You raise some good interesting points here. Let me answer these in turn:

> (1) If you stick with questions like these, what is the difference with an 
> index or concordance?

My answer to this is that a Question-Answering system (from a
computer-science perspective) can be considered quite similar to a
very powerful index or concordance, but is also supposed to do
different things. Firstly, the medium is different - questions and
answers are exchanged in a more "natural" way, which some users might
find easier to use. Although many Quranic experts and scholars do
prefer to look things up themselves from existing indices and books, I
would still say that a QA system is quite useful because it provides a
different interface and user experience - something that many people
might feel more comfortable with. Here is a good example:

The START QA system has answered millions of online user questions,
over many years. You could apply the same argument to any QA system -
what is the point of them? Why do so many people bother to use START,
why not just use Wikipedia for example? (of course only a very small
percentage of total web users use START, but still they do find it
useful and interesting). The short answer is that different people
like different things, many people prefer to look things up
themselves, but people also like to use different types of interface,
an interface that hopefully appears more natural.

Aside from that, one would hope that a QA system would do things that
a concordance or index can't do. A simple example might be the ability
to map many different question terms to common base terms, e.g. "The
Prophet Muhammad" and "Mohamad" might actually be mapped by a QA
system and normalized to the same input.

> (2)  I would say that paraphrasing the word of God is not a good idea

I completely agree with this. My preference is to apply information
retrieval and question-answering which is backed by verses of the
Quran, that is we possibly aim for a system which relies on the
knowledge contained in existing verses of the Quran.

> (3) one cannot lift one verse up and present it out of its context; important 
> nuances might very well be lost (not to mention the extensive literature on 
> asbab al-nuzul, tafsir, sirah, ahadith etc. to contextualize the Quran even 
> more).

This is a complicated topic, with many schools of thought. It is
important not to generalize here. There are those who believe that the
Quran requires a large amount of background information in order to be
accessible. While this may be true for some verses, there is also an
opinion that that the Quran is accessible to the general reader, and
often doesn’t require detailed further explanation in order to get the
basic or stragithforward meaning of many verses. I would suggest that
we tackle this by first concentrating on the simple verses which don’t
require much detailed explanation to understand. For example:

Verse (21:30) - Have those who disbelieved not considered that the
heavens and the earth were a joined entity, and We separated them and
made from water every living thing? Then will they not believe?

Many detailed analyses have been performed for this verse over the
centuries, but at the same time, it does carry an important piece of
information which is easy to understand - the importance of water to
life in the context of creation.

> (4) So to conclude, is what you want pretty much the same as an 
> index/concordance? Then go with that. If you think the QA-system would be 
> different from that, please take note of the pitfalls I've indicated here.

Again, I would agree with you here. Of course there is no point
building a question-answering system if it is nothing more than an
index or concordance. However, at the same time, it is probably better
to take a balanced viewpoint on this. I disagree with the view that
there is no point to this system because it’s too hard, adds no real
value, or is too controversial. Similarly, I would also disagree with
the view that such a system is very easy to build, is extremely useful
and will replace other ways of looking at the Quran. We should also
not expect an initial system to be able to perform any type of
detailed inference.

Instead, I would suggest that we take a lot of what you have said
onboard, and consider a more balanced opinion. Some important things
to keep in mind are:

- Not everybody likes looking at things in the same way. Although many
religious studies experts and Quranic scholars do indeed like to use
indexes, books, and detailed references, many people do not always
like this approach. Some people are comfortable with a more natural
dialog system, and are happy reading a small selection of verses of
the Quran as an introduction to a wider topic. For example, young
students, non-Muslims, people interested in the Quranpeople who might
not have English as their first language, but would still like to use
a simple QA system etc.

- Although some verses of the Quran require detailed background
information before any meaning can be obtained, there are also many
verses with clear contained ideas and propositions.

- Just because something is hard, possibly controversial, and may have
some drawbacks and limitations, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t
proceed. Any good piece of science includes an experiment with an
often uncertain outcome. We don't know until we try.

Based on this, I do agree with you (and others) that there are many
things to consider here, but I along with many other members of this
mailing list do look forward to a simple Question-Answering for the
Quran. Although you yourself Eric might not find it very useful, as I
do agree with you there are of course many other better resources out
there - let’s keep in mind that different people like different
things, and that I’m very sure that a simple Question-Answering system
will attract many new visitors and users to the website.

