Publishing in Middle East & Islamic Studies: Interview with Abdurraouf Oueslati

We sat down with Abdurraouf Oueslati (Acquisitions Editor for Middle East and Islamic Studies at Brill) to discuss new and ongoing projects, the scholarly landscape of the Middle East and the growing number of academic works published in the Arabic language.

Hi Abdurraouf, can you tell us something about your academic background and about your role within Brill's Middle East & Islamic Studies publishing team?

I obtained an undergraduate and graduate degree in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies at Leiden University. Already during my graduate study I got involved with Brill. At the time I was asked assist the team of people who worked on the index of the Second Edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, under supervision of its late editor, Emerie van Donzel.
After finalising my MPhil degree, I remained affiliated to Leiden University where I held various research and teaching jobs. Later on, I founded my own company through which I did Arabic-Dutch translation work as well as some consultancy jobs. Brill became one of my customers for which I did some consultancy work related to a few institutions in Tunisia. The National Centre of Translation in Tunis was interested in translating the Encyclopaedia of Islam into Arabic and Brill was interested in obtaining the bibliographic records of all books published in Tunisia from the National Library of Tunis in order to integrate them into the Bibliography of Arabic Books Online (BABO). Luckily these two projects materialised; the Tunisian records have been integrated in BABO and we are expecting to publish four volumes of an Arabic anthology of articles from the second and third editions of the Encyclopaedia of Islam in a few months’ time.

While working on these projects for Brill, the position of Project Manager of the Encyclopaedia of Islam Three became vacant. The current head of the Middle Eastern, Islamic, and African Studies publication programme, Maurits van den Boogert, brought the vacancy to my attention and asked me to apply. A few months later I became a Brill employee. Now, eight years later, I am still with Brill. I consider myself one of the very few fortunate people to find a job in the discipline I graduated in.

Is there a specific subject matter you focus on (history, art, culture, social studies)? Do you work on journals, books, reference works? And could you name some noteworthy publications you have worked on recently?

In the meantime I have also become Acquisitions Editor in the Middle East and Islamic Studies programme. My portfolio consists of the Islamic Philosophy, Theology, Science, Intellectual History, Philology, Translations, as well as the Handbooks, and I am also in charge of further developing the publication programme in Arabic. Brill has been known for its text editions of classical Arabic (and Persian) works. However, publishing studies in Arabic is not something Brill used to do in the past; so this is a very exciting development.

My portfolio consists of a very diverse range of publications, books, journals, reference works and bibliographies. I feel very honoured to have been working on the Encyclopaedia of Islam Three for eight years now. It is a project with a very broad scope that covers the Islamic civilisation from its rise to the present day. I have learned incredibly much on the job and it has been a true pleasure to work with so many contributors from all around the world from so many disciplines and backgrounds.

Recently Brill signed a contract with the American University of Beirut to start publishing the Al-Abhath journal. This journal is one of the oldest academic journals from the Middle East. Most of the articles in it are in Arabic. The 2019 volume was the first one that came out with Brill. I am very happy to have such a high quality journal from the Middle East in my portfolio.

In May 2020 the first two volumes of Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s Madārij al-Sālikīn appeared in the Islamic Translation Series in a parallel English-Arabic text. The remaining two volumes of this famous work are expected to follow in the coming few years.

At present Brill’s first fully Arabic monograph is in production. Ghazwān Yāghī’s al-Quṣūr wa-l-Buyūt al-Mamlūkiyya fī al-Qāhira is an art historical study of the extant residential buildings in Cairo in the Mamluk era. The work is richly illustrated and also contains a glossary of archaeological and documentary terminology. We expect its publication at the end of the year.

A few other fully Arabic works are in preparation. Amr Moneer made a critical edition of al-Riḥla al-Mubāraka lil-Ḥājj Muḥammad al-Bashīr b. Abī Bakr al-Burtulī al-Walātī ilā al-Ḥaramayn al-Sharīfayn, a travelogue of a pilgrim from the Shinqit region in Mauritania in 1204-05/1789-90. The edition is based on two manuscripts located in Egypt, and is preceded by a scholarly introduction Arabic. The edition contains detailed notes on topography, flora, language etc. It offers a unique insight in journey of people from the Sahara region to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Can you tell us something about the scholarly landscape of Middle East & Islamic Studies? Most research seems to be coming from scholars from European or North American universities. How about research from the Middle East itself?

