When you’re beginning a research project from scratch and you don’t have enough background information, the best place to start are the well-known reference and introductory works on the subject.
These types of work have many titles: encyclopedias, companions, textbooks, dictionaries, bibliographies, lexicons, introductions, primers, handbooks, key to… etc.
Encyclopedias are usually the best place to start, as they have the most detailed level of research among reference works. Articles within them are supposed to be “a repository of all known facts,” i.e. a current overview of everything known on a given topic. They distill vast bodies of secondary research into a small space to make it easier for you to see the big picture.
Encyclopedias tend to range from very broad (i.e. Encyclopedia of Islam) to more specialized and specific (i.e. Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World). If you don’t know a lot already, you want to begin with the general topics and work your way into more specific materials. Imagine you are trying to find a little café in New York City. First, you might need to look at a map of the whole city, then at a map of Manhattan, then of a map of Uptown, and then a map of the subway. Same thing with encyclopedias and references.
While encyclopedias ought to be neutral, scholarship often advances from a relative viewpoint. You might notice that some encyclopedias lean towards various positions. That’s why it’s always a good idea to refer to multiple reference sources.
Sometimes the field of scholarship advances quickly and a new work appears at the time the reference encyclopedia was published. Keep in mind that recently published sources might not account for a year or two of secondary literature published after its writing. Even old encyclopedias have value as you can trace the intellectual history of a concept.
Take note, however, that reference works are usually not cited in academic papers. They’re mostly used for getting you up to speed on a topic.
Today, the most important references are online. My particular favorite is Oxford Islamic Studies, but all of them are generally good resources. Here are some of the go-to references in Islamic Studies:
- BrillOnline Reference Works
- Brockelmann Online
- Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History
- Encyclopaedia Islamica
- Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics
- Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World
- Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures
- Encyclopaedia of the Qurʾān (2 editions)
- Encyclopedia of Islam (4 editions)
- Encylopedia Iranica
- Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World
- Oxford Islamic Studies Online
- The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature
- The Cambridge History of Egypt
- The Cambridge History of Iran
- The Cambridge History of Islam
- The Cambridge History of Turkey
- Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought
- Türkiye Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi
- Very Short Introductions (by Oxford University Press)
Take a look at our Middle East Studies Research Guide for even more!