The Mamluk Prosopography Project

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La réception des ambassadeurs vénitiens à Damas (Anonymous artist, 1511, Musée du Louvre)

Ghent University (Belgium) is starting up a digital humanities project for the development of a data-infrastructure for the study of late medieval  Syro-Egyptian elites, their networks, and their social and cultural practices, including their textual production and consumption (13th-15th century).

This Mamluk Prosopography Project (MPP), which will build on the achievements of preceding prosopographical projects, will be developed as a new application with web-based multiple user-, input- and analysis functionalities. MPP’s development is scheduled to be achieved between 2016 and 2020, and will be funded by the Research Foundation Flanders (Medium-Size Research Infrastructure), and by the European Research Council.

We are currently starting up the required public tender procedures to inform potential candidates in the private sector of this opportunity. The contract for this development project will be awarded via a European negotiated e-tender procedure with publication of a contract notice. The selection guideline for application was published earlier this week, and may be accessed via https://enot.publicprocurement.be, ‘search for publication’, ‘dossier number’: 16OMB003.

Digitizing Early Arabic Printed Books: A Workshop

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The Digital Islamic Humanities Project, a signature initiative of Middle East Studies at Brown University, is pleased to announce its annual scholarly gathering, a workshop on the topic of print culture in the early modern and modern Middle East. The event is organized in partnership with Gale Publishers, which will present its new digital text archive entitled “Early Arabic Printed Books from the British Library”. The archive is based on A. G. Ellis’s catalog of the British Library’s collection of early printed materials from the Arabic-speaking world, and contains approximately 2.5 million pages from historic books on diverse genres, including literature, law, mathematics, medicine, geography, and other topics.

The workshop will include a featured lecture entitled “Towards a New Book History of the Modern Middle East” by Dr. Kathryn Schwartz, Postdoctoral Fellow for the Digital Library of the Eastern Mediterranean at Harvard University.

Date: Friday, October 21 2016
Time: 10:00 AM – 3:00 PM
Location: Joukowsky Forum, Watson Institute
Website: islamichumanities.org

Further information about the event program will be posted by September 1. Please contact the event organizer, Professor Elias Muhanna, with any questions.

New Publication on Islamic Digital Humanities

DH-finalcoverWe are pleased to announce the publication of a new edited volume from De Gruyter entitled The Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East StudiesMany of the articles in this volume were given as papers at the 2013 conference of the same name, organized by Middle East Studies at Brown University.

Table of Contents
  • Elias Muhanna, Islamic and Middle East Studies and the Digital Turn
  • Travis Zadeh, Uncertainty and the Archive
  • Dagmar Riedel, Of Making Many Copies There is No End: The Digitization of Manuscripts and Printed Books in Arabic Script
  • Chip Rossetti, Al-Kindi on the Kindle: The Library of Arabic Literature and the Challenges of Publishing Bilingual Arabic-English Books
  • Nadia Yaqub, Working with Grassroots Digital Humanities Projects: The Case of the Tall al-Zaʿtar Facebook Groups
  • Maxim Romanov, Toward Abstract Models for Islamic History
  • Alex Brey, Quantifying the Quran
  • Till Grallert, Mapping Ottoman Damascus Through News Reports: A Practical Approach
  • José Haro Peralta and Peter Verkinderen, “Find for Me!”: Building a Context-Based Search Tool Using Python
  • Joel Blecher, Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities: Undergraduate Exploration into the Transmitters of Early Islamic Law
  • Dwight F. Reynolds, From Basmati Rice to the Bani Hilal: Digital Archives and Public Humanities

Symposium Webcast: Distant Reading & the Islamic Archive (October 2015)

On October 16, 2015, the Digital Islamic Humanities Program at Brown University held its third annual scholarly gathering, a symposium on the subject “Distant Reading & the Islamic Archive.”

Paper abstracts are available here, and some photos of the event are posted below. The symposium was recorded in its entirety and may be accessed at the links following the photo gallery.

Photographs (by Rythum Vinoben; see his website for more photos)

 

Recordings: 

Session 1:

  • Elias Muhanna (Brown University), Introduction and welcoming remarks
  • David Vishanoff (University of Oklahoma): A Customizable Exaptive “Xap” for Charting Currents of Islamic Discourse across Multiple Bibliographic and Full Text Datasets
  • Peter Verkinderen (Universität Hamburg): Which Muḥammad? Computer-Based Tools for the Identification of Moving Elites in the Early Islamic Empire

Session 2

  • Alexander Magidow (Univ. of Rhode Island) & Yonatan Belinkov (MIT), “Digital Philology and the History of Written Arabic”
  • Elias Muhanna (Brown University), “Modeling Mannerism in Classical Arabic Poetry”

Session 3 

  • Karen Pinto (Boise State University), “MIME and Other Digital Experimentations with Medieval Islamic Maps”
  • Seyed Mohammad Bagher Sajadi (Qazvin Islamic Azad University) and Mohammad Sadegh Rasooli (Columbia University): Automatic Proper Names Extraction from Old Islamic Literature
  • Maxim Romanov, (Universität Leipzig), “al-Ḏahabī’s Monster: Dissecting a 50-Volume Arabic Chronicle-cum-Biographical Collection From the 14th Century CE”

Session 4

  • Nir Shafir (UCLA), “Distant Reading the Material and Bibliographic Record of the Early Modern Islamic Archive”
  • Eric van Lit (Yale Univ.), “A Digital Approach for Production and Transmission of Knowledge in Islamic Intellectual History”
  • Taimoor Shahid (Univ. of Chicago), “Mobile Ethics: Travel and Cosmopolitanism in the Islamic Archive”

CFP: Courts and Judicial Procedure in Early Islamic Law

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Professor Intisar Rabb (Harvard Law School, Director of Islamic Legal Studies Program, creator of SHARIAsource) is convening a conference at Harvard next year (May 6 2016) on courts and judicial procedure in Islamic law. The SHARIAsource project recently received a $425,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation, and I imagine that the project may be unveiled publicly around the time of the conference.