I could be wrong - but we will never know until we try :-) Of course
there are many things we need to keep in mind, but I would like to
suggest we move this discussion on to more practical concerns. My
biggest interest in developing even a simple QA system, is that we
can't do something even better and more advanced without starting with
the basics first. So even if this system is quite simple, we should go
ahead and not give up - otherwise, how will we ever build anything at
all, if we don't start with the first few simple steps towards
something more powerful?

I have very humble aims for a simple Question-Answering system.
However, I wonder what people thought about the Wright Brothers'
attempts at building the first airplane? :-)

I would welcome some positive constructive ideas on how to proceed
with the simple Quran QA system. In particular, any contributions for
lists of questions, and matching verses with answers are most welcome.

Kind Regards,

-- Kais

> On Sun, Feb 28, 2010 at 3:37 PM, Eric van Lit <> wrote:
> Hi Kais and everybody else,
> I want to point out that the questions you suggested all revolve around one 
> word:
> Allah - Who is Allah?
> Muhammad - Who was Muhammad?
> Islam - What is Islam?
> prophets - Which prophets are mentioned in the Quran?
> Solomon - Is Solomon mentioned in the Quran?
> Jesus - What does the Quran say about Jesus?
> religions - List the religions mentioned in the Quran.
> If you stick with questions like these, what is the difference with an index 
> or concordance? Or is your intention to generate a coherent answer from the 
> relevant verses? If so, I would say that paraphrasing the word of God is not 
> a good idea (this objection is similar to my objection to the pronoun 
> "resolution"). Also be aware that much of the Quran is context dependent and 
> so one cannot lift one verse up and present it out of its context; important 
> nuances might very well be lost (not to mention the extensive literature on 
> asbab al-nuzul, tafsir, sirah, ahadith etc. to contextualize the Quran even 
> more).
> Yes, we live in a time where it seems that everything has to be summarized in 
> one catchy quote (i.e. if it doesn't fit in a Twitter tweet, it's not 
> important to read) but I honestly don't think an approach like that to the 
> Quran is a correct one. The very character of the Quran - and I mean for 
> example its lack of one big narrative and its apparent contradiction 
> throughout the text - forces the reader to spend time on it, to read bigger 
> parts of it than just some verses here and there. To decompose the Quran to 
> its verse-structure (or do you want to cut into even smaller pieces for 
> this?) and put it back together in an order you deem best is a guarantee for 
> losing its aesthetics and thereby its unique character.
> So to conclude, is what you want pretty much the same as an 
> index/concordance? Then go with that. If you think the QA-system would be 
> different from that, please take note of the pitfalls I've indicated here.
> Just my 2 cents of course.
> Eric van Lit
> M.A. student McGill University
>> Date: Sun, 28 Feb 2010 10:48:23 +0000
>> Subject: Re: Advice Required - Dialog System for the Quran
>> From:
>> To:
>> Hello,
>> This discussion thread is getting quite interesting indeed. What do
>> you all think of START - the natural language question answering
>> system?
>> I think it's pretty good for simple facts, especially as it usually
>> cites the original source resource for each answer. With regards to a
>> Quranic QA system, I think that so far the general consensus on this
>> mailing list is that there could be two types of system:
>> (1) A very basic fact system, which can answer simple questions from
>> knowledge in the Quran, backed by Quranic verses.
>> (2) A much more advanced system, which combines the Hadith, Quran, and
>> other parts of the Islamic faith to give fatwa-style answers using
>> advanced inference and automated deduction.
>> Well, we have to start somewhere ... so I'm keen to focus on system
>> (1). The question for me is, would a simple fact system still be
>> useful, without advanced inference? From a practical perspective, I
>> believe that it would be, although of course not as useful as system
>> (2). A very-simple QA system might be useful for students, younger web
>> users, and the general public who might be interested in simple
>> questions about Islam. Probably not so useful for those already
>> familiar with the Quran and the religion in more detail and are after
>> finer clarification. From an Academic perspective, system (1) is also
>> very useful because:
>> - It might be one of the first few attempts at a Quran QA-system
>> (would give a baseline for future research in this area).
>> - It would be interesting to know how the genre of the Quran affects
>> QA in general, i.e. is there anything special about this domain? Is QA
>> for the Quran the same or any different from general QA?
>> - Given that the Quran is highly studied (and now also highly
>> annotated linguistically) does this extra information help beyond
>> basic keyword search?
>> - This simple system is probably a step in the right direction for a
>> more advanced system (2)
>> Based on recent discussion, I would suggest that a good starting point
