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Ellen J. Amster, Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956

Zakaria Rhani
Medicine and the Saints
Ellen J. Amster, Medicine and the Saints. Science, Islam and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956, Austin, University of Texas Press, coll. « Middle Eastern Studies », 2013, 350 p., ISBN : 9780292745445.
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1Amster’s book is an original and well-documented social history of medicine in Morocco during the precolonial and colonial periods. While approaching embodiment as a historical and social process, a method inspired by Foucault’s biopolitics, the author simultaneously shows the limitation of the power/knowledge Foucauldian approach when applied to colonial medicine in Morocco. The author illustrates how the medical encounter, in this particular context, is less a hegemonic inscription of discipline on the bodies than an ambivalent and multidirectional relationship in which natives selectively used biomedical cures and re-integrated them within local systems of healing. By tracing a social history of the transformations occasioned by French medical interventions, she explores the unfolding experience of modernity and the epistemological tensions it entailed between colonial positivism and Moroccan Sufism. But instead of examining this colonial confrontation in linear narrative, she tackles a series of medical encounters, addressing, in each chapter of the book, a different issue in the history of medicine.

2The main goal of this review is less to summarize the overall content of the book (something very hard to accomplish, given its richness) than to more specifically highlight three crucial moments in this social history of medicine : first, the connection between colonial sociology and medicine – how socio/ethnography and medicine collaborated to establish a specific biopolitics ; second, the ideological and political ambivalence inherent to the medical project in colonial Morocco – how medicalization detached some medical practices from sociology ; and third, the intricate tension between local ways of healing (and their epistemological background, namely Sufism), colonial medicine (and its positivist approach) and a nationalist vision of modernity.

3According to Amster, Durkheim’s sociologie offered colonial administrators social and epistemological devices to classify a society’s evolution from primitivism to civilization. Doutté’s ethnography, for instance, gave French doctors a “colonizing method for Morocco” to reveal a primitive mentalité musulmane and to attack on the “irrational” and “degrading” local medicine. Healing was thus used as a method of veridiction, as doctors interrogated the Muslim body to reveal Islam’s “truths” and to civilize the Muslim mind. Even if the author overestimates the position and influence of Doutté, this junction between sociology and medicine is finely illustrated in the debate around the “syphilitic Moroccan”, a disease thought to be caused by “Muslim polygamy”.

4The ideas about this “Moroccan malady par excellence” demonstrate, in fact, the persistence and influence of sociology despite bacteriological evidences ; that is, medical data were formulated to “prove” for an imaginary epidemic. Therefore, Muslim syphilis was attested in clinical observation, in medical diagnosis and in epidemiological statistics – statistics in high-risk groups (i.e. soldiers and prostitutes) were generalized to the entire population, as syphilitic skin lesions were amalgamated with many other skin syndromes. Instead of questioning their diagnoses and remedies, doctors established a racist biological distinction (inspired from an anthropological one) between two kinds of syphilitic symptoms : neurological syphilis (manifested by nerve degeneration) was thought to afflict only civilized individuals, whereas “primitives” suffered mainly dermatological symptoms. Because of their lifestyle in which intellectual activity is reduced, and hence their brains were underdeveloped, natives were unable to develop neurological symptoms, but rather a kind of “exotic syphilis”. However, such symptomatic distinction could be effaced by modernity inculcation, as Moroccans who embraced a French lifestyle were thought to develop “civilized” syphilis. Accordingly, this possible transformation represented an evidence of the moral victory of French medicine, and Republican science in general, over Islam.

5Likewise, French theories on women healing practices as well as on woman reproduction were intertwined with colonial sociology of Islam. On one hand, both French doctors and social scientists targeted native women’s healing practices. Women healers (midwives) were not only considered as sorceresses, but also as medical rivals who enjoyed a socially recognized medical authority in many fields – namely childbirth and family care. French medicine sought, thus, to eliminate women’s traditional practices to extend state power over individual bodies and intimate family life. On the other hand, for scientific and legal authorities, birth was the crucial moment for intervention to protect native offspring from midwives and irrational Muslim mentality. Of interest to the author here is the Muslim woman’s reproductive body as a field for the battle between protectorate authorities and Moroccan nationalists to define and govern the modern Muslim family. The purpose here is to determine how technical medicalization lead, first, to a dissociation of medical knowledge from colonial sociology, defining a “new scientific visibility of the body”, and, second, to the emergence of a new native relationship to the body.