Here’s the Call for Papers.

 

Job Opening: Visiting Research Assistant Professor in Syriac Studies and Digital Humanities (Vanderbilt)

Vanderbilt University and Syriaca.org invite applications for the open position of Visiting Research Assistant Professor in Syriac Studies and Digital Humanities. The term of appointment is one full year, beginning in fall 2015, with the possibility of renewal for one further year.

The Visiting Research Assistant Professor will work full time under the direction of Prof. David Michelson on the publications of Syriaca.org: The Syriac Reference Portal (http://syriaca.org/), a digital reference project sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The researcher will be affiliated with an academic unit at Vanderbilt University depending on expertise (Classics,Divinity, History, Islamic Studies, Jewish Studies, Religion, etc.). The scholar will also be invited to take an active role in the life of Vanderbilt’s Robert Penn Warren Center for the Humanities, including its Digital Humanities seminar.

The person hired for this position will be a specialist in Syriac studies with strong linguistic skills (ancient and modern) and considerable experience working with Syriac texts, both editions and manuscripts. There will be a strong preference for a candidate who has experience with digital humanities, especially TEI XML, but additional training in digital technology specific to the project will be provided as needed.

The researcher will be a contributing author to SPEAR (Syriac Persons, Events, and Relations), the New Handbook of Syriac Literature, Gateway to the Syriac Saints, and other Syriaca.org publications as needed. The researcher will collect and interpret data in Syriac and other languages, contribute to evolving data models, test user interfaces and XForms, collaborate with other project researchers, and perform additional project duties as needed.

Term of Appointment
The term of appointment is one full year, beginning in fall 2015, with the possibility of renewal for one further year. Applicants are expected to be in residence for the duration of the appointment.

How to Apply
Applications should be submitted online at: https://vanderbilt.taleo.net/careersection/jobdetail.ftl?job=1504387&lang=en

Please contact Prof. David A. Michelson (david.a.michelson@vanderbilt.edu) with any questions about the position or about the online application system.

A complete application will include the following materials:
1. A cover letter indicating applicant’s qualifications in Syriac studies and, if applicable, digital humanities;
2. A current curriculum vitae;
3. A scholarly publication, dissertation chapter, or digital project representing the applicant’s scholarly achievement or potential (these should be uploaded as attachments in the section marked “Resume and Cover Letter”);
4. Contact information for three referees.

The committee will begin review of applications immediately, with priority given to those applications received by May 22. Applications will be accepted until the position is filled.

Required Qualifications:  
The Candidate must have previous research experience in Syriac studies, particularly Syriac literature. Reading ability in classical Syriac and at least one other ancient or medieval language as well as relevant modern languages is required. Candidate must hold a Ph.D. or equivalent by January 1, 2016.

Preferred Qualifications:  
We welcome candidates with an interest in digital research methods, such as the use of TEI XML. Ideal candidates should have additional expertise in one or more fields contiguous to Syriac studies, such as Jewish studies, Islamic studies, Middle Eastern or Mediterranean history, Byzantine studies, history of Christianity, Classics, or medieval history.

Vanderbilt University is committed to principles of equal opportunity and affirmative action.

Harvard CMES: Digital Scholarship Workshop in Islamic Studies

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On Thursday, April 23, Prof Elias Muhanna will lead a Digital Resources Workshop for Islamic Studies, with Professor Roy Mottahedeh and András Riedlmayer. This workshop introduces various digital tools and methodologies that may be of interest to scholars of Islamic civilization. The topics discussed will include online text repositories, social network analysis, mapping tools, text encoding, image research, and other areas. No prior experience is necessary to attend.This workshop is open to Harvard CMES & NELC graduate students but space is limited. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to Liz Flanagan, elizabethflanagan@fas.harvard.edu, by Friday, April 17.

April 23
2:00-4:00 pm
CMES, Room 102
38 Kirkland Street

Elias Muhanna, Manning Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature, Brown University
qifanabki.com; islamichumanities.org

Roy P. Mottahedeh, Gurney Professor of History, Harvard University

András Riedlmayer, Bibliographer in Islamic Art and Architecture, AKPIA Documentation Center,
Fine Arts Library, Harvard University
Documentation Center of the Aga Khan Program
Harvard Library Guide to Islamic Art

Call for Papers: Distant Reading and the Islamic Archive

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Each year, the number of digitized books, inscriptions, images, documents, and other artifacts from the Islamic world continues to grow. As this archive expands, so too does the repertoire of digital tools for navigating and interpreting its diffuse and varied contents. Drawing upon such tools as topic modeling, context-based search, social network maps, and text reuse algorithms, the study of large-scale archives and textual corpora is undergoing significant and exciting developments.

With this in mind, the Middle East Studies program at Brown University is pleased to announce its 3rd annual Islamic Digital Humanities Conference, to be held onOctober 16-17, 2015. We cordially invite proposals for papers related to distant reading and other computational approaches to the study of the pre-modern and early modern Islamic world.

Faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, archivists, librarians, curators, and other scholars are welcome to apply. Candidates are requested to submit a title and abstract of 300 words and a CV to the conference organizers at digitalhumanities@brown.edu. The deadline for submissions is April 30, 2015, and successful applicants will be notified by the end of May.

