The Beauty of Blighted Bodies? – By Taraneh Wilkinson

Taraneh Wilkinson on Kristina Richardson’s Difference and Disability in the Medieval Islamic World

Kristina L. Richardson, Difference and Disability in the Medieval Islamic World: Blighted Bodies, Edinburgh University Press, 2012/2014, 167pp., $110
Kristina L. Richardson, Difference and Disability in the Medieval Islamic World: Blighted Bodies, Edinburgh University Press, 2012/2014, 167pp., $110
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The current disability justice movement encourages us as members of society to see disability less as a medical diagnosis and more as a valuable facet of cultural diversity. While many may still think of disability as an illness and a problem to be diagnosed, more and more we are learning to recognize it as a rich part of human identity. The lines between able and ‘dis-abled’ are culturally contingent and subtly drawn, and the varieties of cognitive and physical states that might be considered a disability abound. Recognizing the socially constructed nature of such labels sheds light on the particular assumptions behind common words like ‘disability’ and gives us the tools to change those assumptions.

Moreover, focusing on the culturally constructed aspects of disability helps show how disability comes to be defined by contrast to whatever is considered the cultural norm, both physically and mentally. Thus, to look at the category of disability as a cultural category is to look with fresh eyes at the accepted norms of that culture. In this way, discussions on disability join discussions on class, gender, and race in the process of looking critically at cultural norms. And conversations about disability can go beyond simply commenting on norms—they can challenge norms with newly constructed aesthetics. Such a process can be liberating and transgressive. For instance, in place of an idealized body that perfectly bespeaks some hodge-podge of societal norms, it is possible to appreciate the value of other bodies that reflect the vulnerabilities of being human.

Where there are norms, there are transgressions, and both reflect the society and the individuals that express them. Nevertheless, framing a discussion around disability comes across as fairly contemporary, even if the act of affirming the beauty and diversity of bodies and minds that diverge from the norm is nothing new. For instance, in the classical Arabic literary tradition, the practice of taghayyur was established among poets. Taghayyur involved the reversal of expected aesthetic norms, where the undesirable was praised as desirable. Kristina L. Richardson offers us invaluable insight to this and other practices in a book that discusses disability, friendship, drug abuse, scholarly scandal, and love.

Kristina Richardson’s ‘critical microhistory’ investigates the works and lives of six Sunni authors in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—men linked by friendship and scholarship across Cairo, Damascus and Mecca—who wrote on the subject of blights. Interpreting history through the lens of art history, Difference and Disability in the Medieval Islamic World inspects the intersection of aesthetics and disability in the literary works of these scholarly elite, documenting a significant tradition of writings devoted not only to recording instances of actual blighted individuals but also works of poetry that place blighted bodies upon the pedestal of romantic idealization.

While there was no exact translation for ‘disability’ in classical Arabic, Richardson argues there was a roughly analogous category that garnered sustained discussion: ‘blights’ or ‘people of blights.’ She analyzes a loose literary network of scholars and poets in their treatment of blights in light of contemporary disability theory and aesthetics.

To live and move and experience society in a blighted body means to stand out, to be marked by ‘abnormal’ physiological features, incapacity, or illness. Starting with the seventh/thirteenth century Lisān al-‘arab dictionary definition of ‘āha as ‘blight or damage,’ as distinct from the modern Arabic word for disability (i‘āqa), Richardson frames her overall analysis through this rather nebulous and sometimes disputed but nonetheless central category of blightedness. In the Islamic Middle Period (a term by which Richardson seems to designate roughly the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries), the category of ‘people of blights’ was broadly understood to include individuals with cognitive or physical differences or disabilities as well as the ill. As such, ‘blightedness’ was a broader category than what we today understand by the word ‘disability.’ Richardson warns her reader not to equate blightedness with disability outright: “Adapting modern categories of physical difference to past societies can obscure the particularities of local epistemologies and has clear limitations for the Islamic Middle Period.” So how does she distinguish the category of blights for today’s reader? She refers to the treatments of earlier Islamic figures such as al-Shāfi‘ī (d 820), al-Haytham b. ‘Adī (d. 822), Aḥmad Ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855), Abū Ja‘far Muḥammad b. Ḥabīb’s (d. 860), and al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 867) as well as later materials to compile an aesthetic standard against which blights are defined: “The normative body belongs to an Arab male who has dark (not blue or green) eyes, dark (not light) hair, and hooked (not flat) nose, a full (not thin) beard, and brown (not black) skin, and who stands at medium height.”

