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Faculty Spotlight: Joel Blecher

Joel Blecher

IMES is very excited to welcome Dr. Joel Blecher, the latest addition to Columbian College’s roster of Middle East History faculty. Dr. Blecher’s research, which has taken him to Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Tunisia, and India, centers on the medieval Islamic tradition and how it operates in the modern world.

One of Dr. Blecher’s current projects, Profit and Prophecy: Islam and the Spice Trade from Venice to India, will offer a portrait of how Muslim scholars and merchants in the medieval Islamic world viewed the proper place of religion and business along trade and pilgrimage routes that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean. This Spring he is teaching a course that corresponds to this research project, asking students to examine the role of the spice trade in transmitting Islamic thought and influences.

Dr. Blecher’s early studies took him to Damascus, Syria, where he saw firsthand how the practice of hadith commentary was influenced by the local and global politics of its time. This became the basis for this first book, Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium, forthcoming from the University of California Press.

Dr. Blecher comes to GW from Washington and Lee University, where he worked with their digital humanities project, an initiative using data-driven tools to analyze patterns in historical documents. He hopes to bring many of these techniques to his courses here at GW, including the incorporation of computational technologies such as mapping, data visualization, and other digital tools that help shed light on some of the big questions that drive scholarship and teaching in the humanities.

Q&A with Professor Blecher:

Q: Your research moves beyond the “Arab” Muslim world to include parts of the world with Muslim majority populations that are often left out of discussions on Islam and politics.  How do you see your focus on inter-regional relationships as helping fill that gap for students? How might this make students better thinkers and practitioners?

Students new to the study of Islam and Islamic history are often surprised to learn that most Muslims are not Arab, and that most Muslims do not live in the Middle East. Of course, learning Arabic and studying the societies of the Middle East remains a critical gateway into understanding Islam and Islamic history. But such an understanding would be woefully incomplete if students came away from their studies at GW without grasping the rich ethnic, linguistic, regional, cultural, and intellectual diversity of Islam beyond the Arab world, as well as the role that pre-Islamic and non-Muslim groups played in helping to create it. The story of early and medieval Islamic history is the story of a world made by encounters between peoples from Arabia, Byzantium, Persia, the Turkic Steppe, Latin Europe, Mongolia, the Caucuses, India, Indonesia, North Africa, West Africa, and the seas and oceans that connected them. It is a story that includes Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, Animists, and peoples of many other religious traditions. To this end, any GW students preparing to make their mark on our world shaped by connections across many faiths, ethnicities, and regions of the globe will find studying Islamic history particularly instructive.

Q: How did you become interested in issues of political economy (Islamic finance, charity, trade networks, etc.)?

Islam’s symbiotic and sometimes contradictory relationship to the development of capitalism has always fascinated me. But I wanted to move beyond the contemporary examples we often read about in the news — the multi-trillion-dollar Islamic financial industry; the September 11th attacks that targeted the World Trade Center — to examine how medieval Islamic debates over trade emerged in a context in which commerce was a fulcrum for political and social life. The fact that the spice trade is oft cited as both a global marketplace that linked Muslim merchants and religious authorities from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean as well as a catalyst for the birth of the commercial revolution in early modern Europe made it the perfect place to begin my investigation. In the epilogue of the book, I will argue how shedding light on Islamic debates over commerce during the era of the spice trade can teach us about how the medieval Islamic tradition is being recast in the contemporary Islamic world to speak to issues of globalization and finance.

I received a multi-country fellowship grant from the Council of American Overseas Research Centers this year to travel to archives from Venice to Tunis to lay the groundwork for future research into this topic. Over the coming years, I hope to travel to other former spice-trade ports along the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

To stimulate further research into this topic at GW, I will be working with a number of GW graduate students this Spring to investigate the ideals and realities of Islamic commerce from the 7th century (in which Muhammad was reported to have been a merchant) to issues of Islam and capitalism in the modern and globalized world. Through social and intellectual historical inquiry, students will investigate a range of themes, including: poverty and charity, the regulation of merchant capitalism, gender and inheritance, jihad and taxation of non-Muslims, Islamic traditions that reject worldly gain, modern Islamic critiques of capitalism, and the history of Islamic Finance in the global economy. Students will learn to take a source-critical approach to primary Islamic writings in translation, including hadith literature and legal commentaries, as well as to be sensitive to issues in historiography.

 Q: Would you say GW is a good place for someone interested in pursuing projects related to digital humanities initiatives?

I usually like to begin any question on the digital humanities by affirming how important I believe traditional humanistic inquiry to be. The kind of critical thinking and insights that can emerge from the close reading of an archival document or a passage from a text remains central to my own research and my pedagogy.

But we now live in an era in which we can complement the insights we yield from close-reading with what is now being called “distant reading”: using electronic tools and crowdsourcing to collect, explore, and visualize data from massive quantities of text, and in doing so shedding light on broader patterns in our historical sources that would otherwise have been invisible to us. If you have read “the Upshot” on the, you know how valuable and penetrating these kinds of digital tools and analyses can be.

Since my own research investigates sources that contain the names and biographies of thousands of hadith transmitters and tens of thousands of hadith, the value of distant reading should be apparent. I hope to collaborate with a group of graduate students at GW to collect biographical data on five-hundred hadith transmitters — an imposing task for any single researcher, but an easy one for a crowd of scholars working together. After the students assemble the master database, they then can then use a number of webtools to explore broad patterns in biographies of the transmitters — their gender, their occupations, their migrations, among other things. Students can then design visualizations to tell a compelling story about what they found. I laid the groundwork for this project with a group of undergraduates from my Islamic Civilization course at my previous post at Washington & Lee University. The preliminary findings were published in a recent book called The Digital Humanities and Islamic & Middle East Studies (DeGruyter, 2016).

The urgency of integrating the digital humanities into our curriculum is not merely academic. Exploring, managing, and visualizing data is also becoming a more important part of their professional and intellectual lives in the 21st-century, and training students to explore this data thoughtfully and to learn to tell stories about it effectively is vital to the success of their careers after college or graduate school. Fortunately, GW is becoming a hub for researchers and students to pursue questions related to the digital humanities. In fact, GW recently won a significant grant from the Mellon foundation to support precisely these kinds of project. This is a good sign that myself and my colleagues will have the support in place to pursue a research agenda that makes the most of our new era in which new kinds of reading and analysis are possible alongside our traditional tools of humanistic inquiry.

Q: Is there anything you would like to share with alumni?

Just that I hope get a chance to meet them the next time they are passing through campus! They are always welcome to reach out and connect with me.