Papers should be no longer than twenty minutes and read in English. A collection of abstracts from previous conferences and workshops may be found on our website (islamichumanities.org) along with recorded webcasts, a list of digital resources, and announcements for related events.

There may be limited funding available to cover travel expenses and hotel accommodation for junior scholars. All other participants are asked to cover their own expenses. The conference will begin at noon on Friday, October 16 and conclude by the early afternoon of Saturday, October 17.

Brown University is located in Providence, Rhode Island, one hour south of Boston and easily accessible by train and plane. For any questions, please contact Dr. Elias Muhanna at the email address above.

Here is a PDF version of this call for papers; please feel free to circulate it.

Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Digital Humanities at Boston College

The Institute for the Liberal Arts at Boston College invites applications for a one-year post-doctoral fellowship in Digital Humanities. We welcome applications from recent PhDs in any humanities fields who have expertise in digital approaches to scholarship, especially data mining, mapping and GIS, and/or visualization.   The DH Fellow will teach one class per semester, will be available to consult with faculty on the use of digital technologies in their research projects, and will organize workshops for faculty and graduate students on DH topics.

Candidates should have received a Ph. D. in an arts or humanities discipline by August, 2015.  They will be affiliated with the appropriate department at Boston College.  Salary is $65,000 with a $5,000 research budget.  Please submit a letter of application, CV, article-length writing sample, statement describing experience with digital technology, syllabus for a digital humanities course at either the undergraduate or graduate level, and three letters of recommendation by March 30, 2015.  Applications should be submitted online at apply.interfolio.com/28956

The search committee is being chaired by Professor Mary Crane.

Boston College is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, protected veteran status, or other legally protected status. To learn more about how BC supports diversity and inclusion throughout the university please visit the Office for Institutional Diversity at http://www.bc.edu/offices/diversity.

Digital Humanities Institute – Beirut (2-6 March 2015)

aubIf you’re based in the Middle East and have an interest in the digital humanities, there’s a promising new initiative being organized at the American University of Beirut:

Digital Humanities Institute – Beirut
American University of Beirut
2-6 March 2015
#DHatAUB

The humanities in the twenty-first century have taken a decidedly digital turn. In some cases this means traditional questions are addressed with new digital skills or new modes of scholarly communication, in others, entirely new research questions are emerging with technology.

The main goal of the Institute is to create an environment where different stakeholders in the academic communities of Lebanon and the region learn together about new computing technologies and their impact on the humanities. This institute comes at a time when a number of experiments in digital approaches to the humanities have already been launched at local and regional levels.

DHI-Beirut is designed as a meeting place, between departments, between units of the university, between universities and research centers. It features courses, presentations and lectures, conceived with a collegial spirit of collaboration in mind. The courses bear no credit and there are no exams, just learning and experimentation. They should provide graduate students an introduction to selected digital skills for research for their theses. They are designed with students, faculty, IT and staff in mind. They will be taught by MA and PhD students, librarians, instructors and professors.

Courses will run from 2-6 March 2015. On 7 March 2015, we will hold the Arab World’s first ThatCamp, an unconference designed to bring those interested in humanities and technology together to discuss common goals. All are welcome at this event, if you have attended the institute or not.

DHI-Beirut is sponsored by the Arts and Humanities Initiative (AHI), the Departments of Arabic, Computer Science and English as well as the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud Center for American Studies and Research (CASAR), the Center for Arab and Middle Eastern Studies (CAMES) and the Orient Institut – Beirut.

Textual Corpora Workshop 2014: A Review

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On October 17-18, 2014, the Digital Islamic Humanities Project at Brown University organized a workshop on “Textual Corpora” in the Digital Scholarship Lab at Rockefeller Library. We had around forty participants from various universities and institutions from around the world, and we spent a couple of days engaged in fruitful discussions and hands-on tutorial sessions. One of the participants, Dr. Sarah Pearce (NYU), wrote up a review of the event for her blog, Meshalim. She has kindly allowed us to reprint it here.

**

Textual Corpora and the Digital Islamic Humanities (day 1) | by S. J. Pearce

Normally I would not be totally comfortable posting a conference report like this because it’s basically reproducing others’ intellectual work, presented orally and possibly provisionally, in written and disseminated form. However, because video of the event is going to be posted online along with all of the PowerPoint slides, these presentations were made with an awareness that they were going to be disseminated online and so a brief digest does not strike me as a problem. With that said, what I am writing here represents the work of others, which I will cite appropriately.

The workshop convener, Elias Muhanna, began by introducing what he called “digital tools with little no learning curve.” These included text databases such as quran.com, altafsir.com, and the aggregate dictionary page al-mawrid reader (which is apparently totally and completely in violation of every copyright law on the books). Then there were sources for collections of unsearchable PDFs (waqfeya.com, mostafa.com, and alhadeeth.com; and hathitrust.org, which is pretty much the only one on this list that isn’t violating copyright law in some way) and sources for searchable digital libraries of classical Arabic texts (almeshkat.netsaid.netalwaraq.netshiaonlinelibrary.com and noorlib.ir; and al-jami’ al-kabīr, which is a database that has the special feature of mostly not functioning and mostly not being installable). Arabicorpus.byu.edu as well as various databases used by computational linguists are the best bets for modernists looking for things.

With respect to all of these, the question of how the texts are entered is a bit of a mystery. Some are rekeyed from editions, some are scanned as PDFs and some are OCR scanned; and even though OCR scanning can be up to 99% accurate, that still translates into a typo every hundred characters, which is not ideal. Regardless of the technology used to upload these texts to these databases, copyright law was raised, ongoing, as an issue surrounding the use of these tools, and the current state of play appears to be somewhere between the wild west and don’t ask don’t tell.

