When I as studying for my Masters degree in Publishing six years ago, I was interested as a recent convert to Islam in the question of safeguarding knowledge now that technology had brought publishing within virtually anyone’s grasp.
This was in the days before ‘Blogging’ existed as it does today and when the Internet was a medium only just being colonised with Muslim thought. As a new Muslim I was interested in the question of what constituted knowledge, given that I was able to lay my hands on any number of books on Islamic topics without really knowing anything about their authors. It was because of this that I decided to write my dissertation on this topic. Its title was ‘Safeguarding Knowledge: A Concept of Review and Accreditation for Popular Islamic Educational Publishing in the United Kingdom’. A bit of a mouthful, I grant you.
Following some discussions which took place during the day, this topic returned to my mind this evening. I suppose it is my oft returned-to question about writing in general and writing a weblog in particular. Quite separately, but still intimately linked, a question about typing Arabic text in Adobe Photoshop led me to think about my own experience of typesetting, which in turn made me pick one of those books up. The work in question is wholly concerned with the question of authentication, in this case in the preservation of the Qur’an. The memory of typesetting was linked to the former by the fact that an unknown character provided me with a useful commentary on the question of innovation in religion. What I was most taken aback by was the fact that he/she posted these comments anonymously. The book I was blessed with the opportunity to typeset, however, contains the following:
“…scholars face stringent limitation on which books they coulduse in the form of a ‘licence’ or reading certificate. In promulgating hadith books a regular attendance record was always kept, written either by the teacher or one of the famous scholars present, supplying details of attendance such as who had listened to the entire book, who joined in partially and which portions they missed, the women and children (and even the maids and servants) who participated, and the dates and sites of these readings. … A signature at the book’s conclusion terminated this reading certificate, indicating that no further entries could be made therein. To the muhaddithin this certificate was tibaq, an exclusive licence for those listed within to read, teach, copy and quote from that book.”
By contrast, today the internet is awash with ‘Islamic knowledge’ about which we do not have even an inkling of its authenticity. This recognition makes me shudder and it leads me on to wonder if even my own meanderings – this journey of a self-centred soul – should cease, even as I make no claim that it is anything other than opinion. I do not know if ‘Anonymous’, who provided the commentary, is such-and-such, son of so-and-so, student of such-and-such, nor where he/she obtained this knowledge and whether he/she has a reading certificate. I simply do not know.
So the whole question is playing on my mind now and I find myself thinking about that question which I asked six years ago once more. What are we all doing publishing this and that willy-nilly? It is a question for me as much as anybody else, for this weblog is in the public domain and is read by people I do not know and who do not know me. Even if I tell you that I am Timothy Bowes ibn Peter ibn William, it does not help you for still I am just anybody. You do not know about my learning or my truthfulness. On the one hand we could argue that since I am not attempting to disseminate knowledge we should not really be concerned, but I am not so sure. I now have grave concerns.
My dissertation focused on the segment of the Muslim publishing sector which I defined as popular publishing concerned with basic Islamic education. In other words, not academic book production, but that aimed at the general Muslim readership. My concern was the editorial element, rather than improved production which has become the focus for many publishers over recent years. While producing beautiful books happens to be a passion of mine, the question of typography and cover design is really a fairly insignificant aside. In the course of this project, I undertook a study of Islamic education, examining the concept at some length. I went on to analyse the current state of Islamic education in Britain based on textual sources. This was followed by a review of the Muslim publishing sector in the United Kingdom.
In light of the Islamic heritage concerning the authentication of knowledge I was interested in whether there was a case for the establishment of a review body, modelled not just on Muslim tradition but also the structures set up in the scientific publishing sector. After examining information management as it occurred in traditional Islamic settings, I studied peer review as it exists in scholarly publishing as a model for a review body. Before concluding, however, I considered whether the establishment of such a body would amount to a form of censorship and so I examined the notion of freedom of expression in contemporary thought along with the Islamic concept that a word is an act, which I have touched upon many times whilst writing on this weblog.
