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, but it did have one important event which would transform the academic study of Islam. Even though not many would consider the publication of a reference work in a small Dutch town by a little known publishing company a mile-stone or historical event of great importance, Brill’s first Encyclopaedia of Islam certainly marked a turning point in the attempt to establish definitive knowledge about Islam and Muslims. The pace of change was such that it was outdated by the time it was completed in 1936. Five supplements (issued in 1934, 1936, two in 1937, and the last in 1938) added missing entries and supplied corrigenda and addenda to the published volumes. The revisions were completed in 1938, and EI1 was published in English, German, and French to become “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 [in reality an entirely European] team of scholars began work on a single project.” The four-volume work, with a self-revealing subtitle, “A Dictionary of the Geography, Ethnography and Biography of the Muhammadan Peoples”, 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.