A few sample searches were run to demonstrate what they might be used for — occurrences of the phrase allahu a’lam to gauge epistemological humility (I’m not totally sure about the reliability of the one to gauge the other, but nevermind) and an Arabic proverb I did not know previously about mongoose farts (fasā baynahum al-ẓaribān) to illustrate a search to determine how a saying might be used, whether purely for grammatical or sociologically illustrative purposes (as this one apparently is) or whether it occurs within a discourse.

***

These text collections were a segue into Maxim Romanov’s presentation on the difference between text collections and text corpora and the desiderata for the creation of the latter.

Text collections are what already exit. They are characterized by the following traits:

  • reproduce books (technically DBs but don’t fuction as DBs)
  • Book/Source is divided into meaningless unites of data, such as “pages”
  • Limited, ideologically biased (shamela is open but BOK format is obscure)
  • Not customizable  (users cannot add content)
  • Limited search options
  • Search results are impossible to handle (have to have your own system on top of the library system)
  • No advanced way for analyzing results (no graphing, mapping)
  • No ability to update metadata

Textual corpora are what we need to be creating. They are characterized by the following traits:

  • Adapted for research purposes (open organization format)
  • Source is divided into meaningful unites of data (such as “biographies” for a biographical collection, “events” for chronicles, “hadith reports” for hadith collections)
  • Open and fully customizable
  • Complex searches (with filtering options)
  • Results can be saved for later processing (multiple versions, annotations, links)
  • Visualizations of results
  • Easy to update metadata

***

Elli Mylonas gave an introduction to the idea of textual markup, which was the piece that was the most general and most theoretical of the day. She raised a number of interesting issues.

One was the question of how archival data can be, and she made the case for XML files being not quite as good as acid-free paper in a box, but basically the digital equivalent. It’s a standard language and it is text-based and therefore should be readable on future technologies, whatever they might be.

She then made the case that text markup is a form of textual interpretation; and when somebody asked a question that was predicated on his being okay with the status quo in which some people do programming and some people analyze texts, she replied that marking up a text for XML really forces you to think more carefully about both the structure and the content of the text; it’s not an either-or proposition. This is not a case where science is trying to impose itself upon the humanities (ahem, quantum medievalism) but rather supplement it methodologically.

One important distinction is between markup and markdown. The latter is a more descriptive, plain-text rendering of, well, text, that allows it to be more easily exported into a variety of schema. (I think?) Markdown is less rule-bound, more abstract, and more idiosyncratic, which means that it is less labor intensive but potentially less-widely useful in the absence of a really robust tagging scheme.

She showed a few examples of a marked up text, including the Shelley-Godwin archive, which has Mary Shelley’s notebooks marked up to show where her handwriting occurs and where her husband Percey’s does, as a way of trying to put to rest the question of who really wrote Frankenstein; a Brown project on the paleographic inscriptions of the Levant that, she told us, provokes an argument between every new graduate student worker and the PI over how to classify the religious assignation of the inscriptions (see? interpretation!); and the Old Bailey Online, in which you can search court records by crime and punishment.

The one difficulty for Islamic Studies is that XML comes out of the European printing and typesetting tradition and is therefore not natively suited to Arabic and other right-to-left languages.

***

Maxim Romanov then gave a practical introduction to one element of text markup, namely regular expressions, a way of creating customized searches within digitized text. These are two web sites with some basic instructions and options to practice:

One example of a regular expression is this. If I wanted to find all the possible transliterations of  قذافي (the surname of the deposed Libyan dictator) in a given text in a searchable text corpus, I would type:  [QGK]a(dh?)+a{1,2}f(i|y) as my search term. This would look for any word that began with Q, G, or K, then had an a, then had a d and possibly an h and a possible repetition of that combination, one or two As, and f, and then either an i or a y. There was much practicing and many exercises and that’s really all I have to say about that. (Except that this cartoon  and this one suddenly make a lot more sense.)

***

Textual Corpora & the Digital Islamic Humanities (day 2) | by S.J. Pearce

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Following up on the Qaddafi-hunt by regular expression of day 1 of the workshop on digital Islamic humanities, here is Maxim Romanov, demonstrating a regular expression to search for terms that describe years within a text corpus that hasn’t been subjected to Buckwalter transliteration but is rather in the original Arabic script.

Three major topics that were covered on day 2.

Scripting. Maxim Romanov covered a basic overview of/introduction to scripting and the automation of repetitive tasks, such as downloading thousands of things from the web, converting text formats, and conducting complex searches (by regular expressions).

The preferred scripting language amongst this crowd of presenters was Python, in no small measure because it is named after Monty Python, but also because it is very straightforward. Maxim illustrated some of the possibilities with python by walking us through one of his research questions, which was about the chronological coverage of certain historical sources, in other words, how much attention do certain time periods get versus other time periods?. He demonstrated the methods he used for capturing date information from a really large amount of text by automating specific queries with script, and then processing the data so it could be output in an easily readable graph. Conference organizer Elias Muhanna emphasized that this was an example of how digital and computational methodologies are not replacements for analysis but rather demand quite a lot of good, old-fashioned philological hard-nosedness, but offer different tools for exploring and expressing it. This is a way of simply speeding up and scaling up what we are already doing.

