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Reviewed by:
  • Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877–1956 by Ellen J. Amster
  • Jonathan G. Katz, Ph.D.

positivism, Sufism, women’s health, colonial medicine

Ellen J. Amster. Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877–1956. University of Texas Press, 2013. xiv, 334 pp., illus. $60.00.

At the start of the twentieth century, Morocco was for the French a sort of “China” on the doorstep of Europe, “a true paleontological museum of [End Page 673] Islam” (Daniel Rivet, Lyautey et l’institution du protectorat français, I:19). The moribund museum image did not last long. Over the course of the Protectorate (1912–56), Morocco’s colonial administrators aspired to turn Morocco into a “laboratory” for social as well as medico-scientific experimentation. This transformation, which came at a heavy human cost, is the subject of Ellen Amster’s Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877–1956.

The timeframe of this intellectually ambitious and wide-ranging study extends far beyond the dates in the subtitle. Amster begins with a critique of Morocco’s political history in the sixteenth century and concludes with an assessment of the contemporary role of biomedicine. Along the way, she examines the intersection of medicine and politics at various junctures: popular culture, religion, urban planning, social hygiene, race, and gender. Not surprisingly, reproduction and birth—areas in which women traditionally displayed medical authority—emerged as the main locus of contention in the colonial struggle over the “over-determined” Moroccan body.

The first three of six chapters deal with Morocco prior to the Protectorate. In chapter 1, Amster offers an empathetic and even elegiac account of Sufism. The mystical Sufi saint was a healer who restored “God’s law to men and to society” (50). His competitor, the sultan claiming descent from Muhammad, was the “biological embodiment of the Prophet’s authority” (49). Provocatively, Amster interprets the execution of the Sufi shaykh Muhammad al-Kattani by the sultan Moulay ’Abd al-Hafid (r. 1908–1912) as an egregious assault on the very fabric of Moroccan identity.

In chapter 2, Amster offers a rapid survey of nineteenth-century colonial and medical theory. Preeminent among theorists was the ethnographer Edmond Doutté whose “sociology gave France a colonizing method for Morocco; if political authority were healing, then France could use medicine to prove French superiority to the Moroccan in the laboratory of his own body” (71). Positivism as espoused by Comte, Renan, and Durkheim is Amster’s bête noir. “The colonialism of the Third Republic deployed an idea of science—an aggressive positivism—to civilize, classify, and administer the diverse peoples of the empire and to evolve them gently toward a universal secular modernity” (80).

Nonetheless, while the French may have constructed what Amster calls an “empire of positivism,” they were not entirely to blame for undermining traditional Moroccan beliefs and practices. Moroccan elites—reformers and nationalist intellectuals who she argues took their cues from salafi thinkers in Cairo like Muhammad ‘Abduh—“adopted the French positivist languages of civilization, modernity, and progress in order to purify the religion and reform society” (80). [End Page 674]

Chapter 3 is largely devoted to fin-de-siècle Morocco and the arrival of the French. The “many deaths” of Émile Mauchamp, a medical missionary killed at the hands of a mob in Marrakesh in 1907, becomes the occasion for an essay on syncretism. Amster convincingly argues that “French medicine did not provoke a ‘clash of civilizations’” (108). Instead, Moroccans displayed an unexpected openness to European biomedical techniques. Likewise, French doctors, in particular Leon Cristiani who headed the Cocard Hospital in Fez, “adapted French medicine to the idioms of saintly healing” (108).

Chapter 4 examines the often contradictory urban policies of Resident General Lyautey and their implications for public hygiene. In principle, the doctrine of association was intended to preserve Moroccan customs and institutions while simultaneously “modernizing” society. In practice, this typically meant privileging European settlers at the expense of indigenous Moroccans. Amster traces “the paradoxes of colonial hygiene” through capsule histories of four diseases: malaria, typhus, bubonic plague...