Stressing the cultural construction of norms and definitions of disability, Richardson directs her reader to accounts of the Prophet Muḥammad’s actions and lifestyle that embody the normative ideal. Not only are the lame or one-eyed counted among the blighted, but those who lack dark eyes, hooked noses, dark hair, and medium brown skin are also liable to be saddled with the label—in other words, those who do not share the physical traits of the Prophet. Blightedness was not merely a category referring to one’s physical or mental ability; rather, it also it marked an individual as being at variance with the ideal prophetic physiognomy. In other words, blightedness as a category of deficiency intersected with blightedness a category of divergence from the prophetic standard.

Nevertheless, being bald or having a fair complexion were not always considered blights. As Richardson notes, earlier scholars differed in their attention to blights, their opinions on people with blights, and their willingness to classify someone as blighted—some attaching moral suspicion to the fair-complexioned or leprous individuals, others ignoring lesser blights and focusing solely on the medical implications of blights, such as the necessity to avoid contagious illness.

Another important piece of context Richardson provides is an overview of the qur’anic material on blights. This overview highlights a point of contention. Where the Qur’ān seems to give every Muslim the moral injunction “to respond ethically to human differences,” the subsequent tradition increasingly fostered strands of suspicion towards the blighted. Despite the qur’anic stance, which did not associate moral defects with blighted bodies, a tradition of associating blightedness with moral defect arose. During this process, some of these later suspicions became canonized as Prophetic injunctions. Richardson traces a few of these sayings and finds at least one is likely attributable to the medieval theologian and jurist al-Shāfi‘ī (d. 820). The larger question at hand is how the discussion on people with blights led to an attitude that eyed blighted individuals with moral suspicion. Richardson asks whether this development is in part due to Jewish or Christian precedent, attributable to Islamic descriptions of the Antichrist as blighted, or a result of al-Shāfi‘ī’s wide influence and following. For Richardson, the third factor is most deserving of attention: al-Shāfi‘ī’s stern judgment of avoidance and moral condemnation of people with blights stands out as contrary to the more equitable precedent in the Qur’ān and hadith reports. In the subsequent centuries, Mamluk and Ottoman Arab lands predominantly followed al-Shāfi‘ī’s school of law, reproducing the same prejudices against people of blights that al-Shāfi‘ī and his followers had canonized. At least this is one possible explanation.

These are rather large claims for a preliminary context to her microhistory, but they certainly raise important questions. Is there perhaps a parallel here with reading gender positions into the Qur’ān, where modern readers search for a vision of equality? That is, is it more a reflection of modern sensibilities for one to read an ethical call to respond to difference in the Qur’ān? Further, if al-Shāfi‘ī did have a hand in raising moral suspicion vis-à-vis people of blights, how exactly did his attitude become so predominant?

In any case, the context and history of the Islamic discussion on blights are complex and distinct from the history and connotations of ‘disability.’ Richardson offers of a closer look at this context in her microhistory. Stressing the communal and relational structures in which knowledge is transmitted and developed, she looks at the life and literary output of one Cairene scholar, tracing her study outward from him to the wider network of his students and colleagues. Though often technical and dense, these chapters offer the reader juicy glimpses into the lives of Muslim scholarly elites, along with generous helpings of translations from primary sources. By guiding the reader through a tour of drug abuse, social tensions, love poems, solidarity in suffering, and social scandal, Richardson suggestively highlights “the role of emotional bonds in the history of knowledge production.”

