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Interview with The Muslim Post

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In January 2010, The Quranic Arabic Corpus was featured as part of a published interview with The Muslim Post. According to Ali Shahriar, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, "The Muslim Post is Britain's premier weekly national newspaper with a distribution of 30,000". The full printed text of the interview with Kais Dukes is shown below.

Last week, The Muslim Post reviewed the impressive free online Quranic Arabic Corpus software (http://corpus.quran.com). This week we speak to the brains behind the venture, Kais Dukes - what motivated him to undertake such an ambitious and rewarding project, as well as future plans and projects.

Tell us a little bit about yourself, your qualifications and background.

My personal background is that my mother is Arabic and my father is an English convert to Islam - he is now vice-head master at an Islamic school here in London. I went to Imperial College [London, UK] where I studied mathematics. For the last 10 years I've been developing financial software in the City, and I now run a small consultancy firm for investment banking clients.

How did you first hear of this project and what made you get involved?

I wanted to do something related to my Islamic background, and so I decided to apply my knowledge of computing to the Quran, and I was fortunate enough for this research to also count towards a degree - a part-time PhD at the University of Leeds. Applying computers to help people research the Quran is really a new area. I was really excited about getting involved in a computer Qur'an project, and I've had all sorts of good ideas about how we can use computers to get more involved in the original Arabic text of the Qur'an. Having worked on some difficult computer projects in my career, I was very fortunate to be given the chance to apply some of this experience to the Arabic language of the Qur'an.

How did you start off?

When I first had the idea about this project, I contacted a few academics at Universities here in the U.K. and in the U.S. Eventually, I was advised to get in touch with the computer department at the University of Leeds, because they specialise in applying computers to the Arabic language. At first, the idea was just a small PhD research project, but now the website has really taken off. We now get about 1,000 visitors per day who are all using the website to study the Arabic language of the Qur'an in detail.

During the developmental phase, did you come across any obstacles, and if so, how did you deal with them?

Although the website shows all the Arabic text of the Qur'an, it also shows English translations for the more beginner students. When we first started out we used a single translation into English, but we soon had to rethink that approach. Any English translation of the Qur'an can never be totally accurate because each Arabic word can have many shades of meaning depending on context. The solution we came up with was to show as many different English translations as possible on the website, to allow people to get a bit more of a wider picture about what each possible Arabic word could mean.

This project obviously needs a good command of the Arabic language; what are your qualifications in this regard or are you being overseen by language specialists?

Although I'm half English, from my Arabic side my mother made sure that from a young age I was always exposed to the Arabic language. I went to a private Arabic school in London where there was a dual curriculum with standard British classes together with some parts of the Arab-world curriculum. This included from a young age lessons on Arabic grammar. I did not think much of these at the time, but looking back I realise now that this education was invaluable for this particular project. I kept in touch with my Arabic teachers over the years, and managed to build up a small network of Arabic language experts. We now have several truly amazing and knowledgeable people involved with the online website. This language specialists help make sure that the information we present online is as accurate as possible. We all feel quite responsible about the project; because of the importance of the Qur'an we need to make sure that there are as few mistakes as possible in the grammar information we provide.

Has this experience of putting together something so seemingly complicated affected both the way you see the Book of Allah and your own spiritual journey as a Muslim, and the way you view the Muslim Ummah?

My answer to this is a definite "yes". I receive hundreds of e-mails a week about the website, and this experience has really opened my eyes to the wide range of views that people have about the Qur'an. The majority of people are in agreement about the meaning of the verses, and are also very happy with the website because they find it a useful study site for Arabic grammar. However, I've come to understand that different people look at the Qur'an in different ways. There are a minority of people who use the website that have non-standard views; these include a few "numerologists" who are looking for patterns and secret codes in the Qur'an. There are also a few students on the site from "Qur'an alone" philosophy who reject hadith and any translation of the text and only focus on the Arabic words of the Qur'an to understand Islam. If anything, this project has made me understand that most people are in agreement about the Qur'an, but there is also a sizeable minority with a vast range of opinions. We try to remain unbiased and neutral in the project however, and the website for learning Qur'an Arabic language, and all are welcome.

There seem to be non-Muslims involved; how have they helped in the overall project?

The website provides three different features. There are traditional English translations of the Qur'an, a message board forum where people can discuss the Arabic language of the Qur'an, and the most important feature: a detailed explanation of the Arabic grammar of each word. I myself do not discriminate between Muslims or non-Muslims getting involved in this project. Because we are using computer technology to uncover the Arabic grammar of each word, we have received a lot of volunteer help from computer experts all over the world, and each has different views and opinions. However, the final information we present on the website has been reviewed by Arabic and Qur'anic language experts. We also have an open message board forum that allows people to discuss the grammar information for each word, and to suggest corrections. This has ensured that any mistakes made by the computer analysis are corrected by interested volunteers, the vast majority of whom are Muslim.

Do you feel that the use of the Internet and technology differs from the traditional approach of learning the Qur'an?

I don't think that this project is a different approach to studying the Qur'an, but actually I think it's an extension of the traditional method. There are a lot of useful things you can only do with computers. For example, on the website you can click on any Arabic word, and find out instantly all the other places in the Qur'an where that word is used; you can also straight away find out if a word is a noun or verb, and more details about its grammar. Also searching through books in the traditional way can give you this information, you can do it a look easier and quicker on the website. We present the same information available in the traditional study way but it is a lot simpler and faster to use through the website. The Qur'an brings together people from many different cultures and backgrounds, and this is also true for this online Qur'an project. The website is used from people from 120 different countries, and the message board has allowed people to get together and discuss the Qur'an regardless of their nationality or personal background. Together, online volunteers have been helping to improve accuracy on the website, and have come together to help contribute something very useful to people interested in the Qur'an worldwide.

How could technology affect the way in which the Qur'an is taught in the future and are there any advantages or disadvantages to this approach?

That's an interesting question. Actually this website is being used to teach the Arabic language of the Qur'an in a new way. The biggest benefit of this website for teaching is frequency analysis. This is a technique whereby you teach the most common words and phrases first to new students. Because we now have all this computer analysis, we can provide teachers with a list of exactly what the most common words are, and the most common phrases, and also how many times they occur in the Qur'an. We've been told that this is a very useful thing to have, and the detailed statistics and information about word and phrase frequency is something very new for Qur'anic Arabic. However, I would still recommend that this website is used as part of larger study program when learning the Qur'an because nothing beats learning something personally from somebody with experience.

What are your short term and long term goals for this project? What are you currently working on?

Right now we really want to make sure that we have as many new features as possible on the website. We have a long list of requests from people for new features, such as a powerful Qur'an search engine. Also, the big thing we are working on now is something called "pronoun resolution". A pronoun is a word like "he, it, him, her" etc. The Qur'an uses many pronouns, for example, in chapter 97, "We revealed it in the Night of Power". It is widely accepted in traditional commentary of the Qur'an that "We" refers to Allah and "it" refers to the Qur'an. For the non-controversial cases, we want to list what all the pronouns in the Qur'an refer to, and references to the traditional sources of information that back this up. A lot of people have requested this useful feature.

Are there any other related plans in the pipeline? Has this project led on to any other ventures and projects?

When I started out this project, I didn't realise how much demand there would be for an online Qur'an study tool, especially for learning the Arabic language and grammar in detail. I think now a related project we want to do is a simple Qur'an study website for beginners. The current website is aimed at medium-level Qur'an and Arabic researchers, but something from the very beginning, like the ABC of Qur'anic Arabic would a very useful related project to work, especially if we continue what we have been doing so far, and make all the information available online for free, for the benefit of all to use regardless of their backgrounds or personal opinions.

The Quranic Arabic Corpus website is available online at: http://corpus.quran.com

Language Research Group
University of Leeds
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