What is the interplay between the physical human body and the body politic? This question is at the heart of Ellen J. Amster’s Medicine and the Saints: Science, Islam, and the Colonial Encounter in Morocco, 1877-1956 (University of Texas Press, 2013). In this pioneering, interdisciplinary study, Professor Amster explores the French campaign to colonize Morocco through medicine. It is through medicine and medical encounters that Amster reveals competing ideas of “scientific paradigm (cosmologies), knowledge systems (hygiene and medical theory), and the technologies of physical intervention (therapeutics)” (p. 2) between the colonizing French positivists and the Moroccan populace.
Amster’s breadth of expertise in the fields of medical history, Moroccan/North African history, the history of French colonization, the study of Islam and Sufism, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy is equally matched to the depth in which she explores these topics throughout the six chapters of her work. Each chapter explores a unique encounter, or more often clash, between the French and the Moroccan. From Sufi saints in the first chapter to government hygiene initiatives in the fourth, Amster is meticulous and exhaustive with her source material. Even more distinctive is her use of oral narratives. Scholars interested in the role of women as medical practitioners will greatly benefit from Amster’s exploration of the qabla (midwife) in the fifth chapter. Gradually, Amster demonstrates that French attempts to “modernize” Morocco were in fact the very seeds that led to Moroccan ideas of independence and nationhood. This work will have a tremendous impact on many fields and hopefully give rise to further interdisciplinary work in the fields of Islam, North African and Moroccan history, and medicine.