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.

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.

Islamic Books in the American Research Library

Undergraduates today can select from a swathe of identity studies: “gender studies,” “women’s studies,” “Asian-Pacific-American studies,” and dozens of others.  The shortcoming of all these para-academic programs is not that they concentrate on a given ethnic or geographical minority; it is that they encourage members of that minority to study themselves—thereby simultaneously negating the goals of a liberal education and reinforcing the sectarian and ghetto mentalities they purport to undermine.

Tony Judt, “Edge People,” in The Memory Chalet, 2010

The concept of Islamic books has the significant advantage that it allows for situating research on manuscripts, printed books, and ephemera in Arabic script within the larger fields of cultural and material history.  The concept is derived from a definition of Islamic civilization as a catch-all: comprising more than Islam as a faith and reaching beyond the borders of the central Arab lands which are commonly associated with the Middle East.  The emphasis on openness is important as a counterweight to any form of essentialism.  From the eighth to the fifteenth century CE, Muslim elites ruled over parts of the Spanish Peninsula and Southern Italy, and afterwards the Ottoman Empire expanded into Central Europe and included parts of the Balkans until its demise after World War I.  The import of slaves from East and West Africa led to the establishment of the first Muslim underground communities in seventeenth-century North America, even though the savage conditions of slavery ensured that little to nothing has been preserved about these Muslim congregations.  Significant Muslim minorities in all societies of Western Europe and North America make it today irresponsible to approach Islam as an exclusively non-Western phenomenon.

It is impossible to predict how in the Western world Muslim citizens will change our research in Middle Eastern, South Asian, Arab, Iranian, Turkish, or Islamic Studies over the next decades.  But it seems a reasonable guess that American research libraries will adapt their current collection policies to these continuous transformations since the reigning Area Studies paradigm continues to treat Islamic civilization as mostly Middle Eastern.  A map of the world is neatly divided into blocs of twenty-first-century nation states, thereby obfuscating diversity, mobility, and migration in societies past and present, whereas contemporary national languages, in particular Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu, determine whether manuscripts, printed books or ephemera in Arabic script are under the responsibility of an Area Studies specialist for Middle Eastern, African, or South Asian Studies.  For Islamic books that were produced before World War I such a language-based classification scheme is spectacularly unsuited.  Premodern Muslim societies were multilingual, and Islamic books in different languages circulated widely from India to the Balkans, from West Africa to Central Asia.

How long it will take until American research libraries adapt their collection policies is an entirely different matter.  As long as universities continue to organize research on Muslim societies in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa within the Area Studies paradigm, research libraries will follow suit because libraries are strictly hierarchical institutions.  Their top-down structure is designed to build and protect collections whose content is determined by bibliographers or curators.  Librarians are usually open to their patrons’ input, as there are always more books on sale than there is money for purchases.  But the power of the purse makes librarians willy-nilly arbiters of each book’s merit and value.  Since the mission of a research library is the furthering of scholarship, not all patrons are equal before the librarians.  In the hushed reading rooms, patrons clamor for the librarians’ attention, while the librarians busy themselves with applying to a higher authority in order to stay above the fray.  Librarians are bound by both a professional ethos of service and their institution’s hierarchy.  When in doubt, librarians will ask professors for advice and consent, and the professors in turn decide the fate of their institution’s library collections ex officio.

The history of Jewish Studies collections in New York research libraries suggests, though, that extra-academic contingencies are more likely to determine whether an American research library will abandon the Area Studies paradigm to gather its diverse holdings in Arabic script as a comprehensively defined Islamic Studies collection.  In 1897 Jacob Schiff (1847-1920) initiated the establishment of an Oriental Division at the newly founded New York Public Library (NYPL) to ensure access to a Jewish Studies reference collection in Midtown Manhattan.  Since the division’s chief librarian Richard Gottheil (1862-1936) did not get along with his bibliographer Abraham Freidus (1867-1923), the Jewish holdings were separated from the Oriental Division, and in 1901 Freidus became chief librarian of an independent Jewish Division (Phyllis Dain, The New York Public Library: A History of its Founding and Early Years, New York: NYPL, 1972, pp. 116-117).  After the Second World War the Oriental Division was renamed Asian and Middle Eastern Division and dissolved, together with the Slavic and Baltic Division, in 2008.  In the Columbia University Libraries (CUL), the responsibilities of the Middle East bibliographer used to include Judaica.  But a few years ago, when a generous gift had made it possible to establish the Norman E. Alexander Library of Jewish Studies, CUL reorganized its Area Studies Library which continues to include Jewish Studies, and the Middle East bibliographer is now explicitly in charge of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

PS.  As of Fall 2012, Columbia University Libraries has renamed its Area Studies Library as Global Studies Library.  Yet Western Europe and North America, which were not included into the Area Studies Library, are still not aboard.

Updated, 12 September 2012.

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.