The talk should not be seen as part of the ongoing debate about the efficiency of distant reading vis-à-vis close reading as such. The study is rather a test case of how far computational sciences and Islamic and Arabic studies can be “partners” in answering cultural-religious and historical questions related to the Arab and Muslim world. The research, which has been conducted in collaboration with Emad Mohamed of Wolverhampton, mainly discusses methods that could help us computationally track, quantify, and explain the development of religious concerns of reform as reflected in the well-known Muslim reformist journal al-Manār (Lighthouse), published by the Muslim reformer Muhammad Rashīd Riḍā (1865-1935) from 1898 until 1935 in Cairo. We employ quantitative and qualitative methods based on al-Manār-corpus by using morphological processing, topic modeling in order to examine the thematic co-occurrences of the topics and lexemes pertaining to Muslim thinking and societies in Riḍā’s time. As we shall see, this distant digital reading will be supported by qualitative historical close analysis to map these topics in relation to the events that triggered them. In the present case study, by looking for disciplinary connections we shall test computational quantitative models against the background of historical qualitative evidence. We seek for overarching narratives by using a combination of quantitative data of frequent topics as they appeared in al-Manār and interpret them by using qualitative micro histories that illustrate these topics on a different level. We shall see how the results of digital history can be evaluated against the traditional interpretative reading of historical sources by using al-Manār as a case study. By this present collaborative endeavor, we therefore aim to bring statistics and algorithms closer to human historical interpretations.
Umar Ryad is Professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University of Leuven, member of the Young Academy of Belgium (2018-2023) and holder of Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship for Experienced Researchers (2021-2024) at the Centrum für Nah- und Mittelost-Studien (CNMS), Philipps-Universität Marburg. He is also currently the chair of the research unit East Asian and Arabic Studies, and the director of Leuven Center for the Study of Islam, Culture and Society (LCSICS). Prior he has worked as assistant professor at the University of Leiden (2008-2014) and as associate professor at Utrecht University (2014-2017). He earned a BA in Islamic Studies in English from Al-Azhar University in Cairo (1998), followed by an MA degree in Islamic Studies (2001, Cum Laude) and a PhD degree (2008), both from Leiden University. His current research also includes the dynamics of the networks of pan-Islamist movements, Arab reception of Orientalism, Muslim polemics on Christianity, the European trans-imperial connections with the Hajj, transnational Islam in the modern world and the application of Digital Humanities to Arabic and Islamic Studies. He led a European Research Council (ERC) project which focused on the “History of Muslims in Interwar Europe and European transcultural history” (2014-2019). The project studied the intellectual and religio-political roles played by Muslim “intellectual agents” during the interwar years and up until the end of World War II (1918-1946). He is also a co-applicant of two ongoing international research projects: 1) Marie Curie ITN-project “Mediating Islam in the Digital Age” (MIDA) and 2) research consortium “The Computational Study of Culture: Cultural Analytics for Modern Arab and Muslim Studies”, which is funded by Qatar National Research Fund and is based at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies.