Back then, it was a dream to think that one day Turkish academics would write an encyclopedia. And it was more than a dream to expect those academics to write an encyclopedia addressing religious matters. The Religious Affairs Directorate rolled up its sleeves in 1983 to make the dream come true and established the Turkish Religious Affairs Foundation (TDV) with the aim of conducting scientific research, publishing, editing and translating works from the Islamic world.
In the same year, the foundation set up a group of scholars and experts on Islam to start working on the “Encyclopedia of Islam,” which would become the first of its kind to be written by Muslims, and mostly Turkish ones. The foundation decided to compile and publish this encyclopedia because other encyclopedias of Islam were simple translations of encyclopedias written by orientalists in the early 1990s, falling short in their entries and presenting a biased view against Islam.
The group of experts working for the encyclopedia received huge support from the Center for Islamic Studies (İSAM) and cooperated with around 2,000 academics, experts and scholars from across Turkey and around the globe to write the encyclopedia. The first volume came out in 1988. The encyclopedia now has 43 printed volumes, and the 44th volume -- the final one -- is set to be published toward the end of 2012.
The encyclopedia comprises tens of thousands of entries about Islamic knowledge on subjects such as hadith (narrations about the Prophet Muhammad), tafsir (commentary on the Quran), Shariah (Islamic law), kalam (Islamic theology) and Sufism (Islamic mysticism) along with the philosophy, history, geography, culture, civilization, languages and literature of Muslim countries. Moreover, it includes entries on artistic branches such as music, architecture, calligraphy, significant happenings or movements in history, noteworthy cultural-historical institutions, important residential areas, other religions and significant figures that have influenced Islamic culture despite not being Muslim.
İSAM President Professor Mehmet Akif Aydın said members of İSAM contributed to the compilation of the encyclopedia but that the encyclopedia also contributed to the professional improvement of the academics working for it. To verify his statement, the professor opened one of the first volumes of the encyclopedia and showed the titles of some contributing academics. The academics held doctoral or associate professor degrees at the time. In the coming volumes, most academics appeared as professors.
However, the İSAM president said it was very difficult to coordinate such an immense work. Different scholars were assigned to the writing down of entries included in the encyclopedia, which meant the board responsible for the coordination of the project had to deal with dozens of academics and scholars. According to Aydın, what was even more difficult than trying to decide to whom to assign the writing of the entries was to ensure that the entries were submitted on time. It meant contacting the scholars over and over again, asking them to submit their work as soon as possible. “The scholars who we worked with were mostly academics teaching at universities. They had tasks and duties other than working for the encyclopedia. We had to ask them to dedicate their time to the project,” the professor stated.
Laughing, the professor explained one of the difficult but funny times he had with one of the academics writing for the “Encyclopedia of Islam.” The academic was teaching at a university in India when he agreed to work for the encyclopedia. But he did not submit the entry he was supposed to write in time. The board responsible for the coordination of the project tried to get in contact with the academic several times, but they were told that the academic had left India and moved to Kuwait. One day Aydın learned by chance that the academic had started working for a university in Kuwait at which the dean of the theology department was a close friend of Aydın’s. “My friend gave me the phone number of the academic, and I called him. You should have seen how surprised the academic was when he heard my voice on the phone!” the professor said.
The İSAM president, in addition, said their work will not be over when the final volume of the encyclopedia is published. Next is the preparation of an abridged English and Arabic translation of the encyclopedia. Apart from that, another four-volume version consisting only of entries concerning faith, worship, morality and the life of the Prophet Muhammad is going to be published in Russian. When asked why Russian was picked, Aydın said, “There are a large number of Muslims living in Russia and they do not have a sound source to learn their religion from.” Similar work will subsequently be done for the Bosnian and Albanian languages as well as for the Turkic languages spoken in Central Asia.