Digital Perspectives on hypotheses

Earlier this year, I attended the second instance of the Digital Humanities Institute Beirut (#DHIB2017). It was the second of its kind in the Arab World and, thanks to the generous support by AMICAL it offered participation free of charge (also it included nice gimmicks such as a reusable water bottle which I have since lost, a high-quality tote bag, and a notebook with its own sticky tags and notes).

The DHIB featured, among other workshops, two sessions on markup languages: multimarkdown and TEI XML. Since I am still struggling to understand how to integrate either of those into my own research and publication process, I will not dwell on those – mostly failed – efforts here.

Now, I kind of forgot about this entry for some time and some of it might seem dated by now. Yet, as the first ever digital humanities internship at the Orient-Institut Beirut draws to a close, bringing us that much closer to a publication of our Arabic text editions in a workable html format (besides the classic print and open access PDFs derived from it), it might regain some of its earlier timeliness.

Instead of summarizing the DHIB, it might be a better idea to point out those blogs on hypotheses which are much further in their mastery of digital possibilities and thus offer advise to others who want to stride down this road.

The first one is foxglove which gives you an overview of French DH initiatives. It also introduces workflows for TEI related edition projects for Latin script texts.

In contrast, Freakonometrics is rather concerned with optical character recognition and machine-readability of texts (e.g. PDFs). In general, it is rather about text analysis than text enrichment but it also provides perspectives on the usefulness of markup languages.


Personally, I find the third one, Himanis, the most interesting. Himanis is short for “HIstorical MANuscript Indexing for user-controlled Search“. It speaks to me mostly because it brings together Digital Humanities perspectives and an understanding of books as objects. The notion of books as objects becomes especially important when thinking about their organization in book cases or shelves. How they deal with that in their TEI based edition of royal charters, they explain here.

Obviously, hypotheses has much more to offer which I will not address here at length. And for those who, like me, read French at a snail’s pace, there are also all-English sites. For instance, digilex covers the creation of a digital dictionary of spoken German with TEI and XSLT.

But one of my favorites is certainly The Recipes Project. They again start out from a distinct interest in manuscripts and old texts. In addition to sharing their insights about encoding these texts in a digital format, the blog also provides useful descriptions of manuscript collections, digitization, historical trajectories of books, teaching with manuscripts, and flabbergasting bits and pieces from the history of strawberries. Even though it deals exclusively with European texts, everyone should check it out.


A recapitulation of this blog’s first year

I started this blog in mid 2016 but honestly, I started to take it more seriously as a writing practice and aide de memoire only in the last year. And I usually enjoyed it. The format is perfect to get you out of a writing slump since all the great hurdles that come with conceptualizing an article, let alone that book proposal at the back of my head, just fall away. That has hugely helped me with formulating and testing ideas for those endeavors.

Now the first year has come to an end and, apart from the last two or three months, I was able to publish at least one entry per month. And several for the new year have been written and scheduled to fill up the always busy January.

One thing that makes writing in this format fulfilling is obviously the quick affirmation. I am thankful that hypotheses includes simple analytics, and I get motivated by every spike or peak in the visitor numbers. Of course, writing alone does not bring people to this one blog.

Analytics of visits for 2017

As this snapshot shows, there has been a noticeable increase in visits in December (it just looks less because the image was created on the 18th. For this, I have to thank Fozia Bora, whose tweet about it was retweeted 33 times.

And I have stayed true to my word and started to publish new posts. In the enxt two weeks, another one on my recent experiences at the Egyptian National Library with some hints about getting access will follow.

Ibn Ṭūlūn’s Autograph Corpus: Online Catalogues

Making sense of a manuscript corpus as large as that of Ibn Ṭūlūn can be tiresome. In particular, since his autographs are today dispersed in libraries in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Turkey, Germany, England, Ireland, the Netherlands and the United States, and the relevant institutions offer very diverse degrees of information about the manuscripts in their catalogues. Yet, these catalogues are obviously a central source in establishing any manuscript corpus.

Things get especially irksome when one wants to make sense of the collections of the Dār al-Kutub (for guidance to its collections, see this review) and the manuscript center of the Arab League (GAD) in Cairo. Access to microfilms at Dār al-Kutub is comparatively easy if rather slow (due to the limit of three items one may order each day); access to the physical manuscripts themselves, however, requires good connections and a lengthy stay. One might circumvent the Dār al-Kutub altogether by turning to the GAD, which offers an online catalogue to browse the selection even beforehand and allows to collect digital copies within the same day.

