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Sacred and Flexible

Finding wisdom in manuscripts’ margins

When Joel Blecher ’04 first traveled to the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul to unearth early drafts of a medieval Islamic text, he almost missed the manuscript library itself.

“I walked right past it,” he says. The winding streets and bountiful bazaars cloaked the entrance, but “a few turns and swivels to the left and I spotted it.”

The text, Fath al-Bari, formed the basis of his book Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium. Beyond the Qu’ran, works like Fath al-Bari helped Muslims understand Muhammad’s sayings and practices—called hadith—to navigate the human experience, from matters of law and love to worship and war.

In the documents he found in Istanbul, Blecher was struck by the notations and corrections made in the margins by its author. The fact that the author changed his interpretation of hadith in his own lifetime suggests flexibility in the Islamic tradition.

“Islam should not be reduced to a single sacred book, frozen in time,” says Blecher, an assistant professor of Islamic history at George Washington University. “I impart to my students and readers the need to go beyond the Qu’ran and develop a broad awareness of the many kinds of texts, people, and movements that have helped shape Islam as a living tradition over time.”

Blecher’s early interest in the field was ignited as a religion major at Swarthmore, where professors including Steven Hopkins and Tariq al-Jamil helped him make his first trip to Syria. He became so captivated that he decided to make Islam the focus of his doctoral work, continuing his studies across Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tunisia, and India.

In his painstaking quest to shed new light on the hadith, Blecher must reflect on more than a thousand years of debate over the sayings and practices of Muhammad. Unlike the Qur’an, which was likely written down soon after the Prophet’s death, the hadith collections and their meaning evolved slowly over the following centuries. He hopes to help readers understand how communities from classical Muslim Spain to medieval Egypt to modern India to militant groups like ISIS have interpreted the hadith in different ways for their own context.

“The history of Islam is a history in which Muslims are always reconsidering how the many layers of their textual inheritance square with their present social and political circumstances,” Blecher says.

His next book—awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Council of Learned Societies—will also explore the medieval Muslim world.

Blecher’s Profit and Prophecy: Islam and the Spice Trade will retell this world-changing history—the spark for Europe’s “age of discovery”—through the eyes of medieval Muslim scholars who risked faith and fortune through pilgrimages and port cities spanning the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean.