Making local medicine: colonial discourses and the making of modern medicine in the Middle East

By Ahmed Ragab
Submitted to Session P4954 (From the Body to the Body-Politic: The Politics of Medical Knowledge and Practice, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In 1860, Dr. Nicolas Perron published a translation of a treatise on prophetic medicine attributed to al-Suy???. Perron worked at the new Cairo medical school (est. 1827) before presiding over the French medical school in Algeria. As an Arabist, Perron was deeply interested in organizing and editing writings by major Islamic authors. In La Médecine du prophète, Perron provided an account of what he believed to be the autochthonous medical practice of the Islamic Near East. In his view, prophetic medicine was both an obstacle facing modern European medicine, and an opportunity to couch public health policies in religious terms that local populations would accept. Yet, “prophetic medicine,” as a genre of medical and pietistic writings in the Islamic Near East, had different local histories and meanings than those presumed and advocated by Perron.

This paper will look at how colonial imaginaries about local practice and about the relationship between medicine and religion interacted with and influenced local accounts and historical imaginaries and impacted the politics of medical knowledge and practice. It explores how narratives around local Islamic medical practices developed in writings of European medical practitioners, how they were received by local actors, and how colonial and local actors negotiated the boundaries of modern and traditional practices. Here, “prophetic medicine” serves as a central example of how colonial imaginaries developed narratives about locality and traditionalism that came to influence the politics of medical knowledge and practice. At the same time, this reanimation of “prophetic medicine,” despite departing from local histories and traditions, contributed to ongoing intellectual and professional debates about the local and the foreigner, and about modernization and Westernization.

I will argue that colonial narratives about local medical practice (including those concerning prophetic medicine) were rooted in a Eurocentric history of knowledge that focused on narratives of “Golden Age” and “Decline,” and emphasized certain qualities of modern science that were posited as opposite to the religious, local and Oriental. At the same time, and with the growth of European-style education, these colonial narratives came to play a significant role in constructing local debates and viewpoints. Moreover, these views on local versus modern medicine were also key in developing public health narratives and institutions in various parts of the Near East.