We then had a brief presentation from one of the researchers from the Early Islamic Empire at Workproject, who showed us how his team is creating search tools for their corpus, tools which will be made publicly available in December as the Jedli toolbox, which will include various types of color-codeable, checklist- and keyword-based searching. One of the major takeaways from this presentation was the idea that by being able to edit open-source code and program things, it’s possible to build upon earlier existing work to make things do specifically what any given researcher wants them to.

This raised the question of citation, which, based on a lot of the comments made in response to the question (which I asked), made it seem like a total wild west. One of the participants with quite a lot of programming experience said that citing someone else’s code would be like citing a recipe when you make dinner for friends, and other participants and presenters said that if you were using something really extraordinary from somebody else’s project, you might mention that. However, Elli Mylonas disagreed, arguing that correct citation of existing work is one of the ways that the digital humanities can gain traction within the academy as legitimate scholarship that counts at moments like tenure review rather than languishing, in the same manner as the catalogues and indices that we all rely upon but don’t view as having been built by proper “scholars.” I would tend to think she’s right.

Timelines. Then Elli Mylonas introduced us to various timeline programs. Like yesterday, her presentation was really grounded in the theory and the wherefores and the big issues behind the DH. So she started out with the assertion that “timelines lie,” that is, that any kind of timeline looks objective but is, in fact, encoding a historical argument made by the researcher who compiled and presented it. (I think this actually has an interesting parallel with narrative, footnotelessness or minimally-footnoted writing such as A Mediterranean Society (which has loads of footnotes but leaves a lot out, too), that in effect encodes a massive amount of historical argumentation within something that simply reads as text.)

Important things to look for in choosing a timeline program are: the ability to represent spans of time rather than just single points, the exportability of data, and the ability of the program to handle negative dates (again, encoding an argument about the notions of temporality and the potentiality of time). A free timeline-generating app is Timeline JS, which works with Google spreadsheets. That is the one that we tested out as a group. We also looked at Tiki-Toki, which is gorgeous but requires a paid subscription. (Definitely worth looking into whether one’s institution has an institutional subscription.)

Maxim Romanov suggested that this might be a useful tool for something like revisiting the chronology in Marshall Hodgson’s Venture of Islam.

Finally, we looked at Orbis, Sanford’s geospatial model of the Roman world, which looks at travel through the Roman empire based upon time and cost. This is a feasible project because of the wealth of data and the relative uniformity of roads and resources and prices within the Roman empire and would have to be modified to deal with most of Islamciate history (Which brings to mind the question of the extent to which Genizah sources as a fairly coherent(ish) corpus can be used to extrapolate for the rest of the Islamic world rather than just the Jewish communities within it; if yes, that might be a feasible data set for this kind of processing. Really not my problem, though.) This was a perfect segue into the final topic of the day.

Geographic information systems. This piece was presented by Bruce Boucek, who is a social sciences librarian at Brown trained as a cartographer. He gave an overview of data sources and potential questions and problems, and then Maxim Romanov gave a final demonstration about how geographic imaging can be used to interrogate medieval geographic descriptions and maps.

Image courtesy of S.J. Pearce

Image courtesy of S.J. Pearce

By aligning the latitude and longitude information from a modern map to the cities marked on a medieval one (or simply by making L&L conform on a less contemporary modern map of unknown projection or questionable scake) and observing the distortion of the medieval map when it was made to conform to the modern one, we began to see what kind of view of the world the mapmaker, in this case Muqaddasi, held. What was he making closer and farther away than it really was? What kind of schematic does that yield?

And that’s that. Video and a link library should be up online at the workshop web site, and one of my colleagues storified all of the tweets from the conference. I’ll probably write another post or two in the coming week reflecting on how I might begin to start using some of these tools and methods as I finish up the book and start work on a second project.

Time-Stamped Program for 2013 DH Conference

I’m very grateful to Maxim Romanov for putting together this very helpful program complete with timestamps for each presentation of our 2013 conference. Click the links below to watch each day of presentations in its entirety, and navigate to the talk or discussion section you’re interested in via the slider.

Thursday, October 24, 2013 – Day One

  • Introduction
    • | 0:00:00 | Beshara Doumani (Brown U): Opening Remarks
    • | 0:00:45 | Elias Muhanna (Brown U): Opening remarks
  • Digital Ethnography | chair: Beshara Doumani (Brown)
    • | 0:13:30 | Beshara Doumani (Brown U): Introduction
    • | 0:14:25 | Peter McMurray (Harvard), “Berlin Islam as Acoustic Ecology: An Ethnography in Sound”
    • | 0:41:00 | Nadia Yaqub (UNC), “Working with Indigenous Digital Humanities Projects: The Case of the Mukhayyam al-Sumud al-Usturi Tal al-Za‘tar Facebook Group”
    • | 1:09:20 | Discussion
  • Manuscript Visualization and Digitization | chair: Elias Muhanna (Brown)
    • 1:33:05 | Elias Muhanna (Brown): Introduction
    • 1:34:50 | Alex Brey (Bryn Mawr), “Quantifying the Qur’an”
    • 1:54:50 | David Hollenberg (Univ. of Oregon), “Preserving Islamic Manuscripts Under Erasure: The Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative”
    • 2:18:15 | Discussion
  • Text Mining | chair: Beatrice Gruendler (Yale)
    • | 2:45:00 | Beatrice Gruendler (Yale): Introduction
    • 2:47:40 | Maxim Romanov (Tufts), “[Toward] Abstract Models for Islamic History”
    • 3:14:50 | Guy Burak (NYU library), “Comparing Canons: Examining Two 17th-century Fatawa Collections from the Ottoman Lands”
    • 3:35:20 | Kirill Dmitriev (St. Andrews), “Arab Cultural Semantics in Transition”
    • 3:51:50 | Discussion
  • Databases | chair: Elli Mylonas (Brown)
    • | 4:37:30 | Elli Mylonas (Brown): Introduction
    • 4:37:55 | Sebastian Günther (Göttingen), “A Database & Handbook of Classical Islamic Pedagogy”
    • 5:09:45 | Will Hanley (FSU), “Prosop: A Social Networking Tool for the Past”
    • 5:31:00 | Discussion
  • Mapping | chair: Sheila Bonde (Brown)
    • 6:03:50 | Sheila Bonde (Brown): Introduction
    • 6:05:00 | Till Grallert (Freie Univ. Berlin), “Mapping the Urban Landscape through News Reports: Damascus and its Hinterlands in Late Ottoman Times”
    • 6:26:50 | Meredith Quinn (Harvard), “The Geography of Readership on Early Modern Istanbul”
    • -:–:– | Discussion (not available)

