Disability in the Ottoman Arab World, 1500-1800

By Tsacoyianis, Beverly | Arab Studies Journal, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Disability in the Ottoman Arab World, 1500-1800


Tsacoyianis, Beverly, Arab Studies Journal


DISABILITY IN THE OTTOMAN ARAB WORLD, 1500-1800 Sara Scalenghe New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014 (xiv + 203 pages, bibliography, index) $90.00 (cloth)

Sara Scalenghe's fascinating new book is a groundbreaking addition to a field still in its infancy: disability history in the Arab world. Based in part on her 2006 dissertation, "Being Different: Intersexuality, Blindness, Deafness, and Madness in Ottoman Syria," Scalenghe's book also incorporates a variety of sources from sixteenth-, seventeenth-, and eighteenth-century Egypt, including dream manuals and a colorful collection of jokes and anecdotes. This work is proof that though few historians of the Arab world have devoted book-length monographs to disability, sources abound. As Kristina Richardson has shown in her recent publication on "blighted bodies" in the medieval Islamic world, questions about disability are central to understanding change and continuity in societies. Scalenghe's work builds on previous studies of difference and health like Richardson's and Khaled Fahmy's while forging a new path in the field. Drawing upon nearly a hundred primary sources entailing a variety of Arabic-language works by Sunni Muslim men (such as fatwa collections, books on Islamic law and jurisprudence, texts on humoral medicine, travelogues and chronicles, and biographical dictionaries) and roughly three hundred secondary sources, she argues that compared to European societies of the time, the theory and practice of Islamic law "supported, enabled, and validated" a "relatively benign conceptualization of physical and mental impairments" in the Ottoman Arab world (164). Her research shows that the regions that today are parts of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine/Israel have a shared history not only as former Ottoman lands but also as areas where categories of impairment such as blindness, deafness and muteness, mental ability, and intersexuality influenced one's status in society in ways as concrete as categories of gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, race, ethnicity, or age. But categories of impairment were different from these other categories in a significant way: they could be "situational . . . inasmuch as they were disabling only in particular contexts," and jurists usually did everything they could "to integrate physical minorities into the social body by seeking a balance between the rights and duties of the individual and the interest of the community" (164).

Readers might wonder why impaired individuals in the Ottoman Empire seem to have fared better (at least in terms of stigma) than individuals in Christian Europe. Scalenghe offers a compelling, well-evidenced explanation: "The foundational texts of Islam largely refuse a causal relationship between guilt and disease, illness, and infirmity, and the rejection of the Christian notion of original sin precluded the attribution of congenital defects and impairments to the 'sins of the father'" (165). Over the past 150 or so years, however, the treatment of people living with disabilities in the Middle East has changed considerably, and impairment has become more stigmatized than in previous centuries. Scalenghe notes that there are a variety of possible causes for the shift over the nineteenth and twentieth centuries toward a "devaluation of people with congenital impairments . . . [who became] viewed as an impediment to . . . a strong and 'healthy' nation" (170). Among those causes one might look to the presence of psychiatric and biomedical notions of bodies that Europeans brought to the region with their imperialist and Christian missionizing projects, a study this reviewer has undertaken in research on mental hospitals in Lebanon and Syria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Thus, for example, individuals who early modern Ottomans had considered "holy fools" or majadhib may have been "recast as clinically ill" (168). There may also be roots of change in the Ottoman and Egyptian reforms of the midnineteenth century, which Scalenghe notes Khaled Fahmy has documented in his research on men who physically impaired themselves to try to avoid conscription into Mehmed Ali's army. …

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