A manuscript discovered in Istanbul by a former Oberlin resident shows how Islam is always under revision.
American society’s ignorance of Islamic culture and history pushed Joel Blecher to travel to the Middle East and South Asia where he spent five years learning Arabic and researching hadiths, records of sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, revered as a major source of religious law and moral guidance.
“This was a place where I could make a contribution,” he said. “Islam is oversimplified, reduced, flattened, and made into a cartoon on news media, but it’s complex, multilayered, and the product of centuries of learning.”
The Quran is the word of God and contains fundamentals and rules, while hadiths are historical accounts of the life of Muhammad that expand on verses inside Islam’s holy book.
“In the Quran, you learn that you should pray, fast, give to charity, and only believe in one god, but it doesn’t tell you all of the nitty-gritty details about how to apply that — questions like, ‘What happens if I sneeze while I pray? How should I hold my hands while I pray?’” Blecher said. “There are all of these details that emerged when Muslims became a living community with human needs.”
Many scholars have studied the question, “Did Muhammed actually say these things or not?” but Blecher’s research was different. He was interested in commentary on the hadiths and how Muslims interpret them.
He quickly realized that many thinkers have helped shape Islam as a living tradition over time.
In the library at the Suleymaniye mosque in Istanbul, he unearthed an early draft of Fath al-Bari — “Unlocking the Divine Wisdom” — a 15th century manuscript that explains thousands of hadith on almost every aspect of the human experience: medicine, law, worship, love, war, business, government, law, medicine, and even dental hygiene.
The book became an instant classic and is cited today by religious figures, Islamic scholars, Al-Jazeera media, and ISIS propagandists.
The marked-up commentary showed Islam is always under revision, as its author adjusted his interpretations over decades of writing, Blecher said. The manuscript was a tangible copy of the author’s thought process, showing that the way Muslims understand hadiths changes over time, he said.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re Muslim in Oberlin or Malaysia or in Syria,” he said. “Everybody practices the same religion, but that doesn’t mean the religion isn’t constantly adapting to different cultures, times, and societies.”
Islam’s flexibility and adaptability is why the religion has been so successful across history, said Blecher, who believes there is hefty room for debate and that’s one of the reasons many Muslims despise ISIS.
“Debate can allow for plurality of opinion but can also allow for extreme voices,” he said. The Islamic terrorist group has taken the hadiths out of cultural and traditional boundaries.
Blecher said his passion for studying Arabic and the Islamic world stems from his eight months living abroad in Venice during his senior year at Oberlin High School. The experience taught him how to root himself in environments unlike his own.
He graduated as valedictorian in 2000 and was always interested in learning as many languages as he could, toying with Hebrew, Chinese, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, Old English, and Icelandic during his school years.
After graduating from college in 2004, he became immersed in studying Arabic and the Islamic world, and taught religion at Oberlin College before traveling.
He is currently a history professor at George Washington University. The book on his research, “Said the Prophet of God,” will be released Nov. 21 and can be purchased online or at the Oberlin Bookstore.
Laurie Hamame can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @HamameNews on Twitter.