Joel Blecher, Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium (University of California Press, 2018).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Joel Blecher (JB): I first discovered my interest in hadith commentary when I was invited to attend a live commentary session on Sahih al-Bukhari in Damascus, Syria in 2009. The commentator spent seven years explaining a single hadith collection, and was only a third of the way through explaining the entire work. Attended by hundreds of students from across the globe, the commentator drew on a rich tradition of commentaries from the places and times it flourished the most—classical Andalusia, medieval Egypt, and modern India—to illuminate the meaning of the hadith for his present audiences. When I returned to Princeton later that year to begin my doctoral research, I found that virtually nothing had been published on this complex and multi-layered tradition. I could not even find an entry dedicated to the subject in the Encyclopedia of Islam. Although scholars had long studied how Muslims authenticated and transmitted hadith, the story of how they interpreted and reinterpreted the meanings of hadith over the past millennium had yet to be told.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
JB: Said the Prophet of God gives readers an illustrative sampling of the intellectual, legal, and theological debates over hadith, and the way in which those debates stretched across long periods of time and geographical expanses. It also brings dimension to the public nature of the practice of hadith commentaries in their local places and times and the material culture of manuscripts, print, and audio-visual media in which commentaries were circulated. A hadith commentary over a controversial hadith could spark public furors in eleventh century Andalusia. In Egypt in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, live hadith commentary sessions were the stage for spectacular and sometimes destructive rivalries among Muslim chief justices, while the sultans and emirs in attendance doled out gifts, jobs, and even tax breaks. The tradition found new life in British India in the age of print and mass literacy, when Urdu and English commentators emerged to address both the political challenges of colonialism and also the intellectual problems that, they claimed, their pre-modern predecessors had missed. At the end of the book, I look at how hadith commentary continues to operate in the contemporary world, weaving together my own ethnographic field notes with analyses of the way militant groups have drawn on hadith commentary for their propaganda.
J: How does this book connect and/or depart from your previous work?
JB: My earliest writings on the history of religion at Swarthmore College concerned the marginalia in William Blake's Illuminated Books. Blake filled up the margins and interlinear spaces of his plates with spiraling ornamentation, which sometimes depicted micro-dramas of human figurines hidden within them. Lamenting the fact that modern editions excluded all of this from printed editions, I argued that this layer of pictorial marginalia offered a provocative auto-commentary on his prophecies and proverbs.
Although they emerged from a very different context and period, Blake's Illuminated Books taught me how texts can function as multi-sensory aural and visual recordings, and the way that reading was an embodied practice rather than an abstract one. Blake's work also taught me how texts engage the politics of their time, while speaking across time in conversation with past and future audiences. Lastly, studying Blake taught me that authors who challenge traditional modes of thought can also be subtly (and paradoxically) reifying them. In retrospect, these are also some of the key insights that Said the Prophet of God advances as well. When I came upon the seemingly quiet and austere genre of hadith commentary, I found a bubbling mixture of politics, sound, visions, live readings, an engagement with multiple temporalities, provocative arguments, interpretive dilemmas, and contradictions.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
JB: I want to help bring humanity and life into hadith studies—a field that, for an outsider, can appear daunting and overly technical. For that reason, I crafted the book in a way that it would be valuable for students and specialists alike. I hope it will find as happy a home in an undergraduate seminar as it would on a graduate student's library carrel or a professor's bookshelf. The book is concise enough that it can be comfortably read on a couch with one's feet up, but includes enough detailed notes that it can be a resource for readers to consult for reference. Scholars of Islamic studies across a range of periods and places will be sure to find it of interest, but the book has also been written to open new avenues for comparative audiences of historians, scholars of religion, anthropology, and law. In the end, as no single book or single scholar could do justice to this tradition, my hope is that this book spurs future students and scholars to begin to mine this vast literature. In that spirit, Said the Prophet of God does not pretend to offer the last word on the subject, but rather an introduction to further debate, questions, and commentary.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
JB: I am helping to edit a collected volume of scholarly essays on hadith commentary, which will be certain to help advance this nascent field. I am also compiling a primary source reader for hadith literature that undergraduates and broader readerships would find accessible and engaging.
Meanwhile, I will be hard at work on my next book project, Profit and Prophecy: Islam and the Spice Trade, which was recently awarded fellowships from both the NEH and the ACLS. This book will retell the story of the spice trade through the eyes of medieval Muslim scholars, merchants, and scholar-merchants, who mixed religion and business along pilgrimage routes and port cities that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean.
J: If you were to try to sum up your book in a haiku, or perhaps two, what would it be?
so said the prophet—
commence volumes of comments
a world tied by texts
asking: what was intended?
old words, new meanings
Excerpt from the Book:
It was 2009, before the civil war. As the scorching heat of a Damascus summer day gave way to a balmy evening, a friend invited me along to al-Īmān Mosque to hear Shaykh Naʿīm al-ʿIrqsūsī add to his line-by-line commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī. Grabbing my pen and pad, I accepted. Sunnis popularly hold Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī to be the most reliable collection of hadith—the sayings and practices attributed to Muhammad—and their interpretation of the meanings of the hadith it contains is an event to behold. It was the seventh year of ʿIrqsūsī’s commentary, and he was less than a third of the way through explaining the entire work.
