Think Piece

Islamic History and Medicine in Trans Muslim Lives

By Shireen Hamza

“Without desire, …research would never take place: we would be unable, literally unable, to discover anything. But at the same time, we have to bring this under control.”
— Carlo Ginzburg, Twelve Snapshots from a Conversation with Carlo Ginzburg

“For too long, Black trans people have fought for our humanity, and for too long, cis people have been acting like they know what the fuck are talking about.“
— Ianne Fields Stewart, rally in Brooklyn, NY, on June 14th, 2020

In the year 952 AH/1545-1546 CE, writes the historian al-Muḥibbī, ‘Alī ibn al-Rifā’ī, a brown-skinned boy who had yet to grow a beard, was binding books in the Damascene district of al-Qaymariyya. A man named ‘Abd al-Raḥmān ibn al-Ẓannī was passionately in love with ‘Alī. By the end of al-Muḥibbī’s tale, ‘Alī – now a woman called ‘Aliyyā – had given birth to several children with ‘Abd al-Raḥmān, and most of Damascus could attest to this. In al-Muḥibbī’s telling, ‘Alī’s gender shifts after both doctors and the jurist presiding over the court declare ‘Alī to be a woman,  ‘Aliyya. However, the marriage contract that would have been drawn up for them would likely have shown a neater and more normative reality: that a man named ‘Abd al-Raḥmān wed a woman named ‘Aliyya. Reading about ‘Alī/’Aliyya makes me wonder: how many other stories of “non-binary” Muslims are hidden in plain sight in the documentary record of Islamic history? What keeps historians from seeing them? And who stands to benefit from an increasing awareness of the history of sex and sexuality in the Islamic world?

Many scholars of Islamic history acknowledge that gender and sexuality are historically contingent, and that the process of gendering people was enacted primarily through “social and legal discourses,” for example by Islamic law. However, scholarship on the premodern Islamic world often rests on the implicit assumption that there are, now and historically, only two “real” sexes – which many historians would contest. The process of premodern “sexing,” or medical sexual differentiation, was determined by physicians whose understanding of the body was rooted in a largely Galenic paradigm in which “ideas about conception easily explained nonbinary sex,” and the determination of sex “did not necessarily depend on genital morphology,” but also on a variety of other physical attributes. 

Physicians’ understandings of sex did not automatically sort humans into men and women but included other sexes in between. These views in turn influenced jurists as well as authors of lexicons like Ibn Manẓūr and popular encyclopedias like al-Qazwīnī, for whom sex differentiation could lead a fetus to develop into one of five sexes: woman, masculine woman, khunthā, effeminate man or man. Thus, their discussions of surgery on a khunthā’s body are not described as corrections of sex or gender, but rather seek to relieve discomfort, enable intercourse for married people, and overall, to serve “an individual’s health and religious needs.” Paired with the understanding that one’s sex (and depending on whether this caused social disruption, perhaps also one’s gender) could change through the course of one’s life, medieval Islamic understandings of sex start to seem quite different from biological sex. 

Stories like ‘Alī/’Aliyyā’s and ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s have great importance for queer and trans Muslims, to whom a range of conservative institutions suggest that Islam and LGBTQI+ identities are incompatible. Iran and Pakistan have received significant attention for their government programs providing specific kinds of trans affirming healthcare (in contexts in which homosexuality is illegal). Such government programs are grounded in a legal synthesis of biomedical and classical Islamic legal understandings of sex. Although official government policy has not led to widespread societal affirmation of trans, hijra or khwaja sira people in these countries, these institutional changes are a crucial part of a broader transformation. Iran’s legal stance on trans people has enabled contemporary Iranian filmmakers like Negar Azarbayjani, director of Facing Mirrors, to tell stories of contemporary trans people cinematically. Historians have the power to access and amplify narratives from the past that may inform both institutional and societal change today.

Historians of the premodern Islamic world study different configurations of law, medicine and state power. The work of historians shows that when the state has intervened on issues of ambiguous sex, the outcomes for those whose sex is called into question are not always positive, as with the wife of Muḥammad ibn Sallāma in 1506 CE. Amīr Ṭarābāy called on women, presumably women with medical training, to determine the sex of Muḥammad ibn Sallāma’s wife. After determining that she was not a woman or a khunthā but a man, the Amīr brutally punished the couple, who died as a result. Although difficult to read for queer and trans people who are subject to myriad forms of violence, this story is nonetheless one which shows that people troubled binaries of sex and gender in the Islamic past, thus suggesting that the presence of gender nonconforming and trans Muslims today is no aberrance. 

But these stories are also important for physicians to hear. The history of medicine includes episodes of harm and coercion as well as of care, healing and ingenuity. There is growing historical research on how binary sex and heterosexuality were conceived of and enforced by nineteenth century physicians, scientific sexologists, psychoanalysts, science-writers for the popular press, and many actors of colonial and/or national governance in the Middle East, South Asia, Africa, Latin America, and here, in the settler colony known as the US. There is a history to the “straight” understanding of sex and sexuality – the social and medical views that there are only two true, fixed biological sexes in humans and that heterosexuality is natural. Just recently, as Sean Saifa M. Wall, an intersex activist, says:

Variation in sexual anatomy… should show us how beautifully diverse nature is. It should remind us that anatomical sex is not fixed, but fluid. …But sometimes it feels like debating ethics with butchers. Too many in the medical profession see surgery as their duty.

It is striking how wondrous some writers in the medieval Islamic world considered this fluidity of sexual anatomy to be, while this fluidity has been considered an aberration or monstrosity in other times and places, including our own. Physicians, public health officials and historians are increasingly acknowledging scholarship on the “coloniality of gender” as relevant to their professions – a scholarship which shows how race, gender, sexuality and other emerging categories were co-constructed for marginalized people in both metropole and colony. Physicians in precolonial contexts operated within medical systems that did not rest on binary sex, but within legal and social systems which did tend towards binary gender. Historical accounts of healthcare before colonialism may also provide healthcare workers today with food for thought. While ethicists are calling healthcare providers toward practicing “justice, beneficence and nonmaleficence” by following specific actions in their treatment of trans and gender nonconforming patients in systems not built to accommodate them, the distant past may help us imagine futures beyond the confines of the present. 


‘Alī was a boy until he was a khunthā; he was a khunthā until she was a girl. In this description, I follow the gender pronouns ascribed to ‘Alī by al-Muḥibbī. No explicit reason is given as to why ‘Alī and ‘Abd al-Raḥmān were called before the judge, Kamāl al-Dīn al-’Adawī, but al-Muḥibbī suggests that it had to do with ‘Abd al-Raḥmān being in love with ‘Alī. The judge said, upon first consideration, that ‘Alī seemed to be a khunthā, and that he “tended towards being female.” He called in physicians to examine him. These physicians discovered a vulva, hidden beneath a (skin) covering with “three small nipples,” which they cut away. The judge ruled on ‘Alī being a woman, and they named him ‘Aliyyā. al-Muḥibbī then starts referring to ‘Aliyyā with the feminine pronouns, to say she was married to her lover, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān. 

حكم الحالكم الشافعي بأنوثته و سموه عليا و زوجوها بعاشقها عبد الرحمن 
The Shafi’i Judge ruled on ‘Alī’s womanness, and they named him ‘Aliyyā and married her to her lover ‘Abd al-Raḥmān. 

al-Muḥibbī offers no explanation as to who this “they” is, but the sentence implies that it was people other than the judge who did so.

