Media Contacts

Office of Media Relations
2121 Eye St., NW
Rice Hall 5th Floor
Washington, D.C. 20052

Phone: 202-994-6460
Fax: 202-994-9025
E-mail: gwmedia@gwu.edu

 

Early Drafts of a Classic Work of Islamic Thought Discovered

An excerpt from a leaf of the newly discovered manuscript of “Fath al-bari” at the Suleymaniye Library in Istanbul.
An excerpt from a leaf of the newly discovered manuscript of “Fath al-bari” at the Suleymaniye Library in Istanbul. The excerpt shows the original text and evidence of later revisions in the margins.
GW Researcher Unearths Manuscript of ‘Fath al-Bari’ Written Two Decades Before the Work’s Completion
June 08, 2017
MEDIA CONTACTS:
Jason Shevrin: jshevrin@gwu.edu, 202-994-5631
Tim Pierce: tpie@gwu.edu, 202-994-5647
 
WASHINGTON (June 8, 2017)–Two previously unknown versions of “Fath al-Bari,” a classic work that shaped the way Sunni Muslims understand Muhammad’s sayings and practices, were discovered by a researcher from the George Washington University. These preliminary versions, which date to the early 15th century, shed light on the considerations and rivalries that affected revisions of the book, which would not be completed until 1438.
 
Joel Blecher, an assistant professor of history at GW, discovered the new manuscripts. Dr. Blecher visited the Suleymaniye Library in Istanbul in 2014 to examine a database of digitized manuscripts that can only be accessed in person, with the goal of learning more about how medieval Muslims interpreted Muhammad’s sayings and practices, called hadith. The manuscripts reveal how medieval Islamic scholars drafted and revised their understanding of Muhammad’s teachings to the early Muslim community. 
 
After examining several hundred digitized manuscripts of medieval commentaries, Dr. Blecher found a copy of “Fath al-Bari” that contained a partial dictation of the work dated to 1419 – 20 years before the work was declared by the author to be complete. The copyist of the manuscript claimed the work had been dictated to him by the author of “Fath al-Bari” himself, Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, one of the most influential Muslim judges of his time. The manuscript’s copyist was a scribe for a high-ranking minister for the sultan’s army and likely copied down this early version for his personal use. A later anonymous scholar marked up, crossed out and updated sections of the manuscript in the margins as the work was revised.
 
“These early versions contain significant differences from the printed versions found in academic libraries, madrasas and Islamic bookstores across the world,,” said Dr. Blecher. “They also teach us broader lessons about how medieval Islamic thinkers crafted and revised their understanding of Muhammad’s sayings and practices over long periods of time.” 
 
Just as it was in its own day, “Fath al-Bari” is often looked to as a reference on matters of Islamic law, theology, history and the Quran for contemporary Sunni Muslims. The text is often invoked in religious debates today by a range of Sunni voices, from mainstream and establishment clerics to propaganda of extreme groups like the Islamic State group. The multi-volume work contains the author’s commentary on an authoritative collection of hadith, called “Sahih al-Bukhari.”
 
“Too often, in the West, it is assumed that the only text that matters in public debates over Islam is the Quran. In addition to the Quran, there have been many other religious texts that have helped shape the way Islam is understood and practiced,” Dr. Blecher said. “For Sunnis, ‘Fath al-Bari’ is one key work in that regard.”
 
The discovery of this manuscript sheds new light on the way the high court politics of the time influenced religious authorities’ interpretations of hadith, and offers broader lessons for the study of medieval Islamic manuscript culture and interpretive practices. By comparing the early manuscripts with later versions, Dr. Blecher concludes that not only did the author care about the intellectual and religious stakes of the hadith, but that “Ibn Hajar's rivalries with his competitors partly explains why and how he chose to revise and re-revise this classic work.”
 
More details, including numerous images of the manuscript, can be found in Dr. Blecher’s recently published article in the latest edition of the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, “Revision in the Manuscript Age: New Evidence of Early Versions of Ibn Ḥajar’s Fatḥ al-bārī,” as well as in his forthcoming book, “Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium,” currently in production with the University of California Press.
 
-GW-
 
A printed version of “Fath al-Bari” on a bookshelf in an Arabic madrasa for middle-school students in Hyderabad, India. This classic work of Islamic thought is found in libraries, schools and bookstores across the Muslim world. (Photograph by Joel Blecher)
 
A printed version of “Fath al-Bari” on a bookshelf in an Arabic madrasa for middle-school students in Hyderabad, India. This classic work of Islamic thought is found in libraries, schools and bookstores across the Muslim world. (Photograph by Joel Blecher)