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Encyclopedia compiles the complexities of Islamic political thought

Seven years in the making, Mahan Mirza reveals the story behind the publication of a new and definitive encyclopedia on the complexities of Islamic political thought

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square cheer after hearing news of the resignation of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. Dissent, according to The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Thought, is a primary obligation in the face of an unjust form of government. John Moore / Getty Images
Demonstrators in Tahrir Square cheer after hearing news of the resignation of the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. Dissent, according to The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Thought, is a primary obligation in the face of an unjust form of government. John Moore / Getty Images

The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought
Gerhard Bowering, Editor
Princeton University Press

It was a spring afternoon in New Haven in 2005 when I met with Gerhard Bowering in his office on the fourth floor of the Religious Studies building, directly across from Yale's Sterling Memorial Library.

Prof Bowering told me that he had been approached by a publishing house to serve as editor in chief of a new encyclopedia on Islamic political thought. He asked me to join him as the assistant editor. Little did we know that our pact of collaboration was the initiation of a seven-year-long journey culminating in the product we see on our shelves today: The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought.

Prof Bowering was strongly attracted by the idea of an encyclopedia of Islamic political thought because there was hardly any easily available comprehensive source of information on the thought patterns that inspired the great variety of political action taken by Muslim nations all over the world.

In today's world, much emphasis is given to political action, but little attention is paid to the vision that inspired Islamic politics and defined the root-causes of its underlying thought patterns. From the beginning, he envisaged an encyclopedia that would combine two factors.

First, it would give substantive information on representative political topics in a contemporary perspective and, at the same time, offer an in-depth historical perception of the traditional roots of Islamic political thought. Second, it would be an encyclopedia that combined the great variety of particular informative articles with well-selected broad analytical core articles that would work as brackets for the wealth of information found in the particular articles. These two tangents of his vision inspired the composition and compilation of the encyclopedia.

Two other factors were crucial for the success of the project. The first was the comfortable working relationship between the general editor and myself as the assistant editor. The second was the selection of the team of associate editors: Patricia Crone (Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton), Wadad Kadi (University of Chicago), Devin Stewart (Emory University), and Muhammad Qasim Zaman (Brown and then Princeton University), all of them leading scholars in the field. Their dedication to the project was an auspicious beginning and offered a firm scholarly foundation to its ambition and scope.

The first formal step, after the assembly of the team, was to develop a project proposal that outlined its scope, structure, and purpose as an accessible single-volume reference for students, non-specialist scholars, and the educated public.

We organised the entries into four broad categories, each under the supervision of one of the associate editors: "Sects" (Crone), "People" (Kadi), "Law" (Stewart), and "Modernity" (Zaman), while Prof Bowering took the editorial responsibilities for the 15 core articles (Authority, Fundamentalism, Caliph and Caliphate, Government, Jihad, Knowledge, Minorities, Modernity, Mohammed, Pluralism and Tolerance, Quran, Revival and Reform, Sharia, Tradition and Political Thought, and 'Ulama').

In 2006, the team met at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. There we agreed on our respective roles, enhanced the entry list, and determined the approximate length for each entry. Our vision from the beginning was to collaborate towards a single-volume reference work consisting of approximately 400 entries that amounted to a cumulative word-count of 500,000. And that is precisely what we delivered.

As assistant editor, I was also responsible for many of the logistics involved in compiling the articles included in the encyclopedia. The painstaking production process may be broken down into the following three elements: development of a project website with guidelines for contributors and sample entries; the need for a method to contact potential contributors, solicit entries, and enter into formal contracts and provide real-time access on the project's status. The first of these was accomplished fairly quickly. The decision to adopt the transliteration guidelines of the International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, with minor modifications, enabled us to deal with a potentially complicated aspect of Arabic-Islamic scholarship in a straightforward manner.

The second and third items were a lot more involved. Although the editors had offered contributor names for each entry in our initial meeting, writing for encyclopedias is a labour of love. The honorarium is a paltry sum, and academic institutions tend to give such contributions little to no credit for tenure files. Each of the editors did their part to initiate personal appeals in their respective circles. As a consequence, we were able to muster an impressive list of entries and contributors. The third item was equally daunting. As assistant editor, it was my fear that the processing of entries would be an endless jumble of Word files and emails. Would the editors work on entries in parallel? How would differences of opinion be resolved?

In order to nip these potential issues in the bud, I wanted to run the project on a website that was always accessible, where all edits were tracked automatically, and each entry could be edited by only one person at a time. The solution presented itself in the form of a public Wiki site, www.pbworks.com. I organised the site into separate sections for each editor, a common page for all entries in alphabetical order, and links to the public website and guidelines. Everybody on the team was provided access.

The question of how to control the content of entries came to the fore from time-to-time. Our guidelines clearly stipulated that entries should be accessible as general introductions to concepts, but distinguish themselves from related works by highlighting political thought.

Fortunately, the bulk of the entries arrived in relatively good form. Anne Savarese, who was responsible for the management of the volume at Princeton University Press, would go over each article with a fine-tooth comb. The cooperation with her and her staff proved decisive for the smooth completion of the encyclopedia, which had no template in its vision and structure.

In this manner, The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought came to life over a period of seven years. A project of this scale requires a stunning amount of goodwill and cooperation.

This spirit drove the team of editors under the leadership of Prof Bowering, both among the scholar-experts as well as on the side of the administration. Anne Savarese of Princeton University Press remained a stalwart supporter of the project, despite repeated delays, recognising the limitations on time and often going out of her way to provide necessary resources. The project would not have been successful without all the moving parts agreeing to constantly re-align for the purpose of achieving a higher objective. All of the editors ended up contributing more entries than they had initially agreed to. Watching them work has been an inspiration. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be a part of it all.

Mahan H Mirza is assistant editor of The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought.