Muslim Civilizations Abstracts Project: Bridging the Knowledge Gap
The communications revolution has greatly enhanced the sharing of information. In the case of academic research, there is a wealth of scholarly materials available in print and online.
But if you examine the source of the information, a problem becomes apparent. Where is the input from countries that, for historical or economic reasons, are underrepresented in the international marketplace of knowledge?
It is fair to say that at this point in history, the knowledge market is dominated by European and North American universities. Languages such as English, French and German dominate in academia, and publications in these languages are widely disseminated and easily accessible.
On the other hand, the perspectives of scholars in developing economies in Africa and Asia, or those written in Russian, Chinese, Turkish, Malay, Urdu, Persian or Arabic often go unnoticed outside of their immediate linguistic circles. As a consequence, a prevailing worldview on a particular issue might emerge that is inaccurate, misleading or misjudged, not through ill intent but rather due to a lack of information.
Pakistan’s Aga Khan University is keenly aware of this imbalance and has undertaken an ambitious project to collect knowledge from scholars throughout the Muslim world and make it available worldwide.
Aptin Khanbaghi has the formidable task of leading the Muslim Civilizations Abstracts project at the university’s London-based Institute for the Study of Muslim Civilizations.
Born and raised in Iran, fluent in six languages and boasting an impressive CV that features leading universities in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, Khanbaghi is aware of the scale of the task his team faces, but he is clear about the goal.
“We want to promote the work of scholars based in the Muslim world who cannot make their voices heard due to financial restrictions or linguistic barriers,” he said.
“The aim is purely academic; we don’t have any political affiliations. The aim is not financial or political. The aim is honorable, in the sense that we are trying to help people who otherwise would not be able to make their voices heard.”
Publications to date (published through Edinburgh University Press) include “Encyclopedias About Muslim Civilizations” and “Interpretations of Law and Ethics in Muslim Contexts.” The latter work features 200 abstracts with bibliographical details published in English, Arabic and Turkish. Abstracts for the series are accepted in eight languages.
The series will go online at the end of this year, or in early 2013. Creating a search tool capable of handling so many diverse languages and solving transliteration issues has posed a technical challenge. Khanbaghi’s team has overcome these issues with the assistance of colleagues in Pakistan and experts from Saudi Arabia and Lebanon.
Speaking specifically on the subject of law and ethics in the Muslim world, Khanbaghi noted that “Islamic law is not monolithic; every country has its own specific law. In most Muslim countries the legal systems applied are actually based on European laws — they are not based on Shariah or Islamic law as such.”
He pointed out that Shariah law is applied, with respective variations, in relatively few Muslim countries, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Afghanistan.
In some regions, aspects of Islamic law have been influenced by ancient predecessors, such as Roman law. Some countries, such as Turkey, are secular with strong traditional and religious influences. In Indonesia, a federated nation, different laws are applied within the country. Shariah law is applied in Aceh but not in Jakarta, for example.
This complexity and diversity is not always reflected in debates around legal and ethical issues.
“If a culture or movement is explained in the wrong way to people who have power, they may be prompted to intervene in countries,” Khanbaghi said. “That has very big implications. It is very important to hear how people interpret their own culture, what expectations they have of their rulers, how they see their daily lives, explain their social behavior, see their future.”
Another hindrance to the even dissemination of knowledge, Khanbaghi noted, is a lack of interest among younger generations in learning non-European languages and studying the civilizations of their neighboring countries.
“In effect, it is difficult to obtain an Arab view of Iran or an Iranian view of Turkey. Cultural exchange between Muslim countries is scarcely encouraged at all by governments and academic institutions, and tense relations greatly inhibit communications between academics in the region,” he said.
“In Arab countries, the study of Persian, Turkish or Urdu is neglected in favor of English, even by scholars undertaking research on Central Asia, Turkey or the Indian subcontinent.
“This lack of scholarly exchange has led to a deficiency in the Muslim world, where Muslim cultures and societies do not benefit from the insights of their own perspectives. This linguistic barrier has to be circumvented, as communication and mutual exchange of knowledge is vital for establishing cordial relations between countries.”
The Muslim Civilizations Abstracts team is reaching out to scholars around the globe. “We want to prompt people to cooperate with us,” Khanbaghi said. “It’s a very collaborative work — we need the help of all scholars around the world. We still need to engage with people from many more countries, including China, Africa and Arab countries that have not contributed yet.”