Interview with Arezou Azad on the Invisible East Programme and its Digitisation of Documents from the Medieval Islamicate East, part 3

This is the third part of the interview with Arezou Azad, Senior Research Fellow at Oxford University’s Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. Dr Azad leads the Invisible East programme at the University of Oxford. You can also read part one and part two.

Q10. Theodora Zampaki: Could you elaborate on the IE Digital Corpus?

Dr Arezou Azad: Our Digital Humanities manager, Arash Zeini, comes with a successful track record in this area, besides being a philologist of Iranian languages. The IE Digital Corpus, which is currently under development, unifies the diverse text collections of the IE programme offering researchers a unique tool to interact with texts and data relevant to the study of the Medieval Islamicate East. By encoding the idiosyncrasies of each document in TEI/XML, we make the individual texts and images available to a wider audience. The data set will be searchable giving access to words in context across a corpus. But our digital corpus will also link the individual collections through a tagging and classification system which will allow users to sort through the data by dates, locations, names of correspondents, and types of documents. I should also note that each document’s encoding contains a set of metadata providing information on shelf numbers, URIs, publication history, materiality, and a concise bibliography. Where possible and meaningful, we will also offer visualizations of the data to help with an overview as an initial entry point to the collected data. The digital corpus will run on the eXist platform and will also include internal encoding tools that simplify the encoding of locations and personal names. It is also planned to develop the platform towards a publishing tool that can be easily employed in other projects.

Q11. How can Graeco-Arabists use the Digital Corpus? Can you give an example? 

Anyone with an interest in our data can use the corpus. The most straightforward approach is perhaps by sorting the corpus according to dates and/or locations. For instance, documents that are dated can be sorted according to year and then narrowed down to specific months and days. The resulting collections of documents can then be narrowed down according to the remaining features that have been encoded, such locations, personal names or types of documents. This, I imagine, will enable researchers to gain a quick understanding of the corpus. However, it is also possible to search the Arabic corpus for particular terms which are displayed in context and sorted according to available tags which can further be narrowed down for more targeted results. 

Q12. What are the benefits for an academic who will use the materials of the ‘Invisible East’ programme? 

We hope that the materials of the programme will inspire more colleagues to question the paradigms with which we have been working in the fields of Islamic history, Iranian Studies, and documentary studies. Some of these paradigms have 19th and 20th century Orientalist “weeds” that we as scholars are still finding hard to pull out. For example, the excessive focus on rulers, courts, and the elite has been overhauled to a large extent in European medieval history. This development has run in parallel with the trend amongst medieval historians to test and seriously question the reliability of narrative sources, while looking for answers in less curated, edited testaments through archival documents. This recalibration still needs to happen in the fields that engage in the history of the Islamicate East. Our tools will help in the calibration and bring the stories and lives of ordinary people – men, women, children, farmers, cobblers, traders, etc – to the forefront of research. It will make history more relatable and relevant to a wider audience, I believe.

A second lacuna we aim to help fill through our programme is to balance out what I think is a bit of a lopsided account of the earlier history of the Islamic world as it is being told by historians today. This history is still dominated by sources written in Arabic, with some important exceptions such as Hebrew, Greek, Coptic, and so on. However, the Iranian languages, of which there were at least a dozen circulating, have barely featured in these historical studies. This is partly an issue of access too, and not just of paradigmatic rigidity. The study of Iranian language documents as sources for history is still in its infancy, but our inventories are making this material at least more visible and manageable. 

Our resources can also help researchers who want to enter this field of work with tried and tested tools. In developing the tools, we have taken guidance and inspiration from other colleagues working on documents in other parts of the Islamicate world where the scholarship is more advanced, notably Egypt and Syria. Thus, the cycle of transfer of knowledge would continue through the Invisible East programme into and across the fields and disciplines in which scholars are working in Iranian languages (and the documentary Arabic used in the East).  This includes scholars working in the Persianate and eastern Islamicate world today, such as in Iran and Afghanistan. It will enable scholars to participate in the international academic dialogue, such as in conference panels at congresses like the International Medieval Congress (IMC), the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), and within local academia in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Q13. Could you share a few thoughts about the future plans of the programme?

As the programme’s researchers, we are all working on our publications right now: some articles and books have already been published and can be viewed here. We are hoping to be able to release the books as part of an academic series. The books will include inventories and selections of transcriptions and translations, as well as in-depth introductions that highlight the most important aspects of each corpus; notably, how they advance our scholarly knowledge of our respective fields. 

Beyond the current funding cycle, we aim to raise more funds that can enable us to expand the programme to develop more user-friendly digital platforms, including OCR’d Persian historical sources that enable quicker and more thorough cross-referencing with these (we don’t have a Maktaba al-Shamela or similarly large-scale hub of digitised or searchable historical sources in Persian – some Iran-based platforms have paywalls and focus mainly on other types of sources). We also appreciate the need to roll out this new area of focus into universities by offering dedicated scholarships at all levels of academic training. In this regard, we are hoping to raise scholarship funds that can enable scholars to engage in this new subject area and develop niche expertise that can help scale up and capitalize on the Invisible East’s gains made so far.

I would especially like to thank Dr Arezou Azad for this insightful overview of this project.

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