieve the Islamic holdings.

Occasionally, the initiative of a private donor seems to force a decision which database will receive the digital surrogates of Islamic manuscripts.  In May 2012, the Museum für Islamische Kunst in Berlin announced that it will digitize and catalog its collection within an Islamic Art Online portal because Yousef Jameel has provided the funding.  This digitization project will include the museum’s manuscripts in Arabic script, and the earlier plan of digitizing the museum’s Islamic books in cooperation with the digitization project Orient-Digital of the Orientabteilung der Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin has been abandoned (email, Julia Gonnella, 13 June 2012).  The situation in Berlin is quite curious since both the Museum für Islamische Kunst and the Staatsbibliothek belong to the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz.

The haphazard approach to the cataloging and the digitization of Islam’s cultural heritage also reflects that for private donors it is now almost impossible to envision the digital cataloging of artifacts not available as digital surrogates.  Since so many manuscripts and printed books have already been digitized, there is enormous pressure on institutions to forge ahead with the digitization of their holdings, as completely as possible.  The example of the Collaboration in Cataloging Project of University of Michigan Library documents that it is possible to obtain funding for the digitization of uncataloged manuscripts in Arabic script.  Indeed, the undigitized book has become a problem, if not as a serious offense.  It is therefore only logical that in the British Library digitization and cataloging are going hand in hand, when private foundations contribute funding to particular projects.  In 2011 the British Library embarked on the creation of digital archive for its Persian manuscripts, and this summer the Iran-centered project was supplemented with a digital archive for the British Library holdings concerning the Gulf region.  This development is noteworthy because in a parallel move British academic libraries have bandied together to establish Fihrist, a digital union catalog for manuscripts in Arabic script in British libraries.  It remains to be seen whether other Western countries will follow suit and emulate the Fihrist model.  I suspect that the development of financing models of academic publishing will determine how Islamic manuscript catalogs will be published in the future.  In Germany, for example, the project of the Katalogisierung der orientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland (KOHD), which is now envisioned to be completed in 2015, continues to receive funding for issuing the Verzeichnis der orientalischen Handschriften in Deutschland (VOHD), as printed hardcovers (email, Tilman Seidensticker, 17 May 2012).  Who are the intended audiences of these very expensive German books?  For decades German has been losing ground as an academic lingua franca, and only research libraries with generous acquisition budgets can afford standing subscriptions to the VOHD.  But be this is as it may, the KOHD sticks to publishing the results of their research in print, as there is no comparable funding available for the creation of digital metadata records, derived from the detailed German descriptions of undigitized Oriental manuscripts.

The pragmatic preference for clearly circumscribed independent cataloging and digitization projects explains why so few specialists bother with keeping track of all the independent databases that contain digital surrogates of manuscripts and printed books in Arabic script.  The fierce competition for outside funding provides little incentive for institutional cooperation, and may be a contributing factor as to why there are not yet widely accepted best practices for how to make the digital surrogates of Islamic manuscripts and printed books, as well as their cataloging records, available on the internet.  In December 2010, Klaus Graf wondered on his blog Archivalia why he could not find a list of databases with digitized Islamic manuscripts anywhere on the internet; Peter Magierski is now keeping such a regularly updated list of open access databases on his blog AMIR.  It remains to be seen whether the decision of grant-making agencies, such as the Humboldt Foundation, NEH, DFG, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, or the Doris Duke Foundation, to prioritize projects that necessitate domestic and international cooperation between institutions will provide an incentive to scholars in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies to invent new models for how to coordinate the cataloging of and access to Islamic holdings in the Digital Age.

The third disadvantage of easy one-click access to previously rare texts on the internet is that the competition for funding favors holdings which can be presented as exceptional to donors and grant-making agencies.  It is of course unfair to accuse any institution for drawing on the importance or artistic value of its holdings in order to attract outside funding.  The digitization of Zaydī manuscripts in private collections in Yemen, in connection with the digitization of Zaydī manuscripts in Princeton University Library and the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, is the example of a successful international project that received funding from several sources, as there is a compelling need to preserve cultural heritage threatened by political conflict.  But significance, like beauty, rests always in the eye of the beholder.  The focus on a particularly endangered group of manuscripts in Arabic script makes it harder to contextualize those holdings, which are now distinguished by having received a substantial grant.  Every book refers to other books, and not even the most exceptional book was produced in a vacuum.  What will happen to those Yemini manuscripts that cannot be classified as Zaydī?  Since every book is a commodity within a society’s system of book production, how is that which has been preserved related to that which was originally produced?  In every literate society there are many more cheap books than livres d’artiste in circulation, and yet, expensive books and other collectibles are much more likely to survive.