At the mosque’s threshold, I removed my shoes, and I found a seat on the carpet some sixty feet away from the shaykh. Scanning the room, I made a careful observation of ʿIrqsūsī’s students. By my count, nearly eight hundred male students had gathered there. Many local Syrians were in attendance, but a good fraction of his students were from other parts of the Islamic world, particularly Central Asia and Indonesia. Roughly half brought a personal copy of Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī with them. Older students pored over faded editions, filled with marginal notes from prior studies. Younger students brandished sparkling new editions that conveniently included a popular medieval commentary in a smaller font below the main text, and they began adding their own margin notes for the first time. Near the back, some in attendance closed their eyes, counting their prayer beads methodically as they listened to the shaykh explain each hadith. Near the front, students clamored for the shaykh’s attention, hoping to prove they could competently answer any question the shaykh might spontaneously pose to them.
While ʿIrqsūsī’s periodic slips into Syrian dialect appeared to create an air of improvisation, his commentary was anything but. In one sitting, by capitalizing on the flexibility of the line-by-line commentary to digress into a wide spectrum of detailed discussions, ʿIrqsūsī carefully stitched together citations from hadith commentaries from classical Andalusia, the Mamluk era, and modern India. He also weaved in material from Qur’an commentaries, Islamic legal texts, historical chronicles, and biographies of the Prophet and his companions. With each explanation he exhorted his audience to pious action or elucidated a sectarian, legal, grammatical, historical, or political issue. It took ʿIrqsūsī from the time of the sunset prayer to the evening prayer—about an hour and a half—to recite and explain just three hadith.
The practice of live line-by-line hadith commentary like ʿIrqsūsī’s is a fixture of modern Islamic societies. On any given week, one can attend live commentaries on hadith collections in far-flung places, from Baghdad to Britain, Morocco to Malaysia, Pennsylvania to Pakistan, India to Indonesia, and Syria to South Africa to Saudi Arabia. The medium of the hadith commentary is particularly appealing for global audiences in part because the hadith collection’s topics range so widely that it allows scholars to expound on almost every subject imaginable: law, theology, governance, manners, mysticism, worship, the Qur’an, history, and the end of time.
And yet, as much as this practice speaks to the broad concerns of contemporary Muslim audiences, it is rooted in a deep history that spans more than a millennium. Scholars of the manuscript tradition have catalogued 232 extant works of commentary just on collections that were first compiled in the classical period. The total number of hadith commentaries is exponentially higher when one takes into account commentaries on popular collections compiled after the classical period. While academic studies of hadith have illuminated how hadith were transmitted, authenticated, and awarded authority, one vital set of questions has yet to be fully investigated: How did Muslims interpret and reinterpret the meanings of hadith and hadith collections? What aspects of hadith and hadith collections came to require explanation in certain periods, and why? What explains why one hadith commentarial opinion endured while another withered away? When the needs of interpreters’ social interests came into conflict with their fidelity to the apparent meaning of the hadith, how did commentators attempt to thread the needle, balancing both sets of concerns? And what were the complex social forces, technologies, times, spaces, and audiences that shaped and were shaped by the practice of commentary on hadith?
This book takes up this set of questions by examining the three key historical periods and locales in which commentary on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī flourished: classical Andalusia, late medieval Egypt, and modern India. The book closes with an epilogue on contemporary appropriations of hadith commentary by Islamist groups. Throughout, the book tracks continuities and changes that emerged as the commentary tradition moved from the era of manuscripts to the eras of print and video, from eras in which commentators were connected to the ruling elite to eras in which they were distanced from political power, and from eras in which particular textual and institutional authorities were virtually unquestioned to eras in which those same authorities could be challenged. The book argues that the meanings of hadith were shaped as much by commentators’ political, cultural, and regional contexts as by the fine-grained interpretive debates that developed over long periods of time.
Why does this book track the cumulative tradition of hadith commentary across a millennium? Like geological processes, certain changes and continuities can be observed only across long periods of time. Some layers of commentary suffered from erosion or were buried under sediment amid historical change. Others, under extreme pressure, morphed into something entirely new. Long-buried layers of commentarial opinions, after sudden moments of rupture, could return to the surface for a new audience to contemplate. Unlike geological formations, social and intellectual forces, rather than natural ones, shaped and reshaped the commentary traditions across time. And unlike sedimentary rock, hadith commentators and their communities could play some role in determining whether their opinions endured or languished.
To this end, broader audiences will find in this book a model for approaching traditions of textual interpretation at the intersection of both social and intellectual history. By documenting how commentaries delivered in a live setting and in writing were conditioned by the interests of their diverse audiences of students, patrons, and rivals, as well as by the affairs of the state, this book challenges the assumption that commentary was merely a derivative and rarefied practice, insulated from the politics of the public sphere. And yet, by giving equal weight to the intellectual stakes of the tradition—such as the cross-generational search for novel solutions to long-standing interpretive problems—this book avoids a common pitfall of recent sociocultural analysis: the reduction of intellectual activity to mere competition over material and social capital. By approaching hadith commentary as a living practice with social and intellectual stakes, this book aims to synthesize new avenues for scholars of history, anthropology, religion, and law who study cultures of reading and textual interpretation.