Youssef Yacoubi

Youssef Yacoubi

Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures

The Literatures and Cultures of the Islamicate World through Digital Manuscripts

My project to explore the study and interpretation of Islamic digitalized manuscripts has gone through three phases. I started working on the Crowdsourcing of the 17th century Ottoman Qur’an owned and digitized by Seton Hall University library. Then I moved to supplementing the findings of the calligraphic aspects of the SH Qur’an to other digitized manuscripts that explore other aspects of Islamic culture in the classical period (7th to the 15th century).

On this account, I studied in particular some scientific manuscripts available from Arcadia library to add to a syllabus that could cover a variety of digital manuscripts that students can study as reading material for the course. The course initially titled “Literatures and Cultures of the Islamic World through Manuscripts” aims to give students of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies and those interested in Islamic texts an overview of the developments of the arts and sciences in Islamic classical culture all through representative manuscripts from a selection of disciplines.

Furthermore, the aim of the course is to draw students’ attention to the role of digitization and new tools of textual analysis in the study and interpretation of the Islamic world. At this stage, I had also developed some class assignments to help students navigate through the manuscripts and equip them with methods of reading visual material, identifying specific themes such as calligraphic patterns or other classical designs of book illumination and codification.

The course, “Presenting Data and Information,” by Edward Tufte and the later presentations of other project peers, helped me prepare some of these assignments. I was able to learn from Tufte’s concrete elucidations especially reports from Clinical Psychiatric Data and manuscripts—the technical and pedagogical questions I needed to grapple with in relationship to Islamic manuscripts. I have therefore decided to use some aspects, definitions, elucidations of Tufte’s four books as references to help students appreciate graphical representations/ designs in digital Qur’an or otherscientific manuscripts. The four books have opened my eyes to cutting-edge aesthetics and techniques in effective graphic analysis, integrity and sophistication that helped elevate the standards of quality of my proposed course.

The current project with Ramapo College is a continuation of developing a coherent material content that covers significant manuscripts belonging to vital moments of Islamic production of knowledge in the arts and sciences. For this reason, I embarked on considering a manuscript in philosophy and theology. This phase has involved looking at (Kitāb al-Kafi fi al-ʻaqd al-safi by al-Ghazzali, (1058-1111) available through Princeton Islamic manuscripts collection. Working on a text in philosophy and theology (conceived as the basis of all knowledge) adds another layer of typology of manuscripts (this one on rhetorics, doctrine and speculative theology), to highlight how rhetorical nature and structure of the manuscript can be studied using a digital application that deals more specifically with this textual quality.

By working on these three phases so far, I feel I have built the major components and application tools for the course in terms of the quality of manuscripts themselves as well as the digital tools that are most feasible to study these texts. I have integrated, for example, a set of tools namely AntConc, DocuScope and Voyant for digital text analysis to look at built-in statistical analysis metrics and to identify keywords, and clusters of cultural, philosophical, scientific concepts that my advanced students of Arabic in the course may be interested in. I have found Voyant Tools to be helpful in some ways but not enough in performing fully fledged text analysis.

For this reason, I have used the generic (default) dictionary, consisting of over 40 million linguistic patterns of English classified into over 100 categories of rhetorical effects. There is of course an issue of reading the manuscript in the original. Since I am proposing this course for the certificate in Digital Humanities, I am planning to offer it in English (so the manuscripts will come with the translation) as well as for students of Arabic. DocuScope allows the use of a homegrown dictionary consisting of more than 40 million unique patterns of English that are classified into over 100 rhetorical functions. I have settled on using DocuScope because it is a corpus tool, a dictionary pattern matcher and will work either in English or through translation between Arabic and English.

My aim is to encourage all students to use this tool in their personal projects so to allow them to build their own dictionaries according to their own language theories. Some students may be able to shuttle between the original and the translated version of the manuscript.

I am hoping my students will use DocuScope to collect concepts out of key words (philology) or numerical information over corpora, but also to arrive at richer qualitative understandings of the text that deals with an important cultural encounter between Greek, Arabic and Sufi thought. I have found these digital tools most useful because DocuScope supplements the interpretation of this manuscript by focusing on how one can figure out a rich etymological dictionary that itself aid in cultural contextualization and interpretive processes.

To allow students to use these tools and enhance their ability to become fluent interpreters of visual texts I have noticed this can be combined with an ongoing huge digital dictionary/ encyclopedia project conducted by the Doha Institute for graduate studies. The Doha Historical Dictionary of Arabic will be most useful for students of Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. It aims to oversee the compilation of a historical lexicon of the Arabic language as it has developed over the last two millennia.

With a combination of the rhetorical analysis through DocuScope and the digitalized on-line Historical Dictionary of Arabic, and the encyclopedias in English, students studying the manuscript in Arabic or through translation  will explore centuries of intellectual, cultural, scientific and religious aspects of the Middle East through digitized manuscripts, and some theories/applications for visual reasoning. Students will gain knowledge  of  relevant  themes and  distinctive features of  Arabic/Islamic digitized manuscripts/ literature originated since the rise of Islam (6th and 7th centuries) as well as in the Umayyad, Abbasid, Ottoman, Safavid, Andalūsi and Mongol periods.

One last task I have outstanding is the completion of certain details of the syllabus. I am still editing, proof reading and revising especially the assignments’ section, the exact sequencing and integration of digital tools in relationship to specific manuscripts.