At this point my considerations have come full circle.  As long as specialists of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies have only very rough estimates for the total number of all extant and accessible manuscripts in Arabic script, it is impossible to gain a better understanding of how the bias of survival has shaped, as well as distorted, the available sources of Islamic history.  The international dispersion of Islamic manuscripts and rare printed books makes it very difficult to keep track of these holdings and to organize their cataloging.  Unfortunately the great attraction of pretty digital surrogates further complicates all efforts to raise money for the little valued, but much more urgently needed cataloging of all known books in Arabic script.

PS.  The Iran Heritage Foundation (IHF) has just posted a You Tube fundraising video, providing some figures for its digitization project in the British Library.  Its collection of more than 11,000 Persian manuscripts is the largest collection in the Western World, and about 1,370 of these manuscripts are currently cataloged in the British online catalog Fihrist.  In the course of the IHF project, the British Library expects to completely digitize another 40 to 50 Persian manuscripts, while adding as many metadata records as possible to Fihrist.

Updated, 13 January 2013.

A French Haggadah in Muslim Garb: Whose Book is it?

Braginsky Collection 315 (Photograph by Ardon Bar-Hama)

Well, the legal part of my question is easily answered: This Haggadah manuscript is owned by René Braginsky, a Swiss collector, and belongs to his outstanding collection of Hebrew manuscripts and printed books.  All pages can be seen on the website which accompanies A Journey through Jewish Worlds, an exhibition of his treasures that between 2009 and 2012 traveled from Amsterdam to New York City, Jerusalem, and Zurich.

Unfortunately I missed the exhibition when it was on view in the Yeshiva University Museum in the spring of 2010.  But on April 19, 2012, Emile Schrijver, the curator of the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana at the University of Amsterdam (Netherlands), showed a picture of the Bouton Haggadah during his talk at the Book History Colloquium at Columbia University.  Dr. Schrijver also serves as the curator of the Braginsky collection, and was one of the exhibition curators.

On the website of the Braginsky collection, one finds the following details about the Passover Haggadah:
The undated parchment manuscript of 33 leaves (35.5 x 23.5 cm) was written and decorated by Victor M. Bouton (b. 1819).  It is dated to the second half of the 19th century (ca. 1870?), and includes ritual instructions in French.  The textblock is protected by a burgundy-red velvet binding with metal clasps on leather straps.  The manuscript was sold by Sotheby’s New York in 2007, lot 197.

After his talk on “Defining a Field: Jewish Books in the Age of Print,” I emailed Dr. Schrijver whether it be possible that the lavishly illuminated margins, whose design changes every few pages, were chromolithographed and then finished by hand.  The idea presented itself since Dr. Schrijver had quite forcefully questioned the strict separation between manuscripts and printed books by showing eighteenth-century examples of prayer books that combined printed frames with hand-written texts.  In his catalog note (as available on the internet), Schrijver mentioned that Bouton was mostly known as a heraldic painter.  Bouton’s achievements as a scribe and illustrator of Hebrew manuscripts had been overlooked until Sharon Mintz linked his Haggadah to a similarly decorated, though a bit smaller Seder Hatefilot (parchment, 26.8 x 17.5 cm) from 1876, inscribed by Edmond James de Rothschild (1845-1934) to his mother Bronita (1805-1886) and today owned by the  Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme (MAHJ inv. D.99.04.001.CP) in Paris.  A search in OCLC/WorldCat revealed that more information about Bouton’s work may be gleaned from the files of the publishing house Firmin-Didot (OCLC/WorldCat 32257680) which are nowadays owned by by the Newberry Library in Chicago.  I find the possible but not yet confirmed connection with Firmin-Didot noteworthy as the company is famous for its production of deluxe editions of prints and books.

