We Live in a Culture of Commentary

This guest post is published in conjunction with the annual meetings of the Middle Eastern Studies Association in Washington, DC and the American Academy of Religion in Boston, MA, both taking place November 18-21. #MESA2017DC &  #AARSBL17


By Joel Blecher, author of Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium

In many ways, we live in the age of commentary. It seems like every cough, sneeze, and throat clearing is swiftly rendered into text, algorithmically circulated across social media, and subject to endless comments from every perspective. A pundit on every phone, a guru in every garage, and an interpreter on every internet browser.

And yet, our commentarial culture, when viewed historically, is remarkably constrained. Terse, even. We even have a phrase for it: “hot takes,” instant reactions that would seem to tap into humanity’s stream of consciousness in a hundred and forty characters or less. Two-hundred and eighty if you’re lucky.

I have spent the last seven years studying a very different culture of commentary—commentary on Muhammad’s sayings or practices, called hadith. While similar to our contemporary commentarial culture in many respects—a key hub of social and intellectual life—hadith commentaries were multi-volume works of art, monuments to knowledge that required deep learning and decades of training and continuous revision. Commentators dedicated their lives to commenting on a collection of hadith—often passing away before they could complete their work—and meticulously crafted their texts to speak not only to their present, but across long periods of time. These commentaries were built for a kind of time travel—their authors bundled up into quires of paper and ink all of the knowledge they could find in the hopes that readers on the other side of the globe and centuries into the distant future might find some benefit in them. While many perished, the greatest ones actually succeeded, and are still read assiduously today.

I first discovered my interest in hadith commentary when I was invited to attend a live commentary session in Damascus, Syria in 2009. The commentator had 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 classical Andalusia, medieval Egypt, and modern India to illuminate the meaning of the hadith for his present audiences. Emulating the practices of his predecessors, he read each hadith aloud, and used each word or phrase to digress on almost every aspect of the human experience. But 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.

After a little digging into the sources, it became clear just how important and exciting this understudied field was. A quick search yielded hundreds of hadith commentaries produced over a thousand years, and each one told a unique story. A hadith commentary sparked public furors in 11th-century Andalusia. In Egypt in the 14th and 15th 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, and Urdu and English commentators emerged to address the political challenges of colonialism but also to solve intellectual problems that, they claimed, their pre-modern predecessors had missed.

Said the Prophet of God tells the story of this living tradition across a millennium, and I hope it will be clear why it deserves more than a “hot take.” As a central hub of Islamic social and intellectual life, the story of how Muslims interpreted and reinterpreted hadith has been a missing piece in the academy’s patchwork understanding of Islam and Islamic history. But this tradition is too vast for a single book or a single scholar to undertake. My hope is that this book spurs on 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.


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

Said the Prophet of God explores the rich social and intellectual life of hadith commentary and offers new avenues for the study of religion, history, anthropology, and law.

 

 


Banned Books Week 2017: Islamic Peace, Tolerance, and Understanding

As part of Banned Books Week we’ll be sharing recommended reading lists that promote the freedom to seek and express ideas. We take pride in publishing scholarship that focuses on the lives of diverse religious and ethnic communities and places value in their voices. Through our mission to advance knowledge and drive progressive change, we seek to promote free expression, understanding of different beliefs, and most importantly, tolerance of difference. #BannedBooksWeek #RightToRead

During Banned Books Week (ending September 30), get a 30% discount on these selected titles below.

Understanding Jihad
By David Cook 

“One of the most helpful of the spate of new books to appear since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, on the debate about jihad in Islam. Cook’s approach is based on historical and textual analyses, and is enhanced by valuable theoretical discussion. This book will help readers find their way through the vast literature by Muslims and non-Muslim scholars on what we can’t seem to get away from calling ‘holy war.'”
—Richard C. Martin, Professor of Islamic Studies, Emory University

“This book is important to current political and religious discourse on the role of Islam in today’s world and increases our understanding of the seemingly odd behaviors we observe through the media. A tremendous contribution.”
—Reuven Firestone, author of Jihad: The Origin of Holy War in Islam

 

A Half Century of Occupation: Israel, Palestine, and the World’s Most Intractable Conflict
By Gershon Shafir 

