This lecture focuses on the size of the Arabic tradition (ca. 700-1500), and the likely role that written practices and cultural expectations played in its development. It is arguably the largest written tradition up to its day, rivalled only by medieval Chinese. I focus, first, on recent work assembling a corpus of 1.3 billion words and the composition of this corpus, including the large number of sizable works. I consider these works in light of evidence for a much larger body of no-longer extant material. Second, I introduce the concept of text “reuse,” our method for detecting and measuring it, and my theory. The theory is this: that the substantial reuse of earlier works resulted both in the emergence of very large works, especially from the 10th century onwards, and secondly, that this reuse resulted in the loss of earlier texts, now absorbed in various ways (including abridgement) into larger ones. Finally, I examine the cultural expectations underpinning reuse, and also how they should make us reconsider, at different times and places, notions of the “book” and “authorship.”
Sarah Bowen Savant is a cultural historian, focusing on early Islamic history and history writing up to 1100, with a special focus on Iraq and Iran. She is the author of The New Muslims of Post-Conquest Iran: Tradition, Memory, and Conversion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), which won the Saidi-Sirjani Book Award, given by the International Society for Iranian Studies on behalf of the Persian Heritage Foundation. Her other publications include The Excellence of the Arabs: A Translation of Ibn Qutaybah’s Faḍl al-ʿArab wa l-tanbīh ʿalā ʿulūmihā (with Peter Webb; The Library of Arabic Literature; Abu Dhabi: New York University Press, 2016), as well as articles and edited volumes dealing with ethnic identity, cultural memory, genealogy, and history writing. Her current book project focuses on the history of books in the Middle East. With a team, she is developing digital methods to study the origins and development of the Arabic and Persian textual traditions. Please see kitab-project.org.