Abstract Models for Islamic History

Latest developments in the digital sphere offered new opportunities and challenges to the humanists. Equipped with new digital methods of text analysis, scholars in various fields of humanities are now trying to make sense of huge corpora of literary and historical texts. Perhaps the most prominent of such attempts is the work of Franco Moretti and his abstract models for literary history that trace long-term patterns in English fiction. Inspired by Moretti’s approach, I seek to develop abstract models for the analysis of pre-modern Arabic historical literature, relying mainly on various textmining techniques that are being developed at the intersection of statistics, linguistics and computer science. At the moment, I concentrate primarily on biographical collections, a genre that includes several hundred multi-volume titles (The largest collection—al-Dhahabī’s “History of Islam”—covers 700 years and contains about 30,000 biographies). Working with the corpus of 10 biographical collections (about 125 printed volumes; 45,000 biographical accounts), I am developing an analytical tool that can be later used to study other biographical collections—ideally, all of them together. In the long run I hope that the results of my work will pave the way to the development of analytical tools for other genres of pre-modern Arabic literature such as chronicles, ḥadīth collections, interpretations of the Qur’ān, compendia of legal decisions, etc.

Working with my biographical collections I look primarily into such kinds of biographical data as “descriptive names” (nisbas), dates, toponyms, and, since recently, rather loosely defined linguistic formulae and wording patterns. The analysis of different combinations of these data allows one to trace various social, religious and cultural patterns in time and space. I am particularly interested in how the Islamic world changed over the period of 640–1300 CE: how cultural centers were shifting; how different social, professional and religious groups were replacing and displacing each other; how different regions were connected with each other and how these connections changed over time. The results of my analysis will be presented in the form of graphs and geographical maps (Some current examples of my work can be found at www.alraqmiyyat.org).

Author: Maxim Romanov (Univ. of Michigan)

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