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In Amma’s Healing Room is a vivid and compelling study of the life and thought of a female Muslim spiritual leader—“Amma” to her family and disciples—who lives and practices in the city of Hyderabad in South India. Joyce Burkhalter Flueckiger describes Amma’s practice as a form of vernacular Islam that has arisen in a particular locality, one in which the boundaries between Islam, Hinduism and Christianity are fluid. In the “healing room,” Amma meets a diverse clientele that includes men as well as women, and people of various religious and social backgrounds. Seated at a small table, writing amulets in Arabic while her husband, “Abba,” himself a Sufi master, operates a small store catering to the waiting crowd, Amma advises her disciples, who come to her with a wide range of physical, social and physiological afflictions. Even as she declares that the most important distinction among humans is that of gender, not religion, Amma crosses those boundaries to practice in a traditionally male ritual role, and must continually recreate and maintain her authortity as healer to “meet the public”.
Flueckiger’s collaboration with Amma over a number of years is an integral part of the story she tells. Much of Amma’s complex cosmology is presented in her own words. The author describes her research methods and growing understanding of her material in terms of a deepening relationship with Amma, to whom she related at different moments as daughter, disciple and researcher. The resulting study is a work of insight and compassion that challenges widely held views of religion and gender in India as it reveals the creativity of a tradition too often portrayed by Muslims and non-Muslims alike as singular and monolithic.