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History of Medicine, Health Care, and Collectivism

Session XIII-07, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • One of the richest textual traditions in the History of Arabic sciences is that of the Books of Simples, Kutub al-Adwyia al-Mufrada. Lying at the intersection of the disciplines of Botany and Medicine, this tradition refers to the study of the medicinal uses of plants. The two major texts that have provided the basis for this tradition are Dioscorides’ On Simple Drugs and Galen’s On the Powers of Simple drugs, with their translation to Arabic and Syriac began a long tradition of independent works by Arab botanists and physicians that lasted for centuries. In my paper, I examine one of the earliest works written in this tradition, Aḥmad ibn Abī al-Ashʿath’ (d.970) Kitāb al-Adwyia al-Mufrada, The Book of Simple drugs. Ibn Abī al-Ashʿath, a court physician working in the Ḥamdānid court in Mosul, was revered as a medical authority and widely cited by later authors. In this work, he combines Galen’s focus on drug theory with Dioscorides’ detailed botanical description and analysis of the medicinal uses of plants. He draws on his own experience, as well as range of other works to address the gaps that he saw in the works of those authors. I will discuss two main aspects of this work: First, the innovative ways whereby Ibn Abī al-Ashʿath’ reconciled between previous authorities in his work. Second, how he was able to reconcile between the textual authority of the Greek tradition and his own experiential knowledge. I argue that this two-folded reconciliation process would reveal the innovative contributions of Arabic scholars of the formative period to the development of the disciplines of Botany and Medicine. More specifically, it will reveal how they critically analyzed and challenged the textual authority of the Greek Scientific tradition, how they assimilated and “indigenized” this textual knowledge to render it intelligible reflecting their own proximate environment; and finally, how they incorporated knowledge about their own local environments to produce new knowledge about the natural world. This examination will identify the characteristics of the formative stage of Arabic Botany, thus addressing the scholarly gap in the history of this discipline. More broadly, it will give insights into the mechanics of the appropriation and the assimilation of the Greek and Late Antique Sciences by Arab Scholars during the Formative period of Islamic History.
  • Most scholarship on Anglo-American missionaries in al-Mashriq focuses on ecclesiastical and educational endeavors during the nineteenth century, demonstrating how translation, printing technologies, and pedagogy transformed missions and society. However, less scholarly attention has been paid to the centerpiece of the mission encounter—medicine. This paper fills the gap in terms of period and institutional focus. It considers the evolution of Anglo-American missions during the twentieth century, concentrating on the development of missionary medicine and its relationship with Gazan society. I approach this topic by analyzing the Church Missionary Society (CMS) medical mission in Gaza (1882-1954). Support from British colonial officials, paired with technological innovations in medicine, allowed CMS missionaries to establish medical missions in Egypt, Palestine, and throughout the Ottoman Empire during the late-nineteenth century. Although missionary medicine, including its iteration in Gaza, relied on British colonial power, it forged a unique strategy for medical care differentiating it from colonial medicine. Informed by Gazan patient records and CMS periodicals, this paper defines missionary medicine as a distinct category of modern medicine; it then analyses how missionary medicine defined and engaged Gazan society. Missionary medicine in Gaza was neither parochial in practice nor universal in intention. It offered medical care to the entire population, yet limited medical pedagogy to Arab Christians. CMS missionaries divided their understanding of Gazan society into dichotomies: wealthy and impoverished, urban and rural, male and female, Muslim and Christian. Within each pair, the missionaries maintained a commitment toward serving the impoverished, rural, and female members of Gazan society, with the support of a Christian staff. Eventually, the immutable calculus of missionary medicine could not withstand a rapidly evolving Gazan society. The developing sociopolitical landscape in Gaza rendered this iteration of missionary medicine inoperative.
  • This paper explores intimate scenes of masculine domestic life in a sakan shababiyy, a shared apartment inhabited by a shifting cast of young Syrian men living and working in indefinite exile (ghurba) in Lebanon’s Beqaa valley. The sons of middle class families from an opposition-aligned community decimated by the Assad regime, these young men describe ghurba in double-edged terms: the most effective mechanism for the production of ‘a man in the meaning of the word’ (rajil bi ma’ana al-kalima) and the cruelest means for reducing him to nothing. Drawing on two years of ethnographic research in the same residence, this paper examines how this paradox winds its way through domestic relations between non-kin as they negotiate the uncertain temporalities of precarious work, psychological exhaustion, and fantasies of return and escape in the context of dramatic shifts in the economic and legal status of Syrians in Lebanon. In dialogue with a growing literature on domestic practices of care in contexts of social abandonment, I argue that the sakan shababiyy is a space where the interactional repertoires and moral economies of middle class urban domesticity, Islamic piety, and youthful experimentation are remixed to produce distinct material and ethical practices of masculine concern that mediate relations within the home while mitigating the worst excesses of the everyday violence that envelops it. This concept––indexing both an empathic concern for and a critical concern about others in the shifting domestic collective––draws our attention to how practices of care and judgement intersect in the construction of tenuous hierarchies of authority between peers against the looming spectre of ‘reduction to nothing.’