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)



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”

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 (

Call for Papers: Distant Reading and the Islamic Archive


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 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 ( 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.

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

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)

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)

Berlin Islam as Acoustic Ecology: An Ethnography in Sound

How can sonic phenomena best be represented in academic discourse?  While the question has long preoccupied music studies, recent developments in technologies of sound recording and dissemination have given rise to new possibilities for the inscription of knowledge through digital sound recordings.  With the growing discipline of sound studies, the role of knowing-through-sound has moved from periphery to center, challenging the ocularcentric tropes of modernity in favor of a more multivalent notion of sensation and knowledge.  The study of Islam has mirrored this development as well, as scholars have turned their attention to the rich acoustics of Islamic practice, underscoring the aurality of the Qur’an, devotional practices (salah, zikr, etc.), Islamic architecture and even a more general sense of a Muslim (counter)public.

In this paper and audio presentation, I explore the sonic idiosyncrasies of Islam in Berlin, especially in the context of migration from Turkey in the past half century, through the process of audio recording.  Through sound recordings I have made in the past two years, I argue that Berlin’s various Muslim communities (specifically Caferi Shi’ites, Halveti-Cerrahi Sufis, Alevis, and Hanefi Sunnis) articulate significant differences between one another through sound.  This sense of heterophony—a simultaneous sounding of difference and oneness—is critical to the formation of an acoustics of Islam, especially in contexts of migration and transnationalism, as groups that previously inhabited distant geographical homelands are now placed in close proximity.  While the sounding of these differences can be detailed verbally—that is, inscribed with words—they are in fact natively acoustic arguments, represented more directly and emphatically through sound itself.

Author: Peter McMurray (Harvard University)

Preserving Islamic Manuscripts Under Erasure: The Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative

The private manuscript libraries of Yemen comprise one of the world’s largest and most important collections of Arabic manuscripts. Collectively, these 6,000 private libraries possess some 60,000 codices, many of which are unique. But this irreplaceable trove of manuscripts is threatened. In recent years, Yemen’s private libraries have suffered great losses, in part due to extremists who are ideologically opposed to the Zaydi Shiite school of Islam and have targeted Zaydi manuscripts for destruction. In the past ten years, over 10,000 manuscripts, including several entire libraries, have been destroyed.

This paper describes the efforts of The Imam Zaid ben ‘Ali Cultural Foundation (IZbACF), a non-profit, non-governmental organization devoted to digitally preserving this collection. Their efforts have recently been fortified by The Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative (, a collective of Middle East librarians and leading scholars of classical Islam, Middle Eastern history, and Arabic Literature from North America, Europe, and the Middle East. In September, 2010, YMDI’s partner institutions Princeton University Library and Free University, Berlin secured a $330k Enriching Digital Collections Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG). The goal of the NEH/DFG grant has been to create an infrastructure through which manuscripts in private libraries in Yemen are digitally preserved and made widely available through Princeton University’s Digital Library. This paper presents YMDI’s progress and prospects.

Author: David Hollenberg (University of Oregon)


Prosop: A Social Networking Tool for the Past

This presentation will concern an NEH funded project I’m heading to develop a tool called Prosop. Prosop’s first aim is to assemble a database of descriptions of a very large number of historical individuals, of inferior socio-economnic rank to those who feature in most prosopographic projects. The tool is meant to preserve such information in its native format, without any fixed category requirements. It will then find connections within a very large pool of demographic data, and allow aggregate analysis. Ultimately, Prosop aims to make the various historical description and categorization schemes themselves the subject of research.,

Prosop is intended to help three kinds of users: microhistorians who have completed research projects and want to preserve their data, the collection of which cost them their eyesight and at least one marriage; microhistorians doing new work, who want to collect material in a format more useable than a word processor document or spreadsheet; and family historians, who are currently doing tremendous “crowd-sourcing” style work with primary documents, work that is being captured by for-profit sites such as but passed over by professional historians.