In his talk Dr. Schrijver had argued that in Europe the production of Jewish books since the early modern period need be contextualized as Jews lived cheek by jowl with non-Jews.  For me, as a historian of Islamic books, the Haggadah shows that in the second half of the nineteenth century Jewish patrons, wherever they lived in Europe, shared the taste of mainstream society for artifacts with Islamic design.  Like other wealthy families, the Rothschilds collected Islamic art, and in 1922 the Louvre’s Islamic holdings were significantly increased by a large bequest from the Rothschild family.  Luxury objects with an Islamic design such as rugs, textiles, ceramics, metalwork or illustrated manuscripts have circulated in Christian Europe since the Middle Ages, while scholars were searching for Middle Eastern books to learn about the Quran, Islam, and Middle Eastern history.  In the course of the nineteenth century the increased interest in all matter Muslim and Oriental preceded the emergence of art history as an academic discipline and the acknowledgment of non-Western art as an art in its own right.  But despite the sustained interest in the study of European Orientalism since the early 1980s, European books with an Islamic design have not yet received any sustained attention; at least I am not aware of any published research on Islamic books printed in Europe.  Most of the printed books with a chromolithographed Islamic design that I have found during the last years are works of Islamic literature in Arabic script, often accompanied by translations or commentaries in French, German or Latin, and the printers were primarily working in Paris or Vienna.  At this point of my research it seems that from the 1840s onward publishing houses that had taken up chromolithography experimented with books whose decoration drew on elements of Islamic design.

In 2012 when Jewish-Muslim and Israeli-Palestinian relations are so fraught and difficult, I find it inspiring that the Bouton Haggadah presents a Hebrew-French guide to the celebration of Passover in the style of an illustrated Islamic manuscript.  It is so much easier to acknowledge complexity and depth in beautiful objects, and this Hebrew-French-Islamic Haggadah demonstrates that something as seemingly simple as the classification of objects can be as intricate as the identities of the men and women who made and used them.

Corrected, 17 May 2012

PS – In March 2015 a digital surrogate of the Bouton Haggadah was made available Open-Access via e-codices at: http://dx.doi.org/10.5076/e-codices-bc-b-0315

Updated, 28 March 2016

Quran Manuscripts from the Library of Abraham Hinckelmann

This winter a small manuscript exhibition with the title Faszination Handschrift: 2000 Jahre Manuskriptkulturen in Asien, Afrika und Europa (18 Nov. 2011 – 8 Jan. 2012), in the Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek (SUB) Hamburg featured five Arabic and three Persian manuscripts. The exhibition was organized by the Sonderforschungsbereich (SFB) 950: Manuskriptkulturen in Asien, Afrika und Europa, Asien-Afrika-Institut (AAI) of the Universität Hamburg, and the SFB has published the German-English exhibition catalog Manuskriptkulturen (ed. Jörg B. Quenzer, Newsletter Manuscript Cultures 4, Hamburg: AAI, 2011). The Arabist Tilman Seidensticker was in charge of the Arabic manuscripts (pp. 78-92), while the Persian manuscripts were the responsibility of the Islamic art historian Claus-Peter Haase (pp. 93-100). Their respective chapters in the exhibition catalog offer new commentaries on an Islamic manuscript collection which was last cataloged in its entirety by Carl Brockelmann (1868-1956) in Die arabischen, persischen, türkischen, malaiischen, koptischen, syrischen und äthiopischen Handschriften (Hamburg: Meissner, 1908; repr., Hamburg: Hauswedell, 1968; to my knowledge, a digitized version of the 1908 edition is not available on the internet).

Among the eight manuscripts there were two Qurans from the library of Abraham Hinckelmann (1652-1695; cf. Carl Bertheau, “Hinkelmann, Abraham,“ in Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie 12, 1880, pp. 460-462; Georg Behrmann, Hamburgs Orientalisten: Dem XIII. Internationalen Orientalistenkongress überreicht von der Averhoff- Stiftung, Hamburg: Persiehl, 1902, pp. 51-55).

MS collection of Abraham Hinckelmann

SUB Hamburg MS arab. Orient. 28.
35 x 24 cm.
The colophon is dated 30 Rajab 1058/20 Aug. 1648, during the reign of Jashan (?) Khān.
The place of copying ديكلورا is not identified, and the reading of the scribe’s nisbah
االمكتابالبورى (sic in Brockelmann) is not established.
Published: Brockelmann, p. 3 s.v. no. 2; Seidensticker, pp. 90-91 s.v. Arab. 5.

