Digitizing Islamic World Visual Cultural Heritage: Recolonizing or Decolonizing Cultural Memory, or Both?

Hussein Keshani, Assistant professor in Art History and Visual Culture, UBC, Okanagan, Kelowna, Canada

It is self-evident that memory institutions such as state archives and museums along with art historians and archaeologists around the world, especially those from Europe, North America and East Asia, are entering the digital age and improving access to their collections and data. In an earlier essay for the Journal of Art Historiography, I emphasize along with many others that digital technologies in these contexts are now used not only to archive and exchange information, but to analyze content and relationships as well.[1] They magnify our abilities to read texts and view images and video across space and time, and to share them as well. But they also help reveal underlying patterns and connections. Increasingly, these institutions and digital humanists across the globe are starting to design analytical technologies.[2]

The point is also made that it is increasingly clear that the digital shift being made by memory institutions and humanities scholars is occurring far faster in Europe, North America and East Asia than it is in the Islamic world and for the transnational study of Islamic world visual culture. This is not to say that there are not important efforts such as the Museum With No Frontiers, Archnet, the Shahnama project, and the Prince Sultan Ibn Salman Islamic Architectural Heritage Database of the Research Centre for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) and the recent partnership between the British Library and the Qatar foundation to digitise Middle Eastern Historical Records not to mention the efforts various museums and national libraries in Europe and North America. However, the efforts of institutions focused more on European, North American and East Asian visual cultural heritage are much more ambitious in scale and have received considerably more financial investment. Consequently, scholars of Euro-American art, for example, will be better positioned than Islamic world art historians to take advantage of digital technology to develop their fields. Unless large transnational databases of historical texts, translations, images are developed and sophisticated analytical tools are designed and employed, the kinds of histories of Islamic visual culture that can be written will be considerably different than those created by scholars with access to robust digital archives, infrastructures and programming capacity.[3] But the uneven digital shift that is occurring in the world’s memory institutions poses additional concerns aside from the differential pace of technological adaptation.

As the collections and data of public archives, museums and scholars are reincarnated digitally, the politics of how and why collections are formed and used to create historical narrative and cultural memory come forward. It is important to confront the reality that digitization is never solely a neutral act but one that is defined by political, economic and intellectual contexts and perspectives. It is incumbent upon scholars participating in digitization to critically reflect on why they are digitizing, how they have acquired the means to do so and what kinds of historical perspectives and cultural memories they are empowering.

This is particularly true when it comes to digitizing Islamicate visual culture collections in Europe, Russia and North America, since significant portions of these collections were acquired as a result of colonial and neo-colonial projects in the Islamic world. European and North American memory institutions (national libraries, archives, museums, etc.) are major repositories of Islamic world visual cultural heritage and important leaders in its digitization and dissemination on the internet. These collections are the result of complex historical processes, the rise of European military, economic, cultural and other forms of colonial presences in the Islamic world in the 19th and early 20th C. Colonization of the Middle East, Central, South and Southeast Asia, and Africa enhanced the flow of Islamicate visual culture into European memory institutions, as well as the creation of similar institutions in the Islamic world based on European molds lined with convictions in the superior merits of rationalistic historical memory and contemplative art. Consequently, the collection, conservation, archiving and study of Islamicate visual culture inevitably bear the traces of the political conditions that enabled these activities, traces that still warrant exposition and examination. The colonial relationship arguably shaped the way memory institutions formed their collections and consequently how knowledge, memory and the worth of Islamic world visual cultural heritage was constructed. Unless questioned, colonial collecting ideologies and practices will be carried forward into the digital realm giving them continued influence over future history writing.

