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  • In Amma's Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India
  • Sarah Lamb
Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger . In Amma's Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007. Pp. xix + 294.

In Amma's Healing Room is a unique and absorbing ethnographic study of a Muslim female spiritual healer, known as Amma ("Mother") to her disciples and patients, who lives and practices in the South Indian city of Hyderabad. Author Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger first came upon Amma's healing room when she spotted the waving green flag, indicating Islamic ritual activity, flying above Amma's and her husband Abba's home in 1989. Flueckiger had been participating at the time in a three-week "Women, Folklore and Fieldwork" workshop at Osmania University, perched on a rocky hill overlooking Amma's working-class neighborhood of university housing for nonacademic employees. Thus began an intensive personal and research relationship that lasted more than ten years, as Amma and Abba grew old and passed on, and the book was written.

Amma sits at a desk in her healing room, crowded with a diverse clientele of hopeful male and female patients and disciples. Her husband Abba, himself a Sufi master, operates a modest convenience store in the room's corner, chimes in with commentary and relevant teachings, takes on disciples, and presides over monthly devotional sama rituals meant to arouse mystical love [End Page 228] among those assembled, moving them closer to their spiritual teachers and to God.

Amma's patients seek healing for a variety of ailments, including infertility, infants failing to thrive, colicky babies, high fevers in children, disobedient youth (including lazy teenage sons who "meander around all day"), abusive or unfaithful husbands, problems arranging daughters' marriages, difficulty sleeping, stolen gold, failing businesses, interfering neighbors, and general trouble in the house. Amma "guarantees" her treatment for disorders caused by saitani, literally evil forces impinging upon the physical world, which can manifest in the mind, body, spirit, and social relationships. Yet Amma specifically excludes certain other diseases (including cancer, heart disease, typhoid, and polio) as outside her range of expertise, often referring patients to particular allopathic doctors, from obstetricians to optometrists, by name and phone number.

Flueckiger deliberately shies away from an explicit analysis of if and how Amma's techniques "work," while offering plenty of rich ethnographic data to illuminate the question. Amma strives to externalize and ritually manipulate negative forces through diagnosing problems and prescribing amulets and rituals. Her clients describe as well the healing impact of Amma's patient attention, her great capacity to listen and understand, her "mother's love," and her "heart bigger than a man's." Amma's spiritual charisma, strength, and authority seep through the book's pages. Amma frequently offers practical, mundane advice as well, and asks patients to bring to the clinic other relatives who form part of the problem. In addition, female patients in particular gain solace, pleasure, and insight from getting out of the home and sharing stories with others at the crowded clinic, as they and accompanying kin wait often for hours or a whole day for their turn. The verbal performatives of both Amma ("she will be healed"; "the missing child will return home") and the patient, who must say out loud what she or he wishes to be effected, may also, Flueckiger notes, be instrumental in the healing process.

As readers are drawn into this rich, elaborate world of daily living and spiritual seeking, a revealing window opens onto several remarkable features of life in South Asia, challenging widely held views of Islam, religion, and gender. Flueckiger portrays Amma's practice as a form of vernacular Islam, arguing that "Amma's healing room represents a level of popular, non-institutionally based Islamic practice that has been underrepresented in religious studies on Islam in South Asia" (p. 2). One of the book's purposes is to illuminate the ways Islam works locally in ordinary people's lives, revealing the creativity of a religious tradition too often characterized by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as homogeneous and ideologically monolithic. [End Page 229]

The ethnography also vividly portrays the overlapping, fluid boundaries between Islam...