MSS collection of Abraham Hinckelmann

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SUB Hamburg MS arab. Orient. 36 = Cod. in scrin. 45a.
22.5 x 12 cm.
Undated and unplaced.
Published: Brockelmann, p. 5 s.v. no. 10; Seidensticker, pp. 86-87 s.v. Arab. 3.

Hinckelmann was a Protestant theologian and Orientalist, and in 1694 his critical Quran edition was published in Hamburg (for bibliographical descriptions and sample pages of his Al-Coranus, see the Verzeichnies der im deutschen Sprachraum erschienen Drucke des 17. Jahrhunderts (VD 17) s.v. 39:139712T, 3:314172A, 32:680463E, and 7:707063Q). Hinckelmann’s version was the second edition of the complete text to be typeset in Christian Europe, after the Venetian Quran of 1537/1538 (for the reproduction of a page from this very rare book, see Sprachen des Nahen Ostens und die Druckrevolution, eds. Eva Hanebutt-Benz et al., Westhofen: WVA Verlag Skulimus, 2002, p. 153 fig. 2), and it was immediately followed by Luigi Marracci’s superior Alcorani textus universus (2 vols., Padua, 1698) which dominated European Quran scholarship until the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Seidensticker’s discussion of the two Quran manuscripts from Hinckelmann’s library reflects the traditional focus of Arabic Studies on the Arabic language and the central Arab lands. Seidensticker mentions of course that these manuscripts were listed as sources in the preface of Hinckelmann’s Quran edition, but it is left to the art historian Hans-Walter Stork, who is not an Arabist, to situate Hinckelmann’s Islamic manuscript collection (pp. 9-11) within the history of the Oriental manuscript holdings in the SUB Hamburg (pp. 8-15). Seidensticker notes that both Quran manuscripts, though written in Arabic, were probably produced outside the central Arab lands (pp. 86, 90). Yet he does not specify the geographical meaning of “ostarabisch” (p. 86: tr. as “east Arabian”) and “arabischer Osten (p. 86: tr. as “eastern Arabia”). I suspect that the awkward English translations escaped the attention of proof readers and copy editors because the eastern lands of the Islamic world were seen through an Arabic Studies lens. Since the extraordinary geographical range of Arabic manuscript culture (p. 81) followed the eastern expansion of Muslim rule from the Arab Peninsula across the Iranian Plateau into Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent after 650 CE, Arabic is one of the dominant languages of the Islamic civilization and Arabic manuscripts were produced east of the central Arab lands.

The Arabic bias of Arabic Studies is brought into relief by the following chapter on the manuscript culture of Iran (pp. 93-100). Seidensticker locates the emergence of a new and independent Arabic manuscript culture in the flowering Muslim cities in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt during the eighth century CE (p. 78), and so there is no reason to explore the influence of Byzantine and Sasanian manuscript cultures on the design of the first Quran manuscripts copied between the late seventh and the early eighth centuries CE (cf. François Déroche, Le livre manuscrit arabe: Préludes à une historie, Paris: Bibliothèque nationale de France, 2004, pp. 15-18). Since Seidensticker presupposes the emergence of a completely new manuscript culture with the rise of Islam, it is only logical that he chose five Quran manuscripts, copied between the ninth and seventeenth centuries CE (pp. 82-92), to illustrate the wide range of Arabic manuscript culture between North Africa and India, from the Balkans to Central Asia. In contrast, Haase considers the Iranian Plateau the heartland of the Iranian civilization, but he has little interest in a shared language or a shared religion. The manuscripts of Islamic Iran are perceived as a continuation of the manuscript cultures of Zoroastrian, Manichaean, Christian, and Buddhist communities in pre-Islamic Iran (pp. 93-94). Haase selected as representative Iranian examples three manuscripts copied between the early 1700s and 1818 outside the central Arab lands. Two manuscripts contain Arabic works of astronomy (pp. 97-98) and ḥadīth (p. 100) accompanied by a Persian commentary or translation, and only the third manuscript is a monolingual volume of Persian poetry (p. 99).