Friday, October 25, 2013 – Day Two

  • Digitization and E-Publication | chair: Ian Straughn (Brown)
    • 0:00:00 | Ian Straughn (Brown): Introduction
    • 0:02:00 | Dagmar Riedel (Columbia Univ.), “Manuscripts and Printed Books in Arabic Script in the Age of the E-Book: The Challenges of Digitization”
    • 0:31:50 | Chip Rossetti (Managing Editor, LAL), “Al-Kindi on the Kindle: The Library of Arabic Literature and the Challenges of Publishing Bilingual Arabic-English Books”
    • 0:54:50 | Discussion
  • Disciplinary and Theoretical Considerations | chair: Elias Muhanna (Brown)
    • 1:21:10 | Elias Muhanna (Brown): Introduction
    • 1:21:55 | Afsaneh Najmabadi (Harvard), “Making (Up) an Archive: What Could Writing History Look Like in a Digital Age?”
    • 1:55:25 | Travis Zadeh (Haverford), “Uncertainty and the Archive: Reflections on Medieval Arabic and Persian Book Culture in the Digital Age”
    • 2:22:10 | Discussion
  • Keynote address
    • 2:43:55 | Elias Muhanna (Brown): Introduction
    • 2:47:00 | Dr. Dwight Reynolds (UCSB): “From Basmati Rice to the Bani Hilal: Digital Archives and Public Humanities”
    • | 3:30:00 | Discussion

Watson Institute Write-Up About 2013 Islamic DH Conference

Detail of a page (c. 1580) from Minassian Collection, a database of Persian, Mughal, and Indian miniature paintings at Brown's Center for Digital Scholarship.

Detail of a page (c. 1580) from Minassian Collection, a database of Persian, Mughal, and Indian miniature paintings at Brown’s Center for Digital Scholarship.

Here’s a great Watson Institute write-up about our 2013 conference, by Samuel Adler-Bell. Thanks to Sarah Baldwin-Beneich. 

Digital Humanities and Middle East Studies

New Methodologies for Old Texts Raise Eyebrows

Last month “The Digital Humanities and Islamic and Middle East Studies” conference at the Watson Institute brought together scholars from a range of disciplines to examine the effect of new digital archiving and research technologies on the study of Islamic and Middle Eastern history and literature. And it might never have happened if it weren’t for renowned Islamic historian Michael Cook’s eyebrow.

In 2004, conference organizer Elias Muhanna was a graduate student in Professor Cook’s famously difficult history methodologies seminar at Princeton. Muhanna, who is now assistant professor of comparative literature and Middle East studies at Brown, was spending, as he put it, hours upon hours in the “depths of Princeton’s Firestone Library poring over 19th century editions of long forgotten compendia by minor authors in godforsaken locations of the medieval Islamic world” and often still failing to find the answers to Cook’s arcane historical puzzles. The course was, in Muhanna’s words, a “trial by fire,” a sink or swim tutorial in the esoteric methods of deep archival research.

But at a certain point in the middle of the semester, something changed. Muhanna and his colleagues began finding the answers to Cook’s questions, but in unexpected places, locating references to Cook’s citations in works that he had not consulted. It was at this point, Muhanna says, that Cook raised his eyebrow suspiciously. Cook’s students had discovered the utility of the enormous textual databases of classical Islamic sources that had, in 2004, just been made available online. “We had found the answer,” says Muhanna, “using a kind of search and capture method … and not in the very tortuous way he was hoping to make us get it.”

This experience, says, Muhanna, was one of the impetuses for last month’s conference, which is part of a larger research initiative hosted by the Middle East Studies program.  Michael Cook’s raised eyebrow represents an ambivalence at the core of the digital humanities, perhaps especially as they relate to the study of the Islamic world.  Digital archives, text-searchable databases, computational analyses, these innovations have reshaped the methodological landscape and opened a door to new and exciting research. But for scholars of Islamic history and literature who have come to see the long, tortuous work of archival research as commensurate with the discipline itself, the digital humanities have been met with more than a few raised eyebrows.

“I felt that there was something tremendous to be gained by this technology,” Muhanna said in his opening remarks, “but there was also something probably tremendous that was in danger of being lost.”

Although this ambivalence may have inaugurated the conference, the vast majority of work presented by attending scholars attested, unambiguously, to the rich new world of research questions provoked by combining digital innovations with Islamic and Middle East studies scholarship. For example, for her project on “The Geography of Readership in Early Modern Istanbul,” Harvard historian Meredith Quinn compiled a database of probate inventories from 17th century Istanbul, paying special attention to those that listed books among the possessions of the deceased. Using quantitative analysis, she worked to identify correlations among book ownership, gender, class, and occupation. She then integrated that data with a map of the city to identify the more “bookish” neighborhoods of 17th century Istanbul.

