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.