Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger, In Amma’s Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press: 2006. Pp. xix + 294. *
As I read this book I thought, ‘I wish someone would do a study like this of my community’ for Joyce Flueckiger’s study of a Muslim woman healer in a poor district of Hyderabad, India, who heals men and women, Muslim and Hindu alike is loving, sensitive, remarkably observant, patient, and consistently attentive to gender issues at the intersection of two patriarchal cultures.
Flueckiger is a specialist in performance studies and, so, she diligently tells the reader what she saw and heard, systematically avoiding the theological and philosophical categories to which those trained in texts are accustomed. As a result, the reader had a wonderful picture of Amma, of those who come to her for healing, of the prescriptions she gives, as well as of Abba (her husband), of celebrations that are his domain, and of the very subtle negotiation by which Amma asserts her presence amidst the authority of Abba while he garners his followers among her patients.
In chapter one, Flueckiger describes Amma’s healing room, her patients, and her prescriptions. One can almost see the bright green flagpole, the horse carrying an open human hand, the colorful posters, the plethora of photographs, and the green and orange Sufi flags — images common to vernacular Islam in India. One can almost visualize the people, hear the noise, and watch them look at Amma as she tells stories and writes prescriptions.
Chapters two and three describe the healing system. This is not a western, sterile clinic; it is a semi-public space in which patients share their troubles, listening and talking. It is a space where infertility, stomach cramps, unfaithful husbands, misbehaving children, failing businesses, problems with neighbors, and lost goods are diagnosed. The causes of these illnesses include the evil eye, sometimes caused purposely and sometimes inadvertently; spells cast by the shaitan (evil spirits) or other human beings; and possession, mental illness, and restlessness. The diagnostic technique consists, first, of listening carefully but also of assign numerical values to the letters of the name of the ill person and, then, doing a very complicated numerological analysis (abjad), together with complex dream interpretation. The cures consist of amulets — words written in Arabic — on leaves to be burned and whose smoke is inhaled, or on leaves which are washed with water and the water is drunk, or on bread which is eaten; of fruits or vegetables to be cut and squeezed or eaten; of animals to be whirled about the ill person; of verses to be recited; and, of course, of herbs. Often patients are given many amulets and, as a result, the prescriptions are very, very detailed, almost impossible for the reader — and the patient and his or her family ! — to follow. Sometimes, laying on of hands and prayer is used; sometimes, exorcism is needed. Always, there is the telling of the narrative and the comparing it with other similar stories. Always, the patients come to get Amma’s barkat, to be in the presence of her blessing.
Amma says that there are only two castes: male and female. Women bring their own cultural burdens which are dealt with in chapter four: menstruation, childbirth, household duties, segregation, and veiling. Flueckiger also deals with Amma’s status as healer, as a woman healer, and as a piranima (spiritual teacher) whose status is, however, very much dependent upon the status of her husband as a pir. This status, which Flueckiger finds unique, must be continually renewed by narrative and spiritual discipline.
How do both Muslims and Hindus come to a Muslim healer? In chapter five, Flueckiger proposes that, while gender boundaries are impermeable, religious boundaries are the opposite. Thus, Amma’s clientele accept that there is a common cosmological and ritual universe; that Muslim amulets work for everyone; and that a Hindu can even be a disciple of Abba, though full discipleship would require a gradual conversion to Islam (chapter six). The stories and dialogues confirm this very Indian view of Islam.
Chapter six is another wonderfully thick description of the sama`, the public ceremony in which Abba is the center, as well as an accounting of the nature of discipleship to him.
During the course of Flueckiger’s work, first Abba and then Amma died, severing the intense personal relationship they had with her. Flueckiger handles this marvelously throughout the book, sharing with the reader her own evolving relationship with Abba and Amma and the sense of loss she felt on their passing. She mixes past and present tense in the narrative with great skill.
I conclude as I began: ‘I wish someone would do a study like this of my community’ — of the clothing and the décor, of the sounds and the smells, and of the talking and the listening.
David R. Blumenthal
* Reviews in Religion and Theology 14:3 (2007) 407-08.
 In the interest of complete disclosure, I acknowledge that Joyce is a colleague at Emory and friend. Nonetheless, as an intelligent outsider to the field, I feel qualified to review this book fairly.