Better late than never – and winding up better

In this essay, Barbara Metcalf describes the longer-than-usual journey that led to the insights in her recent CSSH article, “A Sovereign and Virtuous Body: The Competent Muslim Woman’s Guide to Health in Thanawi’s Bihishtī Zēwar(1905)” (64-4, 2022). We are shown what rich rewards can come from taking our time, returning to the troublesome and tricky, and attending to the appendices.

The title page of Chapter 9, from a recent Delhi edition: Hazrat Ashrat `Ali Thanawi, Bihishti Zewar (Dihli: Jasim Bok Dipot, n.d.)

I’m not alone among the “Behind the Scenes” authors in reflecting on a project that has stretched out over some time. Wale Adebanwi, for example, reported on an event as a journalist and then returned to analyze it with new professional skills some fifteen or twenty years later. Shiwa Zarate happened on a book by chance, thought it of little interest, but then, as new evidence appeared, recognized a topic well worth examining a decade later. But I do think I may be able to claim a record – a project abandoned almost four decades earlier and now appearing as the subject of a CSSH article.

In the early 1980s I undertook an annotated translation, with introductions to its sections, of the Urdu-language encyclopedic Bihishti Zewar (1906) of Maulana Ashraf `Ali Thanawi. This book has been one of the most influential publications of the 20th century for Muslim South Asians, particularly women. The book’s chapter on health (whose analysis would ultimately form the core of the CSSH article) was challenging like no other – new vocabulary, concepts, measures, etc. But it was also deeply absorbing. I was plunging into a whole new field of scientific medical concepts and everyday practices. I made my way to apothecaries, scholars and practitioners of traditional medicine, and modern “unani” dispensaries; I dipped into herbals, read what I could about Indian traditional medicine, branched out to some reading on European humoral practices.[i] I began to think differently about the trees and other plants around me! The proverbial rabbit hole? I was never going to become a historian of medicine. I gave up. I published the other chapters of the translation without this one, not least because I had wound up producing quite a collection of unwieldy keys that at the time seemed necessary, including charts of ingredients (Urdu with an English common name translation and a guess at the Latin equivalent), equivalents to outdated weights and measures, and translations of terms defining procedures with the archaic description of how they were meant to work. Occasionally someone would ask about the chapter and I’d send them my draft translation (with caveats about the equivalents, measurements, etc). Decades passed, and in fact a handful of studies that dealt with the chapter were published. I decided a couple of years ago that I should simply post the draft translation on my website (with said caveats), prefaced by an introduction. I returned to the abandoned boxes.

When I originally worked on this chapter, my main goal had been to demonstrate an argument I was making about the Bihishti Zewar as a whole: the extent to which Islamic reform movements in the colonial period, contrary to widespread assumptions, could be empowering for Muslim girls and women. That argument is still there in my CSSH article, as the very word “sovereignty” in the title is meant to convey (and in my opinion this is an argument that can’t be made too often). But when I came back to the project, I discovered a set of new issues. I had simply taken for granted that this was a chapter on yūnānī tibb, the systemization of humoral medicine rooted, as it was understood, in Greco-Arabic traditions of the classical period. With this assumption I was in accord with the half-dozen or so scholars (cited in my article) who later worked on this chapter. But now returning to the chapter, I realized that Thanawi did not even use the words yūnānī and tibb to describe his teachings. (As I explain in the article, historians of medicine in recent years have studied the cultural anachronism that had read the colonial-era creation of traditional “systems,” yūnānī and Hindu Ayurveda, into the past.) What now I realized was that the text really was about health maintenance, well-being in a larger sense, not just prescriptions. This was exactly what Thanawi said it was, now that I was listening to him. And of central importance, he was writing without the communitarianism of any “systems.” Any contribution at all to defamiliarizing the assumption that Hindus and Muslims in India have always formed homogeneous communities, and that their cultural expressions are distinctive and timeless, seemed to me worth making, not least since today they serve a majoritarian nationalism that marginalizes Muslims so disastrously. As I was mulling over these issues, I was energized to keep going by the good fortune of attending a conference on traditional medicine in India (cited in my article) that in a variety of ways made that political point. If I were to revise the history of modern India that I co-authored, whose last edition came out a decade ago, I would be much more sensitive to the ways that cultural areas like traditional medicine, as well as nationalist politics generally, evinced much more Hindu majoritarianism as far back as the 1920s than is often recognized. 

I also soon became eager to add another angle I had missed before. Again, like others who had used the chapter, I had not looked closely at the appendix of prayers and procedures based on sacred texts and symbols intended to secure health and well-being. If the subject was yūnānī tibb, the appendix, after all, seemed extraneous, maybe even just a concession to superstition after all the science that had gone before. But if you had asked Thanawi or any of the reformist Islamic scholars what their goal in reformist writing and teaching was, they would not have said anything about the two themes I’ve emphasized above, empowering women and sustaining shared health practices and medical knowledge across a diverse population. Their goal was the restoration of beliefs and practices that asserted Divine unity. Something clicked, when I realized that in this unlikely corner of Thanawi’s encyclopedic tome was precisely the most potent statement of this overriding goal. The appendix was about the most dramatic crises a woman might ever face in this society (infertility, a child’s potentially fatal illness, a husband’s rejection). And Thanawi was there with concrete steps to keep his women readers from being seduced in their desperation by all the customary rituals and interactions with gods and shrines and practitioners and holy men. The appendix leaped to great importance in my analysis. I also found myself very interested in the creative psychology that seemed to undergird this section of the text. 

I’m not suggesting it’s a good idea to put a project on the shelf for forty years. But at least in this one case, at least for me, I’m glad I returned to the project. The delay was not all bad.


[i] “Unani Tibb,” “Greek Medicine,” is the official, and common, term for the humoral medical “system,” now almost exclusively regarded as appropriate for Muslims. Unani (or more properly transliterated as yūnānī) as modifier dates only from the 19th century and is used only in the Indian subcontinent.