Qur’anic Healing or Magic? Amulets as Medical Intervention inside Islamic West Africa

S. Beena Butool, Department of Religion, Florida State University, USA
IQSA International Conference 2021 “Giorgio La Pira” Library, Palermo, Italy
Panel 6. Carriers of the Text and Readings 1: Manuscripts, Illustrations, Amulets, and Printed Editions

Are Qur’anic amulets magical or religious? Many contemporary and early anthropologists categorize Qur’anic amulets found in Islamic West Africa, especially the ones prescribed for healing purposes, as “magical objects”. My curiosity regarding amulets compelled me to study the health and illness worlds of three regions inside Mali: the inhabitants of Kel AlHafra, the people of Timbuktu, and the Dogons in Bandiagara. I observed that marabouts (religious healers) in Islamic West Africa deduce causality (of illnesses) on the basis of social signs, and not simply on physical signs. Although I continue to deliberate about the above-mentioned question, my initial observation is that Qur’anic healing and amulets offer a medical intervention which is public and therapeutic. If that is so, then how and why have scholars categorized Qur’anic amulets as magical objects? Islamic material culture from West Africa, especially Qur’anic amulets, reveal that believers are anxious about illnesses, just like persons ensconced in a western scientific culture are. But the approach of Islamic West Africa towards health and illness differs from western biomedicine. Biomedicine emerged from a social context geared towards mastering nature, controlling individual bodies, and eliminating illnesses; the patient’s physical body was ruptured from the social and moral realms. Significantly, biomedicine did not make appeals to a higher deity. By contrast, for West Africans, the human body is connected to the cosmos. Additionally, West African Muslims do not eliminate appeals to the moral and social realms in their theory about the universe. Therefore, their account of the ‘illness worlds’ is porous across the physical, social, and moral realm. I argue that by using Qur’anic amulets as a medium, marabouts (religious healers) in West Africa, especially Mali, resist the western categorization of the “magical.” A thorough investigation of amulets lays bare the arbitrary classification erected between magic, science, and religion inside the western academy. This paper dismantles the categorization of amulets as “magical objects” by questioning 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 employing insights from Robert Thornton (2015) and Jo Wreford (2005). The field has matured to a level where scholars have dissolved the boundary between science, magic, and religion when it comes to religious healing. However, when it comes to the categorization of amulets, the field continues to categorize them as magical and occult. I am, however not convinced by the terms “occult” and “magical” (healing) being used for maraboutic services or amulets (Mommersteeg 1990, 66–67). The reason why I argue that the category of the magical is unsuitable is because scholars have not paid due attention to the missing piece in the study of amulets: the Qur’an acting as a medium between the physical and the moral realm. The porosity of Qur’an as a medium cannot be construed as magical. Hence, the engagement between the earliest and the contemporary anthropological insights helps me in dismantling the alleged “magical” nature of the Qur’an, as well as of Qur’anic amulets.