x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

The A to Z of Islam

Feature Scholars in Istanbul have been toiling for more than two decades to compile the definitive encyclopaedia of Islam.

An image of a village mosque in Afghanistan in the Islamic encyclopaedia being produced by the Centre for Islamic Studies in Istanbul.
An image of a village mosque in Afghanistan in the Islamic encyclopaedia being produced by the Centre for Islamic Studies in Istanbul.

Scholars in Istanbul have been toiling for more than two decades to compile the definitive encyclopaedia of Islam. The 40-volume set will contain 17,000 subject headings based on three to four million documents. Hamida Ghafour reports. It seems old-fashioned, almost an anachronism in an era of news-driven publishing and carefully orchestrated controversies timed to coincide with glossy book launches.

But for the past 21 years, a small centre in Istanbul has been slowly but methodically publishing one volume after another of the Encyclopaedia of Islam which, when completed in the next five years, is expected to become the definitive source to turn to for all matters of the faith. Indeed, it is the first time in history that Muslim scholars have embarked upon such a project: a 40-volume set covering all aspects of the religion such as history, philosophy, geography, culture, civilisation, literature, languages of Muslim-majority countries and, of course, theology.

"Today there are conflicting interpretations about Islam," says professor Recep Senturk, an editor of the encyclopaedia at the Centre for Islamic Studies, a purpose-built block with an open courtyard in the Turkish metropolis. Here, away from the noise and hub of the city, on the Asian side of the Bosphorous, Turkish and western scholars are putting the finishing touches to volume 36. "We need to provide authentic and reliable knowledge about Islam," he continues. "This is a service to Muslim countries and the world. There are conflicting claims about what Islam says and so this is the answer."

Since 1983, when the project was launched by the Turkish Religious Foundation, a semi-governmental organisation which is providing the funding, the Islamic world has seen many moments of turmoil: the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, two wars in the Gulf, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Lebanese civil war and the September 11 attacks on the United States, which led to the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions.

Following these events, publishers have rushed books out to capitalise on the piqued interest about the catastrophes. For example, since the September 11 attacks in 2001, 4,470 books have been published concerning Islam in the English-speaking world and are available on Amazon.com. Yet there is an unhurried air about the guardians of the Turkish encyclopaedia. It is as if a subject as ancient and timeless as Islam need not be in any hurry to answer to the whims of the 24-hour news cycle.

It took four years to collect documents, literature, books and other materials and list all the subject titles before the first volume was even published in 1988. Since then more than 2,000 scholars from around the world, each a specialist in his or her area, have contributed articles which are vetted by a board of academics and sent back to the writers for amendments and corrections. They are translated into Turkish before they are published.

There are 17,000 subject headings - from Allah to Zaydism - and, in total, three to four million documents will be used, says Nuri Tinaz, research fellow in social sciences at the centre, rifling through a sheaf of papers about the spread of Islam in Afghanistan in the 8th century that is tucked away in one of the countless rows of filing cabinets in a room of the library. "It is a long process," he says. "But this is almost the last phase."

The project is a response to the only complete encyclopaedic work on Islam by Brill, the Dutch academic publishing house based in Leiden which printed five volumes between 1909 and 1939 that were eventually translated into English. The Istanbul centre claims the Dutch version was biased and riddled with errors. When it was translated into Turkish in the 1960s, many Turkish scholars were so incensed they decided to publish their own.

Istanbul, after all, was the seat of the Caliphate, the spiritual head of Islam, from 1517 until it was abolished in the early 20th century when the Ottoman Empire fell. "It was an Orientalistic approach to Islam. It was done by the first generation of Orientalists and the Muslim academics in Turkey wanted, not to counter, but to publish an encyclopaedia of Islam from a very objective perspective," says Tinaz.

Whatever the biases and errors of the original publication, which is now in its third edition, it seems remarkable that despite a rich history of Muslim scholarship, particularly in the early days of the Islamic empire, Muslims have not published an encyclopaedia on their religion until now. As Christine Woodhead, a teaching fellow at Durham University in England specialising in Ottoman Turkish culture and history, wrote bluntly: "How much weight would, or should, an encyclopaedia of Christianity carry in the West which had been produced in, say, India, or China?"

