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In Amma's Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India

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"[I]t is extremely salubrious to see the ways Islam works in the lives of ordinary people who are not politicized in their religious lives.... No other book on South Asia has material like this." —Ann Grodzins Gold

In Amma’s Healing Room is a compelling study of the life and thought of a female Muslim spiritual healer in Hyderabad, South India. Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger describes Amma’s practice as a form of vernacular Islam arising in a particular locality, one in which the boundaries between Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity are fluid. In the "healing room," Amma meets a diverse clientele that includes men and women, Muslim, Hindu, and Christian, of varied social backgrounds, who bring a wide range of physical, social, and psychological afflictions. Flueckiger collaborated closely with Amma and relates to her at different moments as daughter, disciple, and researcher. The result is a work of insight and compassion that challenges widely held views of religion and gender in India and reveals the creativity of a tradition often portrayed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as singular and monolithic.

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7 Chapters

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1. Setting the Stage: The Healing Room, its Actors, and its Rhythms

ePub

Patients come by auto, foot, and bus—from villages, Bombay, and Pune. My fālitā are taken even as far as Dubai.

Amma’s healing room is a small crowded bustling crossroads of domestic and public spaces, personae, and discourses, a crossroads of ritual and storytelling, social and economic exchange, and family disputes and negotiations. As one enters the courtyard outside the healing room, one often sees a crowd of patients leaning into the doorway of the room, straining to hear Amma’s voice or slip in a personal request out of turn. Other patients sit in small familial groups conversing quietly among themselves, entertaining restless babies or children, exchanging gossip with groups from other parts of the city, and/or sharing with others in the courtyard their stories of suffering and Amma’s healing (and periodically giving their own advice to each other). On busy days, they may sit for several hours awaiting their turn. Although every so often a patient or her family might complain about the long wait, especially if a baby is crying inconsolably or if Amma is about to take her hour (or more) lunch break, usually patients resign themselves to waiting for their turn. Many patients spend the greater part of a day simply getting to Amma’s neighborhood due to long distances and the vagaries of public transportation. For women in particular, the day is an important social outing, as patients rarely come by themselves. It may serve as an occasion for mothers and married daughters or sisters who live with their in-laws to get together outside the scrutiny of others and the pressure of childcare and meal preparation. For a woman who has recommended Amma to a neighbor and accompanied her, this may be a rare occasion for them to talk with each other beyond the few minutes spent standing at the neighborhood water tap or rounding up their children from their play in the street.

 

2. The Healing System

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The whole world depends on pen and paper.

Amma boldly states that she ‘guarantees’ (using the English word) her treatments for all troubles and illnesses that are caused by śaitānī, literally evil forces but more generally the impingement of spiritual forces on the physical world. (Śaitān literally means “satan,” but śaitānī has a broader meaning of evil or devilish things; sometimes the meaning can be “naughty” if applied to the behavior of a child.) Amma specifically excludes cancer, heart troubles, typhoid, and polio from the classification of illnesses over which she has control (all diseases that have, incidentally, directly affected members of her own family).1 Many patients come to Amma with very specific complaints: infertility, high fevers in children, disobedient children (including teenage sons who do not work but just “meander around all day”), colicky babies and stubborn young children, babies who are failing to thrive, abusive husbands, troubles making marriage arrangements for their daughters, stolen gold, runaway goats, interfering neighbors, or failing businesses. Other patients come with generalized complaints such as “I don’t sleep well, my hands and feet are pulling,” vague restlessness [becainī], or general trouble [pareśānī] in the house.

 

3. Patient Narratives in the Healing Room

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They come crying; they go away laughing.

Individual patients come to the healing table with unique circumstances and present their problems to Amma in narratives that give depth, character, and variation to the “same” diagnoses. Many patients say that they chose Amma over other healers because of her patience in listening to these narratives, and Amma herself says that “understanding” is what is most important, not the mathematical diagnosis. We can begin to explicate what this understanding might mean by examining a range of individual cases and patients who have come to Amma’s healing table.1 Most of these cases involve what readers might identify as psychological problems rather than purely physical illnesses, and these illnesses generate narratives. Illnesses such as children’s high fevers do not generally generate extended narratives in the healing room beyond those that tell of a patient’s resort to multiple healing systems or healers within a single system.

 

4. Negotiating Gender in the Healing Room

ePub

There are only two castes [jāti]: men and women.

