When I was reading In Amma’s Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India, I was reminiscing about my first-ever healing experience. I was around 9 or 10 years old when my family and I visited my maternal family in Chennai. Every summer break–we would visit my grandparents in Chennai, and we would not miss going to Marina Beach even in the scorching heat. When my siblings and I were playing in the water I was dragged inside by a strong undercurrent and I almost drowned to death, fortunately, I was pushed to the shore by a bigger wave. After this incident, for the next couple of nights, I was having dreadful nightmares, and I was not able to sleep. My parents didn’t know what to do. From Chennai we went to my paternal grandparents’ house in Vellore, to spend the rest of the summer break. When we reached my grandparents’ house in Vellore, my mother told my grandmother about what had happened to me. My grandmother sensed what it could be, and on the same evening, she took me to a Hindu spiritual healer, which was away from the center of the village. I trusted my grandmother and went through the narrow dark lanes of the village. The spiritual healer was an old frail woman with matted hair living in a straw-thatched hut. The healing hut was wafting with burning incense sticks. My grandmother and I sat in front of the healer on the floor and my grandmother told the healer about what had happened. Immediately, the healer lit a camphor and prayed to the gods displayed next to her and gave me tirunīru (sacred ash), and told me to smear it all over my body. When I went back home, I went to bed directly and slept peacefully. My maternal family believes in Christianity, whereas my paternal family follows Hinduism. My dual religious identity didn’t matter and was never told when I was healed by the spiritual healer. Joyce Flueckiger in her book explores such vernacular healing practice which cuts across religious boundaries.
Joyce’s ‘thick description’ of Amma’s syncretic healing practices gives a new perspective to Islam in South Asia, and how a non-institutional Islamic practice is performed and embodied by Amma in the public sphere through her position and authority. Joyce calls the spiritual healing practice by Amma ‘vernacular Islam’, which is juxtaposed against ‘universal Islam’. Vernacular Islam doesn’t indicate the semantic understanding of Islam, rather it talks about specific relationships and contexts shaped by individuals (2006: 02). The local practices of Islam in Hyderabad through the lens of Amma show fluidity, flexibility, and innovation in a religious tradition.
Amma is as pious as Saba Mahmood’s ‘women of piety’. In her essay “Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject,” Saba Mahmood argues about the embodied behaviour of her interlocutors. For instance, the virtue of shyness/modesty (al-hāya) is central to a virtuous performer. In contrast to the women of piety, Amma’s embodiment of religious pious is not monolithic. It is fascinating to see how Amma navigates through the gendered space, where Sufi practices are predominately a male space.
As shown in my own experience, a vernacular religious idiom is shared by most religious traditions in India, where spiritual illness is countered by spiritual healing. Amma is a piranima (wife of a pir) who dedicated all her life to learning spiritual healing, however, it is Abba’s presence that validates her authority as a spiritual healer. When Abba dies, her authority is questioned – until her eldest son becomes Abba’s successor. Nevertheless, Joyce argues that they both help each other mutually because most people come to the healing room to seek Amma’s help and guidance. It is her compassionate nature that brings people from all religions and classes to the healing room, and people get to know about Abba only later. One thing that is unique about Amma is her skill and ability to write, which authenticates her vernacular Islamic healing, whereas Abba mostly depends on folktales and oral narratives. Vernacular Islam is more practical than prescribing what is ‘true Islam’.
Amma’s healing room a symbiotic pluralistic crossroads where people across religions experience healing, and healing is received even when someone doesn’t belong to the same faith. However, when it comes to initiation, the individual has to give up her/his former faith practices and rituals completely. In one instance, Amma told Joyce not to eat food offered to Hindu gods or goddesses even though there was no intention of initiation. What are the other limitations of this crossroad? Can habitus be both fixed and flexible?
When Amma talks about two jatis (castes), i.e., male and female which is the only division created by Allah, and the rest of the division is socially constructed. What leaves me thinking is how the term jati is used in this context. Jati is not the only term that is used to signify gender. There is not much clarity on how Joyce distinguishes between jati as gender and jati as caste hierarchy. Furthermore, there is no hint about the hijras (third-gender persons) who are very much part of the Islamic community in Hyderabad (See Gayatri Reddy’s With Respect to Sex: Negotiating Hijra Identity in South India).
In ethnography, does the ethnographer draw a line between being an observer and a participant? Or do they participate always? For instance, during one of the discussions between Amma’s niece and Munappa. They discuss about cremation and burial, towards the end of the discussion, Joyce says that, now she steps down from being an observer and wants to become a participant.
In Amma’s Healing Room is a rich archival source that talks about local Islamic practices. However, Joyce’s well-knit coherent narrative lacks analysis of her interlocutors’ thoughts and perspectives. How important is analysis for ethnographic research?
Looking forward to the discussion!