Digital possibilities for Research on Arabic Literature

The word ‘digital humanities’ is ringing in all our ears these days. And indeed, this umbrella term encompasses a number of original – and sometimes breathtaking – approaches to old corpora. Yet, reality often enough stays far behind expectations, and the Arabic language and script, in particular, cause obstacles for applications in our field.

Thus, many institutions are happy to upload images of manuscripts to a repository and call it a day, often even without providing much needed meta data to situate the item at hand within time and space. One of the most insightful and engaging series on the risks and downsides of this development remains Dagmar Riedel’s blog Islamic Books.

Now, the UK based kitab project promises a remedy to this sorry state. The premises of the project are indeed promising. A large – and growing – corpus that apparently consists of source texts that have been taken from shamela and enhanced for scholarly work are made available for searches for text passages and how they might have been reused by other authors. The project promises that their tools will allow to “discover relationships between these texts and also the profoundly intertextual circulatory systems in which they sit.”

This would be a great step forward. The intertextuality of Arabic literature, and writing in general, has long been acknowledged, but due to the magnitude of the corpora has so far obstructed an overall assessment of the importance of certain authors on later generations.

Until now, the project is restricted to closed community of users, a beta version so to speak. Unfortunately, the website offers no detailed information on how the available corpus is composed. Whereas I am confident that the ‘classical period’ is well-represented, I wonder in how far that applies to the Middle Periods, especially towards the end of the period covered (750-1500).

The project organizers can certainly not be blamed that large parts of the literature of the later centuries have not even been edited yet. On the contrary, they even urge scholars to add new texts to the corpus. But the risk remains that such a handy tool as the kitab project offers, might reinforce earlier survival, edition, and digitization biases. The already vast amount of 4,500 individual texts it allows to access and analyze easily, might be too tempting as to consult other works which are only available in some obscure collection overseas.

It should be our shared interest as researchers that this issue is addressed and that the kitab project (as well as other DH projects) rather lead to the opposite direction. That they proliferate the research on unedited manuscripts by easing the access to those sources, which have been canonized through different stages of scholarly engagement (again, the editorial and digitizing practices play a role here). In sharing our own work within the framework of kitab might be a better way reinsert those texts into the assessment of scholarly traditions than simple provision of digital images.

AMENDMENT: More detailed information on the composition of the corpus used by kitab can be found on the github page of the Leipzig based OpenArabic Project. And indeed, there is a clear bias towards the earlier centuries and the ‘classical period’ in particular. Under the thematic rubric ‘biographies’, the 14th century appears as the heyday whereas the 15th and 16th centuries seem all but void of that sort of literature (under biographical works, the number drops from 24 titles for the 14th to 7 for the 15th century). Chronicles are rather absent from the corpus in general, with the highest peak (again in the 14th century) only reaching a number of 6. For the whole 15th century, only two chronicles are included and none for the 1500s.