“In this thoughtful, sober, and astute study of fifty years of Israeli rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Shafir poses the right questions, treats them with the depth of knowledge and analysis they require and deserve, and reaches conclusions that are insightful and nuanced in equal measure. Additionally, and crucially, he helps us to prepare for the future as we better understand the past. This essential book is certain to withstand the tests of time.”
—Mouin Rabbani, Senior Fellow, Institute for Palestine Studies

“An indispensable guide for anyone who wants to understand the occupation that has blighted Israeli and Palestinian lives for fifty years.”
—Peter Beinart, author of The Crisis of Zionism

 

American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear
By Khaled A. Beydoun
Forthcoming April 2018

The term “Islamophobia” may be fairly new but irrational fear and hatred of Islam and Muslims is anything but. Though many speak of Islamophobia’s roots in racism, have we considered how anti-Muslim rhetoric is rooted in our legal system?

Using his unique lens as a critical race theorist and law professor, Khaled A. Beydoun captures the many ways in which law, policy, and official state rhetoric have fueled the frightening resurgence of Islamophobia in the United States. Through the stories of Muslim Americans who have experienced Islamophobia across various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic lines, Beydoun shares how U.S. laws shatter lives, whether directly or inadvertently. And with an eye toward benefiting society as a whole, he recommends ways for Muslim Americans and their allies to build coalitions with other groups. Like no book before it, American Islamophobia offers a robust and genuine portrait of Muslim America then and now.

 

Seeking Good Debate: Religion, Science, and Conflict in American Public Life
By Michael S. Evans 

“The religion and science debate has long been central in the public imagination, but, incredibly, until now scholars have not examined the debate itself. In this wonderfully well-written book, Michael Evans takes the scholarship to the next stage. This is the most sophisticated treatment of religion and science in the public sphere available. A great accomplishment!”
—John H. Evans, Professor of Sociology, University of California, San Diego

“Original, theoretically rich, and potentially groundbreaking, this book brings serious empirical scrutiny directly to questions of religion, science, and deliberative democracy. Carefully investigating how people want deliberation to work, then how it actually works, Michael S. Evans successfully moves the debate forward a quantum leap.”
—Andrew J. Perrin, Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

 

Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom
By Norman Finkelstein 
Forthcoming January 2018

“This is the voice I listen for, when I want to learn the deepest reality about Jews, Zionists, Israelis, and Palestinians. Norman Finkelstein is surely one of the forty honest humans the Scripture alludes to who can save ‘Sodom’ (our Earth) by pointing out, again and again, the sometimes soul-shriveling but unavoidable Truth. There is no one like him today, but in my bones I know this incredible warrior for Humanity and Justice is an archetype that has always been. And will always be. Small comfort in these dark times, perhaps, but a comfort I am deeply grateful for.”
—Alice Walker, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for The Color Purple

“Norman Finkelstein, probably the most serious scholar on the conflict in the Middle East, has written an excellent book on Israel’s invasions of Gaza. Its comprehensive examination of both the facts and the law of these assaults provides the most authoritative account of this brutal history.”
—John Dugard, Emeritus Professor of Public International Law, Leiden University, and former Special Rapporteur to the UN Human Rights Council on Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, 2001-2008

 

Living with Difference: How to Build Community in a Divided World
By Adam B. Seligman, Rahel R. Wasserfall, David W. Montgomery

“Both a work of scholarship of value to the academy and a practical guide for improving intergroup relations. The material is fresh and the work innovative, with new and illuminating insights. I cannot think of a comparable work.”
—David Smock, Vice President of the U.S. Institute of Peace

“This book challenges readers to engage intellectual and human experiential resources to acquire empathy and celebrate differences as part of the knowledge of the self. An interdependent and interconnected reality can be realized when we interact with others in fully authentic ways.”
—Abdulaziz Sachedina, Professor of Islamic Studies at George Mason University

 

Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives: The First 1,000 Years
By Chase F. Robinson 

” …an elegant digest of the many colourful, creative and technologically innovative manifestations that the Prophet Muhammad inspired from his seventh-century oases in the Arabian peninsula.”
—The Economist

“Robinson delivers a fascinating snapshot of Islamic history through 30 brief biographies. By including a mixture of the usual suspects (Muhammad, Ali, Saladin) and the unexpected (Ibn Hazm, Ibn Muqla, Abu al-Qasim), the author offers readers a rich variety of lives in pre-Islamic history.” —CHOICE


Banned Books Week 2017: Promoting Progressive Change

As part of Banned Books Week, occurring September 24 – 30, we’ll be sharing recommended reading lists that promote the freedom to seek and express ideas. At UC Press, we believe that scholarship is a powerful tool for fostering a deeper understanding of our world and changing how people think, plan, and govern. Our mission is to drive progressive change by seeking out and cultivating the brightest minds and giving them voice, reach, and impact.

