Knowledge Organisation, Classification, Dissemination and Development

Knowledge Organisation, Classification, Dissemination and Development


Encyclopedic texts provide insight into the intellectual life and its underlying assumptions in a given age. Many people consider encyclopedias to be a product of European modernity, particularly of the Enlightenment project. Diderot is often seen as the founder of Encyclopedic works. However, attempts "to exhibit all science in one body, the attempt to exhibit all science to one mind" can be found in pre-modern cultures as well. Thus one may ask what form of works can be considered encyclopedic.

Muslim scholars were fascinated by works of an encyclopedic nature. The Rasa'il Ikhwan al-Safa' (circa 9th century), Kitab al-Aghani (10th century), Subh al-a'sha fi sina at al-insha (14th century) and Bihar al - Anwar (17th century) are some examples of this genre from Muslim societies. The mindset underlying such attempts represent a distinct attitude towards knowledge that views it as unified and meant for human discovery.

There is a need for more scholarly work on encyclopedias in Muslim history. While there are works on individual encyclopedias, very little work has been done on encyclopedism as a genre in Muslim societies. The concept of the encyclopedia, its uses, impact, reception and relationship with social and political conditions are some of the areas that need further exploration. Gradually, encyclopedias in Muslim history are being studied within the larger context of encyclopedias in pre-modern period. As an encouraging sign in this regard, it can be noted that the conference on pre-modern encyclopedic texts held in Groningen , Netherlands in 1996 had three papers on encyclopedias in Muslim contexts. AKU-ISMC's work on encyclopedias seeks to continue the research in the field of knowledge organization, classification, dissemination and development.

In recent years, Muslim societies have experienced a resurgence of encyclopedic works. Simultaneously, there has been a flurry of smaller works on law, hadith, prayers and rules of behaviour that have sought to bring together instructions and teachings in accessible language for the masses. These works are fast becoming an accessible source of knowledge and judgment for many Muslims. There is, therefore, a need to understand this resurgence in its proper historical and sociological context and analyse its merits and demerits. A study of approaches to knowledge in Muslim history can help 'decode' many issues that Muslims are grappling with today, shedding light on their attitudes and responses to contemporary ideas.

Organising Knowledge: Encyclopaedic Activities in the Pre-Eighteenth Century Muslim World
In November 2003, the Institute held a conference titled, Organising Knowledge: Encyclopedic Activities in the Pre-Eighteenth Century Muslim World. The objectives of the conference were to:

  • explore encyclopedias in Muslim societies as a scholarly genre;
  • investigate the epistemological assumptions and social arrangements reflecting and shaping encyclopaedic tendencies;
  • explore implications (opportunities as well as challenges) of the prevailing conceptions of knowledge in Muslim contexts;
  • identify areas of further research.

Conference Themes
The papers and discussion in the conference focused on the following themes.

Theme I: Concept of Encyclopedia: The theme grappled with the problem of defining encyclopedias given the candidacy of a wide array of works in this category. Is it possible to develop a set of defining characteristics to categorize works as encyclopedic?

Theme II: Forms and Uses of Encyclopedias: The forms and functions of encyclopedias are more varied than is implied in their modern conception. This theme considered the various forms that encyclopedias have taken and the various educational, social and political functions they have served.

Theme III: Epistemology of Encyclopedic Knowledge: This theme explored the relationship between encyclopedic activity and views of knowledge in the societies that produce them. It also explored the epistemological continuities and ruptures between pre-modern and contemporary encyclopedic activities in Muslim societies.

Theme IV: Reception and Transmission of Encyclopedic Texts: Methods of transmission of individual texts and their reception in changing social and political climates were explored. The impact of the inter-cultural movement of encyclopedias was examined.

Please click here for conference abstracts.

From the conference has come the Institute's first publication, Organising Knowledge: Encyclopeadic Activities in the Pre-Eighteenth Century World, edited by Professor Gerhard Endress and published as a volume of the Brill publication series, Islamic Philosophy, Theology and Science, Texts and Studies.​