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Hanna Nieber (Alumna BGSMCS)

Drinking the Written Qur’an: Scripture and Healing in Zanzibar Town

Drinking the Written Qur’an: Scripture and Healing in Zanzibar Town

When Qur’anic verses, sometimes supplemented with certain names, drawings, or numbers, are written with saffron ink on a plain plate or a plain piece of paper and then washed off with water, this water then is held to contain the Qur’anic verses. In Swahili, this substance is called kombe. As healing powers are attached to it, many people drink it for medicinal purposes.

This dissertation aims to trace the questions that arise from the practice of drinking the written Qur’an in Zanzibar Town. It delves into the involved materials, in particular the materiality of the body and the text, it examines what happens with the categories of “medicine” and “religion” with kombe being framed as “Islamic healing”, and it views the practice in its encompassment of patients from Muslim and from Christian backgrounds despite a dissociative discourse in Zanzibar. Based on twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork (2013-2014), this project heavily relies on two main field sites, one of Hakimu Saleh and the other of Bi Mwana Hija, and various interviews, informal talks, innumerous situations of participant observations – the sum of which made this project possible. In its context of being part of the project “Habitats and Habitus: Politics and Aesthetics of Religious World Making” this dissertation takes seriously a material approach to the study of religion and focuses on kombe as human practice that forms the world in a concrete sense. It examines how kombe both impacts the habitus and reflects on the habitat encompassing both Muslim and Christian politics and aesthetics of religious world making.

Kombe is prepared and drunk to affect an affliction. Kombe arrives in the body through the mouth and travels through it. The living body, mwili, absorbs the dissolved Qur’an to unfold its healing power. According to local concepts of the body and healing, mwili is the medium that “translates” the material substance of kombe and in so doing unleashes its healing effects. What does this tell about the entanglement of the Swahili “body” and the power of healing through drinking Qur’anic words?

In the Qur’an it is written that it is healing. The Qur’an – the physical codex (mshafu), the recitation – enables alteration of the body’s condition. Kombe, is not considered a mshafu as it is not readable anymore. It is not subject to the same rules that apply to a mshafu or to recitations, yet it carries the healing power. How is text, script, scripture materially transformed, losing its defining shape but maintaining its healing characteristics? Does the body read a formless script?

Situated in a helix of tiba (medicine) and dini (religion) the practice of kombe contributes to the local framings of these categories and with its diversity questions the distinctions between them. Simultaneously, kombe also challenges the enacted separation between Muslims and Christians: through kombe Muslims’ and Christians’ common practices / practice-patterns become discernable in spite of a discursively maintained distinction from each other.

Erstgutachterin: Prof. Dr. Birgit Meyer

Zweitgutachter: Prof. Dr. Kai Kresse

Drittgutachterin: Prof. Rose Marie Beck

2019. "Islamic Zanzibar. Between the African Mainland and the Indian Ocean", Journal of Africana Religions 7 (1), pp. 131–137.

2017. 'They all just want to get healthy!'. Drinking the Qur'an Between Forming Religious and Medical Subjectivities in Zanzibar. In Journal of Material Culture 22 (4), pp. 453–475.

2014. Gezeiten, Geister und Gemeinschaft. Der Indische Ozean als muslimisch geprägter Raum. In Zenith 15 (3), pp. 42–43.