The case presented for a means of safeguarding Islamic knowledge from corruption inevitably collides with a culture which views knowledge in a different way. As I wrote in a recent post, so-called post-modern society argues that there is no absolute truth, only contingent truths. The result is that the claim that Islamic knowledge needs protection may be considered an affront to the freedom of speech – to the freedom of individual Muslims to make their own fatwa or religious verdicts. Traditionally, scholars have always been entrusted with the community’s knowledge. Writing in Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval, Rosenthal states that there was “little that later influences and developments were able to accomplish by way of injecting new ideas” into what constitutes Islamic knowledge. Meanwhile, Eickelman and Anderson note in ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ that the books now published by Muslims in great quantities in the Muslim world,
“…set aside the long tradition of authoritative discourse by religious scholars in favour of a direct understanding of texts. Today chemists and medical doctors can interpret Islamic principles as equals with scholars who have graduated from traditional centres of learning.”
While many advocates of unrestricted free speech may welcome such a development, I argued that apart from opening our religion to the general threat of corruption, it could be used to support actions which have disastrous consequences. I had in mind the slaughter of pilgrims on the Hajj and wanton acts of violence, but the possibilities are endless.
During the course of this study, I quizzed readers about their views on books concerning Islamic knowledge. One respondent was suspicious if sources were not given, to the extent that she would begin to doubt its authenticity. A respondent who reads in English preferred it if the references were made, but pointed out that he was unable to check original texts in Arabic. If the book was from a respected publishing house, however, he did not mind if sources were not listed. An academic, meanwhile, said that he was very concerned if the book was in English, but much less so if it was a standard Arabic book whose author was well known. One respondent said that she would check the source if the content was totally unknown or at odds with her prior knowledge, but she would usually trust the author. Six other respondents were either concerned or very concerned if sources were not listed. One pointed out that even when they were listed, sources may be of dubious or inappropriate value. He also believed that literature even from established figures could still be a cause for concern because of the problems today’s Muslims face in interpreting Islam. Another respondent stated that all seekers of Islamic knowledge should be concerned about the authenticity of information provided, that everything is questioned at all times and that he would critique every view. Another was so concerned that when choosing a book that he would only select works from trustworthy authors or publishing houses, and that he would look for the general source of their views.
The emphasis on authenticity lies, without a doubt, in the development of the science of hadith (Ulum al-Hadith). With the swift growth of the Muslim community beyond Arabia in the decades after the death of the Prophet, peace be upon him, the need for the preservation and transmission of his teachings became a matter of crucial importance. In their Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages Anees and Athar write:
“Looking at the elaborate methodology that evolved through Ulum al-Hadith, including rules for transmission, textual criticism, chronological authenticity, papyri, and similar criteria for validation, Ulum al-Hadith offers a unique example of information management. It is the only branch of knowledge that requires personal ethical responsibility on the part of individuals who involve themselves in this endeavour. In its quest for exactitude, it held accountable those who transmitted information. It offered a methodological balance by not invoking wholesale rejection of transmitted matrial but designating it in a graded fashion depending on the external and internal validation. Judged from this criterion, Ulum al-Hadith presents a pioneering example in critical historiography.”
By studying this topic in some detail I locked these ideas in my mind, hence their frequent return. Scholars are considered the protectors of knowledge in Islamic tradition and the existence of the science of hadith indicates that guaranteeing authenticity is a vital part of its dissemination. It was on the basis of these two elements that I proposed the establishment of a review body for popular Islamic educational publishing in the United Kingdom.
In the world of scholarly publishing, both of books and journals, reviewing or refereeing is an important part of the editorial process, as Page, Campbell, and Meadows explain in Journal Publishing: Principles and Practice. This is used to establish which works are suitable for publication and which are not, in terms of contribution to scholarship, accuracy and quality. Hans Zell argues in A Handbook of Good Publishing Practice that the term “peer review” is something of a misnomer in this respect, as the ideal referee should be a top authority on the subject under consideration, rather than simply a peer. Zell describes such reviewers as the “gatekeepers” who “ensure high editorial standards, rigorous scholarship, and … protect a journal’s credibility and standing in the academic community.”
