Digital Humanities for Arabic Book History: First Work on Models by the KITAB Project

Speaker: Professor Sarah Bowen Savant (Aga Khan University)

How can computer scientists and historians work together to better understand the history of complex written traditions?

The Arabic tradition provides an important case at the forefront of this type of research. At present, the KITAB project – a collaboration between historians and computer scientists – has assembled a corpus of 1.5 billion words of Arabic texts and is seeking to understand how transmission practices resulted in a tradition that is both enormous and also hugely intertextual.

In this lecture, Sarah Bowen Savant will begin by discussing the project's work to model “text reuse” (meaning, the reuse, in whole or in part, of substantial chunks of texts by later authors). The extensive recycling of texts in new ones explains partly the large size of the Arabic tradition; it is important also for understanding transmission of ideas and the workings of cultural memory broadly. 

Secondly, she will focus on the project's work to identify automatically across texts the isnads, or chains of previous authorities, frequently cited by authors to explain their sources. These chains are important for both interpreting the diffusion of texts and how complex texts came into existence. Often, authors tell us precisely how they reused earlier texts, but their explanations are so many, and so complex, that interpreting them without digital methods is nearly impossible. Models help us to capture this information. 

Through this lecture, Sarah Bowen Savant explores the frontiers of what we might learn about one of the world’s richest and most complex written traditions.  

Sarah Bowen Savant is a Professor at the Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations at the Aga Khan University. She is a cultural historian specialising in the Middle East and Iran c. 600-1500, and is Principal Investigator for the Arabic Digital Humanities project Knowledge, Information Technology and the Arabic Book (KITAB) (funded by the European Research Council and the Aga Khan University).

The seminar will be followed by a drinks reception. Attendance is free of charge but as space is limited, please register in advance.
For more information about the series see:
This series is part of the AHRC-funded Open World Research Initiative, and is supported by OWRI projects Cross-Language Dynamics: Reshaping Community and Language Acts and Worldmaking, and by the AHRC Leadership Fellow for Modern Languages (Janice Carruthers). The series is convened by Paul Spence (King’s College London) and Naomi Wells (Institute of Modern Languages Research).