My e-mail address is cornelisvanlit -at- gmail -dot- com
The World of Image
A life-long research into one of the most original developments of Islamic thought

عالم المثال: بحث مدى الحياة في واحدة من التطورات الأكثر تطورا في الفكر الإسلامي

'The world of image', ʿālam al-mithāl, also referred to as 'imaginal world', is a concept developed by medieval Islamic intellectuals. It is highly innovative and finds no direct ancestor in Greek philosophy, nor even a distant cousin in any other culture. Studying this notion is one of the key ways to dismantle the narrative that the Islamic world entered a dark age after the 11 th century, from which it supposedly never recovered.
It seems to me that the notion was picked up in four distinctly different ways. Each of these four ways will be subject to an investigation through a project. The first two projects are described below.
Projects

Eschatology and the World of Image in Suhrawardi and His Commentators

1. The first way is how the philosopher Suhrawardī (d. 1191) and his commentators developed the notion. They eventually propose this term to denote a world beyond our earthly world, to be reached in sleep, meditation or after death. This world of image consists of non-physical (imagined) bodies, providing a philosophical interpretation of bodily resurrection.

Ibn Arabi's Reshaping of the Muslim Imagination

2. Ibn ʿArabī (d. 1240), the great mystic who had a tremendous influence on Islamic culture, together with his commentators, also uses the notion, but in a different way. For them, the world of image explains the multiplicity of creation and its characteristic of constantly going in and out of existence. If God alone truly exists, then the actual creation is a mere act of imagination of Him. Humans can therefore penetrate the truth of existence best through their imaginative faculty of imagination, not their intellectual faculty.

Patrons and Timeline

Suhrawardī project

European Research Council, Starting Grant #263308

I was part of a team from November 2011 to August 2014, as a doctoral researcher.

Ibn ʿArabī project

Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, Veni Grant #275-63-009

I am the principal investigator of a grant running from July 2018 until June 2022.

Results

Suhrawardī project

1 book

6 peer-reviewed articles

2 conference panels

10 talks

Ibn ʿArabī project

In progress

Introduction

I work on Islamic intellectual history from the late-medieval to early-modern period, known as the post-classical period. I concentrate on topics from philosophy, but frequently involve sources from theology, mysticism, and the sciences as well. Popular knowledge has it that this period is devoid of interesting intellectual work in the Islamic world; that Islam fell into a Dark Age from which it never recovered. My work helps to dispel this myth by giving counter examples and establishing a general narrative of intellectual activity in this post-classical period. My preferred procedure is to pick an earlier thinker such as the theologian al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the philosopher al-Suhrawardi (d. 1191), or the mystic Ibn Arabi (d. 1240) and unearth the influence such a thinker had on the discourse up until today.

To do this work, I use computer-supported solutions, which makes my work part of the emerging ‘Digital Humanities.’ I am one of the first to introduce Islamic Studies to this, and as such my work on this is a combination of thinking of foundational concepts and developing of practical proof of concepts.

I draw especially from the notion of ‘Distant Reading’, that is, “understanding literature not by studying particular texts, but by aggregating and analyzing massive amounts of data.” This allows me to develop a method to navigate the ocean of unread literature from the Late Medieval and Early Modern period. I further explore the notion of ‘commentary traditions;’ sets of texts from disparate socio-historical contexts that have in common that they all are commentaries on a particular text or author. Such commentary traditions give interesting dissections of this large, unexplored period.

Talks

Tabah Foundation, Cairo, 2017

Ottoman History Podcast, 2016

DAAL Center, Cairo, 2015

Coming soon.

Among Digitized Manuscripts

Philology, Codicology, Paleography in a Digital World

I have written a handbook for bringing together Digital Humanities and Manuscript Studies. It is especially suitable for students and scholars who have been classically trained in handling manuscript materials and who want to take advantage of the incredible computing power they know they have literally at their fingertips.

The best places to know more about this book are:

This handbook provides a conceptual and practical toolbox for anybody working with digital photos of texts rather than the artifact itself (or the plain text contents of it).
The core question it answers is, now that we have digitized such a dizzying amount of manuscripts, what to do with it? In short, the chapters discuss the following topics:

  1. The difference between a text existing in a material manuscript, a printed publication, or a digital document.
  2. What happens when we have a hybrid form: a material manuscript represented as a digital document? And, in particular, how can we describe and evaluate the digital aspects of a digitized manuscript?
  3. The application of such an evaluation to twenty leading repositories, to better understand the variety of digitization we can encounter.
  4. Arguing for self-sufficiency and small-scale use of technology since large projects tend to die ungracefully. This chapter also includes instructions how to redraw glyphs as vector shapes to assist in advanced analysis.
  5. Describes the workflow from getting the textual content out of a manuscript into a computer, and all the perils involved.
  6. Using web development technology to publish results both interactively and graphically. I discuss this by detailing from start to finish how to catalog an uncatalogued collection.
  7. Learning to program, specifically with Python. Readers will be introduced to writing custom image recognition and analysis software.
  8. In the conclusion I once more make a case for the self-sufficient humanities scholar who can use technology to their own liking and I further argue that what is now perceived as a division between ‘digital humanities’ and ‘classical humanities’ would ideally cease to be as digital methods become part and parcel of our daily workflow.
  9. There is also a Postscript in which I share some of my own experience working with digitized manuscripts, including an explanation of the title of the book.

What this book is not:

  • Is not a mere catalog of the state of the art of all aspects of manuscript studies
  • Does not give a list or directory for all possible tools and technologies (this GitHub Repo will in due time)
  • Does not explain how to digitize artifacts
  • Does not cover plain text analysis
What this book is
  • An argument in favor of the lone scholar, working with tools free to use
  • Explains the shift in mindset necessary to use technology proficiently
  • Argues that the aura of digitized manuscripts is not less or more than the aura of the material artifact, just different
  • Encourages you to keep learning, especially using the extensive literature already available on coding

The Digital Orientalist

In 2013, I started a blog which later grew into an online magazine run by a team of scholars, librarians, and students. We share our experience using digital tools in the Humanities, especially as it relates to our day-to-day workflow. Visit the magazine here.

Out of my efforts with the website came several other things.

Software

  1. Keyboard layouts for Arabists For more information see here and here

Publications

  1. A manifesto published in MELA Notes, a journal for librarians.

  2. A review of a book that does a good job at introducing DH for Islamic and Middle East Studies, published in the Journal of the American Oriental Society.

Panels

  1. AOS
  2. DH2019

Workshops

NISIS

Talks

Leiden Summer School

Videos and podcasts

More to come.

Consultancy

Interested in hiring me for consultancy or training? Please contact me to prepare an offer fulfilling your exact needs. If the job is too big or unsuitable for myself, I have a team of expert colleagues to bring you in contact with. Don't hesitate to contact me.

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