The first stage of the peer review process is an initial reading of a manuscript to determine whether it has any potential. A manuscript which does not meet the standards of quality required by the imprint or journal will be rejected at this point. The second stage sees the editor selecting a reviewer with relevant knowledge, or preferably expertise, in the subject undertaken by the author. In some circumstances, more than one reviewer may be selected. The reviewer’s role is to assess the quality of the manuscript and to decide whether it should be published or rejected, before making recommendations to the editor. The reviewer may also suggest revisions. On the basis of the reviewer’s recommendations, which may be a long time in the making, the editor then takes the ultimate decision as whether to publish or not.
This process is most common amongst reputable scientific and academic imprints and journals, and less common amongst literary or cultural publishers. It is estimated that three quarters of the major science, social science and humanities journals use the process of peer review, says Leslie in ‘Peering over the editor’s shoulder’ . In An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing, Derricourt argues that because there are some imprints which “publish almost anything and everything in their field, without much evaluation,” professional, scholarly and scientific journals must distance themselves from them by “demonstrating a commitment to selectivity and quality.”
The editors of specialist academic publishers usually wish to obtain reviews from at least two referees. If two reviewers do not agree as to whether a manuscript should be published or not, the editor may seek the opinion of a third or fourth reviewer. Some journals, such as the British Medical Journal, have records of reviewers stored on computer so that editors are able to choose from a wide range of referees. This system also ensures that reviewers are not overburdened and that previously unhelpful reviewers are not re-selected, as records and cross-references may be generated quickly. A cautious editor will probably use the peer review process only as a mechanism to aid a decision, rather than to make the decision out right.
In the peer review process the reviewers’ report is usually provided in confidence, ensuring that the reviewer is unknown to the author. Derricourt believes that anonymous peer review “permits an honest assessment of the unpublished manuscript which will be seen initially only by the publisher.” In some cases the reviewer may work with the author and Zell notes that “many authors will be grateful for the help they receive from referees in helping them to reshape their paper or improve on points of clarity, conciseness of writing, documentation of text, etc.”
An alternative view of this process, however, is that it amounts to censorship and can be detrimental to academic authorship. Writing in ProfScam Sykes argued that the process is distorted, corrupt and, most importantly, used as a mechanism to suppress unpopular ideas. In his paper, ‘Preserving the integrity of peer review’ , meanwhile, Banner wrote that the American Council of Learned Societies found that many scholars were unhappy with the practice – though not the principle – of peer review as undertaken by learned journals. He writes:
“The peer review process – the process by which the strength and value of knowledge is asserted and its publication justified – has long been taken to be epicentral to scientific research and humanistic scholarship and a given of scholarly publishing. Yet peer review is today beset with many problems – of attitude, administration, and effectiveness – that erode its authority and threaten its legitimacy.”
In Ethic and Manuscript Reviewing, De George and Woodward find that peer review generates friction between the author and the publisher, as it is this that determines what is, at the end of the day, published. They go on to ask whether the rules governing manuscript reviewing are fair for all parties involved. While no author has an automatic right to see his or her work published, they argue that authors do have the right to expect fair treatment. At the heart of the ethics of peer review are honesty and sincerity. Reviewers have a duty to be as objective as possible and to read the manuscripts they agree to review carefully. Peer review is, it has to be remembered, “a difficult, time-consuming, and poorly remunerated task, for which little credit is typically given. De George and Woodward note that it is not unheard of that reviewers have written a negative report of a manuscript without reading all of it or it at all.
