Thoughts after Workshop: ‘Colophons and Scribal Cultures across the Early Modern World’

On 2 July, I was attending the workshop ‘Colophons and Scribal Cultures across the Early Modern World’ at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. The workshop was organized by Christopher D. Bahl and Stefan Hanß and brought together ten researchers from the UK and Germany discussing manuscripts and manuscript cultures, and its connections to print cultures.

The workshop took a deliberately transregional perspective, addressing “a variety of languages and regions ranging from Europe to the Middle East, South Asia, and the Americas”. Centered around the colophon, its declared aim was to “reconsider our understanding of the creation of professional scribal identities and the ways in which scribes inserted themselves into larger bookish cultures across the early modern world.”

Olly Ackermann spoke about her field work in an Indian Bora community and the living manuscript tradition centered on this community’s library. Manuscripts are still being copied around the year by the male members of the community’s inner circle. One of the most intriguing points was the use of the phrase “yā kābīkāj” in the manuscripts. Kābīkāj is the name of a bitter plant which was put into manuscripts to keep termites away. The use the phrase has apparently been used to guard this heritage against wider notions of evil.

Christopher D. Bahl (School of Oriental and African Studies/Institute of Historical Research) spoke about the emergence of wider communities of reading and copying of Arabic texts in the 17th-century Indian subcontinent. Surviving manuscripts from this period surpass by far the numbers of Arabic manuscripts from preceding centuries. Christopher connects this phenomenon with the spread of colophons and other paratextual elements that indicate a professionalization of scribes and copyists.

Nur Sobers-Khan (British Library, Lead Curator, South Asian Collections) discussed a related topic. Based on the Delhi manuscript collection at the British Library, she tried to identify scribes who produced the 2,000 volumes this collection contains in Arabic. The star scribe produced at least fifteen different books and is thus identified in notes by other people.

The Delhi collection was also at the heart of Arthur Dudney’s (University of Cambridge, Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies) presentation. It revolved around the question whether there was a market for education and text books for aspiring bureaucrats. Literacy in Persian and, on higher levels, Persian poetry. Arthur tends to a positive answer, proof for which he sees in the many cheaply produced manuscripts with repeating contents.

On the Europeanist side, Liesbeth Corens (University of Oxford, Faculty of History) introduced us to communal scribal practices among female convent members in Early Modern Northern Europe. Manuscripts often carry different handwriting switching in the middle of one text, often repeatedly. The colophons in those texts do not refer to individual scribes but rather mention the convent or its abbot. It stands in stark contrast to Christopher’s case, where people are emphasized instead of places.

Hanna Murphy (King’s College London, Department of History) explored the interplay of scribal work and print culture. Calligraphy apparently benefited from the pervasiveness of print, and print manuals propagated new styles to be engaged by experienced and aspiring calligraphers both. Hanna rejected the notion that this led to artistic stasis in the field but could rather show the opposite: Calligraphers might have begun by copying the printed examples but would also develop them in very different and original directions in their own work.

Stefan Hanß was likewise concerned with the interpretation of modes of signatures that went beyond the colophon. Bringing together examples from the Early Modern Mediterranean, Europe, and the Americas, he explored their meanings. Stefan argued vehemently for the creativity behind early modern signatures and the extratextual connections they created. They can be interpreted as speech acts or they resemble the corporeality of that which they signify: for instance, a communalist signing of a rebellion might be arranged in a circle, very much like a modern-day sports team comes together to hype themselves up.

Likewise, the two contributions on the Levante addressed alternatives to the colophon. Laurenz Kern (Freie Universität Berlin, Institute of Islamic Studies) spoke about ṭaqrīẓ, a type of text often associated with the modern blurb. It is not simply any endorsement of a work but was a distinct genre, which occasionally even merited its own collective volumes. Its author and subject of endorsement are always identifiable, and it was usually written by an established for an early-career scholar. Still, it remains unknown what its primary function was. Was it a tool for authentication or did it serve a purpose in a text’s distribution?