Projects like Quinn’s, which elegantly combine archival sources with digital mapping and quantitative analysis, are so natural, grounded in good research, and plainly productive of new scholarly knowledge and questions, that any resistance from the digital humanities skeptics seems misguided: purist methodological traditionalism. Or worse, the resentful Luddism of a generation of scholars who “had to do it the hard way, so why don’t you?” On the other hand, one can more easily understand humanists chafing a little at the title of Bryn Mawr graduate student Alex Brey’s algorithm-dependent presentation on “Quantifying the Qur’an,” despite the fact that it addressed core issues of humanist concern, such as book history and scribal practices.

Professor Muhanna notes that scholars in the digital humanities might occasionally have a romantic, emotional, or religious reticence about converting a sacred text into points of data to yield historical knowledge. “There’s an understandable resistance to construing the tremendously complex object of one’s research, whether that’s a literary or a religious text, as basically a corpus of data. It has the association that it becomes just ones and zeroes.” And even more resistance about “the idea that we can somehow perform complicated analytical operations that might replace the very careful, painstaking work of interpretation.”

A self-critical debate over the proper scope of the digital humanities popped up at various moments throughout the conference. “Is this a new paradigm?” Muhanna asked, “Does digital, data-driven scholarship tell us anything qualitatively new? Or does it just give us these tremendous tools to confirm what we already intuitively know, and that we had already arrived at through old-fashioned interpretative scholarship?”

At some point during one of these self-reflective flare-ups, one scholar remarked, somewhat pugnaciously, “So we’re historians with computers. That’s enough for me!”

Muhanna’s conclusion is somewhat more nuanced: “The best way to think about it is that we’re just dealing with different sets of questions. And that one set doesn’t invalidate the other set.”

– Sam Adler-Bell

British Library Write-Up On 2013 Islamic DH Conference

BLHere’s a write-up by the good folks at the British Library about our 2013 Conference on the Digital Humanities and Islamic + Middle East Studies. Check out the original post for lots of beautiful images accompanying the write-up. Thanks to Nur Sobers-Khan and Daniel Lowe. 

Two representatives from the British Library attended the recent conference, ‘The Digital Humanities + Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies’, hosted by the Middle Eastern Studies Department of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Organised by Dr Elias Muhanna and held on 24-25 October 2013, this conference sought to bring together for the first time researchers and librarians using digital technologies in innovative ways to create and disseminate knowledge in the fields of Islamic and Middle East Studies

Throughout the lively conference discussion, particular themes were pursued that are very relevant to our own work at the British Library. Professor Beshara Doumani, director of Middle East Studies at Brown University, opened the conference by posing a number of important ethical questions about digital scholarship. For example, what ‘acts of violence’ are done to texts in the process of digitisation, translation, transliteration and indexing? What effect does the political economy of funding for digital projects have on the production of knowledge?

These questions became a running theme throughout the conference and were picked up by Travis Zadeh (Haverford College) in his talk “Uncertainty and the Archive: Reflections on Medieval Arabic and Persian Book Culture in the Digital Age”. He demonstrated how important textual elements are lost in the modern proliferation of searchable digital forms of Arabic and Persian classical texts. Moreover, he showed how certain genres of literature, for example, manuscripts on the occult and magic, are often excluded from digitisation projects since they reflect a social history that is at odds with organisations that fund and produce these new digital archives.

Other highlights from the conference include the keynote speech of Dr Dwight Reynolds (Professor of Religious Studies, UCSB), who focused on the monumental Sirat Bani Hilal Digital Archive. This archive contains audio recordings of poets and musicians from Upper Egypt whose artistic legacy would otherwise be lost. This resource also constitutes a teaching tool, with English translations, written transcriptions from Arabic oral recitations of the thousand-year-old epic, and an explanation of the historical background of the text.

Dr Afsaneh Najmabadi (Harvard) presented her important project Women’s Worlds in Qajar Iran in a talk entitled “Making (Up) an Archive: What Could Writing History Look Like in a Digital Age?”. She introduced ways in which technology can be used to document and disseminate objects central to social and cultural history that would not normally be accessible to researchers using administrative and national archives. These objects include women’s household items, dowry registries and marriage contracts, family letters and personal photographs, as well as oral history interviews.

The difficulties and possibilities of using text mining techniques for the querying of biographical dictionaries were presented in a talk by Dr Maxim Romanov (Tufts) entitled “Abstract Models for Islamic History”. Dr Romanov accessed 29,000 biographical records to search for names, toponyms, and dates that allow the researcher to trace cultural or religious developments over an extended period or large geographical expanse. You can download a full copy of his fascinating paper here.

Dr Kirill Dmitriev (St Andrews University) presented the Language, Philology, Culture: Arab Cultural Semantics in Transition project to develop The Analytical Database of Arabic Poetry which will include comprehensive data on the vocabulary of early Arabic poetry (6th-8th centuries AD) in the form of an electronic dictionary.

Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative’s partners, Princeton University Library and Free University, Berlin, to create the groundwork for the preservation of manuscripts in private libraries in the Yemen together with the Imam Zayd ibn Ali Cultural Foundation.

