Meet the newest addition to the History Faculty - Joel Blecher

I grew up in Oberlin, Ohio, and I was educated at Swarthmore College and Princeton University, where I received my doctorate.

My scholarship combines methods from social and intellectual history, and is grounded in research undertaken in Arabic and Urdu in Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and India. Articles I authored have appeared or are forthcoming in several edited volumes, Oriens, Encyclopeadia of Islam THREE, and Oxford Bibliographies in Islamic Studies.

My current book project, In the Shade of the Hadith: Islam and the Politics of Interpretation across a Millennium, is the first book-length effort devoted to understanding the social and intellectual life of hadith commentary. Organized chronologically in three parts, the book shines a light on the practice of hadith commentary within and across three key historical periods and locales in which commentary on the most prestigious collection of hadith flourished: classical Andalusia, medieval Egypt, and modern India. The book finds that the meanings of hadith were shaped as much by commentators’ political, cultural and regional contexts as by the fine-grained intellectual debates that developed over long periods of time.

At George Washington University, I look forward to developing my second book project, Profit and Prophecy: Islam and the Spice Trade from Venice to India. This book will offer an interdisciplinary audience a portrait of how Muslim scholars and merchants in the Mamluk period (13th-15th centuries) mixed religion and business along trade and pilgrimage routes that stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Arabian Sea and beyond. Along the same spice trade routes that historians have long argued catalyzed early modern capitalism in Europe, this book will further illuminate what E.P. Thompson would have called the complex “moral economy” of medieval Islam.

My deep roots in liberal arts education have animated these efforts to place rigorous textual scholarship at the service of broad questions. Students in my courses learn to carefully and closely analyze primary sources at the intersection of social and intellectual history. They likewise learn to relate what they are studying to larger themes in the study of history, religion, law, ethics, politics, and economics.

I also incorporate technology into my pedagogy. My recent book chapter, “Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities:  Undergraduate Exploration into the Transmitters of Early Islamic Law,” in The Digital Humanities and Islamic and Middle East Studies (DeGruyter 2016) documents how students in one of my classes combined the traditional tools of historical inquiry with computational tools to explore, picture and develop new insights into the history of the transmission of early Islamic law.

In 2013, I was appointed Assistant Professor at Washington & Lee University, where I jointly served the departments of Religion and History in courses on Islam and Islamic history. At W&L, I also served as a core member of the Program in Medieval and Renaissance Studies, and the principle investigator for the Middle East & South Asia Studies Teacher-Scholar Cohort.