In this story, the authority of physicians and the law, combined, officially changed ‘Alī’s gender with almost no surgical intervention. As al-Muḥibbī reports, most of the people of Damascus knew about these events and could attest to their veracity – implying, perhaps, that rather than any public outcry, the story was considered strange, wondrous, marvelous. al-Muḥibbī’s account, and many other stories involving physicians, leave many important questions about medical ethics unanswered. Was the love ‘Abd al-Raḥmān had for ‘Alī requited? Did ‘Alī consent to the examination and intervention by doctors? Did ‘Alī want to live as ‘Aliyyā, and as ‘Abd al-Raḥmān’s wife? And yet, this story – by no means an ideal for doctors and courts today – has the power to unsettle people’s presumptions about sex, gender and sexuality. 

Several kinds of texts and documents form a fragmentary and checkered archive for understanding the lives of khunthā, people neither men nor women of a “medial sex” in the premodern Islamic world. Both medical texts and juridical texts speak to what the doctor and jurist should do when encountering someone whose sex is ambiguous. As Saqer Almarri writes in his translation of the passages about khunthā in one such legal text, “evidence of the historicity or the specificity of the lives of people” is rare, but legal manuals still tell us something about the social and cultural contexts that shaped them. Surviving legal documents, however, show us glimpses of law in practice, as records of events like marriage, divorce, business transaction and partnerships, disputes, the purchase or sale of enslaved people, and inheritance. While some kind of narrative emerges from these documents, they are not always as detailed as the one about ‘Alī/’Aliyyā related by al-Muḥibbī above. In practice, as Sara Scalenghe argues, jurists like al-Ramli in the seventeenth-century often “chose to brush aside the evidence of contradictory signs of maleness and femaleness” in order to enable someone to continue living within a gender role, opting for “the least problematic verdict.” Historical chronicles took biography or “life-writing” of exemplary figures, as well as ordinary and even disreputable people, as the unit organizing history. The stories in these chronicles do not often describe the “adjudication by urination” (ḥukm al-mabāl) test that is ubiquitous in legal manuals as a way to determine whether a khunthā is a man or a woman, casting doubt as to how prominently this was used in practice. In short, none of these texts allow us unmediated access to the lives of people categorized as khunthā in the premodern Islamic world. The best work on the khunthā and other elusive archival figures, like hermaphrodites in early modern Europe, has been done by reading across multiple genres.

The texts and documents themselves may give us reasons as to why some genres are forthcoming, and others entirely silent, about the khunthā. To the best of my knowledge, the mention of someone as a khunthā in marriage or divorce contracts is rare or nonexistent because, as both the historical and juridical manuals show, jurists tried to resolve cases by declaring a khunthā to be either a man or a woman. This enabled a khunthā to live as either a man or a woman, sometimes with a lover who had previously been forbidden, as in the case of ‘Alī/‘Aliyyā’s marriage to ‘Abd al-Raḥmān. Databases make digitized documents in Arabic and Persian, including marriage contracts, increasingly accessible, but this additional awareness of historical realities is also necessary when approaching these kinds of documents. Otherwise, the silencing, first enacted in the creation of the archive, is repeated by the modern historian. As scholar Indira Falk-Gesink says: 

Twentieth-century academic prejudices colonize and efface the sexualities of the past, overwriting authors’ words with “corrective” translations, in the process constructing a palimpsestic narrative laden with heteronormative cisgender assumptions that invalidate the efforts of contemporary Muslim activists to reconstruct authentic bases for pluralism.

Let us rid ourselves of these prejudices in our engagements with people, past and present. 


Recently, the Trump administration sought to establish a definition of fixed, binary sex based on genetic science, thereby making irrelevant “what the medical community understands about their patients – what people understand about themselves.” The administration tried to eliminate transgender civil rights protections to nondiscrimination in healthcare in the middle of a pandemic, and on the anniversary of the massacre at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando. Transgender people have long faced refusal of care and harrassment in medical settings, and if not overruled by the Supreme Court, the suggested changes to the definition of sex would have made discrimination against trans people legal. 

I am not arguing that there is a direct, linear correlation between reading stories of sex and gender diversity in the Islamic world and affirming and accepting behavior towards people today. There is no shortage of literature, scholarly and otherwise, about the ways certain pious Sufis flouted norms of gender and sexuality in their search for earthly and divine love, but this is a vision of the Islamic past that is increasingly decried and censored. And as previous generations of scholar-activists have done, today’s scholars of Islamic Studies need to pair research on past marginalized lives with advocacy for those in the present. 

And for those who are interested in providing medical care that fully addresses the needs of queer and trans Muslims to be affirmed in body, mind, spirit, and history, a collaboration between historians, medical workers, faith workers, archivists and community organizations may be necessary. Too often, LGBTQI+ Muslims are presumed to have automatically left faith behind. Those working in healthcare may find that – despite the gruesome reputation that premodern and especially medieval medicine has in popular culture – there are yet reasons to reflect on these past encounters. There may be resources available therein to stimulate conversations about how to better serve the needs of queer and trans Muslims. 

Most Islamic bioethics is rooted in the literature produced by jurists and ‘ulamā’ broadly, rather than considering the words and actions of ordinary Muslims, insofar as we can discern them, to be a resource. But to the many Muslims living on the margins of the umma, there may be other voices that are important for historians to attend to and amplify, and for bioethicists and physicians to consider. For example, stories like ‘Alī/‘Aliyyā’s are meaningful to many queer and trans Muslims today — although the use of terms like LGBTQI+ to describe people in the past has been interrogated extensively by historians, who prefer us to learn the terms used by those past people, when we can. But the affinity of many queer and trans Muslims with different kinds of “deviant” and marginalized people in the Islamic past runs deeper than finding lexical similarities with the identities some people use today. This June, a month of pride, is also one of the remembrance of ancestors, and mourning for those lost – whether to murder, to suicide or to the indifference of governments during a pandemic

Historians bring our own desires to the texts we read. No longer do those in the ivory tower claim a view from nowhere, an objectivity – this claim, too, has been historicized. The desires of LGBTQI+ Muslims today for stories that may have a bearing on the community’s intense marginalization should be heard as a call to action for those of us with the time, privilege and skillset to be able to heed it. This desire is one to center and respect in our research, whether one believes one works on sex and gender or not. It is a desire that has been, and will be, generative – not only for research, but for the lives of everyday people.

Shireen Hamza is a doctoral candidate in the History of Science at Harvard University, working on the history of medicine and sexuality in the premodern Islamic world. She is also a managing editor of the Ottoman History Podcast and editor-in-chief of Ventricles, a podcast on science, religion and culture.

Featured Image: Poster of Facing Mirrors. Directed by Negar Azarbayjani. Facing Mirrors is defined by The Film Collaborative as “the first narrative film from Iran to feature a transgender main character.”