The GAD offers access to the (partial) holdings of several important manuscript collections of the Arab World. Yet, therein lies a danger as well as new possibilities. The catalogue was apparently created on the basis of the individual library catalogues but their holdings were not compared to each other. What I mean by that: Several collections hold microfilms of manuscripts belonging to another institution. In the GAD catalogue, the same material artifact may thus appear several times. In some cases, doublets might be visible through an allusion to the original collection in the “subject” section but often enough it is not.

How Digitization Has Changed the Cataloging of Islamic Books

This is, however, not a new problem. With the spread of microfilm and microfiche in the early 20th century, collectors and scholars alike made ample use of these technologies, and, among others, the Taymūriyya Library (today in Cairo) and the Arab Academy in Damascus supplemented their manuscript collections by acquiring microfilms from other institutions around the world.

These microfilms received their own call numbers, being treated somewhat similarly to manuscripts physically present in the respective collections. Even though this process is clearly important to the constitution of the corpora which ground our understanding of Arabic literature and book culture, to my knowledge no study has yet been dedicated to this important chapter in the transition from a living manuscript to a print culture (and hence to digitization). Yet, in the face of the ubiquity of the medium, we need a new “codicology” for  microfilms.

To conclude with just one basic example, the integrity of a text in a physical manuscript is partly assured by the use of catchwords on the verso page of each folio. The text is bound to the materiality of the two-sided leaf of paper. In contrast, microfilm images present a surface to the viewer, which usually covers the verso page together with the recto of the following leaf. In order to assure that the following image actually refers to the following double page in the physical manuscript, it would require a catchword on the recto page.

While this might seem a theoretical issue at first sight, the microfilm of the Ibn Ṭūlūn autograph manuscript Majāmīʿ Taymūr 759 is only one case where the addition of such catchwords would be really necessary. For about the first half of the files I bought from Dār al-Kutub, the slides only seem to be in the opposite order (fol. 100 comes before fol. 99 before fol. 98 etc.). Yet, around the middle, the confusion increases even more and it is painstaking to find out which image belongs to which work. Finally, about half of the texts ascribed to this manuscript by the latest print catalogue is completely missing from the microfilm.


Visualizing Manuscript connections with Palladio

Geographical dispersion of autograph manuscripts of Ibn Ṭūlūn

How do you picture the work in the archives? Dusty pages, creaking in the half-light of old halls of knowledge? Bent-over people shuffling their feet between rows of shelves? The creaking of a microfilm viewer seeming deafening in a silence otherwise interrupted only by occasional coughs? It is probably all happening somewhere and might be a strong impetus behind advocation for the digitization of primary sources.

Yet, the work in the archives is also one of the most intriguing parts of an historian’s work. There you encounter the handwriting of a scholar whose ideas you have followed for so long, and the manuscript closes the gap in time, occasionally bearing traces of its own travels and trajectories through time and space (the result looks a lot like space as well, with stars and planets).

One interesting aspect of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s autograph corpus is that most of what survives are rather small-scale writings. In several cases, these are found within one volume entirely consisting of his own works. Moreover, between these volumes there are occasionally several autographs of the same work. And these – both textual and material items – are today dispersed in libraries in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Germany, the Netherlands, England, Ireland, and the United States (more copies in other hands are found elsewhere). In order to make sense of the connections between manuscripts, on one hand, and texts, on the other, as well as their locations today, I have used Palladio.

The present post tries to convey this excitement through the use of visualizations of the dispersion of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s works and codices . I have used Palladio, a network visualization software created at Stanford University. It is platform independent and runs in your browser. It is less powerful than other network analysis and visualization software but it allows you to get results in your first day, which can be very motivational. There is also a good tutorial by Marten Düring, which leads you through the first steps. For the first steps of setting up a Palladio project, you should refer to those sites.

My own project consists of three csv sheets (the full json project file cannot be uploaded here):

Manuscripts Ibn Tulun-Tabelle 1 Works Ibn Tulun-Tabelle 1 Relations-Tabelle 1

Follow Fig. 1 (left to right) in uploading them. The figure also shows the connections (“extension”) you should create between them: Manuscripts should be connected to call number, and key should connect in tables Works and Relations.

Fig. 1: Palladio project start screen

The following visualizations have been created using the graph function. The first image shows the collections which hold Ibn Ṭūlūn autographs and which hold overlapping works. The figure was created by using Place as Source and Place_2 as Target.

Fig. 2: Connections between collections, created through holding of identical works.