During #BannedBooksWeek, get a 30% discount on these selected titles that promote progressive change in feminism, politics, Islam, and free speech. #BannedBooks

What’s your favorite UC Press book that you think should have made the list for Banned Books Week? Let us know in the comment section below.


Islamophobia, Close to Home

By Khaled A. Beydoun, author of American Islamophobia: Understanding the Roots and Rise of Fear

Muslim Americans were intimately familiar with Islamophobia well before it became a cognizable term plastered on protest banners and echoed by media pundits. For Muslims, Islamophobia was central to their experience as American citizens or residents. It was manifested by the “random” checks at airports, the incessant stares while walking down the street, the presumption that they don’t speak English at the check out line, and the backlash that descended onto their communities after a terror attack. These experiences, and others, formed the core of the Muslim American experience after the 9/11 terror attacks and, most recently, the rise of Donald Trump, but also characterized the lives for numerous Muslim communities well before these transformative moments.

On April 27, 1995, roughly one week after the domestic terror attack remembered as the “Oklahoma City Bombing” and years before the term “Islamophobia” existed, the phenomenon hit close to home. My family lived in Detroit, right outside the densely Arab and Muslim populated community in East Dearborn, widely regarded as the symbolic hub of Muslim America, and for hate mongers then and today, an easy target. One of my mother’s friends, Zeinab, a middle-aged Lebanese woman that wore the hijab (headscarf), was shopping at a grocery store on Dearborn’s (then predominantly white) west side. It was the evening, and as she was walking to her car in the dimly lit parking let, sensed footsteps tracking her own. As she stopped to unpack her cart and place her groceries in her car, two teens pounced on her.

“They weren’t trying to rob me, like I thought,” she recounted in Arabic, “but were trying to pull my headscarf off of my head, they didn’t try to take my purse.” The teens called her “stupid A-rab,” a racist slur for Arab, and told her “to get out of our country,” although her and her three children were citizens, and had made Michigan their home many years ago. Yet, their message was clear, and manifested a core baseline of the phenomenon we understand as Islamophobia today: that Islam was unassimilable with American values and identity, and Muslims were presumed to be foreign, subversive and terrorists. It did not matter that the culprit of the Oklahoma City Bombing was a white man, Timothy McVeigh, and that roughly 63% of mass shootings since 1982 were commit by white men. The terrorist stereotype eclipsed these statistics, and drove the violent backlash Zeinab endured in that grocery store parking lot and the frightening uptick in anti-Muslim bigotry unfolding in America today.

Source: Mother Jones’ Investigation: US Mass Shootings, 1982-2017 (6/14/2017)

And the law followed suit. The Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) was enacted because of the Oklahoma City Bombing. But instead of grappling with the white separatist element that conspired to commit that horrific terror attack, it fixated on Islam. This, before 1995 and indeed well after it, is the very dynamic that not only embeds Islamophobia, but also advances it. Instead of dismantling or disavowing stereotypes about Islam or Muslims, the law, most potently through the War on Terror policy and strategy, endorses and advances it. Therefore, although Islamophobia is today a widely known term as a consequence of 9/11 and the Trump Era, it has long prevailed as a phenomenon and system deeply inscribed into the law. Muslims living in America know this quite well.


Khaled A. Beydoun is Associate Professor at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. A critical race theorist and political commentator, his writing has been featured in top law journals, including the California Law Review, UCLA Law Review, and Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. He is also the 2017 winner of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination (ADC) Advocate of the Year Award.


5 Questions About the Resurgence of Shari’ah Law in Nigeria

In Shari’ah on Trial: Northern Nigeria’s Islamic Revolution author and scholar of Islam Sarah Eltantawi gives a powerful account of how in 1999 Northern Nigerians reached a point of desperation that they took to the streets to demand the return of the strictest possible shari’ah law. Analyzing changing conceptions of Islamic theology and practice as well as Muslim and British interactions dating back to the colonial period, Eltantawi explains the resurgence of shari’ah in Nigeria and the implications for Muslim-majority countries around the world.