Think Piece

Islamic History: Beyond Sunni-Shia

by guest contributor Basma N. Radwan

Consider two vastly different versions of the same course “Introduction to Islamic Civilization.” In the first, an emphasis of political factors in Islamic group formation supersedes all other considerations. Shias, even before their inception as a distinct, self-identified group, are described as a uniquely political Islamic sect. In such analyses, theological, economic, and ethnic considerations are peripheral, if they at all constitute factors. To make the group intelligible to students predominantly acquainted with the history of the west, an instructor might offer a historical parallel to the French Legitimist tradition. The comparison’s extended implications render Orléanists out of the nonrelative Sahābah, Bonapartists out of Khawarīj, and neo-orientalists out of a fresh generation of young scholars.

In the second, interdisciplinary approaches can offer a different take. Beginning with the Covenant of Medina and a discussion on the nature of identity, course instructors can prompt students to ask themselves the following: when reading the history of Islam and its many groups, has modern scholarship excessively privileged objective over subjective identity? Do we identify early Islamic groups through our own contemporary dichotomies? Anyone who opens a newspaper will realize that it is hard to dispute that this is not the case. No doubt, contemporary political events parade the dichotomy as the fundamental operative in the history of the Middle East. The central idea (a well-intentioned one, I think) is an earnest attempt to discern some of the otherwise camouflaged nuances of contemporary politics. So be it—journalists, diplomats, and human rights groups use the dichotomy because it offers intelligible explanations for otherwise complex socio-political phenomena. But how useful is the chasm pedagogically? Even instructors who disagree with the claim that Sunni versus Shia is an overly simplistic heuristic must, nonetheless, consider what political and strategic purposes such a binary has come to serve.

Still, I would like to suggest that the Sunni versus Shia chasm, though useful in some scholarly endeavors, is of little value as a primary framework for the study of Islamic history. Those who plan to make use of it might consider the three following pedagogical drawbacks. First, privileging the Sunni-Shia dichotomy as the main framework for the study of Islamic history allots students little opportunity to discuss either tradition’s subgroups. Second, because the Sunni-Shia dichotomy is depicted as the product of a politico-theological dispute, economic, tribal, and geographical factors in group formation are easily overlooked. Third, the dichotomy inevitably runs the risk of “modern ideologies masquerading as historical truths.” Depicting a geopolitical rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia as the climax of a fourteen-hundred-year religious struggle is not far off from labeling Operation Iraqi Freedom as an extension of medieval crusades. Such grandiose historical ornamentations are highly caloric, yet offer little nutritional value—no matter how forcefully U.S. presidents, Iranian Ayatollahs, or Saudi Monarchs may have tried to persuade otherwise. So, what is to be done?

The importance of self-identification in the history of Islamic group formation suggests, according to one theory, that historians should reconsider and reexamine sources that provide clues to the group’s subjective identity. A group’s subjective identity is “how [they] conceive themselves to be, whereas [their] objective identity is how [they] might be viewed independently of how [they] view [themselves]” (p. 5). In this sense, it would be historically brute to claim that Ali was Shia. While he is labeled so retrospectively, his subjective identity could not be accounted for in those terms, as “the Sunni-Shia schism only materialized a century [after the prophet’s death]” (p. i). Even the use of proto-Shia or proto-Sunni as indicators of subjective identity proves problematic. These kinds of qualifications are, to borrow one historian’s description of Muslim heresiographies, “simply back-projections intended to validate subsequent political and theological developments” (p. 249).

There is also the question of what happens when a non-dominant group’s identification is rejected by a dominant one. Although a Sufi group may consider itself Sunni or Shia, in its legal affiliation for example, prominent orthodox Sunni or Shia groups may reject its claim. In a historical narrative in which the Sunni-Shia chasm dominates, Sufi groups are characterized by their objective identity, as dictated by the dominant group, as non-Shia/Sunni. By extension, there is the added risk of underappreciating the role of non-dominant groups’ subjective identity in the making of Sunni/Shia orthodoxy. In other words, we are blind to the process wherein Sunni and Shia define themselves not against one another, but rather through other “Others.”

But what about when a group’s subjective identity is non-Shia/Sunni? This dichotomy, as a heuristic, risks erasing the historical presence of groups whose subjective identity lies entirely outside of it: the early Khawarij, Murji’a, Ibāddiya and, more recently, the Aḥmadiyya and NOI . In these instances, it is the absence of Sunni-Shia elements in their subjective identity that places them in historical margins, resulting in a narrative dictated by dominant groups.

Cover of New Statesman (20-26 June 2014)

While renewed emphasis on subjective identity in Islamic group formation can soften an otherwise rigid dichotomy, it cannot, on its own, provide the reasons for differences in objective and subjective identity. Because the Sunni/Shia dichotomy is presented primarily as a politico-theological chasm, the impact of geographical, tribal, and economic factors in group formation is sidelined. The Kharijites (Khawarij), sometimes referred to as the first distinct sect in Islamic history, are one such example. Emerging in the aftermath of the Battle of Siffin (657), the name refers to the members of Ali’s troops who rejected his decision to negotiate with Mu’awiyah’s supporters. Derived from the Arabic word ‘Khawarij,’ seceders, Kharijite came to signify anyone who “left” Ali’s camp. Most historical narratives attribute the Kharijite secession to a theological dispute—namely their view that Ali’s acquiescence to negotiate with Mu’awiyah’s supporters was a violation of divine will.

Recent scholarship has signaled a shift from the theological interpretation, suggesting that the Kharjites’ secession is attributable to their Tamim tribal composition. The influence of Tamim tribal affiliation in the origins and development of the Kharijite led one historian to describe it as “a movement of democratic ideals that advocated a militant democracy [against an aristocratic Ummayad counterpart]” (p. 34). The group is as an example of how theological differences, while important, may at times be compromised, and at others corroborated, by tribal affiliations. The Sunni-Shia heuristic is inclined to overemphasize theological considerations or attribute them as a cause to non-theological divisions. Even within the category of Khairijite itself, a confluence of geographical, tribal, and economic factors eventually led to the creation of further subdivisions. According to one historian, Muslim heresiographers had accounted for four original Kharijite groups, “Azariqa, Najadat, Ibadiyya, and Suffriya” (p. 77). This double divergence is significant as an instance wherein tribal considerations supersede the theological and political factors are offset by their economic counterparts. The study of such groups, whose origins and development cannot be expounded by a simplified dichotomy or modern political terminology on their own, promises a more holistic account of the history of Islamic civilization.

Origins of the Shi'a_cover_Najam Haider.jpg
Najam Haider Origins of the Shi’a: Identity, Ritual and Sacred Space in Eighth-Century Kufa (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2011)

The paucity of historical sources may be one explanation for why the Sunni-Shia chasm dominates literatures on the history of Islam—it proves convenient to otherwise source-less historians. Recently, the more innovative have found ways to remedy the source scarcity. In Origins of the Shia, Najam Haider shows how sources which may appear ahistorical at first glance can in fact elucidate elements of subjective identity—providing new insights on the history of Islamic groups. By drawing from innovations in “textual archaeology… [Haider is able] to identify traditions and views concerning specific ritual practices among jamā’ī-Sunnī, Zaydī, and Imāmī scholars in the early eight century Kufa (modern day Najaf)” (p. 1395). Haider’s method is nothing less than revolutionary in its pedagogical implications. For one, his rich and complex narrative, produced by emphasizing the role of ritual as one way to discern the consolidation of a group’s subjective identity, stands in stark contrast to histories crafted exclusively with reference to objective identities. Second, the work shows that when the Sunni-Shia binary framework is employed with reference to anachronistic formulations of politics, historians miss fundamental aspects of group formation. Accordingly, instructors of Islamic Civilization should be weary of investigating the fragmentation of the early Islamic community in sole reference to the political or theological.

