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Majnun: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society.

The appearance of a comprehensive treatment of a social phenomenon, wide in its sweep and complex in its ramifications, stimulates more than passing interest. That the author of this work did not live to see the finished product of his labors reach its audience is more than a personal tragedy. While presenting an imposing body of information in a lucidly organized format, Michael Dols engages in a series of extended conversations with his readers about the myriad issues of interpretation relative to his data. Scholars capable of such broad familiarity with these issues are all too rare in our field. Dols' Majnun will be admired as an inspiring model of reflective analysis that addresses a "big issue." Indeed, barring the discovery of new sources, one is hard pressed to envision a study that will supersede it. In this sense, the publication of Majnun attests to an individual's triumphant surmounting of mortal infirmity (with due acknowledgment of his assistant's contribution that can only be surmised as exceptional). Yet as Dols' editor herself notes, this book will serve to remind the scholarly community of the works envisioned by Dols that will now remain only inchoate ideas he shared sporadically with his colleagues.

One is tempted to speculate on the intimidating problems of organization Dols confronted as he arranged the copious source materials he had collected on the subject of insanity as it was perceived by physicians, logicians, magicians, theologians, exegetes, and jurists from Hellenistic times to the High Middle Ages in the Islamic world. Ultimately, Dols opted for an encyclopedic approach, in which he could lay out his material in a retrievable fashion, readily accessible for back referencing by his readers. But Dols did not confine himself to dry outlines chronologically organized. The book includes lengthy quotations from the primary writers he examined to give the reader more than a brief taste of their sentiments. And Dols provides his own analytical assessments of these quotations. The result is a richly nuanced presentation of factual information from primary sources, augmented by insightful commentary that provides the reader with a fascinating historical experience.

Dols proceeds from the foundation of systematic reasoning about the phenomena of insanity, "madness," and melancholia that both Christian and Muslim thinkers would later incorporate into their own definitions and regimens of healing - the corpus of medical literature and the popular beliefs that coalesced during the Hellenistic period. Dols begins his study with a detailed portrayal of the status of insanity in medical treatises, and its place in the spiritual consciousness of the age. Predictably, the works of Galen, and their influence on later Christian and Islamic medical practice, loom large in this discussion. But many other significant medical authors, less familiar to the modern reader, figure in Dols's portrayal of this period.

Dols establishes that later Christian and Islamic practitioners would accept the Galenic depiction of insanity as the product of humoral imbalance, to be rectified by a correction of conditions causing the malfunction of bodily processes that induced these disorders. Or, if a balance could not be restored, an elaborate agenda of compensatory remedies to ease a patient's symptoms was prescribed. In the remainder of his discussion, Dols demonstrates how this fundamental view of insanity as the consequence of humoral imbalance continued to be the basis of medical therapy throughout the traditional Islamic period.

Dols' treatment of insanity is hardly limited to its medical aspects, narrowly considered. He examines the concept of "madness" (distinct from insanity as a medical pathology) from the perspectives of spirit possession, magical manipulation, romantic obsession, occult wisdom, and holy emanation. These intricate issues are dealt with in a series of chapters that present numerous elucidating examples, bolstered by interpretations of their contextual fit within their contemporary social parameters. When I began reading this book, I expected a substantive rethinking by Dols of the Galenic viewpoint on insanity and its integration into the corpus of Islamic medical practice. I did not expect intriguing discourses on Majnun and Layla (pp. 320-39), Joseph and Potiphar's wife, Zulaykha (pp. 340-44) or the eccentric Hanbali legist of Damascus, Ibn Taymiyya (pp. 465-68). Their prominence in Dols' study speaks to the scope of this work, extending far beyond the medical and narrowly religious approaches to aberrant mental behavior. Dols attempts to encompass the totality of reactions to abnormal behavior in pre-modern Muslim societies (he carries his discussion beyond the Middle Ages into Ottoman and Safavid times). While specialists who focus on debating the accuracy of minutiae may find details over which to quibble, the whole will remain a synthesis likely to be deemed a classic.

Given the diversity of sources Dols perused - in virtually every language relative to scholastic writing in the Middle East from the Hellenistic to the Ottoman periods - as he researched this topic, transliteration of terms was bound to present problems. Although Dols' consistency of presentation and meticulous attention to detail are readily apparent, a reader familiar with the style of Arabic transliteration conventional for English speakers will note more than a few peculiarities. For example, on pp. 234-35, such common names as Ahmad or A isha are rendered Ahmed and Aysha. I suspect that, in these instances, Dols elected to leave such names as they occurred in the secondary studies he used. But he merely refers to this possibility with the following statement: "Wherever an oriental name or word has assumed a more familiar English form than those in strict transliteration, such as Cairo for al-Qahira, I have adopted the former" (p. xvi). I doubt that the individuals mentioned on pp. 234-35 are at all familiar to the majority of even the Islamicists who will consult the monograph. This reader found Dols' idiosyncratic rendition of personal names in a work that presents an intimidating array of personalities somewhat unsettling. But I emphasize that this criticism is minor in the context of Dols' overall accomplishment. Majnun: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society is a monument to scholarship in several fields. Its author's place among the leaders of Islamic studies is assured.

A closing word on the bibliography appended to the text. Covering thirty pages, with an average of twenty-two entries each, this list of references constitutes a noteworthy contribution in its own right. Had the author separated primary sources from secondary studies, this resource would have been easier to refer to.

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Author:Petry, Carl F.
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Apr 1, 1997
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