But memory institutions and scholars in postcolonial Islamic world nation-states that aim to keep pace with advanced industrial nation-states, continue colonial-era scholarly traditions and who are often actively engaged in decolonizing their histories must also examine the politics of their own digitization initiatives as part of their digitization activities. What roles do colonial legacies, the desire to participate in and counter former colonizers’ renditions of the colonial experience, contemporary nationalisms, and religious discourses among others play in the conceptualization of digitization initiatives for example? Digitizing Islamic World visual culture whether it be in former colonizing states or contemporary decolonizing states or across both is no simple matter. It is a new kind of archival practice that is deeply informed by past colonial archival legacies, access to economic and technological resources and current geopolitics and economics. It takes place as former colonial powers and subject-states struggle to reconcile their narrations of cultural history. And, it is one that implicitly makes a claim on what should be remembered and studied, and how.

Scholars commenting on traditional physical archives like Schwartz and Cook in their article, “Archives, Records and Power” offer a caution to archivists that digitizers of Islamicate visual culture, who are in a sense creating archives, might benefit from considering:

Taken together, the on-going denial by archivists of their power over memory, the failure to explore the many factors that profoundly affect records before they come to the archives, and the continued assumptions by many users of archives that the records presented to them are not problematic, represent a prescription for sterility on both sides of the reference room desk. When power is denied, overlooked, or unchallenged, it is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Power recognized becomes power that can be questioned, made accountable, and opened to transparent dialogue and enriched understanding.[4]

A recent example taken from the world of American literature helpfully illuminates how digital realms can perpetuate outmoded knowledge structures.[5] Early representations of American literature tended to sideline the role of female American novelists, and when they were included, they were often set apart, leading to calls for inclusion into master narratives. Until recently American women novelists were integrated into Wikipedia representations of American novelist. However, recently they are being removed from entries on American novelists and being segregated into their own category leaving the category of American novelist to be implicitly understood as male. Here, the digital realm becomes a means of perpetuating an outmoded way of constituting American literary creativity as primarily masculine.

Current archival frictions between Algeria and France further reveal the ways the politics of the material archive remain alive in the digital age. Abdelmadjid Chikhi, director of Algeria’s national archive centre, in response to France’s proposal that Algeria relinquish its claim on cultural heritage acquired through colonization in exchange for copies – presumably digital copies, said “We’re not going to give up our right. We’re not going to give up our property, » he said in an interview in Algiers.[6] « Quite simply because it’s something that belongs to us. What’s mine is mine. I’m not going to sign away our national heritage. »[7] Here the digital archive is potentially offered as a substitute for the real archival records of colonization, while retaining French influence and control. Furthermore French ownership of Algerian cultural heritage is at times used to leverage access and research partnerships with Algerian scholars.

If contemporary memory institutions are one means by which the state shapes collective memory and identity as theorists of the archive contend, and if they are tinted by the conceptual residues of colonial pasts, then what does this mean for recent acts of digitization that are taking place in a world where former colonizing states and decolonizing states struggle to come to terms with each other and their shared pasts? In this context, acts of digitization are arguably not merely pragmatic helpful gestures or a natural evolutionary step in the lives of memory institutions or scholarly practice. They have inherent political dimensions too. There are first the politics surrounding the allocation of resources. Decisions about what gets digitized,when and how systematic or sporadic these efforts will, more often than not, depend on which cultural identities, heritages and memories are deemed important to sustain. Second, there are also the politics of uncritical digitization. To uncritically translate archives formed through a diverse set of colonial relations into digital media is a means of projecting past knowledge structures onto the future.

To explore these ideas, I want to now consider in greater depth the case of recent state patronage of the digitization of Islamic World cultural heritage in the United Kingdom, a case I have discussed previously.[8] It marks an interesting moment when a state in the Anglosphere and former colonizer in the Islamic World deliberately focused its resources to advance Digital Humanities and archiving in the fields of Islamic world studies and Islamicate visual culture.