In effect, the third pedagogical drawback—the risk of “modern ideologies masquerading as historical truths”—is already minimized when the former two are remedied. Distinguishing objective from subjective identity produces a fuller understanding of how and why dominant and non-dominant groups form and decidedly dispels a faux-history of dominant group rivalry. Using Sunni v. Shia as the ultimate explanatory signifier in the history of Islam produces a perpetual enmity that is, as one observer put it, “misguided at best and disingenuous at worst.” As a historical explanatory, it is reductionist. Used as a social scientific predictor, it is dangerous.

Sunni and Shia theological differences do have an important place in Islamic history. Of course, this is partially because this history is still being written: contested along the borders of modern nation-states, fought in violent armed struggle and frequently redefined by geo-political developments. But this phase of Islamic history is no longer, strictly speaking, “Islamic.” Transpiring in circumstances unintelligible in terms of regional or religious isolation, these events are part and parcel of globalization, neoliberalism, and post-colonial nationalism— anything but the climax of a fourteen-hundred-year theological dispute. There is little warrant to look at eighth century Kufa for these events’ origins—no more, anyways, than there is for young scholars to expect a rich history of Islamic civilization through the prism of an exaggerated historical enmity.

Basma N. Radwan is a doctoral student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies and the Institute for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia University. Her interests include the history of political thought and the impact of colonialism in the making of modernity. She is currently writing about notions of racial difference in the work of Alexis de Tocqueville.


Sovereignty Without Borders: Discussing Afghanistan’s Cold War History with Timothy Nunan

Interview conducted by guest contributor Chloe Bordewich

Timothy Nunan’s recent book, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (2016), sets global Cold War history on an Afghan stage. It is not, however, the familiar story of the decade-long war between the country’s Soviet-backed communist government and the U.S.-backed Islamic mujahidin. In this account, foreign visions for Afghanistan clash instead in the cedar forests of Paktia, the refugee camps of an imagined Pashtunistan, and the gas fields of Turkestan.

This is an Afghanistan of aid workers and technocrats. While American modernizers and European humanitarians play important roles, Nunan foregrounds Soviet development experts and their protracted attempt to fashion a successful socialist nation to the south. Afghanistan was a canvas across which these different foreign actors sketched out their aspirations for postcolonial states. But modernization, socialism, and humanitarianism all foundered on conceptual errors about the nature of Afghan territory, errors whose consequences were often devastating for Afghans.

Cambridge University Press, 2016

When we follow the misadventures of development projects in Afghanistan, a second salient story emerges: the rise and fall on both sides of the Iron Curtain of a certain romance with the idea of the Third World nation-state. By the late 1970s, foreigners’ disillusionment with their attempts to mold Afghanistan resulted in the inversion of international mechanisms once designed to promote postcolonial sovereignty. Countries like Afghanistan were suddenly put on trial, exposed, and shown to be unjust.

In providing a nuanced look into shifting sites of postcolonial sovereignty, Nunan’s account of scholars, engineers, militants, murderous border guards, and traumatized orphans highlights the importance of juxtaposing histories of ideas with the real encounters that unsettle them.

JHI: How did you come to this project? Did you hope to revise popular misconceptions about the history of Afghanistan?

TN: Clearly, concerns about the ethics of humanitarian invention and the prospects of building a “functional state” in Afghanistan reflect what was going on while I was writing the book. But I did not sit down intending to write a history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, or Afghanistan at all. I came to this topic from the north – from the Soviet Union and the study of Soviet Central Asia. I originally thought I would write on the thaw in the 1950s and 1960s in Soviet Central Asia, to look differently at a story usually centered on Russia. However, when I arrived at the archives in Moscow and, later, Dushanbe (in Tajikistan) many of the files I discovered from the 1950s were wooden and bureaucratic. I struggled to think of how I could turn this archival material into a manuscript that would speak to broader concerns.

But in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, I found, for example, the long transcript of a conference in Moscow in 1982 to which Afghan socialist feminists were invited to talk about what a real women’s movement would look like in Afghanistan under conditions of socialist revolution. As I spent more time on Afghanistan, I became aware of the files of Komsomol (Soviet Youth League) advisors, which took me down to the village level. Quickly, I found myself being able to write a certain version of the history of Kandahar or Jalalabad in the 1980s, which seemed much more exciting and current.

JHI: In the first chapter, “How to Write the History of Afghanistan,” you map out in fascinating detail the epistemological framework of the Soviet area studies and development studies apparatus that facilitated, but also was at times in friction with actual Soviet development projects. As you point out, Soviet Orientology developed alongside anti-Western-imperialism, not as an accomplice of it – a hole in Edward Said’s map of Orientalism.

Today, the unipolarity of scholarship is striking and the Soviet knowledge apparatus has largely been forgotten. What happened to this alternative body of expertise with the fall of the Soviet Union? Do we see parallels emerging today that could challenge Euro-American hegemony over the narration of the history of the Third World?

TN: Soviet Orientology was very different from how graduate students [in Western Europe and North America] are trained to think about Orientalism. Anouar Abdel-Malek, the author of the entry on Orientalism in the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, was an Egyptian Coptic Marxist who came out of the same social background as Edward Said. But rather than challenging the Soviet Orientalist establishment, as Said did in the U.S. context, he was embedded in it.

Alfrid Bustanov, Masha Kirasirova, and others are doing outstanding work on how Russian and Soviet Orientological traditions affected nationalisms inside and outside the USSR, but there is still an enormous amount of Soviet scholarly engagement we don’t know much about.

The question of what happened afterward is a very good one, especially as we ponder what might come after this moment and the problems with the global history approach. Within the former Soviet space, after 1991, institutions of Soviet Orientology suffered from significant funding shortages and positions were cut, and many of the people I interviewed felt embattled.

I spend a lot of time reading mujahidin publications from the 1980s, mostly in Persian, and even when these journals translate works of propaganda written by Saudi scholars, they cite Russian orientalists such as Vasily Bartold. The Soviet Orientological tradition appears to have been received, processed, and understood by actors working in the Arabic- and Persian-speaking world. In Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Algeria – places that were strongly aligned with the Soviet Union – there were academies of sciences that employed dozens of people. What was it like to be a member of one of these institutions in Syria after 1970, or in Afghanistan after 1955, or 1978 or 1979? These are important stories that I was only able to gloss in Humanitarian Invasion, but which I hope future works will elucidate.

Timothy Nunan

JHI: Some of the most interesting sources you use are interviews with these Soviet Orientologists who worked in and studied Afghanistan, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s. How did you track down these scholars, and how do you deploy their stories in the book?

TN: I wanted to access Soviet subjectivity of experiences in Afghanistan beyond the archive. What did Soviet Uzbeks and Tajiks think about Afghanistan? Did they suddenly convert to Wahhabism? Did they feel some special bond with Afghans?

The interviews would have been impossible without a yearbook that Komsomol advisors had produced about themselves around 2006. When I arrived in Dushanbe in summer 2013, I started Yandex-ing [Russian Googling] these people to find out where they were. One person responded and that led to more introductions. Their networks ran all the way from Kiev to the border of Afghanistan, and I was able to travel widely around the former Soviet Union to interview many of them. By talking with these people I identified figures and turning points that distilled the themes they themselves emphasized.

