Distant Reading and the Islamic Archive


The Digital Islamic Humanities Project at Brown University is pleased to announce its third annual conference, titled “Distant Reading and the Islamic Archive,” which will be held on Friday, October 16, 2015. Speaker biographies, paper abstracts, and the conference program may be found here.

Please note that the event is fully subscribed. A live webcast will be available at this link, beginning at 8:45am on the day of the event. A recording of the proceedings will also be available on the website of the Digital Islamic Humanities Project (islamicDH.org).

Uncertainty and the Archive: Reflections on Medieval Arabic and Persian Book Culture in the Digital Age

The epistemological basis for the modern critical edition is fundamentally taxonomic: it assumes the notion of prior simplicity, whereby in a vertical fashion the proliferation of textual variants, which are naturally distributed across manuscripts, and are inherent in the very idiosyncratic nature of manuscript production, all descend from an original common source. Also generally assumed is a monogenetic origin from a single parent. Both assumptions prove to be highly problematic for understanding medieval Arabic and Persian book culture. The messy reality of multiple recensions that inhabit medieval manuscripts as testaments to the collaborative process of textual production may be, in part, preserved in the form of a critical apparatus within an edition. In the process of mechanical reproduction, this multivalent record of dissemination is displaced largely into the space of the margins. However, as with any act of translation, the technology of the printed page produces both a surplus and deficit of meaning. While codicological cacophony may be lost or marginalized, what is gained is the ability to telegraph this information to an even broader audience.

In this ever iterated process of surplus and deficit, we have today with many of the digitally searchable forms of Arabic and Persian medieval archival material, the complete removal of the critical apparatus, if one ever existed, and with it any semblance of this polyphonic reception history. Likewise, what is available either digitally, or in print, is usually based on the narrow selection of what has been edited. Significant parts of this reception history have been lost in the nineteenth- and twentieth-century constructions of medieval Arabic and Persian writings. Furthermore, the medium of transmission, from manuscript, to printed page, to searchable text, inevitably shapes not only what information is presented, but how it is accessed; this in turn guides both reading practices and modes of analysis. In this paper I draw on examples from medieval Arabic and Persian manuscripts, along with their print and their digital forms, to explore the process of loss and recovery structuring technologies of transmission.

Author: Travis Zadeh (Haverford College)

Making (up) an Archive: What could Writing History Look Like in a Digital Age?

Recent developments in digital humanities pose anew the challenge of sources, concepts, and possibilities for doing history differently. Much of the current debates have been focused on the vices and virtues of the quantity of (in addition to the ease of access to) the archives that digitization has made available to historians; on whether methods of quantitative social research could now be meaningfully employed by historians (and scholars of the humanities more generally). Based on a digital archive project,Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran, started in 2009, this paper will probe the possibilities for doing different kinds of cultural and social history of nineteenth-century Iran, enabled by accessibility of a multi-genre archive. What happens to/in history if we could persistently read textual documents, visual material, objects of everyday life, recorded memories, etc. in relation to and through each other’s meaning-making work?

Author: Afsaneh Najmabadi (Harvard University)

Analytical Database of Arabic Poetry

The Analytical Database of Arabic Poetry will represent an important contribution to the emerging field of digital studies in Arabic philology. The database will include comprehensive data on the vocabulary of early Arabic poetry (6th-8th centuries A.D.) in the form of an electronic dictionary. With the help of the analytical tools of the database, each lexeme of the entire lexical corpus will be assessed in relation to the literary framework of its attestation including information on the genre of the relevant poetic text and on the tribal, chronological and geographical background of its author. Moreover, the database will record in detail the data of textual transmission of the works of early Arabic poetry in the context of Arab-Muslim scholarship of the 8th to 10th centuries. This comprehensive collection of data and its analytical classification will for the first time allow systematic investigation into the process of semantic change in the Arabic language and the development of a philological approach to the language.

A ground-breaking feature of the database results from the possibility of including cross-references to parallel linguistic material provided by inscriptions, papyri and the Qur’ān, which have never been studied in relation to each other. Thus, the Analytical Database of Arabic Poetry promises to become the cornerstone of the common digital platform of the Arabic language, which will bring together several current European projects in the field of digital Arabic philology, including the two ERC funded projects “Glossarium graeco-arabicum” (ERC Ideas Advanced Grant 249431, Cristina D’Ancona, Università di Pisa, Italy, Gerhard Endress, Universität Bochum, Germany) and “Digital Archive for the Study of pre-Islamic Arabian Inscriptions (DASI)” (ERC-AG-SH5 ERC Advanced Grant 269774-DASI, Alessandra Avanzini, Università di Pisa, Italy) as well as other initiatives, such as the “Safaitic Database Project” (Michael C. A. Macdonald, Oxford University, UK), the “South Arabian Lexicographical Database of the University of Jena” (Peter Stein, Jena, Germany), the “Arabic Papyrology Database” (Andreas Kaplony, LMU München, Germany, Johannes Thomann, Universität Zürich, CH), the “Corpus Coranicum” project (Michael Marx, BBAW, Berlin, Germany) and “Arabic and Latin Glossary” (Dag Nikolaus Hasse, Universität Würzburg, Germany).

Author: Kirill Dmitriev (St. Andrews)