The story begins in 2004, when the UK government asked the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to identify ‘strategically important’ higher education subjects. The following year £350 million of government money was pledged to reinforce those designated areas.[9] From 2005 to 2012 these areas included: science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); area studies and related minority languages; quantitative social science; modern foreign languages.[10] In 2007, Islamic Studies was added largely in response to a report entitled “Islam at Universities in England: Meeting the Needs and Investing in the Future,” authored by Dr Ataullah Siddiqui.[11]

The Siddiqui report articulated the underlying concerns that prompted its commission in the first place. The terms of reference focus on Muslim students and on promoting a moderate multicultural version of Islam. For example, the report’s author was asked among other things about whether the following measures could be taken:

to ensure that students have access to material on how the teachings of Islam can be put into practice in a contemporary pluralist society … [to] improve the quality of spiritual advice and support that Muslim students can access in universities in England … [to] identify gaps between the needs and aspirations of Muslim students and the programmes of study presently available at universities in England.[12]

Siddiqui further explains,

This report and its context are substantially different [than the past]. It reflects the growing Muslim population in England and its growing interest in Islam as a faith and civilisation. Following the 9/11 and 7/7 bombings, the changed dynamics of relations between Muslims and policymakers in Western countries have added urgency to the need to ensure that the growing Muslim population is an asset to the country and not a liability.[13]

The then Labour party minister in charge of the Department of Education and Skills, Bill Rammell announced the new designation and commented on the report he commissioned in the following way:

Dr Siddiqui’s review provides a thoughtful and helpful contribution to a particularly complex and sensitive subject. The effective and accurate delivery of Islamic studies within our Universities is important for a multitude of reasons including wider community cohesion and preventing violent extremism in the name of Islam which is why I am announcing that I have asked HEFCE to designate Islamic studies as a Strategic subject.[14]

The government’s press release further explained:

Islamic studies is to be designated “strategically” important because of its contribution to the UK’s political and cultural capital through its role in promoting understanding of Islam in the context of the world today. This would in turn contribute to preventing violent extremism in the name of Islam and improving community cohesion. A strategically important subject is a subject where there is a national interest (for the economy or society) in safeguarding research and/or the supply of graduates with the right knowledge and skills.[15]

As funds became available because of the new designation, a major beneficiary was JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) an entity that supports the use of digital technology for UK institutions of higher learning. They commissioned the report entitled “Review of User Requirements for Digitised Resources in Islamic Studies” (May 2008) and helped coordinate a number of manuscript digitization initiatives for Islamic studies scholars under their new Islamic Studies programme.[16]

JISC explained the purpose of the report on its website by quoting the above passage from the press release on its website[17] but they tellingly omitted Rammel’s key sentence: “This would in turn contribute to preventing violent extremism in the name of Islam and improving community cohesion.” With this omission, JISC downplayed its charge to counter extremism.

JISC’s projects included:

the British Library’s Islamic studies PhD theses project,

an online catalogue of Oxford and Cambridge Islamic Manuscripts,

University of Birmingham’s Virtual Manuscript Room,

the Wellcome Arabic Manuscript Cataloguing Project,

the Yale-SOAS Islamic Manuscript Gallery

These were hardly cutting edge projects in terms of technology but they did show that digitization efforts of Islamic world manuscripts had fallen significantly behind. All of a sudden, the small and marginal field of Islamic studies had now attracted the attention and considerable resources of the state and JISC. This funding stands in marked contrast to Pakistan’s Sind Archives, which stresses their lack of resources for digitization on their website:

Whole work of digitization is being done with the meager resources available in Pakistan. Since it is a new field therefore experts are not locally available. Technical assistance in this regard is very much needed to improve the quality of work and make these softwares useful for all.[18]

In this story, supporting Islamic Studies Digital Humanities namely the digitization of manuscripts came to be rationalized as a way for the UK to tame the disobedient and violent racial other and to inoculate itself against rebellion from within. This is in keeping with larger contemporary British cultural narratives maligning the Muslim other.[19] As in the medieval and colonial periods, the Muslim is both the ethno-religious other of medieval history and the other of the moment. He is the heretical Christian, the Turk, the Oriental, the Arab, the Pakistani, the terrorist all rolled into one. The story of the digital shift here is not only one of exclusions but paradoxically one of inclusion as well. In order for a group to be included in the latest scholarly developments, it was necessary for it to be deemed a sufficient threat by the state. Digitization in this case is facilitated by a state desirous of forming a cooperative and compatible young Muslim.

