Who Speaks for Whom: Authority, Tradition, and Encyclopedias of Islam

In retrospect, 1913 seems relatively unremarkable, especially compared to the following year, which ushered the world into the first of the two great wars of the twentieth century. Although not many would consider the publication of a reference work in a Dutch town by a small publishing house a world-historical event, Brill’s First Encyclopaedia of Islam, with its revealing subtitle (“A Dictionary of the Geography, Ethnography and Biography of the Muhammadan Peoples”), became a milestone in Western academia. It marked a turning point in the attempt to establish definitive knowledge about the Orient, becoming dated so quickly that by the time it was completed in 1936 there was already need for a revised edition. Five supplements (issued in 1934, 1936, two in 1937, and 1938) added missing entries and supplied corrigenda and addenda to the published volumes. The work thus completed in 1938, and published in English, German, and French, became “the only complete encyclopedia on Islam.”

The raison d’être for EI1 was “the increasing interest in Islam and Islamic culture during the last [i.e. nineteenth] century and the early part of this [i.e. the twentieth] century.” For the “first time in history a truly international [although entirely European] team of scholars began work on a single project.” The four-volume work quickly established itself in the academic world as the most important and indeed the only reference source of its kind. Its articles carried authority, it was the grand summation of the scholarship of the previous three centuries, and it created a niche for the publisher which has not been seriously challenged to this day.