My own presentation asked which modes of authentication were available when compiling works in the handwriting of others, a recompilation rather than a copying. The presentation revolved around a small composite manuscript probably compiled by the mid-19th century (Cairo, Dār al-Kutub, MS 21201 bāʾ). It contains on 21 folios four autograph works by Ibn Ṭūlūn. The presentation makes use of marginal remarks and titles added in different hands than the author’s to explore the engagement of readers and owners with the autograph and the impact their annotations exert on the organization of the manuscript or even the meaning of its individual textual components. In conclusion, I argued that also colophons have to be studied in conjunction with other paratextual elements to understand its relevance in scribal cultures.

David Zakarian’s (University of Oxford, Faculty of Oriental Studies) presentation on Armenian colophons concluded the day, and it did so in a wonderful way. Armenian colophons are something else, and were apparently the favorite place to place mentions of your family, your neighbors, and yourself. Patrons who issued manuscripts used this place generously. And scribes repeatedly made use of their intermediary position to insert themselves somewhere in there, as well. This function of the colophon even made its way into Armenian language. there, it is known as yištakaran, a place to remember of for remembering, in essence a time capsule that would sustain one’s memory long after one’s death.

Thoughts after Workshop: Textual Analysis Using Stylometry (AUB, 24-25 April)

On 24 and 25 April 2018, Najla Jarkas organised a workshop on “Textual Analysis Using Stylometry” at the american University of Beirut. The workshop was hosted by David Wrisley and given by Maciej Eder, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Polish Students at the Pedagogical University of Krakow, Poland, and and at the Institute of Polish Language at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

For those who are not familiar with the term stylometry (as was I before the workshop), it is a method of textual analysis that does not focus on the big and exceptional words but on the frequency of every-day terms in writing. By measuring frequencies and distribution, it has become a major method for everything from authorship attribution (note the case of the identity of the pseudonym Elisabeth Ferrante) and proximity to proving plagiarism.

Within the workshop, we took first steps in using the software R on a preassembled textual corpus of 19th-century English literature. We used Dr. Eder’s stylometry package for R which also can be found on his github page. You also find there two corpora to try out what it can offer you. Following these first steps I tried to apply stylometry to my own small corpus of teaching certificates getting mixed results. This might be in the nature of these texts, being epitomised by the most common three-word combinations being “Muhammad bin Muhammad” and “bin Muhammad bin”. Within the small sample, there was also little proximity to be found between the different texts.

Yet, as digital methods so often do, they make you think about your own methods and conditions of research. And R seems promising when you think of the possibilities in analysing premodern Arabic texts. As historical texts in particular were often to a large degree the product of recompilation of earlier sources, would it not be cool to find out where an author most probably copied from another one? This is basically what Sarah Savant’s Kitab Project promises to achieve.

But what would we need to enable the machine to help us with our texts? Clearly, it depends on what you work on: the period, the genre, and the fame of “your” authors all matter for how fast you can accumulate a relevant corpus. And it is generally better for you if you work with edited sources only, since chances are that you find a copy of those on shamela or another grey website. Even better, you might find them on the github page of Maxim Romanov’s project Open Arabic (current URL / new URL). This is by far the largest and best curated repository of Arabic texts you can hope for at the present moment.

Still, it suffers from what I’d like to call the “edition bias”, which distorts our perspective of Arabic literary of, more so, writerly heritage in much the same way as the better-known survival bias and the more recent “digitisation bias” do. It tends to over-represent works of the Abbasid period, for instance, over those of the Ottoman Period. This is not Maximov’s fault, I have to emphasise! It is simply the nature of modern academic tradition which, in turn, also has built upon the modern and traditional Arabic traditions in valuing and hierarchising literary works and other writings according to often implicit standards.

In other words, despite its many merits, I urge you to not to take the numbers it gives you for included works from different centuries as statistically sound representations of the ups-and-downs of actual literary production. I have before spoken about the size of Ibn Tulun’s written corpus: the surviving works alone range in the hundreds. So, what do we find on Open Arabic?