For those interested in the digitization of Islamic world visual culture whether it be in the former colonizing state or the postcolony the lesson is clear. It would be unwise to presume that digitization is entirely a neutral act and unaffected by political and economic contexts. Scholars accept that scrutiny of the formation and organization of physical archives are essential to understanding the knowledge that is yielded by mining them. Yet there is a temptation to suspend such critical reflection when it comes to digital archives in their disparate forms and not to foreground the motives behind their formation. Uncritical digitization then is potentially an act that recolonizes memory, even though the digitized archive increases accessibility. Like the material archive, the digital one needs to be contextualized and allow for reading against the grain. The challenge, then, is to explore how digitization can become a process in which memory institutions and scholars significantly expose, deconstruct and reconfigure their archival structures in order to advance both scholarship the project of decolonizing cultural memory.

[1]          Keshani (Hussein), “Towards digital Islamic art history,” Journal of Art Historiography, June 2012, 6., p. 3.

URL : <http://arthistoriography.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/keshani.pdf>

[2]          Keshani (Hussein), Op. cit., p. 3

[3]          Keshani (Hussein), Op. cit., p. 5

[4]          Schwartz (Joan M. ) and Cook (Terry), “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory” in Archival Science, 2, 2002, pp. 1-19

[5]          Filipacchi (Amanda), “Wikipedia’s Sexism Toward Female Novelists,” The New York Times – Sunday Review, April 24, 2013.

[6]          Lowe (Christian), “Algeria, France tussle over archives 50 years after split,” Reuters, July 4, 2012.

[7]          Ibid.

[8]          Keshani (Hussein), Op. cit., p. 10.

[9]          Simcox (Robin), A Degree of Influence: The Funding of Strategically Important Subjects in UK Universities, Wallington : The Centre for Social Cohesion : 2009, pp. 16-17. (accessed 24.03.2012)

URL: <http://www.socialcohesion.co.uk/files/1238334646_1.pdf>

[10]        HEFCE Strategically Important Subjects Advisory Group, Strategically important and vulnerable subjects, 2005, pp. 5-6. (accessed 24.03.2012)

URL: <http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/5419/1/05_24.pdf>]

[11]        Siddiqui (Ataullah), Islam at Universities in England: Meeting the Needs and Investing in the Future, 2007. (accessed 24.03.2012)

URL: <http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/6500/1/Updated%20Dr%20Siddiqui%20Report.pdf>

[12]        Siddiqui, (Ataullah), Op. cit., p. 4.

[13]        Siddiqui, (Ataullah), Op. cit., p. 6.

[14]        “Islamic studies to become a “strategic” subject in Higher Education – Rammell,” 04 June 2007, The National Archives, Press Notice database, Press Notice 2007/0099. (accessed 24.03.2012)

URL: <http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20070603183332/dcsf.gov.uk/pns/displaypn.cgi?pn_id=2007_0099>

[15]        “Islamic studies …”, Op. cit.

[16]        JISC and University of Exeter, DigIslam: Review of User Requirements for Digitised Resources in Islamic

Studies, May 2008, 5 (accessed


URL: <http://projects.exeter.ac.uk/digiIslam/documents/DigiIslamReport.pdf>


[17]        “Review of User Requirements for Digitised Resources in Islamic Studies”, JISC website. (accessed 24.03.2012)

URL: <http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/digitisation/reports/islamicstudies.aspx>.

[18]        Sind Archives, Islamic Manuscripts in Pakistan (accessed 24.03.2012)

URL: <http://www.sindharchives.gov.pk/articles.aspx>.

[19]        Richardson (John. E.), (Mis)Representing Islam: The racism and rhetoric of British broadsheet newspapers, Amsterdam : John Benjamins B.V., 2004, pp. 152-54.

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