In this Q & A, Eltantawi discusses the case of Amina Lawal — the Nigerian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery — that inspired her to write the book, along with the fieldwork and research she conducted to understand the case, and her thoughts on the many perspectives of shari’ah law.


Muslim societies in African countries are generally understudied, which makes your scholarship all that much more important today. Can you tell us what led you to this project? How did Nigeria become the focus of your research?

Sarah Eltantawi: On one level, I took on this project because I could not get the trial of Amina Lawal out of my head. In 2002 when Lawal was first sentenced to death by stoning for extra-marital sex, I was working in Washington DC doing what I think of as “post-9-11 triage” for the American Muslim community. On one particular day I was in a meeting of major civil rights leaders when my phone would not stop ringing with media calls. The Lawal case had exploded in the US. Two things immediately struck me as noteworthy about all the attention this case was getting. The first is that this was the same moment the Iraq war was being prepared, and rather than having a sustained national conversation about the deaths that would surely ensure from that war, there seemed to be a collective refocusing on this one case of “African” “Muslim” barbarity against one woman. At the same time, those I consulted about this case and the stoning punishment in the American Muslim leadership seemed to totally dismiss the case as something that “just happened in Africa.”

I knew this could not be true (or was it?), because I knew stoning for adultery was legal under some circumstances in Islamic law (I would later find out that stoning for adultery was virtually unheard of in Islamic history until the 20th century — which is why I call stoning a post-modern/post-colonial phenomena). In short, I sensed that many different actors were projecting a number of interesting things onto this case and my fascination with it took hold and grew. Continue reading “5 Questions About the Resurgence of Shari’ah Law in Nigeria”


Rumi, the Sufi ‘poet,’ who cared nothing for poetry

We all think of Rumi as a poet and a teacher, and many of us know of his affiliation with Sufism, but likely few of us think of him as an immigrant, a son, a father. His spiritual legacy has transcended virtually all borders—including national, linguistic, religious, and cultural ones—evidenced by the fact he is reputed to be the best-selling poet in the English-speaking world.

Chase F. Robinson frames his examination of Rumi’s life and influence in a section of the book ‘Disruption & Integration, 1250–1525’, a period commonly called the Pax Mongolica, as it was dominated by Mongol conquests and expansion depicted in the map below.

IMG_4294
Map of the Islamic World in 1500 from Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives.

Robinson leads you succinctly through his travels and education; most interestingly, he questions what Rumi would think of his massive rebirth and renown as a poet to modern-day English-reading consumers, and in part finds this answer:

Rumi bristled at the expectations of his thronging followers in the city of Konya (southwest Anatolia), lamenting that he was unable to satisfy their appetite for his wisdom:

It is a habit with me, that I do not desire that any heart should be distressed through me. During the session a great multitude thrust themselves upon me, and some of my friends fend them off. That is not pleasing to me, and I have said a hundred times, ‘Say nothing to any man on my account; I am well content with that.’ I am affectionate to such a degree that when these friends come to me, for fear that they may be wearied I speak poetry so that they may be occupied with that. Otherwise, what have I do to with poetry? By God, I care nothing for poetry, and there is nothing worse in my eyes than that. It has become incumbent upon me, as when a man plunges his hand into tripe and washes it out for the sake of a guest’s appetite, because the guest’s appetite is for tripe.

IMG_4306
Detail of an illustration: an 18th-century miniature of the supposed first encounter of Rumi (on the mule) with Shams of Tabriz, a meeting that would redirect the poet’s life.

Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives is an illuminating text in multiple senses of the word. It both creates a vivid picture of life in many arenas of the pre-modern Muslim world, and brings those worlds to life with lively and historically-significant illustrations.

Follow along in future weeks as we delve into other famous figures profiled in the book. Also, please read our previous post featured on the UC Press blog.

To get a copy of Islamic Civilization in Thirty Lives, visit your local bookstore, or purchase online at IndieBoundAmazonBarnes & Noble, or UC Press (to save 30% on ucpress.edu, enter discount code 16M4197 at checkout).