JHI: In your introduction, you write that you hope to cast Afghanistan not as the “graveyard of empires,” as it has often been known, but as the “graveyard of the Third World nation-state.” Just as the former has more to do with the foreign empires than with Afghanistan itself, the latter speaks to the idea of the Third World nation-state as it was championed by foreign actors and transnational bodies – and their eventual disillusionment with it. Could you elaborate on the life and death of the international romance with the Third World nation-state? What role did Afghanistan play in shaping it?

TN: Afghanistan gained its independence from the British Empire in 1919, and the Soviet Union was the first country to recognize it. But what did this recognition mean? From 1914 to 1945, countries could become independent, but in many cases didn’t have the geopolitical wherewithal to make this sovereignty meaningful. Furthermore, there was no significant international forum not already dominated by the imperial powers. This changed after 1945 and especially after 1960, when not only did independent nation-states have a forum, the United Nations, in which they could gain representation, but there were also new rules within that international organization that allowed them to effect a certain kind of power not commensurate with their GDP or whether or not they had nuclear weapons. We might point to 1960 as a turning point, when the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly affirms the independence of colonized people as a human right, and when “civilization” is erased as a criterion for admission into the United Nations.

This lack of commensurability between sovereignty at the United Nations and geopolitical heft began to have real effects on international society. Throughout the mid-1960s and especially from the 1970s onward, many Third World nation-states, including Afghanistan and often sponsored by the Soviet Union, began to realize that they could sponsor resolutions against Israel, the Portuguese empire, apartheid South Africa – and attempt to delegitimize entire states’ right to exist. By the mid-1970s, in addition to this power, however symbolic, at the United Nations, nations were taking control of their destinies with armed force. Broadly speaking, if you had enough Soviet or Chinese weapons, you could push back the imperialists and eventually gain enough power at the level of international organizations to delegitimize groups that disagreed with you.

However, Afghanistan was one of the turning points against this mood, starting in the late 1970s. European actors became disillusioned with this Third World nation-state form through events like the Vietnamese boat people crisis of the late 1970s, and the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia. Often, post-colonial sovereignty seemed more like an excuse to murder ethnic minorities and political dissidents than to realize a vision of freedom. Arguably, China’s post-1970s Chinese détente with the United States was a factor, as well. Leftists saw that China no longer offered a viable vision of revolution, but was just a lackey of American finance capital and imperialism. Many of the intellectuals who went on to found humanitarian NGOs had lost faith in the USSR as a revolutionary force since the Prague Spring, or, at the very latest, the publication of The Gulag Archipelago.

In short, by the late 1970s, these East Asian and Southeast Asian fantasies of the future were discredited. One place these groups turned was humanitarian action, rather than the Third World nation-state, as a new form of political organization. But the old tools of delegitimization and Third World politics were applied in reverse to places like Afghanistan. Forums pioneered for use against Israel or South Africa, such as the UN Special Rapporteur and human rights investigations, were flipped. It was suddenly no longer the oppression of black Africans or Palestinians qua colonized subjects but rather the oppression of Afghans qua humans under a Third World socialist regime that constituted the supreme crime within international society. The reversal of this Third World logic onto Third World nations is one of the key themes of the book.

JHI: One of the overarching themes of the book is sovereignty: sovereignty as it was imagined and sovereignty as it was performed. Could you flesh out for us some of the major disjunctions between the ways different foreign actors, as well as Afghan politicians, conceptualized Afghan sovereignty, and acts of sovereignty that were carried out on the ground?

TN: The Afghan government was extremely ambitious in claiming that other countries were parts of it, yet was very weakly territorialized. From 1947 onward, when Pakistan is formed, Afghanistan does not recognize its own entire eastern border. One official Afghan government map has a disclaimer on it saying “this map was composed in great haste and none of the information on it should be taken to be reliable.” There’s an odd mix of hyper-ambition and total insecurity. The indeterminacy of the border also creates catastrophic consequences for people living around it.

In the 1980s, Soviet border guards extend the Soviet border regime hundreds of kilometers inside Afghanistan, and murder Afghans within Afghanistan’s borders. Children are another interesting lens. On one hand, the Soviet Union says that children are the future of the nation and need to be educated and mobilized as symbols of the nation’s future. Orphans, especially, are taken to the Soviet Union. From the Soviet Union’s point of view, there’s nothing wrong with this. Insofar as states have a right to exist and defend their borders, it then follows that the state has a right to mobilize its citizens–men, in particular–to defend those borders and weave protection of the state with the citizen’s life-cycle.

In the 1970s and 1980s, however, humanitarian actors like Amnesty International become concerned with children having the right to a nationality and the right not to be trafficked out of the nation-state of their birth. And yet, those deploying this humanitarian logic, who are often concerned with diagnosing children as traumatized, have no problem taking the children out of their familiar contexts to receive medical treatment. Here we see two different logics of what the Third World nation-state project is supposed to be about: the solution for creating a national future, or the problem causing people to be traumatized for life.

Nunan Image JHI Blog.jpg
Prior to Afghanistan becoming a battleground between the Soviet Union, the Afghan mujahidin, and the European NGOs embedded among them, it was famous for being an ‘economic Korea’ where Western powers competed with the Soviet Union to offer more effective forms of aid to Kabul. Pictured here is an exhibition for a West German-managed agricultural and forestry project in eastern Afghanistan, the Paktia Development Authority. Photograph courtesy of Christoph Häselbarth

JHI: We’re in a moment of deep suspicion not only toward internationalism, but also toward humanitarianism. In this context, a particularly timely thread of the book traces how states, Leftist activists, and eventually NGO workers envisioned social justice and moral responsibility toward distant people in need. What is the landscape of conviction in Humanitarian Invasion? Where does it intersect with expertise, on one hand, and geopolitical strategy on the other?

TN: While I see the humanitarian groups that I look at most closely – Doctors without Borders (MSF) and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) – as entangled in this geopolitical game, I don’t view them as having had nefarious intentions. Many of the groups that enter the Afghan theater via Pakistan in the 1980s initially try to stay very distant from a geopolitical focus. But there are different trajectories that these groups follow, with the Swedes trying to adopt a more consistent anti-imperialism and the French flirting with explicit engagement in politics.

Regardless of specific anti-imperialist or anti-totalitarian politics, new regimes of intervention are created from the late 1970s onward. Rather than saying, “OK, the Afghans or Cambodians have had their socialist revolution, now they should finally be free from foreign interference,” NGOs embed themselves in trans-border resistance movements that reframe those Third World citizens as subjects of new internationals regimes of governance. NGOs are able to diagnose Afghans as traumatized or suffering from disease, and this becomes grounds for further intervention, or shipment of supplies into a country without consulting its government. Over time, this contributes to a shift in which the dominant optic employed when engaging with Third World populations is not so much that of the guerrilla fighter but of the traumatized individual, the wounded girl. This reframing wasn’t intentionally nefarious, but did reframe subaltern actors as non-political.

