Digital scholarship and the web: Learning from Muslim communities online

May 22nd, 2024

by the Archiving & Data Services team

This post was written with scholars using ARCH (Archives Research Compute Hub) and Archive-It to study the role of online environments in Muslim communities. Gary R. Bunt is Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Wales, Trinity Saint David (UWTSD). He is the Principal Investigator for the Digital British Islam project and Co-Investigator for the Digital Islam Across Europe project. Dr. Muhammed Alamgir Ahmed is a Postdoctoral Researcher on the Digital British Islam project at UWTSD and Coventry University. Dr. Anna Grasso is a Postdoctoral Researcher at UWTSD on the Digital Islam Across Europe project. Both projects have benefitted from the input of other team members on project scoping, analysis and collection development.

Profile photographs of Prof. Gary R. Bunt (left), Dr. Anna Grasso (center), and Dr. Muhammed Alamgir Ahmed (right)

From left to right: Prof. Gary R. Bunt, Dr. Anna Grasso, and Dr. Muhammed Alamgir Ahmed

Digital British Islam (DBI) is the first-ever exploration of the social impact of digital activities that focus on the lived experiences of diverse Muslim communities in Britain. It is led by UWTSD in collaboration with Coventry University and the University of Edinburgh, and is funded by the U.K. Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

Drawing on experience in the field, the DBI team created substantial lists of websites that represent online organizations, platforms, and activities associated with Islam and Muslims in the UK. The sites were added to Archive-It collections for specific themes like Education, Finance & Business, and Religious Authority. The team took great care to test and refine its crawls, describe and tag the sites, and interpret the collections. The team introduces the different collections in a series of articles on the DBI website. The collections draw on expertise drawn from the wider team in their analysis and assembly. These collections will connect with other aspects of the project, including a survey, online diaries, community workshops, and an online learning platform.

Logos of project partners from DBI, ESRC, DigitIslam, and Chanse

Digital Islam Across Europe (DigitIslam) is a multi-country research project analyzing how Online Islamic Environments (OIE) shape Muslims’ social and religious practices in diverse European contexts. The Collaboration of Humanities and Social Sciences in Europe (CHANSE) funded the project. It involves research teams working across five European countries: the United Kingdom, Poland, Sweden, Spain, and Lithuania.

As DigitIslam is an international project, the archiving team ensured parity of content while allowing for substantial differences within and among nations. Each country team produced a list of websites that were either kept each as a sole Archive-It collection (Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania) or split up according to topics (United Kingdom and Spain). The UK, Spain, Poland, and Lithuania teams also identified websites and social media responses for current events collections (European Digital Muslim Responses to the Israel-Hamas Crisis and Qur’an Burning Incidents in Sweden).

The DBI and DigitIslam teams share an ARCH account to generate and analyze computational datasets from these web archive collections. With the help of the ARCH tutorials, we’ve begun to explore the tools and techniques for visualizing the collection contents meaningfully. We conducted initial trials of Gephi, RawGraphs, and Palladio to explore network datasets and Voyant for the plain text dataset.

Screenshot of a word cloud representing DigitIslam’s European Digital Muslim Responses to the Israel-Hamas Crisis collection made with Voyant.

A word cloud representing DigitIslam’s European Digital Muslim Responses to the Israel-Hamas Crisis collection made with Voyant.

The text datasets present an opportunity to work with multilingual text both within and across national boundaries. The network graphs especially allow us to identify transnational relationships between Muslim organizations. For instance, “Salafi” blogs archived in the Lithuania collection link to organizations in the United Kingdom.

Screenshot of a domain network graph from DigitIslam’s Lithuania collection made with ARCH.

Details of a domain graph from DigitIslam’s Lithuania collection made with ARCH (above) and Gephi (below).

Screenshot of a domain network graph from DigitIslam’s Lithuania collection made with Gephi.

To use this content as primary sources in our research, we had to consider the ethical implications of collecting, holding, and publishing online data. Our selections were focused by the requirements and recommendations of our universities, funding agencies, and national governments.

Temporal aspects also impacted our collecting strategies and decisions. The ever-changing online landscape poses a challenge as some websites vanish before they can be crawled, while others reappear or undergo complete reconstruction. This dynamic nature makes capturing different iterations of the same website intriguing. However, working within a limited timeframe makes it difficult to observe these processes comprehensively. DigitIslam’s particular focus on current events also challenged us to collect relevant data before these websites were updated.

Scholars working in this field should be open to acquiring new skills and be prepared to experiment with approaches that match the specific areas in which they are working. The team’s adaptive learning process was critical to archiving and opening our collections. We came to these projects as academics with specialisms in the fields associated with studying Islam rather than web archiving or data engineering. The academic literature on using web archives is limited, so we learned a great deal from the online step-by-step tutorials and interaction with the team at the Internet Archive.

Archive-it and ARCH provide this research with a unique and accessible dimension, complementing traditional qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Their integration enhances our ability to share results effectively across various platforms, including our website, social media channels, conference presentations, and publications. We plan to showcase DigitIslam’s initial collections informally at the British Association for Islamic Studies conference in Leeds, UK, in May 2024 and formally at the European Association for the Study of Religions conference in Gothenburg, Sweden, in August 2024. The initial phases of Digital British Islam’s collections are already online, and will be showcased at several events in the next year, including the national Digital British Islam: Experiences, Responses and Impact from Britain and Beyond conference in February 2025.