What would Hinckelmann have thought about this twenty-first century distinction between an Arabic-Islamic and an Iranian-Persian manuscript culture? After Hinckelmann’s unexpected death in 1695, his library was dispersed when his family auctioned off the valuable collection of manuscripts and printed books (pp. 10-11 esp. notes 11-12). Still, some information about the contents of his Oriental manuscript collection has been preserved in sales catalogs and findings aids, supplementing the data gleaned from the manuscripts themselves and the introduction to the 1694 Quran edition. In his 1908 catalog Brockelmann suggested that 121 of Hamburg’s Arabic, Persian, and Turkish manuscripts had once been owned by Hinckelmann (p. IV, cf. pp. 198-199). Even this incomplete inventory documents that Hinckelmann’s manuscript collection was not limited to Quran scholarship and Arabic literature. Born a few years after the end of Thirty Years’ War in 1648, Hinckelmann was raised in a society which only slowly recovered from the long war’s terrible devastation. As a highly educated man he could not only switch between informal and formal linguistic registers but had also mastered Latin, German, and French as the languages of academia, everyday life, and high culture. The linguistic diversity of Muslim societies must have been familiar to Hinckelmann who studied Islam’s written revelation while he and his Protestant colleagues were confronted with the rise of Pietism.

It was a lovely surprise to find two of Hinckelmann’s Qurans in this small exhibition, as Hinckelmann had seemed completely forgotten at the AAI.  He is not mentioned in the AAI’s memorial volume Vom Kolonialinstitut zum Asien-Afrika-Institut: 100 Jahre Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften in Hamburg (ed. Ludwig Paul, Deutsche Ostasienstudien 2, Gossenberg: Ostasien Verlag, 2008). Neither Michael Friedrich’s short Geschichte der Hamburger Asien- und Afrikawissenschaften (available on the AAI homepage, Universität Hamburg: https://www.aai.uni-hamburg.de/Geschichte.html) nor Jörg B. Quenzer’s introduction to the 2011 exhibition catalog (pp. 2-7) includes any reference to Hinckelmann’s work. The lack of interest in this late seventeenth-century pioneer of Quran Studies may reflect concerns with defending our contemporary scholarship in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies against charges of Islamophobia and Orientalism. In early modern Europe, Oriental Studies originated in a political environment in which Islam was primarily understood as a Christian heresy, and not as an independent monotheistic faith in its own right. Still, I find it very curious that, despite the growing interest in Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal history, research on the European history of Oriental Studies in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries seems to be of so little merit, even though an analysis of its epistemological foundations has the potential to initiate critical reflection on our own research practices. Outside the confines of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, research on early modern Europe and the Americas is the prestigious pursuit of illuminating the makings of our modern world within the larger context of a globally conceived Renaissance, which nowadays comprises much more than the varied achievements of the Italian city states between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries. It remains to be seen how the recently opened Center for the History of Arabic Studies in Europe (CHASE) at the Warburg Library in London will impact further research in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

Working with Manuscripts in the Digital Age

The importance of Islamic manuscripts as the most important resource for research about all aspects of Islamic civilization is widely recognized.  Walid Saleh describes the medieval Muslim Middle East as “one of the most bookish of pre-modern cultures” (Formation of the Classical Tafsīr Tradition, Leiden: Brill, 2004, p. 207), and Tilman Seidensticker observes that “the medium of the manuscript was intrinsic to the Islamic-Arabic culture” (in Manuscript Cultures, ed. Jörg B. Quenzer, Hamburg: SFB 950 Manuskriptkulturen Asien, Afrika und Europa, 2011, p. 78).  Scholars and institutions worldwide have heartily embraced digitization to facilitate access to the texts of manuscripts, as well as rare printed books, since the field of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is still a discipline focused on the study of written texts.  The use of digitized sources has almost become best practice, and we routinely complain if sources are not digitally available with a good full-text search.  It is therefore noteworthy that the transformation of a three-dimensional physical object into a two-dimensional image on a screen has not ushered in a debate on whether the medium in which we encounter written texts impacts our understanding of their meaning.

One of the unintended side effects of the vigorously championed digitization of Islamic books is the proliferation of a seemingly decorative use of manuscript pages on academic websites and publications, since the widespread use of digitization has made it so much easier to obtain affordable high-quality scans.  I hasten to add that it is of course not particular to Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies to treat beautiful manuscript pages as eye candy.   Moreover, I myself am guilty as charged, though on this blog I will provide identifying information about all featured images (NB – for the blog’s masthead, please see this page).  But I suspect that the use of undocumented images as illustrations most likely reflects a learned lack of interest for the materiality of written texts.  As long as graduate education in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is centered on teaching scholars how to base their arguments on the meaning of words only, the text’s embodiment in any particular medium is perceived as secondary and illustrations, as nice as they may be, are accidental.  This logocentric attitude explains why we have moved with relative ease from books on paper to microfilms and e-books.

