Islam's Rationalist Heritage and the Preservation of Yemeni Religious Manuscripts: The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition (ZMT) Project
For historical reasons, the libraries of Yemen (many of them established during the 12th and 13th centuries) preserve up until today the bulk of Islam's rationalist heritage, as expressed in a rich body of literature of discursive theology, legal theory, and Qur'anic exegesis which propagates the primacy of reason over scriptural sources. None of this literature has survived elsewhere in the Islamic world and its rationalist bias is in fact one of the primary reasons prompting Salafis to try and physically destroy the Yemenite manuscript collections. They are aided in their endeavor by the war that has afflicted the country since 2015. When several Egyptian expeditions visited Yemen during the 1950s and 1960s and microfilmed some select manuscript materials, the subsequent publication of these texts led to the rise, in Egypt, Iran, and Indonesia, of a new rationalist movement within Islam: the Neo-Mu'tazila, this despite the fact that the Egyptian expeditions only uncovered the tip of the iceberg. Today's digital technology offers entirely new possibilities to secure the Yemeni literary heritage from destruction and to make it available through open access to Muslim intellectuals worldwide. It further allows for digital repatriation of the extensive holdings of manuscripts of Yemeni provenance in Western libraries. The idea is to democratize access to a unique corpus of literature which will be instrumental in creating a powerful countervoice to the prevailing Salafi trend and will serve as an effective support for moderate strands in the Islamic world. The Zaydi Manuscript Tradition (ZMT) aims at salvaging the Zaydi literary tradition by gathering digital surrogates of as many Zaydi manuscripts as possible in a single repository and providing comprehensive and systematic open access to them for scholars worldwide, regardless of whether the physical manuscripts are preserved in Europe or in North America, in Yemen, or elsewhere in the Middle East. The ZMT is a joint project initiated by the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS), Princeton, in partnership with the Hill Museum and Manuscript Library (HMML) at Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota.