Hello to all! I am very much looking forward to participating in the workshop and wanted to introduce my dissertation topic and my reasons for participating.
I am a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies the University of Michigan in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. My main topic of research for the past few years has been the history of medieval Ibadi Muslim communities in North Africa. For those who might not be familiar with them, Ibadis are neither Sunni nor Shi'i Muslims but instead represent what is often called a 'third path' of Islam. While they are very similar to these two other umbrella groups, they possess their own corpora of history, jurisprudence, and theology that set them apart from their coreligionists.
In the past, my research focused primarily on early medieval North Africa and the transition from Late Antiquity Christianity to early Islam (6th-8th centuries CE). When it came time to choose my dissertation topic last year, I decided to work on a much later period (11th-15th century). This choice was largely a result of my interest in manuscript culture. I became interested in how books and people moved around and how the production, transmission, and circulation of manuscript books helped draw the boundaries around this Muslim minority movement in the late medieval period.
In earlier centuries, Ibadi Muslims lived in small communties throughout North and West Africa, where they more or less controlled Saharan trade in slaves. Most famously, the Ibadi Rustamid dynasty ruled the city-state of Tahert (in modern Algeria) from the mid-8th to the beginning of the 10th century. By the 11th century, however, they had lost their centers of power and had disappeared from Sunni-dominated histories. With the rise of new city-states and empires like the Fatimids, the Almoravids, the Almohads, and their successors, Ibadis simply faded from view for most of their contemporaries. Crucially, however, it was in this same period (11th century onwards) that Ibadi communities began producing a corpus of prosopographical chronicles that detailed the history of their religious community and its most famous scholars and leaders. Whereas in previous centuries Ibadis had moved around a lot and passed on religious knowledge and the history of their community through oral transmission, in this later period both geographical distance and political instability helped give rise to the importance of a manuscript-book culture. No longer did a student need to study in person with an individual scholar to learn from him. The production and circulation of books helped pass on the history of the community and the religious precepts that helped define what it meant to be 'Ibadi.'
The specific corpus of prosopographical works I am working on contains five of these books, written from the 11th to the 16th centuries (essentially one every century). These were, of course, not the only books produced. I believe, though, that this genre of literature was especially important in marking the boundaries of this religious community in that it outlined the history of Ibadi Islam and its most prominent members. By including or excluding certain individuals, these works helped define Ibadi Islam itself by defining who belonged to the community. My project works through three stages:
(1) To examine the printed editions of these five works. This stage aims to map all relationships between the individual scholars mentioned in the book with the aim of understanding how people moved around and who knew whom directly.
(2) To examine the extant manuscript corpus. The goal here is to understand if the networks of manuscripts mirror the networks of people described in the books themselves.
(3) Take into account the limits and benefits of geography. Mapping networks of people and books on a simplified map suggests one thing, but considering the variety of topographies through which the networks flowed is an important part of understanding why and how things moved around.
As you can tell, I am interested in participating in this summer's workshop because of my interest in 'networks.' I am part of the recent trend to use 'networks' in the humanities, although I tend to be a little more careful in how I use the term than some historians have been using it lately. In particular, I am not only interested in networks as a vague metaphor but also in the value of network theories. I have been experimenting with the open-source network graphing software "Gephi" this past year and look forward to learning more about it and other tools for visualizing networks of communication.
Finally, I have been working on a blog since last year that shows some of the results of my experiments with Gephi: http://ibadistudies.blogspot.org
I look forward to meeting everyone and hearing about your projects!