Bridging the Gap
Digital Humanities and the Arabic-Islamic Corpus
Christian Lange and Melle Lyklema (Utrecht University)
Despite some pioneering efforts in recent times, the computational analysis of Islamic intellectual history remains a largely unexplored field of research. Researchers still tend to study a narrow canon of texts, made available by previous Western researchers of the Islamic world largely based on considerations of the relevance of these texts for Western theories, concepts and ideas. Indigenous conceptual developments and innovations are therefore insufficiently understood, particularly as concerns the transition from premodern to modern thought in Islam.
This project harnesses state-of-the art Digital Humanities approaches and technologies to make pioneering forays into the vast corpus of digitised Arabic texts (ca. 10 times the size of the ‘classical’ Greek and Latin corpus) that has become available in the last decade. This is done along the lines of primarily two case studies, each of which examines a separate genre of Arabic and Islamic literary history: Islamic jurisprudence; and the Arabic literature on proselytism. By way of ‘distant reading’, these two corpora are studied in terms of the semantic shifts they gradually underwent (from the 8th to the 20th c.), and the terminological and conceptual differences obtaining between different clusters of texts within the corpus (e.g. the different schools of law in Islam, that is, the four major Sunni schools and the Shi’i school).
This project has developed an openly accessible, Arabic-compatible version of the corpus search engine BlackLab (based on Apache Lucene) that enables easy access to the two marked-up corpora and offers a set of tools for Arabic text mining and computational analysis. The project is inserted into an ongoing ERC project on Islamic intellectual history housed at the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Utrecht University, and has collaborated closely with international initiatives in the field of Arabic Digital Humanities, culminating in the organisation of a KNAW academy colloquium, ‘Whither Islamicate Digital Humanities? Analystics, Tools, Corpora’ (13-15 December 2018).