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Center forDigital Humanities

Of Graphs, Maps, and 30,000 Muslims: Premodern Arabic Texts and the Digital Humanities

Maxim Romanov, University of Leipzig


Date: Monday, Nov. 14
Time: 4:00 p.m.
Location: Gambrell 431


In the course of 14 centuries, Muslim authors wrote, compiled and recompiled a great number of multivolume collections that often include tens of thousands of biographical, bibliographical and historical records. Over the past decade, many of these texts (predominantly in Arabic) have become available in full text format through a number of digital libraries. The overall number of texts in these libraries amounts to thousands with their overall volume exceeding 1.5 billion words. Scholars of Islam and Islamic history have already realized the value of the newly available resources, but it is the new digital methods of engaging with these texts that promise to qualitatively change the field by opening up research opportunities that were unthinkable a mere decade ago. In particular, various text-mining techniques allow us to study such multivolume collections in their entirety, making it possible to engage in a data-driven exploration of thelongue durée of Islamic history.

Following a general introduction to the digital Islamic humanities, the lecture will then zoom in on the results of the computational analysis of the largest premodern biographical collection—The History of Islam of the Damascene scholar al-Ḏahabī (d. 1348 CE), who covered 700 years of Islamic history through over 30,000 biographical records. The riches of this collection hold the keys to understanding of both the Islamic written tradition as well as the history of Islamic society. What was the the nature of Islamic society over the course of 700 years of its history? How was it changing in time and space? What were the major cultural centers? Did they remain the same or pass the baton off to each other? Focusing on these and other questions, the lecture will showcase a variety of analyses possible through text mining and algorithmic reading, pondering the implications of novel digital methods for the field of Islamic history.


Maxim Romanov is a research fellow at Alexander von Humboldt-Lehrstul für Digital Humanities, Institut für Informatik, Universität Leipzig. His dissertation (Near Eastern Studies, University of Michigan, 2013) explored how modern computational techniques of text analysis can be applied to the study of premodern Arabic historical sources. In particular, he studied “The History of Islam” (Taʾrīḫ al-islām), the largest of surviving biographical collections with over 30,000 biographies, written by the Damascene scholar al-Ḏahabī (d. 1348 CE). He is continuing his research and developing methods of computational analysis for other genres of premodern Arabic literature, mainly large-volume collections that can offer insights into long-term and large-scale developments that took place during the premodern period of Islamic history. He is working on two book projects: (1) “The History of Islam”: An Essay in Digital Humanities continues the study of al-Ḏahabī’s tremendous collection of biographies, while (2) The Gift to the Knowledgeable 2.0 explores cultural production in the Islamic world until the beginning of the 20th century through the study of the Hadiyyaŧ al-ʿārifīn, a bibliographical collection composed by Ismāʿīl Bāšā al-Baġdādī (d. 1920).

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