Many of Amma’s patients say they come to her specifically because she is a woman whom they experience to be more loving and understanding than male healers. It is, in fact, her gender that most distinguishes Amma as a spiritual healer and her public authority that most distinguishes her as a woman. Her commanding presence and articulate voice break commonly held stereotypes of the Muslim woman in Indian society—the veiled woman in pardā, the woman without a public voice, the woman without religious authority.1 Even as Amma declares that there is only one ultimate difference among human beings—a difference based on sex—she has transgressed that very boundary to sit in a position of public ritual authority that in South Asian Muslim cultures is traditionally limited to male Sufi sheikhs or pīrs (see Eaton 1984; Ewing 1984; Jeffrey 1978). This position and her success in it have not been given easily, however, and Amma must (and is able to) continually reassert and recreate her authority to sit as a public healer, even as she mediates and negotiates the very gender boundaries she herself has drawn.

 

5. Religious Identities at the Crossroads

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All these are the same.

While Amma asserts that gender boundaries are impenetrable and rigid, the second half of her assertion maintains that boundaries of religious identities are permeable—that there are no true differences between followers of different religious traditions: “There are only two castes: men and women. Hindus, Muslims, Christians—they’re all the same.” I was often asked by patients sitting around Amma’s healing room what I was writing in my little notebook. I responded that I wrote down whether a patient is Hindu or Muslim, his/her gender and relative age, the nature of the complaint, and Amma’s diagnosis and prescriptions. Hearing my answer, Amma often shook her head and expressed disappointment in how little I seemed to have learned sitting at her side, sighing, “Jo-ice, haven’t you learned anything? It’s not a question of Hindu or Muslim here [i.e., in the healing room]. We all breathe in and out, don’t we?”

In some contexts, of course, such as marriage and death, political contexts where religious identities might impact voting blocs in elections to legislative bodies, decisions about admissions into universities, and in relation to inheritance rights as determined by different religious systems of family law, differences between Hindus and Muslims matter very much. In other contexts of self-representation, highly educated members of religious communities might identify textual traditions as the crucial identity markers and identify vernacular practices that are not described or proscribed in the texts as extraneous to the tradition, not “real” Hinduism, Islam, or Christianity. In Amma’s healing room, these differences are overridden by what is shared, by the crisis of illness. But more is shared between patients than simply human affliction and attraction to a charismatic healer. Patients and disciples also share features of and actors in a cosmological structure that assumes the possibility of spiritual illness and healing; they share knowledge and acceptance of a minimal ritual grammar whose performance impacts the spiritual/physical world. And Amma helps create the inclusive nature of her healing room, the caurāstā where there is no Hindu and Muslim, through ritual and narrative performances that draw on motifs and grammars that cross these boundaries of religious difference.

 

6. Immersed in Remembrance and Song: Religious Identities, Authority, and Gender at the Samā

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It is the poetry that pulls at the heart. . . . A happiness is born from the poetry and we begin to twirl.

On the twenty-sixth of each Muslim lunar month,1 the courtyard of Sheikh Hussain Qadiri, Abba, is transformed from the open-air “waiting room” of Amma’s healing room into a magnetic center of spiritual power drawing together a core group of disciples of the aging sheikh. The occasion is the samā, a ritual of devotional song [qavvālī] and remembrance [zikr] whose purpose is to arouse mystical love among those assembled and move them closer to the pīr, the saints, and God.2 It is on the occasion of the samā that Abba’s spiritual authority as sheikh/pīr is most visibly performed—he sits on a velvet-cushioned seat/throne [gaddī], wears a special green satin turban, is garlanded by his disciples, and “holds court.” Abba’s male disciples are seated in a rectangular pattern around the courtyard; Abba is seated at one end (along with his murśid son and heir apparent, Khalid, and Khalid’s oldest son), and the musicians [qavvāls] are seated at the far side opposite him. Amma and female disciples sit on a raised verandah behind Abba with a curtain separating them from the sheikh, his male disciples, and the musicians.

 

Conclusion: Vernacular Islam Embedded in Relationships

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What is the most important thing? Love. Love is the most important thing.

The vernacular Islam practiced in Amma’s healing room, in which Amma and Abba, as pīr and pīrānimā, heal and teach, is shaped and characterized by a series of relationships. As Abba so often rhetorically asks in his teachings: “What is the most important thing? Love. Love is the most important thing.” In other teachings, he emphasizes that what most distinguishes human beings from animals is their ability to recognize and enact kinship relationships. The ability to form relationships is given to humans by God, and furthermore, according to Abba, the only way humans can truly know and experience the love of God is to witness and participate in love between human beings. Because relationships as they are lived are variable, shifting, and creative, they provide the primary basis for and site of creativity and flexibility in vernacular Islam as practiced in Amma’s healing room.

 

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