As a result of the problems associated with peer review, a number of suggestions for improvements have been forwarded. Sattelmeyer produced Seven steps to a better review process, believing that publishers must design a review process that ensures fairness and objectivity, whilst also accepting a certain amount of responsibility for the manuscript. Reviews may provide the evidence upon which decisions are made, he argues, but they should not provide the final decision. Banner also provides a number of guidelines: reviewers are asked to provide an evaluation of the manuscript and to recommend directly whether it should be published or rejected. They are asked to take into account how well the author achieves his or her aim, the quality of their analysis of the problem, the clarity of its presentation, and the degree to which it presents information not available elsewhere. Reviewers are also encouraged to suggest ways in which the manuscript might be improved. Once reviews have been collected, a publication committee meets to decide upon one of three alternatives. The manuscript may be accepted, accepted with conditions for revision, or rejected. The benefit of utilising a process of peer review is summed up well by Derricourt, who states:
“If there are things wrong with the overall project, or improvements that can and should be made, or if there are errors of fact or detail or interpretation, it is better to have these before publication. Otherwise, the first published review will draw them to attention of thousands of one’s peers, and it will be too late to correct them.”
I felt at the time that this point was very relevant to the topic at hand. In the case of Muslim publishing the problem does not relate to the author’s reputation so much as to the idea of conveying accurate information which has its roots in the science of hadith. Going further than the standard peer review model, however, I proposed the establishment of an accredited review body, independent from the publishing houses, providing a unified service to all authors and publishers nationwide. Affiliation to its review process would be entirely optional, but would be promoted to publishers on the assumption that they are concerned about the accuracy of their work.
Although the review body would not actually have any power to prevent an author or publisher from publishing a manuscript which it rejected, I felt that it could establish itself as giving accreditation to works deemed sound. This would aid the consumer in his or her search for reliable sources of Islamic education. The feasibility and likelihood of such a body ever being established, of course, is quite another matter. At best it was a long term solution for the problems facing Islamic education through the medium of publishing: the establishment of an open review body, acting as a guide and assistant to authors and publishers. From the perspective of orthodoxy, I felt that the establishment of such a body would be extremely beneficial to all those in the Muslim community in Britain concerned with Islamic education, aiding the future production of books which covey the teachings of Islam correctly.
But here we are just six years later; the landscape has changed massively. The weblog has democratised the internet and suddenly all of us are publishers. The case for a review body is clearly a lost cause. Perhaps – and I say this with some sadness – this is the argument for self-censorship. Better to withdraw than to be held accountable for all the information floating around masquerading as knowledge. Some of it is knowledge, but with our laxity regarding proving it, it is impossible to tell. So much confusion. These are the thoughts on my mind tonight.
- Al-Azami, M.M. (2003) The History of the Qur’anic Text from Revelation to Compilation (Leicester: UKIA)
Rosenthal, F. (1970) Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill)
- Eickelman, D.F. and Anderson, J.W. (1997) ‘Publishing in Muslim countries: less censorship, new audiences and rise of the “Islamic” book’ in LOGOS (London: Whurr Publishers Ltd.) 8/4
- Anees, M.A. and Athar, A.N. (1986) Guide to Sira and Hadith Literature in Western Languages (London: Mansell Publishing Limited)
- Page, G., Campbell, R. and Meadows, J. (1987) Journal Publishing: Principles and Practice (London: Butterworths)
- Zell, H.M (1998) A Handbook of Good Publishing Practice in Journal Publishing (London: International African Institute, Oxford: African Books Collective)
- Leslie, L.Z. (1992) ‘Peering over the editor’s shoulder’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 23/3
- Derricourt, R.M. (1996) An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press)
- Sykes, C.J. (1988) ProfScam (Washington DC: Regnery Gateway)
- McGiffert, M. (1988) ‘Is justice blind? An inquiry into peer review’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 20/1
- Banner, J.M. (1988) ‘Preserving the integrity of peer review’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 19/2
- De George, R.T. and Woodward, F, (1994) ‘Ethic and Manuscript Reviewing’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 25/3
- Sattelmeyer, R. (1989) ‘Seven steps to a better review process’ in Journal of Scholarly Publishing (Toronto: University of Toronto Press) 20/3
- Derricourt, R.M. (1996) An Author’s Guide to Scholarly Publishing (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press)