The European Research Council has awarded KITAB a five-year €2 ml grant that will enable us to make major progress on our research agenda.

The project is titled “Exploring Cultural Memory in the Pre-Modern Islamic World (700–1500): Knowledge, Information Technology, and the Arabic Book.” Our main goal is to identify and explore the workings of cultural memory, and how memories were communicated, circulated, and exchanged in the period. Our critical intervention is to connect the History of Books field to Memory Studies. We insist on book history as important for understanding how societies could and did remember. And specifically, we interrogate the ways that texts were used and reused across time and space – for example, when authors copied or paraphrased from earlier texts, when they reformulated books into new forms (as with anthologies), or when they reworked narratives to suit present interests.

The project will start in May, with the first year primarily dedicated to work on our corpus of texts, the algorithms we use, and general technical infrastructure. In the coming weeks, we will hire a Technical Lead and Research Associate, and begin to recruit academics worldwide to help prepare the corpus.

In the second year, three post-docs begin focused on:

Iraq, the early periods of the textual tradition up through 1500;

Egypt, the Mamluk period and engagement with scholarship on Islamic learning and the transmission of knowledge in the period;

Islamic West,” Islamic Spain and the Maghreb.

I am responsible for the “Islamic East” and Maxim Romanov is responsible for Syria. The Arabian Peninsula features in the project with both Syria and Iraq to reflect its historic importance and its central role in the transmission of traditions early on. We settled on this regional division of roles so as to consider Arabic writings from as many angles as possible.

For each of these regions, we will focus on:

  1. Authorial practices: the meaning of authorship, the cultural meanings associated with different forms of transmission, and ideas about originality. Also, the broader historical context of the tradition’s explosion, including the impact of the introduction of paper from the ninth century onwards.
  2. Changing forms of the book: the very idea of the Arabic book as a fixed entity. The ways in which textual fragments in books took on lives of their own within anthologies, encyclopaedias, multi-text compilations (majmūʿāt), commentaries, and abridgements (mukhtaṣars) and extensions of books. How, in each unique newly formed book and its text, new meanings were generated.
  3. Narrative adaptations: how frequently copied texts and parts of texts were adapted over time, with the objective of discerning the formation of narratives, often in conflict with one another, out of heterogeneous past material. Changes to narrative are considered in their appropriate historical and sociopolitical contexts to discern interests at work in the development of textual meanings.

We will work both with the OpenITI corpus and with subcorpora curated by members of the research team and featuring metadata-enriched and digitally tagged texts. These subcorpora will include printed books that the team will convert to machine-readable format through an OCR pipeline now under development, and also small numbers of transcriptions from manuscripts. Texts for analysis will include histories but also prosopographies, mirrors for princes, geographies, belles-lettristic works, and religious and legal literature (e.g., Qur’an commentaries, Hadith collections, legal manuals), as well as works written by Christians in Arabic and in multilingual contexts.

Already, we have hundreds of thousands of files documenting reuse, and also multiple statistics sets gathered based on these files. And so, we hope to be able to include quantitative methods in our work. Of course, our case studies will also involve close reading.

We will prioritize visualising this data so that the team, and also other researchers, can access this data. We want users to be able to judge for themselves how closely related particular texts and passages within them are, and to be able to explore textual networks. For example, a user should be able to start with a given text and see which books in the corpus carry textual parallels, where they occur and how extensive these parrallels are, and to read, mark up, and save in personal accounts aligned passages and notes.  A user should also be able to enter KITAB’s application through a word or phrase query and obtain a list of all related passages in which the word occurs, along with their metadata, and then to see a representation of these clusters of passages and their relationships to one another.

In the end, all of our work will be freely available. We have chosen to join the ERC’s open data plan, which means that we will post on GitHub and elsewhere our corpus, text reuse data, algorithms, and documentation for the project. This means that scholars working on French, Sanskrit, or any other language can “reuse” KITAB’s work for their own projects. It will take some time (please be patient with us), but we hope that this way Middle East History can play a leading role in the general move toward Digital methods.

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