Preceding the annual Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference in Boston, SHARIAsource sponsored and cosponsored three events on emerging digital research tools. Maxim Romanov, (Universität Leipzig) and his collaborative work with the Islamicate Texts Initiative (ITI) using Arabographic optical character recognition (OCR) were featured. Using self-made software, Maxim and colleagues have “achieved optical character recognition (OCR) accuracy rates for classical Arabic-script texts in the high nineties [percentage].” The chart above illustrates the success rate for recognition when used on a number of different texts and scan qualities. Romanov presented the results of his team, comprised of Matthew Thomas Miller (Roshan Institute for Persian Studies, University of Maryland, College Park), Sarah Bowen Savant (Agha Khan University), and Benjamin Kiessling (Universität Leipzig) in two workshops and a colloquium: “Digital Islamic Law and History: Resources and Methods,” “Comparing and Sharing Digital Archival Projects and Resources,” and “From Text to Map: Arabic Biographical Collections and Geospatial Analysis,” respectively, and sponsored by the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard and cosponsored by SHARIAsource and the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC).
The major conclusions to arise from the sessions were for specialists who can use digital humanities tools to make Islamic law more accessible to each other and to non-specialists. Using OCR to digitize historical texts, researchers can aggregate and tag information from more sources. They can do so before using “distant reading” (a method of identifying trends, in contrast to “close reading” of texts that examines details) to study patterns and developments evidenced in the text. This development makes possible something that would be nearly impossible with only human minds and hands at work. With this increased capability to manage huge amounts of data, ITI focused on toponyms (place names) and nisbas (adjectives indicating someone’s provenance or profession) in the biographical texts in Taʾrīkh al-Islām (The History of Islam) by al-Dhahabi’s (d. 1348) to chart the geography and productivity of print and writing in the Islamic world.
These three SHARIAsource-supported programs afforded scholars and researchers the chance to see different applications of Arabic OCR and distant reading. A hands-on workshop tailored to scholars’ research areas allowed them to personally build on these tools with texts that bear on their own research. By learning to tag relevant texts with terms that would yield results beneficial to their own ongoing research, scholars added a new skill and method to their repertoire. Mohommad Sagha (University of Chicago), a SHARIAsource editor for Shi’ism, attended each of the events and found that the programs “provided participants with a series of cutting-edge innovative tools and methods [that] enable scholars to take better advantage of the full Islamic textual tradition. These methods, in turn, can contribute to asking a new set of questions and reshaping theoretical rigor in ways that were previously impractical. As an aspiring scholar of Islamic history and thought, these methods and ways of thinking will strongly complement other pre-existing fields of methodological and theoretical knowledge that I have acquired and help my research become more robust and rigorous.”