Shields of Power: Amulets as Medical Intervention inside Islamic West Africa
Syeda Beena Butool, PhD (c), Florida State University
I argue that marabouts (Muslim religious healers) in West Africa (especially Mali) resist the binary between the magical and the medical. My objective is to demonstrate how the study of marabouts and amulet making resists the categories of magic, medicine (science) and religion. Islamic material culture from West Africa, especially amulets, indicate that believers face anxieties about illness and health, similar to persons ensconced in a scientific culture. However, bio-medicine emerged from a social context where the objective was to master and control individual bodies, eliminate illnesses and cure human body, through pure observation of natural phenomena, and without appealing to a higher deity. But, this was not the way West Africans perceive the relationship of their bodies with nature. Nor do West African Muslims eliminate appeals to the moral and social realms in their theory about the universe. Therefore, their account of illness worlds is porous across the physical, social and moral realm. I look at three different regions inside Mali: the Kel AlHafra, Bandiagara, and Timbuktu. The case studies offered here, glimpse into the illness worlds and health conceptions of groups consulting marabouts. I also argue that marabouts offer “medical interventions” which run parallel to bio-medicine. I aim to demonstrate this latter argument with the example of amulets prescribed by marabouts for treatment and prevention of diseases. Besides asking whether marabouts are magical or medical, I also ask a second question: are amulets magical or religious? Finally, the paper ends with a brief discussion on the obfuscation caused by the Western categorization of science, religion, and magic. I engage Frazer’s dichotomies of science, religion, and magic, only to critique them by explaining the medico- religious landscape of marabouts inside West Africa. My observations lead me to conclude that instead of attaching adjectives such as occult and magical to amulets, or religious or magical to maraboutic healing, we need to appreciate that, different understandings about the illness worlds produce different accounts of healing. The health and illness worlds of Kel AlHafra, people in Timbuktu and Dogons in Bandiagara deduce causality on the basis of social signs, and not simply on physical signs. Although, I continue to deliberate about this question, my initial observation is that, Qur’anic healing and amulets offer a medical intervention which is public and therapeutic. Marabouts are neither modern nor magical, but cure the disordered state of "dividuated" bodies. Their inference comes from signs and stories and their diagnosis intervenes and cements holes between the individual and the social body.