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  • In Amma's Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India
  • Fouzieyha Towghi
Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger , In Amma's Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2006. 320 pp.

In 1989 Flueckiger met Amma, a middle-aged woman, who identified herself as a pirānimā (wife of a pīr, a Sufi teacher) who meets patients in the healing room and writes taviz (amulets with Quranic verses) for them. Amma describes her healing practice as one that is based on the Quran, and its success guaranteed for illness caused by spiritual forces. Amma's patients and clients come from many different religious traditions. Despite critiques of Amma's practice as heretical, Amma sees herself and her practices not as peripheral but at the very center, a location through which multiple axes of religious identities meet and cross at what Flueckiger calls "crossroads," caurāstā in Hindi and Urdu. Taking seriously Amma's self-identification as Muslim, Flueckiger seeks to understand how and when this identity is shaped, enacted, and articulated at this site of what she marks as vernacular Islam.

Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger's In Amma's Healing Room is an exemplary ethnography focusing on one Muslim female spiritual healer in Hyderabad, South India. Following the genre of autobiographical ethnographic model of Shostak's "Nisa," the significance of Amma's work and life is marked by the space and contents of human interactions that unfold in her healing [End Page 915] room (that is an extension of her private home). This is a space and place that "represents a level of popular, non-institutionally based Islamic practice that has been underrepresented in religious studies on Islam in South Asia" (2). Through Amma's philosophical perspective, that is richly narrated in Amma's own voice, about the boundaries and contents of religions, genders, and the in-distinctions of the human heart and condition across these differences; we are introduced to the "vernacular Islam" of one Hyderabadi location. Amma's Sufi Islamic inspired and embedded healing practice and philosophical outlook on life, relationships, and humanity welcomes Hindu, Christian, and Muslims across different sects seeking healing, guidance, and teaching from her. The "healing-room discourse," in addition to holding a "shared ritual grammar and permeable religious boundaries" between Hindu and Muslim traditions, highlights Amma's conceptions of the human heart that is reflected in the complex and historical relationship between Shii and Sunni traditions of vernacular Islam in Hyderabad (194). For example, Amma who is considered Sunni claims the Shii Muslim festival of Muharram as "Ours" and speaks proudly of the Hyderabadi tradition of Muslims and Hindus "always getting along" (195). With the contemporary politicization of religious identities in India, Hindus are participating less in the Muharram processions explains Flueckiger. Yet, despite this trend, Amma's healing room attracts equal numbers of Muslims and Hindus. Amma's healing work, among other approaches, centers on communication/counseling the clients and provision of written and non-written herbal medicinal prescriptions. Flueckiger illustrates how the "ritual grammar" of many of Amma's prescriptions is shared across religious boundaries. For example, utārā is a prescription that Amma orders for forms of what Amma calls "heavy" evil eye. The ritual that involves the circling of an attractive physical object around the head of a person in order to draw away the evil eye is one commonly practiced in numerous ritual contexts in South Asia—Hindu, Muslim, and Christian. Both Hindus and Muslims visiting Amma accept the possibility that social and physical illnesses can be transferred through material substance such as through food. Herbal prescriptions to be buried and burned for healing is another material ritual substance shared across religious identities. Amma explains that, "There's great sakti [spiritual power] in jarībūtī (herbs)" and goes on to narrate a story of Hanuman (from the Ramayana) who had flown to a special mountain to find similar healing herbs in order to bring the dying hero Lakshman back to life. What is significant, explains Flueckiger, about this and other of Amma's [End Page 916] narrations of Hindu gods is that Amma does not tell this as a...


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