This presentation treats a methodological issue: the techniques that we use to deal with the tremendous volume of data generated by Middle East microhistories. I will describe my sense of the challenges and potentialities of this aspect of our work, and discuss ways that I think Prosop can support collaborative historical work. I will explain, in fairly general terms, the features of the data structure of Prosop and its most innovative aspect, which is on-the-fly ontology. I will invite participants to describe the technical characteristics of their own work, their needs, and the solutions they imagine. I will focus this conversation around the ongoing design of Prosop, but my aim is to facilitate a conversation that treats the broadest issues raised by technology-assisted prosopography.

Author: Will Hanley (Florida State University)

Mapping the Urban Landscape Through News Reports: Damascus and its Hinterlands in late Ottoman Times

This paper elaborates the tools used for mapping the density of news reports onto the city of Damascus and its hinterlands, which were developed in the context of my doctoral research titled “To whom belong the streets? Property, propriety, and appropriation: The production of public places and public spaces in late Ottoman Damascus”. The paper discusses the various technologies and their implications for the analysis of the results produced, against the backdrop of a case study on violent incidents.

The research is based on c. 7.000 news reports on events in Damascus between 1875–1914, drawn from the newspapers Lisān al-Ḥālal-BashīrThamarāt al-FunūnḤadīqat al-AkhbārSuriye, and al-Muqtabas. The reports were excerpted, partially transcribed, coded for topic and locations, and stored in a relational database.[1]

In order to run a named entity recognition for locations on the database of sources, I produced a file of geocoded place names from written sources, old maps, secondary literature, and geographic authority files.[2] The named entity recognition then counts the number articles on a specific topic or containing a particular catch phrase for each known location. This is done running the data as XML files through XSLT transformations, producing a JSON data stream. The results are then mapped using the SIMILE Exhibit 3 framework [3], which provides customisable visualisations of the data stream on a base layer of maps to be displayed in any browser.

This approach allows to a) cope with a very large body of short written sources, to b) immediately recognise correlations of certain topics with specific locations, and to c) evaluate sources as to their biases.

Applied to the discourse on violence in late Ottoman times, we see a discourse on legitimate rule that produces a spatial dichotomy of the urban, civilised, peaceful centre and the pre-dominantly non-urban, backward, and violent populations of the peripheries. Armed Bedouins and Druze of the South become the epitome of the vicious (semi-)nomadic bandits threatening the urban “flock” under the protection of the Ottoman authorities. This dichotomy and the positive correlation between violence and distance from the seat of the government is also found in the topography of Damascus itself.[4]

  1. For this purpose, I used an off-the-shelf reference managing software, which stores all data in an SQLite database; ↩
  2. The most important authority file was the GeoNames database, which is licensed as CC BY and can be downloaded or queried. As I use the reference file of geocoded place names for various other projects, it adheres to the encoding standards of the TEI P5 ↩
  3. The SIMILE Exhibit 3 javascript framework is developed by the MIT and provided under CC BY at  ↩
  4. I made examples available for violent incidents and riots ↩


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)

Comparing Canons: Examining Two Seventeenth-Century Fatawa Collection from the Ottoman Lands

In recent years growing attention has been paid to the circulation of texts and to various textual practices throughout the Islamic world in general and the Ottoman Empire in particular. Most studies, however, were qualitative in nature. My paper seeks to demonstrate the advantages of digital humanities for the study of circulation of manuscripts and the ways in which they were used and consulted. To illustrate the advantages of digital humanities the paper takes as its case study the circulation of legal texts across the Ottoman Empire. More specifically, the case study is based on a comparison of two fatawa collections from the mid seventeenth century that I have digitized for my research: the fatawa collection by the chief imperial mufti, şeyhülislam Minkarizade Efendi (1609-1677 or 8), and the famous Palestinian mufti, Khayr al-Din al-Ramli (1585-1671). By focusing on the special features of each of the fatawa collections, I hope to draw attention to the advantages these databases and the digital humanities more broadly offer for this kind of study on the one hand, and to raise attention to what the databases conceal on the other. Finally, through this case study, the paper intends to discuss how this methodology can be applied to the study of texts and their circulation in other contexts and time periods in Islamic history.

Author: Guy Burak (Bobst Library, New York University)