There is a strange boomerang effect to all of this. In the 1980s, identifying trauma or certain types of wounds became a carte blanche for aiding armed insurrections in Third World countries–as in the case of Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Ethiopia. Today, however, as scholars like Miriam Ticktin have shown, refugees have to demonstrate exactly these kinds of wounds in order to gain the right to stay in European countries. In both cases, a discourse centered around individual, often corporeal trauma became the litmus test for whether states could maintain control of their borders, but a procedure that once allowed Europeans to insert themselves into Afghanistan now allows Afghans and others to claim a (marginal) space in European settings. Pushing back, governments like Germany have sought to classify entire countries, and specific provinces of Afghanistan, as “safe countries of origin” or “safe zones” from which it becomes procedurally impossible to file such an asylum claim. The boomerang, then, is that Europeans are grappling with these humanitarian claims in an obviously political way, even as the turn toward humanitarianism was itself motivated by an exhaustion with traditional left-right politics in the first place.

JHI: So the Soviets, while pursuing a parallel project, never really bought into the humanitarian discourse?

TN: Yes, though this does not mean they lacked something. The Soviets had a strong interest in childhood as a stage of life that is political and is protected, not, as we would put it, a stage of life that is protected and therefore should not be political.

Russian critiques of the creation of humanitarian protectorates in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, and even Libya and Afghanistan hold that humanitarian action without a strong central state is nonsense. Syria is the most dramatic instance of where these impulses are contrasting again. The Russian government claims that Syria is a sovereign member state of the United Nations that has invited Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah (not a state) to aid it in an act of collective self-defense—something permitted under the United Nations charter. Russia also provides humanitarian aid to government-held areas in Syria through its Ministry of Defense. In contrast, Russian diplomats would argue, Western media have conspired with Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to portray the jihad against Damascus exclusively in terms of traumatized children, the destruction of Aleppo, and so on. Now as in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the tension has to do with the legitimacy of post-colonial states and reading the Syrian people’s aspirations not solely in terms of geopolitics or trauma.

JHI: Humanitarian Invasion gives an account of global actors making decisions with global repercussions, but it is at the same time firmly grounded in a particular place. So, where do you see global history heading as a field, and where does this book fit? What are the potential risks of global history?

TN: Obviously, Humanitarian Invasion is not a history of the world or of every place in the world. Rather, the book’s central concern is shifting meanings of postcolonial sovereignty during the Cold War. The Afghan-Pakistan borderlands form a particularly rich location to examine how this idea of the Third World nation-state was changing over time, precisely because so many different actors brought their own conceptual baggage to it. I would welcome anyone who wants to write a history of the Cambodian-Thai borderlands or, indeed, much of Ethiopia during the 1980s. MSF, in fact, had a larger presence in the Cambodian-Thai theater than in the Afghan one, and it would be fascinating to understand what difference it makes when these NGOs are collaborating against the Vietnamese, who had been their heroes only a decade before.

Yet as historians like Dipesh Chakrabarty have pointed out, the intensive language training and multi-archive projects of many global historians depend on the extensive resources that only wealthy American and Western European universities possess. One way we can correct this imbalance, learn from colleagues in other countries, and maintain a spirit of humility about our work is to remember, even while working on so-called global themes, that events are still taking place in actual places with local histories, and never to insist on a hierarchy in which NGO actors are more important than national stories.

For example, writing Humanitarian Invasion, I was not able to explore as much as I would like how Afghans themselves changed their political language to respond to the surge in humanitarian ideas (and funding streams) that emerged in the 1980s. I would have liked to probe more how much the massive changes in the 1980s actually affect the ways Afghans talk about politics and what they expect from an Afghan state, what needs they expect to be met by international organizations. How ideas and discourses are transmitted from North to South or South to North is a major interest for global historians today, and that’s an area where “local” scholars with a knowledge of Pashto and a deeper knowledge of regional political thought would be a great contribution.

JHI: What is your current project, and how did it evolve from Humanitarian Invasion?

TN: I would have liked to consider, more seriously, Afghan socialists as thinkers. What did socialism actually mean to them? How did they, on the front line of an Afghan national jihad and the emerging global jihadist movement, understand political Islam? The current project looks at how socialists in the Soviet Union and allied left-wing groups such as the Afghan Communists and Iranian Tudeh Party understood political Islam or Pan-Islamism, particularly in Iran and Afghanistan, where Islamists took violent control of states in the 1980s.

In 1914, the Russian orientalist Vasily Bartold writes that Pan-Islamism is totally bogus, that it’s a political program created by the Ottomans with German support. Fast-forward 60 or 70 years, and there’s enormous anxiety about Islam not only destabilizing client states such as Afghanistan or Syria, but also infiltrating the Soviet Union itself. I was shocked to discover a 1983 publication by an Adjarian nationalist from southwest Georgia describing Muslims as “something that crawled out of a trash heap, who need to be weeded out of our garden” – things you expect to hear from Geert Wilders, Marine Le Pen, or Steve Bannon today. I became really interested in how the Soviet Union and Russian scholars go from viewing Pan-Islamism as a potential ally in fomenting an anti-Western and anti-colonial global front, to viewing Muslims and Pan-Islamism as inherently opposed to the interests of the Soviet Union. In doing so, I hope to provide a unique perspective on contemporary concerns about the threat, real or imagined, of Muslim unity and Muslim communities in Europe and the United States.

The editors wish to thank Timothy Nunan for his graciousness in granting this interview.

Chloe Bordewich is a PhD Student in History and Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University. She currently works on histories of information, secrecy, and scientific knowledge in the late and post-Ottoman Arab world, especially Egypt. She blogs at

Think Piece

“A Reform Which Has Stifled All Other Reforms:” Islam in the Nineteenth Century American Black Press

by guest contributor Daniel Joslyn

In recent years, a number of political movements have sought to forge a connection between black Americans and Middle-Eastern Arabs, particularly in relation to the oppression of the Palestinian people in Israel and Palestine and the oppression of African-Americans in the United States. A small body of scholarly literature has recently developed which links African-Americans and Arabs in the nineteenth century. Few scholars, however, have noted the strong currents of anti-Islamic thinking in nineteenth-century African-American public discourse. African historian Teshale Tibebu has even gone so far as to attribute “Islamophobia” to nineteenth-century African-American Protestants. When seeking to find common ground among historically oppressed groups today, many scholars and activists see such groups as being naturally aligned by virtue of their status as “others” to the West. The treatment of Islam in nineteenth-century African-American writing should lead us to question that assumption. It highlights the constructed nature of these alliances. More importantly, it reminds us that oppressed communities have often identified with identities other than their oppression.

Negative views of Islam can first be seen in some of the first major African-American radical newspapers. A September 8, 1838 article in the Colored American (a major African-American newspaper founded by abolitionists Philip Bell, Samuel Cornish and Charles Ray), entitled “Why always harping at the Church?,” offers a glimpse at attitudes towards Muslims and Islam during this period. In the article, the editors rhetorically ask why abolitionists attacked pro-slavery churches. They did so, they explained, because no true Christian would ever hold slaves: “Slavery is A GREAT SIN, A NATIONAL DISGRACE to any people or government who upholds it. This is acknowledged by all. If it is a sin and a shame for a Turk to hold his fellow in bondage, it is a hundred fold more sinful for a Christian minister.” According to these authors, the system of slavery in the United States was not morally worse than that in the Ottoman Empire because of any difference in how the enslaved were treated (though such a difference did exist). It was worse because of the moral condition of the country: less was to be expected of an empire so far from God as the Ottomans’. But for the United States, which had found and espoused the “true” religion of Christianity, to hold people in bondage was an abomination in the eyes of the Lord.