The world has become more globalised. That is a trend that is visible in all areas so also in the academic world. Hence it is also reflected by our authors and editors. There is of course an increasing number of people from the Middle East who obtained degrees in Europe and the US and who hold jobs at European and American Universities. However, due to modern means of communication and more global exchanges we also have more and more Middle Easteners from and in the region as our authors. They know where to find us with their publication projects, and it has also become easier for our editorial boards to find them for commissioned writings and reviews.

In you experience, are there any differences in the way research is done in the Middle East? Any differences in focus? Do you see differences in publication preferences from authors? What do authors find important when choosing a publication outlet or publisher? Author services, abstracting and indexing, Open Access?

In my view the Middle East is quite similar to Europe and the United States. There are different approaches to research across different institutions and disciplines. Historians, philologist, linguists and people working on comparative religion oftentimes apply research methods that go quite well with the Brill standards. With more faith-based research problems with the peer review could arise. This again is not different from confessional scholarship in the “Western” world.

From what I see, authors from certain parts of the Middle East have limited access to resources and research materials. Often their research libraries are not well equipped, so they do not have access to many publications that are relevant to their research. A lot more can be done to give more people access to the scholarly publications. I also see a role for Brill in that. Our rapidly increasing number of Open Access publications is certainly very helpful.

I don’t think scholars in the Middle East find other things important than other scholars. Many of them come to us because Brill has a good reputation as a publisher in Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. We are also one of the very few publishers that publish in Arabic script: we have always been famous for our text editions of Classical Arabic Texts, and now we are also trying to expand our publishing programme with studies in Arabic. In my experience authors also find the reputation of the book series or journals they are publishing in very important. The indexing services certainly do play a very big role in that. In many cases authors are required by their institutions to have published a number of articles in peer reviewed journals that are indexed by a certain indexing service. Therefore it is our task as publishers to make sure that our journals meet the criteria of these services and are being admitted.

More and more research seems to get published in the Arabic language. Can you tell us something about this trend at Brill? Is scholarly publishing in Arabic much different than in English? If so, in what way?

Brill has a long tradition of publishing in different scripts. More than 80% of our publications is in English nowadays, but from the very beginning Brill has excelled in publishing in different languages and scripts. We even have a dedicated in-house font-expert colleague who keeps up with the typographic intricacies of the different fonts. Technically there is nothing that prevents us for publishing in different scripts. All practical issues caused by right-to-left scripts, vocalisations, etc. can easily be resolved. I don’t think that there is much difference between publishing in Arabic and publishing in any other language. The whole peer-review, editing, typesetting, proofing and indexing process is the same. In the past we have had some issues with typesetting, which were due to the fact that the typesetter could not read Arabic, but now we are trying to have the Arabic publications typeset by companies that are comfortable working with Arabic script. There have also been some technical font issues in the past, but working with Open and True Type Unicode fonts has also solved this issue.

A very exciting development in the field of publishing Arabic texts is the launch of Brill’s new Scholarly Editions platform that is very suitable to display the text editions, translations, and commentaries in a very clear and user friendly way. We are now in the process of migrating the Arabic text editions that Brill has published over the centuries to this new platform. With this step we hope to make the material more accessible and full text searchable to researchers and interested readers.

Where do you see the future for Middle East & Islamic Studies go?

We live in dynamic times. The field of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is also subject to the global trends of more worldwide interactions and cultural and scholarly exchanges, not only across continents and scholarly traditions, but also across the various scholarly disciplines. This is a trend that has been going on for some time now; interdisciplinarity is still gaining ground, and more transregionalism and transculturalism is to be expected. Ironically the Covid19-crisis with its travel restrictions has intensified it. A lot of academic activities have turned into online events, which makes it easier to participate for people from different continents who often face visa restrictions or who lack the funds to travel to such events.

Electronic publishing is already a very established form of publishing. I expect this form of publication to become even more important in the future, at the expense of print publications. The amount of material that is already available electronically in the field of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies is already quite significant. This is bringing about revolutionary research methods, and leads to refreshing new insights.
Throughout its history Brill has been a publisher who has specialised in publishing different scripts and different languages. That is an expertise we foster. Improved technology has made our work easier. We are also keeping up the new developments in the field of electronic publishing. We hope to stay in the business for a long time to come.

Thank you for your time!

Contact Abdurraouf
You can connect with Abdurraouf on Twitter @abdurraouf_o or email.