Ibn Tulun works in Open Arabic

Six works, only one of which has a considerable size! Even Ibn Abd al-Hadi (see IbnMibradHanbali), whose works were rarely copied in manuscript, has fourteen entries! One reason for the selection of works by both authors is a continuing interest in the Arab world in their religious and ethical writings. Other works, some of which have been introduced on this blog before, are currently not regarded as edition worthy (you see, there is the bias).

So, one main obstacle in applying stylometry to my own project is the lack of a sufficient corpus. As Dr. Eder explained, however, you would not need to transcribe everything in your corpus. A few passages per book might be enough to get you started. And it might be interesting to run these analyses not only when your corpus has been finalised but regularly in the process.

But I was wondering also whether we can actually use this method for cases like teaching certificates and other documentary sources. Even though Florian Sobieroj has shown in an article, that these texts never assumed a uniform format, we cannot get around the long chains of names connected into long chains of transmitters and interrupted by the likewise long titles of books. There is not much verbal action happening in those—nor in much of hadith literature.

In turn, this is connected to the question which parts of such texts were actually conceived of by their authors. Which parts of such texts could we use as the standard by which to evaluate the authorship of other passages or works? The basmalla? The tamhid? The justification of the work? The chains of transmission? The interpretation of their source material? This is a tricky question and I have no answer for it. And this comes before even problems connected to machine-readability are taken into account. These include the issue of the assimilation of the “wa” to the following word, the distinction search functions make between words with or without article, plural forms, let alone letters that become visible in writing only when the letter is present.

So, where is the silver lining of all those obstacles I keep ranting over? I would say that all of us can be the silver lining. We just need to share our own transcripts with each other and the Open Arabic (soon Open ITI) project in particular, thereby enlarging our shared corpus of machine-readable texts. These can even be partial ones like my contents list of Ibn Tulun’s biographical dictionary al-Ghuraf al-ʿaliyya. And the benefits of sharing your data go way beyond the applicability of stylometric analysis. It is perhaps the best entry point to understand better the opportunities digital humanities offer for our research and its dissemination. Or perhaps I am just idealistic in this matter…

New Publication in MSR: “Between Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus: Al-amr bi-al-maʿrūf and the Sufi/Scholar Dichotomy in the Late Mamluk Period (1480s–1510s)”

In time for the New Year, the most recent issue of Mamluk Studies Review (vol. 20) has come out and it features my first contribution to this journal. In “Between Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus” I have attempted to show three things.

The first point I am trying to make is that the distinction between ulama and Sufis is not really useful when trying to unearth Late Mamluk local and even imperial politics and alliances. Instead, I propose to follow the informal networks that transgress those groups and connect them as well to the Mamluk rulers on one side and the larger populace on the other.

Secondly, the discourse on justice subsumed under the phrase al-amr bi-l-maʿrūf wa-naḥy ʿan al-munkar is identified as one banner under which proponents of these different status groups would rally. Moreover, I suggest that it offered a language to address one’s dissatisfaction with one’s own social-financial situation. Since it ties personal grievances to larger concerns about justice, I argue, the use of its terminology should be studied also from the perspective of social competition over the diminishing waqf resources towards the end of the Mamluk Era.

The third point I emphasize is the translocal nature of these politics. Following Albrecht Fuess, Dane Ephrat, and others, I bring the rather backwater town Beirut into the picture, showing how involvement in such places could feature in strategies of social-religious figures. The choice of place was thereby both dictated by the selected case study and a bow to my current place of residence.

These two arguments are presented on base of a case study that drawn scholars’ attention repeatedly since the second half of the 19th century. The Maghribi Sufi Ali Ibn Maymun has been described as a radical or a militant specimen of his status group by more established scholars.

To this discussion, the article adds the view point of one of his main opponents in Damascus, the shaykh al-islam and patron of Ibn Tawq, Taqi al-Din Abu Bakr Ibn Qadi Ajlun. The article illustrates the similarities in the involvement of both figures in the fields of Sufism, jurisprudence, and the fight against the vices, as well as in the geographical areas of their activities. Both people were active in Damascus, where they declaimed wrongful practices, and on the Mediterranean coast, where they organized defenses against pirate attacks.

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.