The following two examples of undocumented manuscript pages illustrate that in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies our scholarly appreciation of Islamic manuscripts has not initiated a turn to bibliography or material history.  Despite the immense potential of digital media for the study of images, it is the word that stands at the center of contemporary research in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

In Yemen, one of poorest Arab countries, the preservation of public and private manuscript collections presents a serious challenge, and digitization has long been used to address this challenge.  In 2011, Sabine Schmidtke and Jan Thiele of the Research Unit of the Intellectual History of the Islamicate World (Institut für Islamwissenschaft, Freie Universität Berlin) published an English-Arabic pamphlet about their department’s Yemen Manuscript Digitization Project.  The cover of the English version shows part of a rubricated table of content, set into a red frame, with a note on the margin:

As I wanted to know more about the formal manuscript to which this page belongs, I emailed Sabine Schmidtke and promptly received from Jan Thiele a very kind note with the available bibliographical details:  The illustrated leaf belongs to an undated copy of Taysīr al-maṭālib min Amālī Abī Ṭālib by Jaʿfar b. Aḥmad al-Buhlūlī (d. 1177 or 1178), written by Jābir b. Fatḥ Allāh al-Ghaffārī.  The work is preserved as part of a miscellany, which includes another work dated 1029 (began 8 Dec. 1619).  Although the miscellany is uncatalogued and its current owner unknown, the miscellany can be consulted, as it has been digitized by the Imam Zayd b. Ali Cultural Foundation (CD 450:3).  It is intriguing that Schmidtke and Thiele chose for the cover of a printed pamphlet a manuscript that at the moment is only accessible as a digital copy.   Their decision may first and foremost reflect that the work of Jaʿfar b. Aḥmad al-Buhlūlī is important to the department’s research project on theological rationalism.  But what is the ontological status of a digital manuscript copy, for which any knowledge about its original’s size, paper, ink etc. can no longer be ascertained?

The second example concerns the 2008 website of the research project on the Rational Sciences in Islam (Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University).  A very beautiful illustration of two kinds of kabīkaj plant (Lat. ranunculus asiaticus) – and the word kabīkaj is clearly legible on the top of the right column – is prominently displayed on the homepage and the related three project pages.     The illustration (MS arab., fol. 277a) belongs to a mid-thirteenth-century fragment of the Kitāb al-adwiyah al-mufradah by Abū Jaʿfar Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Ghāfiqī (d. 1165), which is owned by McGill’s Osler Library of the History of Medicine.  In 1989, Adam Gacek published the manuscript’s description in “Arabic Calligraphy and the ‘Herbal’ of al-Ghâfiqî” (Fontanus 2, pp. 49-51 and figs. 8-9).  Pharmacology is not directly related to philosophy and the mathematical sciences which are at the heart of the McGill research project.  Yet the kabīkaj presents a fascinating case of the rational sciences in premodern Islam.  What is the status of material evidence for any research on medieval Islam?  As Gacek had shown in an earlier article about “The Use of ‘kabīkaj‘  in Arabic Manuscripts” (Manuscripts of the Middle East1, 1986, pp. 49-53), the kabīkaj plant and the jinn Kabīkaj who protects books from pests are clearly related.  But Gacek’s research on invocations of the Kabīkaj has nonetheless been adduced to argue that the jinn Kabīkaj has been an Orientalist misreading; for example in the description of an Arabic manuscript (dated 1202/began 13 Oct. 1785) of the Kitāb tanbīh al-hādī wa’l-muhtadī by Ḥamīd al-Dīn al-Kirmānī (fl.1020) in the Institute of Ismaili Studies.  In a final twist to this reflection on working with manuscripts in the Digital Age, the title page with the invocation “yā Kabīkaj,” though explicitly mentioned in the description, is not among the four pages shown on its website.

PS.  On February 15, 2012 Tim Parks published “E-books Can’t Burn” on the blog of the New York Review of Books.  Parks’ paean to the many benefits of e-books has generated a lively debate on how the medium in which literature is read and enjoyed is related to its meaning and understanding.

Updated, 21 February 2012.