After the Civil War, distaste for Muslims and Islam became a more common trope in the African-American press, reflecting emerging ideas about race and empire among both black and white thinkers. One paper that espoused such notions of Islam was the Christian Recorder, which from 1848 served as the organ of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the second-largest black denomination at that time. By the Civil War, the paper was, in the words of historian Mitch Kachun, “a vital cornerstone of the denomination, the black press, and widespread African American communities.” After the war, members of the African-American community relied on the newspaper for news, correspondence, and debates, as well as in helping people find their newly-freed family members.

Writers in the Christian Recorder generally disparaged Islam and “Mohametans.” An 1878 article titled “Can Turkey Be Reformed?,” for example, argued that the Turkish people could never successfully achieve westernizing reforms. Published in the October 19 edition of the paper, this article was excerpted from an article in the Penn Monthly, a respectable periodical which devoted itself to “Literature, Art, Science and Politics.” The author compares the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms to a (pacifist) Quaker attempting to reform an army. The author declares that “to reform an institution or a system of government means to bring it into a closer conformity with its own normative idea”—to distill a system to its essence. However, the Ottoman reforms—in which the government sought to allow Christians equal rights with Muslims and to establish non-sectarian schools—represented “the introduction of principles utterly alien to its very normative idea.” Islam, the author argued, was inherently un-Christian and uncivilized.

Even articles in the Recorder that were ostensibly complimentary toward Muslims reflected the notion that Islam was an inferior religion. In an article titled “Remarkable Negro Muslims,” published on December 16, 1875, the unnamed author briefly describes various well-known black Muslims, and discusses the achievements of Sheikh Omaru Al Hajj, an educated Muslim leader from modern-day Mali. Describing his conquests and conversions of surrounding tribes, the author goes on to note that “To the Mohammedans of Negro land… the struggle for the ascendancy of Islam is… a struggle between light and darkness, between knowledge and ignorance, between good and evil.” This praise of Islam is, however, tempered with criticism. While their intentions are good, the article goes on to qualify, these African Muslims do not realize that “their faith makes them utterly indifferent to the sufferings of any who stand in the way of the dissemination of the truth, and patient of any evils they may have to endure in order to insure the triumph of their cause.” The article thus depicts these Muslims as being made into zealots by their faith, as lesser people in need of Christianity.

Captain Edward Wilmot Blyden was a rare proponent of a more positive view of Islam in the nineteenth century black American press.

Characteristically brazen, Edward Wilmot Blyden, a scholar, emigrationist, and early pan-Africanist, is the only defender of Islam I have been able to find in the major nineteenth-century black presses of America. Even he, however, saw African Islam as merely paving the way for the inevitable conversion of Africa to Christianity. Before becoming a renowned scholar, professor of Arabic and one of the major designers of the University of Liberia’s curriculum, Blyden first came to Liberia as part of the over four hundred African-American missionaries to Africa in the nineteenth century. Like other black intellectuals at the time, Blyden, as Tibebu points out, felt a “black man’s burden” to “civilize” Africa. In 1878, Blyden lamented that “men whose character, position and literary ability make them the guide of thousands” kept attacking Muslims and Islam. He argued that Protestant writers’ contention that Islam was “a reform which has stifled all other reforms” was mere prejudice. Rather, he maintained, the prejudice of white missionaries towards African peoples was the reason Christianity had not yet taken over all of Africa. The “Arab Missionary,” Blyden wrote, “often of the very complexion of his hearer,” did not have the same troubles getting used to Africans. Arabs, according to Blyden, held no prejudice against color. The notion of Arabs as “color-blind” was another nineteenth-century trope in both white and black literature, which does not quite hold up to the historian’s gaze. According to Blyden, American missionaries and African-Americans did not understand that “whatever it may be in other lands, in Africa the work of Islam is preliminary and preparatory.” Out of Arab Islam would soon flower American Protestantism. More so than any other people on the continent, “African Mohammedans” were most “willing to have Christian schools in their towns, to have the Christian Scriptures circulated among them, and to share with Christians the work of reclaiming the pagan.”

This relatively muted support of Islam as a natural precursor to Christianity led many to attack Blyden in the press. For years after publishing this article, Blyden remained a controversial figure—mentioned in the paper over two hundred times—often with the intention of questioning his Christian convictions. In a characteristic January 12, 1888 piece, a Sierra Leonese missionary even wondered, “Has Dr. Blyden Gone Over to Mo[ha]met?” In response, Blyden and his few supporters kept repeating their mantra: they did not hate Christianity, nor had they given up on it. Islam would soon give way to American Protestant advances, for theirs was the purest form of Christianity, which held—in the words of a supporter of Blyden’s writing in the Recorder on December 7, 1887—“that God is no respector [sic] of persons, and that which teaches, ‘That whatsoever ye would, that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.’” Blyden’s God did not care about a person’s race, or the circumstances into which they were born, but about their actions and their beliefs. Even with these many assurances, however, the Christian Recorder and the larger African-American community found Blyden, and his lukewarm support of Islam, hard to swallow.

Historians often overlook the impact that religions have on how people view the world. Historians of African-Americans are no different, as Laurie Maffly-Capp discusses in her most recent book, Setting Down the Sacred Past. Some African-Americans sought to take part in American Protestant empire-building in the late nineteenth century, and many supported the basis of that empire: the superiority of American Protestantism to all other religions. Although they were a part of an oppressed community in the United States, many African-Americans may have identified less with the labels placed upon them by the society in which they lived—“colored,” “black,” “Negro”—than with the labels they chose for themselves, such as “Methodist,” “Christian,” “civilized.” Indeed, many nineteenth-century AME preachers saw their immense suffering, and that of their ancestors, as suggesting that African-Americans were the truest Christians, placed on earth to spread the Gospel and rid the world of heathenism. Such ideologies explain why African-American Christians so often supported both missionary and British colonial ventures into Africa. It was these self- directed identifications, rather than imposed labels such as “oppressed,” that often carried the most weight for and were most decisive for the decision-making of nineteenth-century black Americans. Looking at historical actors’ genuinely held beliefs about ethics, goodness, and the divine can help us as historians better understand and explain why they advocate or have advocated enacting violence on others.

Daniel Joslyn is a PhD student studying History at New York University. He is currently interested in histories of joy and emancipation in the United States, and the Ottoman Empire (though he’s figuring that one out slowly). He completed his B.A. at Hampshire College studying “Frederick Douglass’s Poetry, Prophesy and Reform: 1880-1895.” He holds that good history is good philosophy and good philosophy teaches us how to live.

Think Piece

Prophetic Medicine in the Indian Yūnānī Tradition

by guest contributor Deborah Schlein

When Greek medical texts were transmitted and translated in the ʿAbbasid capital of Baghdad in the ninth and tenth centuries, they paved the way for original Arabic medical sources which built off Greek humoral theory (the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile; in Arabic: dam, balgham, ṣafrāʾ, and sawdāʾ). The most famous of these sources is Ibn Sīnā’s (d. 1037) Qānūn, Latinized to Avicenna’s Canon. The Qānūn is often cited as the foundation of what became known as Yūnānī Ṭibb, or Greek medicine, hearkening back to its use of Greek humoral theory as the basis of aetiology, diagnosis, and treatment. With the movement and transmission of texts such as the Qānūn, the study and practice of Yūnānī Ṭibb flourished and adapted to new surroundings.

