Preserving Yemen’s Cultural Heritage: The Yemen Manuscript Digitization Project

The Arabic manuscripts in the private libraries of Yemen are threatened. Collectively, these
6.000 libraries possess some 50.000 codices, many of which are not otherwise extant,
making it one of the largest and most important collections of Arabic manuscripts in the
world. These sources record a rich cultural lecagy of Arabic and Islamic literature from the
8th century CE to the present. Because Yemen is relatively remote from the central lands of
Islam, it has preserved many extremely rare sources, including some of the earliest Qurʾān
fragments and theological and legal tracts particularly representing the rational strands
within Islam, and works of great importance for the study of classical Islam, Arabic
literature, science and history. Ready access to these largely neglected sources would
generate a great amount of new knowledge and provide an entirely new perspective on the
political, intellectual, and literary history of Islamic civilization.
Recently, Yemen’s private libraries have suffered great losses, in part due to Salafī
extremists idealogically opposed to the Zaydī Shīʿī school of Islam who have targeted Zaydī
manuscripts for destruction. In the past ten years, some 10.000 manuscripts, including one
entire library, have been destroyed. Since 1994, the Imam Zayd bin Ali Cultural Foundation
(IZbACF), a non-profit, non-governmental organization, has begun to address this critical
situation by devoting itself to the digital reproduction of these private collections.
However, IZbACF’s technical tools and infrastructure for long-term preservation and
dissemation are limited.
The Yemen Manuscript Digitization Project (YMDP) is a project of the Imam Zaid bin Ali
Cultural Foundation (IZbACF) in collaboration with the Freie Universität Berlin, Institut für
Islamwissenschaft (“The Muʿtazilite Manuscripts Project” since 2003, and “ERC Project:
Rediscovering Theological Rationalism in the Medieval World of Islam”, since 2008). Led by
the Local Project Manager, Aḥmad Isḥāq, Director of the Imam Zaid bin Ali Cultural
Fountion, and ʿAbd al-Salām al-Wajīh, Academic Director of the IZbACF, and the Academic
Project Director, Univ.-Prof. Dr. Sabine Schmidtke, Freie Universität Berlin, YMDP’s goal is
to digitize and disseminate the manuscripts of all private libraries of Yemen. Digital images
and metadata, created in Ṣanʿāʾ, will be delivered and housed at Freie Universität Berlin
libraries, which will serve as the permanent home for the data.
Combining the technical expertise and infrastructure of a leading German university with a
cultural foundation in the developing world which has earned the trust of its community,
YMDP will preserve an endangered collection of crucial importance for the study of Islamic
civilization.