Questions from the Field of Digital Islamic Humanities
The era of Big Data has left no industry unturned, even the rather insulated sector of academia. In a catchall trend called Digital Humanities, centuries old texts and voluminous manuscripts – traditionally poured over by trained linguists, historians, religious studies scholars, and their devoted graduate students in search of insight – have been systemically assigned metrics, converted into data points, sometimes searched using algorithms, or coded into interesting visualizations to understand patterns. The hope in this venture is that computational methods will illuminate the study of the humanities for the 21st century. However, many consider academia hallowed precisely because it upholds tradition and academic rigor over quick solutions to big questions. Thus, the prospect of scholars “going digital” produces new tensions as even Harvard Business Review bloggers puts it, “Big Data can [also] lead to Big Mistakes.” 
I recently had the good fortune of attending the annual conference on Digital Islamic Humanities at Brown University. The field of Digital Humanities is at once well established and burgeoning as folklorists, ethnomusicologists, historians, religious studies scholars, and linguists explore new applications of digital tools to document and digitally represent materials. Spearheaded by Dr. Elias Muhanna, this unique conference brought together Middle East and Islamic studies scholars to critically examine issues in Digital Islamic Humanities, which includes the more specialized world of Arabic, Farsi, Turkish-language scholarship, and texts in translation.
What does Digital Islamic Humanities look like? Imagine an archive in which students can search the names of obscure, Safavid mathematicians or search Islamic treatises using intuitive tags like “Persian scholar,” or even mistyped transliterations, and still discover exactly the resource they need – that is an enticing proposition. Similarly, imagine creative scholars digitally recreating a day in the life of a Mamluk citizen by assembling data from disparate texts currently housed in archives across the world spanning hundreds of years. Consider mapping the exact locations of booksellers in early Ottoman Istanbul and layering the visualized data atop a map of madrassas (Islamic schools) or fabric shops, or out of curiosity, anachronistically atop a map of current-day booksellers.
Such are the daily decisions and possibilities facing today’s professors in the humanities, and they pose serious questions for the quality of liberal arts training of undergraduate and graduate students. Conference attendees brought up concerns over the very “fetishizing of data” that also worries those in sectors from elementary education to investment banking. How far removed can analyzers be from their data sets (whether data means hundreds of pre-Islamic poetic couplets in classical Arabic, or standardized test scores from across a state, or mortgage rates from across the nation)? How freely should analyzers and scholars borrow from others’ findings? What are the implications of open access to data, particularly when the data encodes highly nuanced metaphors from centuries old texts concerning historical figures that have long passed?
This idea of applying data science to the humanities elicits questions about generalizing versus specializing. Should scholars work with technologists to achieve their project dreams, or should scholars be learning new digital skills alongside their languages, methodologies, and arguments in order to ensure no methodological or ethical blunders are committed?
Ultimately, Dr. Beshara Doumani, director of Middle East Studies at Brown, raised the most challenging issue facing the field of Digital Islamic Humanities in the final minutes of the conference proceedings. That is, despite the obvious benefits of interpretation that data visualizations offer students, academia always has been and always should be preoccupied to the point of obsession with how knowledge is produced for future generations. That includes questions of who validates the texts read and canonized, who popularizes and propagates which data points, and who codes the specific visualizations (as visualizing entails framing and storytelling). If concerns with knowledge production are sideswiped by exhilaration for knowledge distribution in the Digital Islamic Humanities, then the political struggles fought within Middle East and various area studies departments across university campuses for the last decades will be hashed anew.
Some great projects in the Digital Humanities featured at the conference:
Other projects at:
[The views expressed in this blog reflect the author’s and do not represent those of the conference organizers or speakers. For the complete video recordings of all talks from this conference, visit www.islamichumanities.org.]