Most of the contributors are Turkish but not exclusively so. The criterion is they must be specialists in their field before the centre approaches them and commissions entries. "I was involved in Leiden's English translation, but the Balkans were outside their scope of interest," says Machiel Kiel, 71, a retired professor of Islamic architecture at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who has contributed many entries since 1991. "There was hardly any interest in the Balkans, but the Ottomans had been there for half a millennia."

He became involved partly to correct the historical record of what he calls the "hypernationalistic" sentiments sweeping through the Balkans and attempts by its leaders today to distort or ignore the history of the region when it was part of the Ottoman Empire. "In south-eastern European history, it is like a supermarket. You pick the pieces you want and leave all the rest you don't want," he says.

"The original Brill was just not edited. Take an article on Kyustendil, the provincial capital in Bulgaria where mosques from the 15th century are falling to pieces. You walk past one and the stones fall on your head. In an article the author made very simple Bulgarian propaganda, ignoring the Ottoman contribution and the large population of Turkish speakers in the area. In a wider context the omission is very characteristic of how the encyclopaedia has changed since the early 20th century, Kiel says. "I've been travelling in the Balkans since 1959 and so many things that don't fit into their narrative are not taught, like the development of Christian art during the so-called period of terrible Turkish slavery. In the Balkans after the Ottomans took over in the 14th century, Christian art continued to flourish and people were making high quality architecture. I am a master mason myself, and it was easy for me to see the quality of the buildings.

"Couldn't the encyclopaedia an attempt to project a positive image of the Ottoman Empire," he says. "But if you write about what they did and how it was and then compare that to other places in Europe, at the time the Ottomans don't come out very bad." Some subject areas, such as the Sunni/Shiite schism, are contentious. In Western Europe, the vicious wars between Catholics and Protestants have been put to rest but in the modern Muslim world, sectarian tensions still flare up during times of turmoil. Most notably the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 set off communal fighting between Sunnis and Shiites who had lived peacefully for generations.

Entries that may seem obscure to those outside academia have to be written carefully. One concerned the city of Razgrad in north-eastern Bulgaria which was built by the Turks as a Sunni bulwark against the Alawi sect, which they considered heretical, says Kiel. "It was built in the 1520s and the Turks brought in Sunnis and enticed them by saying people didn't have to pay taxes for a time and there were job opportunities. It existed for 500 years. The people there are still Alawi. Fifty years of communist state propaganda didn't work either."

He claims his article was edited to leave out any controversy, but the centre told him it was for space reasons. Senturk admits the theological split between Sunnis and Shia is a potential minefield that the board of editors has to negotiate very carefully. The Salafis, whose practices are rooted in Sunni Islam, consider Sufis, who are more concerned with the mysticism of the religion, heretics.

However, the books are not concerned with who may be right or wrong, he says. "This is not a manual for how to practise Islam; it is an academic source. We are not concerned about censoring anyone. If there are views of Salafi scholars, we have it. We have Shiite scholars, there are Salafis, everything is there." So far, it is only available in Turkish, limiting its appeal among Muslim populations. There are more than one billion Muslims in the world, and the most populous Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, is not even Arab. Islam was spread there by merchants.

After it is completed, the encyclopaedia is to be translated into Arabic and English and put online for subscription-based use. There will also be a separate, abridged multi-volume set published within the next two years, to be distributed in the former Eastern Bloc countries in Central Asia and the Balkans. "It will be translated into Bosnian, Bulgarian, Albanian and focus on culture and civilisation and personalities of Islam in that geographic area," says Tinaz. "When the Soviet Union collapsed, these people rediscovered their identity and religion, because for 70 years there was limited access to Islamic literature and it happened that this generation was cut off from Islamic resources and materials."

There has also been interest from various Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia. "Almost every week we have visitors ask about the project," says Tinaz. There is the story of an oil minister who arrived at the centre recently with a blank cheque and requested an Arabic version within a year. The Turks told him patiently it would not happen, at any price. "People are daunted by how much work it takes. It is a huge effort," says Senturk with a philosophical shrug.