This conference was an excellent opportunity for us to share information about the British Library’s major digitisation projects related to the Middle East, for instance the Endangered Archives Programme and the British Library’s partnership with the Qatar Foundation to digitise material related to the Persian Gulf and Arabic scientific manuscripts. We also had the opportunity to showcase current digitisation projects in the Asian and African Studies section of the Library, in particular, the Hebrew Manuscripts ProjectMalay Manuscripts Digitisation Project and Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project, as well as the smaller Southeast Asian Manuscripts digitisation project funded by the Ginsburg Legacy, all of which are expected to come to fruition in the next few years. These projects will make thousands of the British Library’s manuscripts freely available to the public on our Digitised Manuscripts website and greatly open up access to our collections.

Daniel Lowe, Gulf History and Arabic Language Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership, @dan_a_lowe

Nur Sobers-Khan, IHF Curator for Persian Manuscripts

A Database and Handbook of Classical Islamic Pedagogy: A Digital Islamic Studies Project at the University of Göttingen

Given the challenges Arabic and Islamic studies are facing in the increasingly culturally diverse contexts of contemporary societies, meaningful new methodologies and tools of research need to be explored. The Göttingen Database and Handbook of Classical Islamic Pedagogy is devoted to addressing some of these issues in a three-year research project conducted at the University of Göttingen, Germany.

The main objectives of the project are, in a first step, to identify, collect, and systematically analyze large amounts of data on Islamic educational theory and practice, drawn from a large variety of classical Arabic texts. This will facilitate, in a second step, to elucidate key principles and theories of classical Islamic education, reintroduce them into contemporary intellectual discourse and, thus, respond to the very real need to better understand the larger purposes and values that underlie and animate Islamic education on social, ethical, psychological and religious levels.

In order to document, administer, and examine the data on Islamic education extracted from the classical Arabic sources, a specific database was designed. This presentation discusses the underlying themes and theoretical premises of this database and handbook project, along with its structure and research opportunities within the context of digital humanities.

Author: Sebastian Günther (Univ. of Göttingen)

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)

Working with Indigenous Digital Humanities Projects: The Case of the Mukhayyam al-Sumud al-Usturi Tal al-Za`tar Facebook Group

Scholarship on the Arab world, as in other regions, is always haunted by the absent voices of those who cannot be heard.  Our understanding of events, our perspective on times and places are always skewed by the uneven record that comes to us for interpretation. At first blush it may appear that the spread of internet access and the rise of social media, and in particular Facebook whereby anyone can distribute reams of information and images globally at low or no cost mitigates this problem. However, the rise of such technologies brings their own technical and ethical challenges.  I propose to address some of these challenges through a discussion of what I have described as an indigenous digital humanities project: a Facebook group called “Mukhayyam al-sumud al-usturi tal al-Za`tar.”  Created by survivors and descendants  of the 1976 siege and destruction of the Tal al-Za`tar refugee camp in Beirut, the site aims to serve as a node in the network of former residents of the camp who are now globally dispersed, as well as a depository for images, documents, and crowd-sourced reconstructions of memories and geographies.  The site (and others like it) and its contributors may serve as a rich source for scholars interested in creating more authoritative repositories or digital reconstructions of this and other neighborhoods and towns that were erased or irrevocably altered during the violence of the Lebanese civil war.  However, they, too, are marked by dominant voices and aesthetics that may skew our understanding of the past.

Author: Nadia Yaqub (Univ. of North Carolina – Chapel Hill)

Al-Kindi on the Kindle: The Library of Arabic Literature and the Challenges of Publishing Bilingual Arabic-English Books

In 2010, a grant from the New York University Abu Dhabi Institute launched the Library of Arabic Literature, a book series that aims to publish key works of pre-modern and classical Arabic literature in bilingual editions, with the Arabic edition and English translation on facing pages.  The General Editor of the series is Philip Kennedy, Associate Professor of Arabic at New York University, who is aided by an eight-member Editorial Board consisting of scholars of Arabic and Islamic studies. The five-year grant envisioned an initial library of thirty-five published books, with translations to be done by scholars of Arabic. It also specified an XML-first production system to ensure maximal flexibility in future digital uses of the Arabic texts and English translations. The series is published by New York University, which drew on its previous experiences in bilingual publishing through the now-defunct Clay Sanskrit Library series.

As Managing Editor of the Library, I will present in this paper an overview of the experiences of the Library of Arabic Literature series in the past two years, particularly with respect to the digitization and XML-tagging of Arabic texts. The first three books have just been published, and we are currently confronting the challenges of rendering Arabic text correctly on commercially available e-readers. Eventually, once we have a critical mass of published books, the Library of Arabic Literature hopes to make the full series accessible as a searchable electronic corpus. In this paper, I hope to highlight and share some of the insights the Editorial Board and I have gleaned through our work on this series.

Author: Chip Rossetti (Managing Editor, Library of Arabic Literature)

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)

Putting Middle East and Islamic Studies on the Map

Digitally-enabled spatial analysis can generate hypotheses, substantiate arguments, and communicate findings at a glance. In this paper, I will demonstrate how spatial analysis reveals the topography of readership in seventeenth-century Istanbul. Using WorldMap has allowed me to collate data from many different sources, including court records, probate inventories, and waqfiyyas, into a single map in order to identify larger patterns. Given the exploratory nature of the conference, I will briefly share the “messy” interim steps I took as well as the more polished maps that resulted. During the remainder of my talk, I will reflect on the promises and limitations of open-source, user-contributed mapping. WorldMap allows anyone to create a layer which can be combined with other users’ layers. In other words, it holds the potential to facilitate the kind of collaborative work that is said to be a hallmark of the digital humanities. At the same time, my experience as a consultant to digital humanities projects (while working for Ithaka before graduate school), provides some cautionary tales about the sustainability of digital projects and challenges presented by “user-generated” content.

Author: Meredith Quinn (Harvard University)