>> would be a simple QA fact system. Note that "simple" here refers to
>> the system from a user's perspective. From the perspective of those
>> designing and building such a system, things which look "simple" to a
>> user can be very hard indeed in the field of AI :-), if not sometimes
>> nearly impossible!
>> Would anybody be interested in helping to compile a list of basic fact
>> questions about the Quran, backed by specific verses? Here are some
>> simple fact-based questions that come to mind:
>> - Who is Allah?
>> - Who was Muhammad?
>> - What is Islam?
>> - Which prophets are mentioned in the Quran?
>> - Is Solomon mentioned in the Quran?
>> - What does the Quran say about Jesus?
>> - List the religions mentioned in the Quran.
>> (Inspired by
>> The good thing is that once we get a basic system up online, we can
>> start to monitor the system's log files to see which questions are
>> most frequently asked (we would expect a Zipfian distribution) and we
>> can later tune the system to give good responses to the most common
>> questions. Hopefully each of these questions could be answered via an
>> extract of a relevant verse from the Quran (within reason). Ideally, I
>> would like to compile a list of hundreds (or even possibly thousands)
>> of questions with simple answers from verses of the Quran.
>> After that, there could be lots of other possibilities. Given a large
>> list of question and answers, this could be the final knowledge base,
>> and we map new questions to existing answers. Otherwise, given a large
>> list, there may be a reasonable way to think about automating the
>> process of question/answer extraction to a reasonable level of
>> accuracy - so that future compilation of the knowledge base might be a
>> case of manual verification of automated suggestions.
>> I'm looking forward to any suggestions on the first stage of this new
>> project: constructing a large list of simple questions and answers
>> relating to verses of the Quran.
>> Kind Regards,
>> -- Kais
>> > On Sun, Feb 28, 2010 at 8:36 AM, Abdul-Baqi Sharaf 
>> > <> wrote:
>> > Dear All;
>> >
>> > I was following this thread with interest. Actually I am not very much
>> > optimistic about trusted automated QA system on the Qur'an or Islam that
>> > would assume the position of a Qur'anic scholar. However, a simple factoid
>> > questions to someone who does not know much facts about Qur'an/Islam can be
>> > produced.
>> >
>> > I think automated QA is the greatest challenge for artificial intelligence
>> > and Alan Turing's challenge still remains a challenge for computational
>> > community. Shaping this challenge for the quranic context would mean, that
>> > when a user asks a quranic questions he/she would not be able to tell who 
>> > is
>> > answering him/her from behind the screen: a qur'anic scholar or an 
>> > automated
>> > dialogue system :-) so, seconding El-Haj I also think any system should not
>> > assume the position of a Mufti.
>> >
>> > Once I gathered few questions from tafsir section of and it
>> > seemed to me that majority of these questions are geared towards general
>> > Muslims who has fair knowledge about the Qur'an but wants clarification on
>> > apparent contradictions or confusion about two verses. I would imagine that
>> > some good progress could be achieved if the Qur'anic is annotated with much
>> > more extra-linguistic tags including information taken from books of 
>> > tafsir,
>> > hadith, fiqh, etc and then sophisticated inference rules are applied, but
>> > then again any answer should be first checked by a Qur'anic scholar before
>> > passing to the user which then defeats the purpose of a dialogue system
>> > which assumes instant answers.
>> >
>> > However, I think computational linguistics and text mining can be of great
>> > help to a qur'anic scholar who can filter any automated output and accept
>> > the ones that is correct.
>> >
>> > Having said that, I am not discouraging this idea of a dialogue system, but
>> > rather requesting to define the project properly in terms of the type of
>> > questions this system will attempt to answer instantly.
>> >
>> > I will be interested in collecting a set of factoid question-answers if 
>> > this
>> > projects goes forward.
>> >
>> > best wishes,
>> > Abdul-Baquee
>> >
>> > On Sun, Feb 28, 2010 at 3:56 AM, El-Haj, Mahmoud <> 
>> > wrote:
>> >>
>> >> Dear All,
>> >>
>> >> Very impressive indeed.
>> >> I just have the following questions, concerns and suggestions regarding
>> >> the Quranic Question Answering System.
>> >>
>> >> Building a Quranic Question Answering system is great but you need to
>> >> focus on what type of questions are you going to ask!
>> >> Is it questions on Belief, juristic, transactions, ...etc.
>> >>
>> >> Trustworthy Resources! What does it exactly mean? Are you intending to
>> >> just copy/paste questions and answers from different websites? Which 
>> >> sounds
>> >> retrieving process only.
>> >> What I mean is training a Quranic QA system with Quranic resources is
>> >> different from training a general QA system using a training data, as the
>> >> domain is huge and the testing data is different from the training one

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