Necessary Tools (and Archives): SHARIAsource and the Need for Islamic Digital Humanities

With the launch of the SHARIAsource blog, we thought it useful to focus on the need for digital humanities for Islamic law and related fields, given the push back and questioning of whether such platforms are useful beyond sharīʿa. We submit that the digital humanities, particular Islamic law, are not only useful: They are necessary.

Daniel Allington, Sarah Brouillette, and David Golumbia have published a provocative new piece in the LA Review of Books, criticizing digital humanities of the brand that SHARIAsource ostensibly fits within. But their claims arguably misunderstand or misrepresent the overarching purpose of digital humanities initiatives and related scholarship, at least so far as those enthusiastic about building and contributing to SHARIAsource are concerned.

For the authors, this new discipline of digital humanities is an extension of a pre-internet age movement of Digital Computing — which started at the University of Virginia and sought to mechanize and democratize access to sources for any non-specialists. They insist that the new Digital Humanities is not all it’s cracked up to be:

“What Digital Humanities is not about, despite its explicit claims, is the use of digital or quantitative methodologies to answer research questions in the humanities. It is, instead, about the promotion of project-based learning and lab-based research over reading and writing, the rebranding of insecure campus employment as an empowering “alt-ac” career choice, and the redefinition of technical expertise as a form (indeed, the superior form) of humanist knowledge.”

The final criticism they levy is an accusation that “the institutional success of Digital Humanities appears to be explained in large part by its designed-in potential to drive social, cultural, and political critique from the humanities as a whole.”

The authors of this piece accuse digital humanities, its platforms, and their tendencies toward data of shifting the humanities away from the critical study of texts and towards information technology, pushed by an economic rather than political measure of success. In their eager skepticism of digital humanities, the authors (two of whom have done work as digital researchers) do not acknowledge something implicit to digital humanities: increased accessibility, and three important consequences of this, which SHARIAsource and Islamic Digital Humanities overall exemplify.

First, there is a problem of the availability of sources that digital humanities scholars and students need to urgently rectify. With all of the controversial debates about Islamic law, for example, there is currently no source where a scholar, policymaker, or journalist can go to figure out what’s what when it comes to Islamic law. There is no source of information to access materials online, and to do scholarship in the area, one must gain access to a handful of libraries in the U.S. or travel abroad to view library and archival sources that are often country-specific. SHARIAsource aims to make available previously unavailable knowledge and sources to those within the field of Islamic law and related field, by helping to facilitate scholars to share primary sources and to contribute their expertise at close textual readings and legal-historical interpretation of those primary sources in their respective areas of geographic and temporal focus. For a 1400-year-old tradition that spans the globe, no one person is up to the task of garnering sources. It will take an army of lawyers, historians, comparative law scholars, sociologists, and other fields of interests together with students of the same. The gap of available sources requires, in short, an expert crowd-sourced project.

Second, relatedly, to digitize humanities or law is not to obviate expertise. It is to direct it. Digital humanities lawyers and other scholars can, for the first time, use the results of cross-historical and disciplinary primary sources as a tool to see broad picture trends that allow quantitative and qualitative research for the first time. To approach the data (in the form of aggregated primary sources) requires first intimate familiarity with legal interpretation and historical writing. Thus, it builds on and directs expertise to cover new fields.

Finally, the authors miss the fact that the new age of digital humanities is the age of the internet, and specifically, the age of Google – which is in a fashion a massive digitization project, with the mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.” Users – scholars and students alike – rely on digital platforms to access sources, and SHARIAsource aims to keep up with the Google Joneses. You might say that we want to organize the world’s information and –through collecting both content and adding context – make it accessible and thus useful, by whatever measure. With access to more information, a more nuanced approach to thoughtful criticism follows.