While Yūnānī medicine has a long history in the Islamic world, popular medicine also drew enthusiastically on other traditions. Practices included the use of amulets, local knowledge of flora and their medicinal properties, prayer, and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, or Prophetic medicine. This last is characterized by the use of folk remedies, medical traditions cited in the Qur’an, and, most notably, the use of medical ḥadīth, or sayings of the Prophet Muḥammad, which were collected in book form.

Both al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī and Yūnānī Ṭibb had a large following in the Islamic world, and still do to this day. India is a perfect example of the staying power of these kinds of medicine. When Yūnānī arrived in South Asia, scholars and intellectuals fleeing the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century brought with them medical knowledge based on Arabic sources, beginning a medical tradition which would adapt and thrive from the period of the Delhi Sultanate (1206-1516) into the modern day. Knowledge of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī also accompanied these scholars to India. Today, Yūnānī colleges are supported by the Indian government, and medical practice in the region is a mixture of the traditions that flourished there, including Yūnānī, Ayurveda, al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī, and allopathy (often called Western medicine).

Yet, too often, the medical traditions are discussed separately, without mention of the ways in which they influenced one another, particularly in regard to Yūnānī‘s adoption of treatments from al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī. Even a cursory glance at the sources, however, can tell a reader how these medical traditions interacted and shaped each other over the centuries. A study of Yūnānī manuscripts and their reception gives a clearer picture of that mix of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī during such earlier periods as the Mughal empire, showing that the different bodies of knowledge in fact interacted.

One way to better understand the reception of these texts and the interactions of these medical traditions is to study the marginal notations in the premodern manuscripts. These notes are a window into the thoughts of the readers themselves: they refer to other medical sources, describe prescriptions the readers used and knew to be beneficial, and relate the realities of the medical traditions in practice. One single manuscript can have marginal notations with references to Galen, Ibn Sīnā, and the Prophet Muḥammad, all concerned, for example, with the best remedy for toothache. These notes, therefore, tell us a great deal about the usage and understanding of the text at hand.

The major medical encyclopedia of Najīb al-Dīn al-Samarqandī (d. 1222), al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt (The Causes and the Symptoms), and its attendant commentaries follow Yūnānī medical theory. Copies of both the commentaries and the original work number in the hundreds in the Indian manuscript collections, not far behind Ibn Sīnā’s Qānūn and its commentaries. Al-Samarqandī’s sources come from medical greats such as al-Rāzī (d. 925), al-Majūsī (d. 994), and, of course, Ibn Sīnā, but unlike the five-volume medical compendium that is the Qānūn, al-Samarqandī’s al-Asbāb wa al-ʿAlāmāt is a handbook of medical diagnoses and treatments that was meant for personal use, to be referred to and utilized in practice. Other medical scholars, such as Nafīs b. ʿIwad al-Kirmānī (flourished 1437) and Muḥammad Akbar Arzānī (flourished 1700) took up the text and wrote major commentaries on it, in Arabic and Persian respectively. I now turn to an Indian manuscript of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ [commentary of] al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt in an effort to shine light on the interactions of Yūnānī Ṭibb and al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī.

Al-Kirmānī dedicated this Sharḥ to his patron, the Timurid ruler Ulugh Beg, in whose royal court he was a physician. Copies of the Sharḥ can be found all over India, and are even more common in the region than al-Samarqandī’s original text, upon which the commentary is based. The Raza Library in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh holds six manuscripts of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ al-Asbāb wa alʿ-ʿAlāmāt, ranging in date from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries and covering the transition of power from the Mughals to the British Raj. One particular manuscript, No. 3999 (Raza Library, Acc. No. 4195 M), is an eighteenth-century copy of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ, and its margins are littered with explanations, prescriptions, and references to other medical sources, mostly in Arabic. While some notes offer quotes from Galen or Ibn Sīnā, others refer to the works of al-Samarqandī himself. What makes this manuscript important to the study of Yūnānī and Prophetic medicine’s interactions, however, are the many notations citing early Islamic and, in some cases, pre-Islamic medical advice.

The margins of fourteen folios exhibit references to the Prophet’s advice and actions in the realm of medical practice. These various ḥadīth are reported by a total of twelve different companions and members of the Prophet’s family, and they showcase Muḥammad’s own knowledge of the region’s flora and their medical benefits, as well as the traditional folk medicine of the Arabian peninsula. For example, the mid-point of al-Kirmānī’s Sharḥ advocates the use of medicaments to rid the body of excess fluid to relieve dhāt al-janb, or pleurisy, which is an inflammation of the tissue lining the lungs and the chest cavity. The marginal note on this page relates the report of Zayd b. Arqam, a companion of the Prophet, who says that Muḥammad named zayt (oil) and wars (memecylon tinctorium, a Yemenite dye-yielding plant) as treatment for pleurisy (MS. No. 3999, f. 166b). Similarly, while al-Kirmānī explains al-Samarqandī’s definition of kulf, or freckles, as localized changes of color in the face to shades of black or red, the ḥadīth states that Umm Salama, one of the wives of Muḥammad, related that the Prophet spoke of the use of wars (seemingly, a common medicament at the time) to coat the affected areas of the face in order to counteract these spots (MS. No. 3999, f. 336a). Here, these marginalia serve to underscore the accuracy of the lessons of the text’s author, but they also give more specificity to how the ailment should be treated.

One additional notation is worth noting because it predates Islam: it is attributed to Luqmān the Ḥakīm (literally, wise man), a pre-Islamic sage who is mentioned in the Qur’an. His treatments (Elaj-e-Lokmani, or “treatment of Lokman”) are still practiced today in an orally-transmitted medical tradition in Eastern India, particularly Bengal. Luqmān’s medical advice, like the ḥadīth of the Prophet, recalls the medicine practiced in Arabia at the time. The notation before the text begins prescribes a treatment using gharghara (a gargle) and julāb (julep, a fruit- or petal-infused drink) for problems originating in the stomach (f. 1a, MS 3999) and is written in Persian. The Arabic note following it describes the above treatment’s source, denoting Luqmān the Ḥakīm as its originator. This reference to a pre-Islamic sage’s medical advice brings to the fore the Arabian medicine upon which al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī is based. These references reveal the thoughts of the manuscript’s reader, and force the scholar to question the boxes to which these medical traditions have often been assigned.

It is clear that the early Arab medicine described by the Prophet, and practiced before and during his lifetime, was very much alive and influential throughout the time of Yūnānī medical manuscript production and study in India. The treatments explained in al-Kirmani’s Sharḥ must have reminded the reader of the Prophet’s own medical advice. He may have written these thoughts down as a memory aide, for future readers of the text, or to underscore the benefits of these remedies. Whatever the reasoning behind these notations, the margins of this particular Yūnānī manuscript show that there was an awareness of al-Ṭibb al-Nabawī in the study of Yūnānī Ṭibb, and the two were not at all mutually exclusive.

Deborah Schlein is a Ph.D. candidate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. She is currently pursuing archival research in India with the support of a Fulbright-Nehru grant.