The following essay shows how commentaries on Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī in the Mamluk period were deeply embedded in the ethics and culture of live performance and vice versa. By focusing on the figure of Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī (d. 852/1449) and the composition of his Fatḥ al-bārī, the primary objective is to make visible the complex web of institutional, political, economic, personal, and normative motivations that determined how the Ṣaḥīḥ was commented on, and who had the authority to comment in the first place. Parts one through three of this four-part essay examine the formulation of Fatḥ al-bārī in the presence of students, patrons, and rivals respectively. Part four is a case study that compares a chronicle account of Ibn Ḥajar’s commentary on a ḥadīth in the garden of the sulṭān on a summer afternoon with a section of Fatḥ al-bārī concerning the same ḥadīth. While previous investigations of medieval reading and commentarial practices have often been limited to manuscript and printed commentaries or glosses as source material, this study draws on evidence from Mamluk era chronicles, biographical dictionaries and commentarial prolegomena to offer a “thick” history of the local times, spaces, and stakes of live and written commentary on the Ṣaḥīḥ.
Amidst the politics of the Mamluk-era spice route, why did the standard-bearers of Islamic law routinely oppose the sultanate’s imposition of an alms-tax on merchandise (zakāt al-tijāra), despite the abundance of support for such a tax within the classical tradition of Islamic law? Rather than contending – as some modern scholars have – that prominent jurists developed loopholes that circumvented the original intent of the law to protect the wealthy and the ruling class, I argue that it was precisely the jurists’ careful defense of exemptions and exclusions that allowed them to define the essence of zakāt against forms of taxation they considered unlawful. By narrowing the scope of zakāt, jurists attempted to achieve a moral aim that went beyond the ritual purification of wealth: a limit on the sultanate’s otherwise arbitrary power to tax Muslims as it wished. In doing so, they alleviated some of the tax burden for spice merchants and camel herders alike.