The Dār al-Kutub, Cairo, and the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, clearly emerge as the main collections for Ibn Ṭūlūn autographs, with Alexandria, Leiden, and the Staatsbibliothek Berlin trailing.

Fig. 3: Manuscripts held in collections and overlaps in contained works.

Figure 3 makes the interconnections between the holdings of the two main collections even more obvious. Among the manuscripts held by either are several works that can be found in manuscripts of the other as well. The Princeton cluster, which now appears more prominent, contains several fragments or other drafts of texts, held at either Dublin or Cairo, as Kristina Richardson has recently proved. The British Library, London, is connected to this through their one partial autograph, whose remaining volumes are held in Cairo. The size of the Leiden cluster derives from the fact that each text is counted as one manuscript, even though some only count 5 folios.

Fig. 4: Fig. 3: Works held in collections and overlaps through appearing in other manuscripts.

The centrality of the Cairo connection becomes yet clearer if we switch the focus from manuscript codices to individual works. Dār al-Kutub holds the largest number of Ibn Ṭūlūn’s multiple-text manuscripts (MTM), which each contain up to more than ten titles. (I have used reference keys here, since titles are too long to display and Palladio does not allow for proper transliteration. But I am not talking about content here, anyway.) For the same reason, the Alexandria collection (holding only one MTM) draws almost even with the one in Leiden.

Also, the overlap between the Cairo and Dublin collections is now so strong that reading anything becomes difficult (also within the Cairo cluster). Therefore, I have included one last figure. This shifts the focus from the collections to the direct relations between works and manuscripts. In this case, I have used Palladio’s facet filters to consider only those manuscripts held in Cairo, Dublin, and Princeton. Figure 5 is, however, only a limited screenshot which captures the most interesting cases of overlap between – and within – these collections.

Fig. 5: Manuscripts held at Cairo, Dublin, Princeton, containing identical textual items (dark dots are manuscripts, light dots works).

Three out of four MTMs held in Dublin (MS CBL…) have strong overlaps with Cairene manuscripts (MTMs from the Taymur Pasha collection, MS TayMa…). And also within the Taymur collection, the MTMs 759 and 373 share 11 identical items  between them.


On terminology: A sufi polemic against the “mutafaqqihūn” of Damascus

Reading Ignaz Goldziher’s summary (1874) of a sufi’s lament over the corruption of Syrian Islamdom under the Mamluks, I was struck by the sufi’s choice in terminology.

The Maghribī born ʿAlī b. Maymūn attacks current practices of the jurists and sufis of Syria (and Damascus, in particular) but in the title of his work Bayyān ghurbat al-islām bi-wāsiṭa ṣinfai al-mutafaqqiha wa-l-mutafaqqira min ahl Miṣr wa-l-Shām wa-mā yalīhimā min bilād al-aʽjām he does not use the common terms faqīh and ṣūfī. Rather, he refers to them as mutafaqqihūn and mutafaqqirūn. This grammatical form opens up a wide semantic field.

A quick search on shamila shows that these terms are overall uncommon. They only appear ever so often throughout the different Arabic disciplines. Ibn Maymūn seems an exception in using them throughout his work. So what does that mean? Does he use them in a polemic, perhaps even propagandistic way? The use of the form tafaʿʿala is peculiar in itself. Whereas faqīh commonly refers to an accomplished jurist, this form indicates a more abstract notion, describing those people who follow the way or approach of fiqh (jurisprudence) to gain understanding of God, whereas the mutafaqqirūn, in contrast to the accomplished fuqarāʾ, only aspire to gain the same knowledge by a different path (but have not achieved it yet). These might respond to the distinction of two categories of knowledge (ʿilm al-ẓāhir / ʿilm al-bāṭin), Ibn Maymūn uses in an earlier work (Goldziher 1874, p. 301). The grammatical form can further be interpreted as meaning ‘those who pretend to be jurists / sufis’. In the light of the general argument of the work, this seems most plausible.

This notion of the state of Syrian scholarship and sufism becomes clearer in the course of Ibn Maymūn’s argument, which, after starts out with plead for a reconciliation of both approaches, proceeds to outline all the faults of Syrians in both areas. The individual points addressed by Ibn Maymūn (and summarized by Goldziher) are all intriguing on their own account. They offer insight into a number of contemporaneous practices, the Maghribī sufi regarded as wrong and dangerous.

Yet, they seem to only illustrate what he outlines already in the title of the work: His choice in terminology already diminishes the status of both Syrian sufis and jurists a priori, casting them down from full fledged representatives of their respective status groups to mere aspirants to the knowledge, these approaches offer.