This paper will focus on the results of a years-long initiative aimed at recovering the “lost” versions of the Sīrah collected and composed by Muḥammad b. Isḥāq (85/704-150/767 or 159/775-6). Ibn Isḥāq performed from, or produced copies of, a collection of scripts for approximately 149 people, 38 of whom possessed “complete” story collections. The most famous collection is the copy witnessed by Ziyād b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Bakkāʾī (d. 183/799), which is preserved in the redaction and commentary of ʿAbd al-Mālik b. Hishām (d. 218/833). Since the groundbreaking work of Johann Fück, scholars have maintained that there were only superficial differences between witnessed versions, even though scholars such as Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1449) demonstrated how different ṭuruq of the Sīrah contained significant variations. The results of the project support this premodern contention and demonstrate that there were major differences in the narrative content and structure, characters, and events as they are presented in different witness collections.
Working in collaboration with a team of digital humanities scholars, we developed methods for the collection, organization, and presentation of each witness. Textual fragments of each “original” witness version have been extracted from a digital corpus of classical Arabic works using a variety of automated methods, especially the Targeted Isnād Locator (TIL), an application that uses an algorithm to identity authors and extract quotations by isolating naming combinations and a range of transmissive terms in an isnād. The TIL, in combination with other methods of textual extraction, has recovered over 1.5 million words of text for 112 witnesses. After extraction, each quotation is analyzed, annotated, and placed in an order that reflects the “logical” structure of the “original script” as it was theoretically presented to each witness. The first iteration of the project will be published via an open-access website that allows scholars to analyze the Sīrah corpus using a variety of analytical tools. A prototype reading environment will go online in 2023, presenting the earliest version of the script produced by Ibn Isḥāq, and witnessed by Ibrāhīm b. Saʿd (d. 183/799), while both men were still living in Madīnah before the end of the ʿAbbāsid Revolution. The presentation will highlight the functions of the TIL and the digital reader and demonstrate how the collection of the Sīrah changed over time as Ibn Isḥāq shaped his narrative to reflect the interests and tastes of his various audiences.