6Indeed, medicalization of birth somehow dispelled the “sociology of Islam” mythologies about the Moroccan female body – as well as about the “syphilitic Moroccan”. Separated from sociology, obstetrics allowed French doctors to use clinical data to study Moroccan birth. Moreover, some technical tests, i.e. urine pregnancy test, illustrate the social mechanics of biomedical regime, that is, how French ideas on the body enter “indigenous” codes of Muslim law. The battle between sharia jurists and French doctors over the “sleeping child”, for example, revealed a deeper confrontation between French and Islamic Law : a battle between two perceptions of truth, one based on human testimony, the other on technical test.

7This switch from a truth based on spiritual belief to a positive truth told by physical bodies indicates a moment in a social process of colonial embodiment, in which “Sufi epistemology” was displaced and “positive science” internalized in law and society. Amster elucidates the ideological and epistemological ambivalence in a colonial setting, not only with regard to the colonial action but also to the nationalist vision. While rejecting colonialism, the nationalists also rejected Sufi practices – for the same colonial reasons – and demanded biomedicine as a citizen’s right. In fact, nationalist “appropriation of biopolitics” attempted to reconstitute Moroccans as rational political subjects. This is why, according to the author, national ideology framed the struggle for independence as a defence of the Muslim family, the Islamic religion, and the health of Moroccan bodies.

8Two major interrelated difficulties should be noticed here. For the author, the “Moroccan sovereignty” is a construct forced upon administrative and legal reality by the 1912 Treaty of Fez, when Sultan ‘Abd al-Hafid “strategically” used a combined version of French positivism and Islamic modernist ideology (salafiyya) to discredit Sufi pretentions to power. Amster affirms that Salafi ideology empowered the sultan position in his war against saintly rivals, notably al-Kattani, and thus allowed him to consolidate his authority. Beyond the fact that the sultan’s legitimacy was itself based on the idea of sainthood and a Sufi view of politics – he hence discredited his own legitimacy –, it seems that the author confuses a political conflict over power (between sultans and ambitious saints) and an ideological opposition between Sufism and modernist Salafism. It is also difficult to sustain that rationalist Salafi ideas helped the sultan to strengthen his rule, not only because he ruled for a very short period of time (1908-1912), but also because he was rejected as an usurper, and without the protective intervention of France he would have been overthrown. On this particular point, it seems to me that the author somewhat essentializes the colonial encounter, granting it too much influence on the redefinition of politics. The political opposition to Sufism – and saintly inspired leaders – did not emerge specifically in the colonial setting (and its positivist challenge), but marks the whole political history of Morocco. Likewise, the opposition between Moroccan Sufism and Moroccan Salafism –which is quite different from its Oriental counterpart – has never been as distinct as suggested by the author.

9The second difficulty is related to one of the supposed consequences of this modernist “triumph” : the disappearance of saints as political leaders. The execution of a Sufi saint (al-Kattani), according to Amster, “marked the definitive triumph of sultans over saints, of positivism over batini knowledge, and a new imagining of social corporeality in Morocco”. Such a presumption is hardly sustainable, as Sufi epistemology never ceased influencing healing and political views and practices in Morocco – even among some nationalist and Islamists figures. The author herself tardily recognizes (in the epilogue), a kind of “permanence” when she asserts that Moroccan politics cannot escape Sufism. But here another significant question needs to be answered : are the contemporary political and medical ideas of Sufism a failure of nationalist ideology and its modernist project, or are they a new formulation of a persistent political mysticism ? More historical and anthropological researches are needed in order to elucidate, inter alia, how profound and “popular” were the ideas of modernist Salafism and nationalism, not only in discourse but also in political and medical practices.

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Zakaria Rhani, « Ellen J. Amster, Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956 », Lectures [En ligne], Les comptes rendus, 2014, mis en ligne le 25 juin 2014, consulté le 26 juin 2019. URL :

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Zakaria Rhani

Professeur d’anthropologie à l’Université Mohamed V Rabat (IURS) et chercheur associé au Centre Jacques Berque. Il est l’auteur de Le pouvoir de guérir : mythe, mystique et politique au Maroc (Brill, 2014).

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