Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

Ellen Amster ─ Healing the Body, Healing the Islamic Umma: Medicine and Sufi Saints in Morocco

Thursday, April 2, 2015

5 p.m.

Joukowsky Forum

Book signing to follow.

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This paper begins with the body to expand the theoretical discussion of the Islamic polity (umma) in North Africa. The body and the body politic are mutually constitutive, yet modern liberal political citizenship in the Middle East and North Africa, as in the West, has been conceived as divorced from corporeality.  In this paper, Amster excavates the ideal of a Sufi body politic that existed in Morocco before colonialism, a way of knowing that survives primarily as fragments of contemporary healing narratives.   Sufi saints were “public healers,” restoring God’s law to individuals and to society through a body understood as responsive to God and active in worldly politics. Treating the contemporary body as an archive and the repository of a lost form of political authority, Amster combines medical fieldwork with the topography of the city of Fez, Islamic theology, and the hagiographical compendium of nineteenth-century Moroccan Sufi scholar Muhammad ibn Ja’far al-Kattani, Kitab salwat al-anfas wa muhadathat al-akyas bi man uqbira min al-‘ulama’ wa al-sulaha’ bi Fas, in order to recover alternate ways of imagining the polity. By way of conclusion, we consider what this history of health and healing in Morocco provides for reading the corporeal politics of the Arab Spring.

Ellen Amster is the Jason A. Hannah Chair in the History of Medicine at McMaster University, and associate professor in the Department of Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatisics and the Department of History. A Fulbright scholar and a Chateaubriand scholar (1998), she received her PhD from the University of Pennsylvania (2003). Her research includes epistemologies of the body, global health, maternal and infant health, and the transnational social histories of biomedicine, especially in French empire and the Islamic world. She has been a simultaneous translator for an ORBIS ocular surgery mission in Morocco, a researcher at the Institut National d’Hygiène du Maroc, and has created a global health field study program in Morocco from her 2013 book, Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956 (Austin: University of Texas Press).

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Middle East Studies