DOT conference in Jena, Germany (September 18-22 2017)

Following the good experiences at our panel at the School of Mamluk Studies Conference in Beirut, Christopher Bahl and me have submitted another, larger panel on the transmission of manuscripts at the (unaptly named) Deutscher Orientalistentag in Jena this year.

Throughout Tuesday, 19 September, we are going to have a total of eleven papers on manuscript transmission, ranging from the 15th to the early 20th century. As the last time, this announcement begins with our CfP, before I elaborate on some of the themes we aim to elaborate on in that day. Again, this is a joint production of Christopher and me.

Reading the social world of medieval manuscripts: Cultural practices of transmission and their sociabilities

Scholarly practices in the premodern Islamicate world were geared towards a diverse set of transmissional frameworks and articulated through a variety of social encounters. Scholarship over the years has pointed out the centrality of everyday-life practices intended to preserve and transmit knowledge (Berkey, 1992; Chamberlain 1994). More recent studies have emphasised processes of textualisation and textual perusal (al-Musawi, 2008; Hirschler, 2012; El-Rouayheb, 2014). It is well established by now that written transmission did not only complement oral traditions but also transformed and competed with it (Blecher 2013, Burak 2015).

In this panel we will focus on the social contexts and preconditions of manuscript use and production, thus exploring connections between reading and writing practices and their specific sociabilities across the medieval and early modern Islamicate world. This will be conducted in two steps: firstly, we aim to differentiate between different modes of manuscript transmission. We generally distinguish between practices of reproduction and preservation. Under reproduction, on the one hand, we group teaching (including the creation of students’ copies), commercial copying, note-taking, and citation and discussion in other works (e.g. in/of biographical works or the sharḥ and mukhtaṣar genres). Preservation, on the other hand, is concerned with practices of book collection (libraries), book compilation (binding in majāmīʿ), restoration, and, arguably, indexing and catalogisation. Both had important implications for the synchronous circulation and the diachronic transmission of ideas, texts, and manuscripts. How were different genres circulated? What do manuscripts tell us about these contexts and the intended use or audiences?

Secondly, we ask how these modes were related to social contexts of transmission. How can we make use of readers’ notes, colophons, handwriting, or the format and layout of manuscripts to trace trajectories of texts within different social sites, such as book markets, mosques, madrasas, courts and their libraries as well as domestic settings? How did these sites relate to each other? Finally, how did the social and cultural significance of manuscripts and their use change across these sociabilities?

Since the day will consist of four sessions, each of those will highlight one theme. The first session emphasizes contexts of circulation, with presentations by Nir Shafir on early modern pamphleteers, Astrid Meier on court dealings with books, and Gülfem Alici, who focuses on Sufi manuals.

The second session moves the discussion towards preservation, namely in libraries. Stefan Knost investigates a waqf library in Aleppo. In combination with Christopher Bahl’s exploration of a royal library in Bijapur there should arise some interesting contrasts and points of comparison. Konrad Hirschler begins from the perspective of a donor in his presentation on a rather large-scale book endowment in 15th-century Damascus.

Hirschler’s vantage-point will be taken up again in the first afternoon session, which concentrates on scholar’s corpora and personal libraries during the Early Ottoman period (as understood from the “Arab Lands” perspective). Mustafa Altug Yayla will investigate modes of reproduction with regard to translations from Arabic into Ottoman Turkish in the 16th-century. Zacky Khairul Umam draws on al-Musawi to unearth the wide networks of 17th-century Hijazi scholars which rested to a high degree on the exchange of writings. Geographically, Torsten Wollina’s subject is located between those two. The talk concentrates on Damascene multiple-text manuscripts as a mode of publication, preservation, and possibly reproduction.

The final session addresses the transmission – and often remediation – of manuscripts in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Print is obviously the elephant in the room here, and Kathryn Schwartz approaches it through investigating the impact of commissioners of print runs on autochthonous perceptions of written heritage. This offers itself for obvious comparisons with Simon Leese’s presentation on Arabic book production in Bhopal.

The day will be closed by an additional half-hour discussion to draw together the different approaches and perspectives that have been raised during the sessions.