The Story of Qur’an Gateway
In a few short years, Qur’an Gateway (QG) has grown from a mere idea into a powerful research tool—the world’s most advanced software for studying, searching, and exploring the Qur’an, its text, history, and formation. But where did it all begin?
Back in early 2014, a casual conversation happened at a conference in the USA between Andy Bannister, Keith Small, Nick Chatrath and a few others. Keith had recently completed his PhD on textual criticism on early Qur’an manuscripts; Andy had also completed his own doctorate, using innovative computerised techniques to analyse the Qur’an’s Arabic text, looking for signs of oral composition; Nick had recently finished a doctorate at the University of Oxford on Islamic law.
During their conversation, Andy, Keith, Nick, and their friends grumbled about the lack of sophisticated computer tools for critical scholarly work on the Qur’an—unlike in Biblical Studies, where scholars had for years had access to powerful software packages like Accordance or Logos. Over several coffees they wondered what it would take to develop similar software for the Qur’an.
One conversation led to another and by mid 2014, through networks of friends and academic connections, a small leadership team for the project had formed and, wonderfully, we had managed to obtain access to some funding and grants, so we could put some proper resources into the project.
Around this time, Daniel Brubaker, who had recently completed a PhD at Rice University joined the team. Dan had been inspired by Keith’s work on manuscripts to undertake his own research into qur’anic textual criticism, especially scribal corrections to early manuscripts. Working under the guidance and direction of Nick and the QG team and with the help of funding from QG, Dan was able to develop his technical, operational, and organisational skills as well as benefit from QG funding him to undertake additional visits to libraries around the world, in order to catalogue, collect, and expand QG’s growing database of early manuscripts and their features.
Next to join the QG team in early 2015 was Michael McCoy, a doctoral student at the University of Oxford, whose thesis involved a study of how early Muslim commentators interacted with the Bible. Michael worked hard for QG in his spare moments, proving to be a brilliant colleague for Dan (Michael almost single-handedly populated our database of scribal corrections) and also worked alongside Andy on almost every aspect of QG.
By January 2016 we finally had a functional version of the software. It looked like a very basic version of the QG interface we know and love today: it had three columns of text (Arabic, transliteration and translation) and the parsing of a word could be seen just by pointing the mouse. We were able to begin to show this early version of QG to friends in the wider scholarly community and got great feedback from Nicolai Sinai at the University of Oxford and several other scholars.
At this stage, we were still struggling for inspiration for a name for the software. For a long time, we played with “Q Tools” but that just didn’t grab us. Finally, after lots of coffee and brainstorming and a desire that the software should “do what it says on the tin”, we landed on “Qur’an Gateway”—and with the help of a fantastic young graphic designer, we soon had a logo, too.
Throughout 2016, Andy continued to add features to Qur’an Gateway. By March, we had the search language written and tested—for the first time in the history of Qur’anic Studies, one could instantly and easily perform complex textual searches on the Arabic text of the Qur’an. This was quickly followed with the charting module, so popular today with QG users. And by May, formulaic analysis tools had been added. Andy joked that somebody could now do with QG and a few mouse clicks what had taken him 18 months to do during his PhD!
In December 2016, we formally launched Qur’an Gateway as a company, with Nick stepping into the role of Chair of the Board and Andy and Dan among the board members (Dan also served as an officer of the company, in the role of President). Although we had some seed funding to help us get going, the project team were concerned that QG needed to become financially self-supporting going forward—through paid subscriptions, with any net profit poured back into the software, so we could add new features and new resources. The QG team was committed to the vision that nobody would ever profit personally from QG, but any profit it eventually generated would be used to advance the software and scholarship.
By January 2017, QG was developing rapidly and getting ever nearer to being ready for it to be shown to the world. Andy was adding dozens of new features every week to the software (“Sleep,” he would mutter, “who needs sleep?”) and Dan, now paid full-time by QG to work on the project, was growing the number of manuscripts recorded in QG, as the project sent him on research trips to libraries and museums. Dan’s full-time role with QG also included lots of admin work, as he helped with the day-to-day running of QG as a company.
At the same time, the team grew again, as Joshua Falconer, a gifted linguist and PhD student working on the interactions between Eastern Christianity and early Islam joined the team. In his spare time, Joshua worked alongside Michael and Dan on manuscripts—with Joshua and Michael coming up with original ways to present Dan’s basic data, making it accessible and useable to a wider range of scholars.
In early 2017, another major landmark was the launch of Qur’an Gateway’s Council of Reference. The whole QG team wanted the software to be useful for scholars no matter their background—whether they were Muslims, Christians, or secular scholars. To protect QG’s independence and non-sectarian stance, we approached a wide range of world class Qur’an scholars from diverse backgrounds and were excited that every person we asked said “yes” and agreed to join the Council of Reference.
In September 2017, Qur’an Gateway benefitted from another excellent addition to the team. Charles de Bueger, a brilliant programmer with the ability to turn around software improvements at incredibly short notice, began working alongside Andy. Not least, this enabled us to raise the standard of QG’s user interface, making it look increasingly professional.
Then in November 2017 came a massive milestone. Andy and Dan did a joint presentation at the International Qur’an Studies Association (IQSA) meeting in Boston, showcasing Qur’an Gateway to the scholars gathered from around the world. We were overjoyed at how warmly QG was received, how excited people were, and how quickly academics saw the potential. We opened QG up for “beta testing” and at IQSA and over the next few months, hundreds of people signed up and began using QG on a daily basis to help their research.
In August 2018, the latest key addition to our team was made: Tim Murphy joined Qur’an Gateway as Senior Vice President, tasked with the day-to-day running of the business and especially with the task of travelling to universities across the world and showcasing QG, so that libraries and departments would consider signing up to be paid users once it came out of testing.
Towards the end of December 2018, Dan Brubaker stepped back from Qur’an Gateway, after several years of working in a full-time capacity on the project. Dan had lots of interests beyond academia and wanted the freedom and time to pursue his own writing projects. (We’re delighted that one fruit of this was his book, Corrections in Early Qurʾān Manuscripts: Twenty Examples. QG encouraged Dan to use some of the materials he had collected for the project whilst working for QG in his book). We were hugely grateful for all Dan’s energy and passion for QG over the years.
Finally, in September 2019, Qur’an Gateway moved out of its “beta testing” phase and we opened the door for users and institutions to subscribe. We were tremendously excited that our first customer was the University of Oxford—and now dozens of universities and individual scholars around the world pay a small subscription fee for access to QG. Once those subscriptions cover our costs (servers, salaries, etc.) any additional income can be poured back into producing more research and features to make available through QG.
We say “finally” but, of course, the story of Qur’an Gateway is ongoing. Check out the “What’s New” page and you’ll see that we are continuing to add new features and improve existing ones. New resources are regularly coming on stream. And we have plans for many more. Our goal is that QG will continue to be the definitive computer program for critical study of the Qur’an for years to come.
Qur’an Gateway has been a tremendous team effort. QG is the result of thousands of hours of work by those named here (Keith Small, Andy Bannister, Nick Chatrath, Dan Brubaker, Michael McCoy, Joshua Falconer, Charles de Bueger) and countless others too numerous to mention. We’re grateful for all of their hard work and we hope you enjoy using the fruit of their labours: Qur’an Gateway.