Retelling the Spice Trade Story

GW historian wins National Endowment for the Humanities grant to study Islam’s historical connection to the continent-spanning, era-defining commercial routes.

Dr. Blecher. (Courtesy Joel Blecher)
Dr. Blecher. (Courtesy Joel Blecher)
January 03, 2018

By Ruth Steinhardt

George Washington University historian Joel Blecher has received a 2018 fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for his second book, “Profit and Prophecy: Islam and the Spice Trade from Venice to India.” The grant will fund Dr. Blecher’s reframing of the spice trade story—familiar to American students from the perspective of Western mercantile travelers like Marco Polo—from the point of view of medieval Muslim scholars, merchants and scholar-merchants who mixed religion and business along its paths.

“The spice trade has been a focus for Europeanists for a very long time,” Dr. Blecher said. “It’s taught in middle and high school textbooks as having spurred the Age of Discovery, or even the Renaissance.”

But he said less scholarly attention has been paid to the ways the spice trade shaped and was shaped by the Muslim world through which it passed, from the Mediterrenean to the Indian Ocean.

“In some ways Islam itself was a commodity being traded,” Dr. Blecher said. That trade could take a literal form, as when religious texts were shipped alongside spice trade commodities. Islam also traveled with the people who practiced it: The routes along which merchants conveyed incense and black pepper often intersected with the paths by which devout Muslim pilgrims made the hajj, or sacred journey to Mecca.

Muslim religious writing from that time encompasses much more than issues of prayer or purity, Dr. Blecher said. There were also debates over commercial issues: how Muslims should deal with debt, taxes, and even with insurance. These arguments, which occurred in public debates and the margins of manuscripts, show that Muslim scholars and their audiences were concerned with how their worldly and spiritual lives should intersect.

“At the same time these scholars were writing these texts, they themselves were often also merchants participating in the spice trade, and some were reaping huge profits,” Dr. Blecher said. “These scholars were trying to condition a marketplace that had, in a sense, already conditioned them. They very much were a product of that marketplace, and many of their audience were traveling merchants too. We might likewise speak of a kind of revolving door between business and the academy in the era of the spice trade.”

Several such scholar-merchants have already appeared as characters in Dr. Blecher’s first book, Said the Prophet of God: Hadith Commentary across a Millennium, which laid the groundwork for his future research and will be celebrated with a book launch at the Elliott School on Jan. 24. During his research for that book, Dr. Blecher discovered new manuscripts that, for him, brought humanity to monumental works of Islamic scholarship.

Such works, he said, “are too often made to seem timeless, and their authors near perfect.”


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