Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Prophetic Traditions and Modern Medicine in the Middle East: Resurrection, Reinterpretation, and Reconstruction

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Prophetic Traditions and Modern Medicine in the Middle East: Resurrection, Reinterpretation, and Reconstruction

Article excerpt


In a 1997 edition of al-Suyuti's (1) treatise on the plague, which was composed in the fifteenth century, the actual treatise occupies only one-third of the volume; the rest of the volume comprises a number of chapters written by the editor, Muhammad Ali al-Baz, that function as a parallel text engaging with al-Suyuti's treatise on different levels. In his chapters re-creates the history and the significance of the treatise and presents the content and context of the edited work in an altered manner. This edition belongs to a genre of writings in which medieval texts originally written by important scholars of religion and addressing questions of "Prophetic medicine" are edited (in the sense of modified), drawn into debate, and republished.

This article traces how the intellectual authority of the primary author is reformulated and how his text is reproduced in the framework of a modern medical discourse. (2) This entails a close look at the perceived and formulated epistemic value of the primary text, which lies at the heart of the editing process regardless of the intellectual tradition to which it belongs. The editing process requires by definition the selection of a text to be edited and admits or argues for a specific value of such text, but the way this value is assigned and evaluated depends on the paradigmatic structure within which the editing is produced. (3)

I will argue that the secondary texts at hand represent an involvement with science and medicine that is largely determined by the authority of modern science and not by that of the primary text. In other words, the secondary text aims to give a contemporary legitimacy to the medieval text, and this process involves a heightened sense of scientific authority and a positivist and teleological view of the modern scientific paradigm, rooted in the intellectual environment, and not only the socio-political environment, of the secondary author. This allows for the re-creation of the scientific narrative in conditions different from those of its origin, permitting a new discourse that engulfs and amalgamates the scientific narrative with other narratives. It is also connected to the tradition of Prophetic medicine, which forms the genealogical background of the texts at hand.

In this article I analyze how the secondary texts and the discursive genre to which they belong negotiate the claims of authority of both the sacred and the primary texts--this is central to both the genre's formation and continuity and those of scientific discourse. (4) In this article the analysis of the texts at hand aims to understand the authority assigned to the modem scientific narrative. This analysis is not only important to understand the relation between science and Islam, but is also central to studying the relation between these religious discourses and different questions of modernity and modernization, which have been a subject of debate since the second half of the nineteenth century, albeit in different forms. (5)

The problem of competing intellectual authorities is central to all texts on Prophetic medicine, whether medieval or contemporary, though the proposed solutions are different and remain dependent on their respective intellectual and socio-political contexts. The literature of Prophetic medicine as it appeared throughout the medieval period in the writings of scholars as Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350), (d. 1505), and Ibn Tulun (d. 1546), among others, (6) is dated by historians of medicine to the ninth century when one of the first known treatises of this kind was composed. (7) It became very popular starting from the fourteenth century, as evidenced by the sheer number of manuscripts and treatises composed during this period. (8)

I have argued (9) that these writings on Prophetic medicine appear to be an intellectual phenomenon and a discourse based on the relation between a Prophetic and a medical/Galenic narrative rather than a form or a paradigm of medical practice rooted in a relation between health and disease or a perception of normality, as is the case with other medical traditions or practices. …

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