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Reviving “A forgotten Sunna:” Hijamah (cupping therapy), prophetic medicine, and the re-Islamization of Unani medicine in contemporary India

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Officially recognized as an Indigenous System of Medicine in India, Unani has been intimately connected to Muslim culture in South Asia. However, this connection has been downplayed by the government of India, which stressed the secular character of Unani and its Greek origins. Hijamah, or cupping therapy, is considered to be part of the regimental therapies of Unani medicine. Because hijamah has been mentioned in several Hadiths, it is also considered prophetic medicine. After what seems to be a long neglect of hijamah in the practice of Unani medicine, various hakims (Unani practitioners) are now promoting this therapy as a “forgotten Sunna.” This paper attends to the revival of hijamah in India at the intersections of Unani and prophetic medicine through an examination of clinical practices and advertisements. It argues that this revival is contributing to a re-Islamization of Unani medicine. The article suggests that this development is not just the product of an interest among Muslims in India to live according to the Sunna, but it is also influenced by the global market of Complementary and Alternative Medicine which the government of India seeks to lead.

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  1. AYUSH is the acronym for Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy and was the name of the department under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare regulating and promoting education and research in traditional medicine. It also includes naturopathy and, since 2010, Sowa-Rigpa (Tibetan medicine). Shortly after his appointment as Premier Minister, Narendra Modi (BJP, a Hindu-nationalist party) established AYUSH as a separate ministry in November 2014 and appointed Shripad Yeso Naik (also BJP) as its minister.

  2. “The foundation of Unani system was laid by Hippocrates. Unani Medicine, otherwise called Islamic Herbal Medicine is a Greko [sic.] Arabic medicine […] Regimental therapy is very popular in Islamic culture which is otherwise called Hijama or Wet Cupping.” (Science India Forum et al. 2017:7).

  3. While Unani is often called herbal medicine by practitioners and Unani pharmaceutical companies targeting markets outside of India, many hakims are critical of this denomination because Unani’s materia medica also includes drugs of animal and mineral origins.

  4. Religion was also closely connected to the development of science and medicine in medieval Islamic society, as discussed by Savage-Smith (2014). However, as she points out, while epistemological and ontological questions were discussed in close connection to philosophy and theology, we should not forget that medical scholars were not only Muslims, but also Christians, Jews, and even Sabians (pagans) (ibid.).

  5. All the names of informants have been changed in order to safeguard their anonymity.

  6. All translations from the Urdu done by the author.

  7. The practice of hijamah offered possibilities to BUMS graduates lacking a family background or exclusive knowledge to establish themselves as reputed practitioners.

  8. This is different in the United Kingdom (Sax 2013) and in Dubai (Government of Dubai and Dubai Health Authority 2012), for example, where the practice of hijamah is subjected to regulations. See below.

  9. His answer was referring to Unani and not as hijamah. As mentioned above, his family did not practice cupping until he received training in it.


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This research was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG) as part of the project “Medical Knowledge and Plural Culture: Graeco-Islamic Medicine (tibb-e yunani, Unani Medicine) and its Representation in South Asia,” Ruhr-University Bochum, 2011–2015.

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Correspondence to Kira Schmidt Stiedenroth.

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Schmidt Stiedenroth, K. Reviving “A forgotten Sunna:” Hijamah (cupping therapy), prophetic medicine, and the re-Islamization of Unani medicine in contemporary India. Cont Islam 13, 183–200 (2019).

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