Said the Prophet of God

Hadith Commentary Across a Millennium

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Joel Blecher
Ahmanson Foundation Endowment for Humanities
  • Oakland, CA: 
    University of California Press
    , November
     2017.
     288 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780520295940.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

One of 2018’s treats from the University of California Press is Joel Blecher’s Said the Prophet of God. This light, readable volume draws dotted, and sometimes solid lines linking contemporary YouTube stars in “hadith” commentary to some of their scholarly predecessors throughout the past millennium. Hadith is an Arabic word for both “speech” and “something new.” To combine the two meanings, one may say that the continuous study of the sayings and acts of Islam’s revered prophet, reported with interest and zeal by some of his early followers, kept his tradition constantly “new.” Blecher shows how the acts of the seventh century Arabian prophet lived on and on longer than those of most human beings before and after.

Blecher briefly stops in ninth and tenth century Spain (chapters 1-2), then makes a dwelling in thirteenth to fifteenth century Egypt/Syria (chapters 3-8) and ends with a medium-length stop in early modern India (chapters 9-10). An epilogue demands that Western enthusiasm about ISIS’s readings of Muhammad be moderated, given how these twenty-first century readings compare only as a strange outlier to most readings of Islam’s prophet. If Blecher’s choices of time and place can be seen as arbitrary, so can choices by me or you. Blecher does not hide that his choices were strongly influenced by a Syrian shaykh (tradition master) he met in 2009.

Few Islamic studies scholars start their books the way Blecher begins: “It was 2009 before the civil war.” Blecher’s comfort with his subject is transparent and can be noted in his writing style. But so is his reliance on his Syrian and Indian companions in seeking knowledge of Muhammad’s living tradition. A virtue certainly lies in this posture, as it allows the anglophone reader into a world of ideas and practices that remain surprisingly under-explored. The crisp prose throughout makes the book a page turner, opening the door for connections in the reader’s mind across the geographic and historical spaces of the book’s broad span. The author’s strong language command probably tempted him to drop in some new coinages and unusual terms, but he limited himself to a few, such as “commentarial”—of or pertaining to a commentary—and “quizzical” (to describe the alleged surpassing subtlety of the titles Bukhari (d. 256/870) applies to the sections of his hadith collection).

To this reviewer, chapter 6 was the book’s most engaging section. In it Blecher relates the impossible (though familiar) requirement known to scholars who purport to use hadith to somehow distill a pure version of the prophet’s message: A reader should abstain from applying their reasoning so as to neutralize the content of a report of Muhammad’s pronouncements and acts, lest this be the rule of reason and not of revelation. Ibn Taymiyya (d. 728/1328), among many, is guilty of insisting on this requirement, though he was wise enough to ignore it (in practice) repeatedly. A hadith restricting discretionary (ta‘zir) punishment to a ceiling of ten lashes (discussed in detail in chapters 2 and 6) is our test. From onset to outset Blecher exercises the requisite discipline to show the gravity of the matter of interpreting Muhammad’s words and acts, despite his full awareness that a plain sense reading of these words or acts practically cancels out the category of discretionary judicial justice. The difference, again in practice, between (a) reconciling all (hadith) material relevant to a question of the law and (b) dismissing some of this material (in this case) does thin out. In other words, the ceiling of ten lashes in ta’zir cases had to mostly be ignored by jurists who needed to worry about the report’s practical implication. From Blecher we learn that some Muslim scholars take up the academic exercise of asserting the ceiling as a way of protecting the word of the prophet from the unhinged human mind’s rule. By the end of Blecher’s discussion the reader will have the right dose of acquaintance with the question’s theoretical and practical sides.

Blecher’s text will come in handy as classroom reading for courses on a range of topics, and it will open doors for new scholars to further explore the uses and limits of hadith collections and the scholarship of Hadith glossators.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ahmad Atif Ahmad is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Date of Review: 
February 28, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joel Blecher is Assistant Professor of History at George Washington University. His writings have appeared in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Oriens, and the Atlantic.

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