The anthropological turn in Islamic legal interpretation

On July 23-24, 2016, the Zentrum für Islamische Theologie at the University of Tübingen did a superb job of organizing and hosting a conference on “Islamic Theology – Past, Present and Future: Global Challenges and Prospective Synergies in the Academic Study of Islam.” My presentation dealt once again with the Indonesian thinker Aksin Wijaya, arguing that his explicitly anthropocentric epistemology reflects a broader shift in Islamic thought that opens up new conversations between historical and confessional scholarship on Islam:

“The Anthropological Turn in Islamic Legal Interpretation.” Islamic Theology – Past, Present and Future: Global Challenges and Prospective Synergies in the Academic Study of Islam, University of Tübingen, July 24, 2016.

Here is a pdf of the paper, as delivered. It was written for oral presentation, without documentation. I plan to use it as the framework for a published article incorporating aspects of several papers I have given recently on Qur’anic hermeneutics in contemporary Indonesia.

OU/Exaptive Discourse Map software

When I met Dave King, the creator of a data analysis and visualization platform called Exaptive, we quickly realized that the tools he was using with scientists could be applied to my humanities research in Islamic studies. With the support of the University of Oklahoma’s Kelvin Droegemeier (Vice President for Research), Rick Luce (Dean of Libraries), and Carl Grant (Libraries Associate Dean of Knowledge Services & CTO), the Exaptive team created a pilot application (a ‘Xap’) that searched for my research terms (hermeneutics, language, tafsir, etc.) in WorldCat, returned thousands of bibliographic records, and then mapped out visually the other significant words that appeared in those records, clustering the words that occurred most often together. It also mapped out the books whose bibliography entries contained those words, as well as their authors, grouping them visually based on which terms they had in common. Those visual maps were interactive: hover over one term and the related works are highlighted, etc. Each dot on the map served as a link to the WorldCat record and to my library’s book request form. It was a completely new way to discover not only books relevant to my project, but also unforeseen concepts that I had not realized might be important for my research. The discourse maps looked like this:

My role in the development process was to be the researcher guinea pig, testing each iteration of the software on a real research project and participating in weekly update and design meetings. Over the course of 2015-2016 we expanded and refined the Xap until it was quite powerful, but it was not yet stable and robust enough to be made publicly available. As of 2017 I am working with Exaptive to produce a next-generation version of the software that will be easily customizable for specific research projects and textual corpora.

I have made a number of presentations about the original vision and the developing software:

The project and Exaptive were the subject of a May 27, 2016 article “Big data comes to OKC to study everything from quakes to Quran,” by Lucia Walinchus, in the Oklahoma City business and legislative newspaper The Journal Record.

Panel on difficult passages in the Bible and the Qur’an

On March 16, 2016, I got to engage in an hour-and-a-half public discussion with James Murphy, a scholar of the Hebrew Bible and Christian origins at South Dakota State University, on the topic of “Religious Texts & Social Contexts: Challenging Interpretations in a Changing World.” We discussed our different responses to hard passages in the Qur’an and the Bible. I was enriched by my engagement with James Murphy, and with Krystal Smith of the Veritas Forum, which organized the event. Video of our discussion is at http://www.veritas.org/religious-texts-social-conflicts/.

The Structure and Composition of al-Shāfiʿī’s Risāla: Three Books, Three Outlines, Three Arguments.

In February 2016 Rob Gleave of the Islamic Reformulations project and Murteza Bedir of Istanbul University convened a conference on Islamic legal theory (uṣūl al‑fiqh) in the opulent setting of Istanbul University’s ceremonial administration building. It was a real who’s who of historians of uṣūl al‑fiqh. My contribution was:

“The Structure and Composition of al-Shāfiʿī’s Risāla: Three Books, Three Outlines, Three Arguments.” Reformulation and Hermeneutics: Researching the History of Islamic Legal Theory, Istanbul University, February 22, 2016.

The paper introduced and commented upon my “Reader’s Guide to al-Shāfiʿī’s Risāla,” which is available here.

The view from the conference meeting room:

View-from-meeting-room

A Customizable Exaptive ‘Xap’

On October 16, 2015, the Digital Islamic Humanities Program at Brown University held its third annual scholarly gathering, a symposium on the subject “Distant Reading & the Islamic Archive,” organized by Elias Muhanna. My presentation was about the OU/Exaptive Discourse Map pilot project:

David R. Vishanoff. “A Customizable Exaptive ‘Xap’ for Charting Currents of Islamic Discourse across Multiple Bibliographic and Full Text Datasets.” Third Annual Islamic Digital Humanities Conference, “Distant Reading and the Islamic Archive,” Middle East Studies Program, Brown University, October 16, 2015.

A full record of the conference, including recordings, is available on the web site of Brown’s Digital Islamic Humanities Project.

The slides from my presentation are available here.

The photo above was taken by Rythum Vinoben.