The main star of Richardson’s microhistory is the late medieval Cairene scholar and poet Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ḥijāzī (d. 875/1471), a survivor of balādhur overdose. Balādhur, or anacardium, was used in the Islamic Middle Ages to enhance the memory of scholars but in overdose often led to illness and insanity, if not death. In addition to a wide assortment of anecdotes and insights into the history of balādhur usage, Richardson uses the case of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ḥijāzī to focus on the role of friendship and solidarity among scholars with blights. Shihāb al-Dīn fatefully overused the drug, as was not uncommon, and was permanently marred mentally as well as physically; he was thereafter limited to literary pursuits (as religious sciences were considered more demanding than literary pursuits at that time). Since narratives about patients in Mamluk Cairo are rare, Shihāb al-Dīn’s personal account of the disease offers important first-hand insights. In addition to short translations of personal narrative, the reader encounters snippets of romantic verse from two poetry anthologies by Shihāb al-Dīn. These romantic poems confidently affirm the desirability of beloveds who are marked as blighted in various ways—including charming expressions of love for a mentally ill woman, a bald woman, deaf women, and a feverish youth. In the wake of his own unfortunate encounter with anacardium, the poet al-Ḥijāzī reverses traditional ideals of bodily norms, boldly affirming beauty in blighted forms. In this reversal of traditional ideals he is not alone. His collected verses play into the aforementioned tradition of taghayyur. This practice involved the reversal of expected aesthetic norms, where the undesirable was praised—a literary exercise some of his contemporaries engaged in as well. For instance, Richardson also showcases fellow poet Shihāb al-Dīn b. Ḥajar al-‘Asqalānī’s verses for praising a one-eyed youth. Nevertheless, given the personal experiences of blight, her account suggests that for Cairene poets like Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ḥijāzī, taghayyur was more than a mere exercise, serving also as a reclamation and validation of his own blighted body. This account of the life, affliction, and community of one Cairene poet is both the heart and the highlight of the book.

Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ḥijāzī’s student, the Damascene Taqī al-Dīn al-Badrī (d. 894/1489), also compiled two anthologies containing verses on the human eye and erotic verses about marked men’s bodies. Richardson boldly reconstructs the relationship between al-Ḥijāzī and his student al-Badrī, speculating on the motives for al-Badrī’s composition. Perhaps at the urging of his blighted teacher, al-Badrī took up the task of compiling of two poetry anthologies with significant material dedicated to blighted bodies. In her analysis of al-Badrī’s anthologies, Richardson cleverly makes use of the analogy of Greek sculpture, albeit with a twist. Where the Greek sculptor sought to combine the idealized body parts of various subjects into one perfect combination, al-Badrī’s output took verses in praise of various blighted body parts, drawing them into one aesthetically subversive literary whole. Such a suggestion entails a bold reconstruction of authorial intention, given the sparsity of biographical sources. It is nonetheless compelling to a modern reader interested in exploring the transgressive value of such an aesthetic reversal. Bit by bit, a literary climate of friendship and shared humanity emerge where the category of blightedness is turned on its head, affirming the humanity and desirability of those whose fortunes have fallen outside of society’s norms.

Richardson also looks at another student of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ḥijāzī, one who seemed to have less sympathy for blighted bodies. Here some of the darker realities of blightedness come to the fore. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was not exceptional to consider the blightedness of a hadith transmitter as a defect in transmission. As such, a physical blight could have negative implications on a scholar’s moral standing and credibility. This phenomenon raises interesting questions, some of which Richardson leaves underdeveloped. For instance, Richardson earlier noted the intersection between blights as physical or mental defects and blights as deviances from the physical ideal of the Prophet. Accordingly, was the negative moral and scholarly prejudice towards people of blights strengthened by the sense that blighted scholars were physically unlike the Prophet and therefore faulty vehicles of Prophetic wisdom and tradition?

Starting from the premise that disability is defined through deviance from norms, Richardson combines aesthetics and disability theory into one lens for historical investigation. In today’s appearance-obsessed world, it may seem natural to frame a discussion about disability in terms of aesthetics. Can this approach, however, not obscure other human dimensions of living in a blighted body—the pain, potential for social shame, even loss of intellectual authority? ‘Blight’ and ‘disability’ ultimately connote different worlds of associations. Given this difference in context, it is perhaps harder to see past the negative connotations of blightedness. To be blighted is to have one’s religious and intellectual authority made suspect, to be other than the prophetic ideal. To be ‘disabled’ today—as job application disclosure forms often assure—should not officially interfere with our ability to count as authorities and be deemed professionally capable. Yet perhaps the category of blightedness is an important reminder of possible hidden negative assumptions held today regarding disability.

This reality is perhaps why the figure of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ḥijāzī and his student al-Badrī remain relevant today. Richardson certainly touches on the pain and shame of Shihāb al-Dīn al-Ḥijāzī’s blighted body. Yet even with such negative connotations, al-Ḥijāzī and his student al-Badrī proudly celebrate the human dignity and erotic value of blighted bodies. In a literary reversal of aesthetic standards, blighted bodies are not less but more, precisely because of their blighted state—a tenacious testament to human worth at the heart of vulnerability.