“I Deal With the History of Concepts and Ideas; I Deal With Both Explicit and Implicit Knowledge” – Interview with Shahrzad Irannejad
We regularly introduce scholars that work in the project by letting them answer three short questions. Today, we talk to Shahrzad Irannejad, a research fellow at Orient-Institut Istanbul. She is a researcher in the history of medicine in the Islamicate world and joined Orient-Institut Istanbul in the fall of 2020 working on a project entitled “Bodies of Knowledge facing epidemics: (Islamicate) Humoral Medicine vs. Prophetic Medicine” within the Standing Working Group “Iran and Beyond: Breaking Ground for Sustainable Scholarly Collaboration” (IRSSC). Having one foot in philology and another in sociology of medicine, the project also brings together the research interests of two groups within Orient-Institut Istanbul: “Human, Medicine and Society” and “Study of Religions”.
What will you be working on while being involved with the “Knowledge Unbound” project and what did you work on before?
In my current project, “Bodies of Knowledge facing epidemics: (Islamicate) Humoral Medicine vs. Prophetic Medicine” at OII, I will be looking into a major point of tension within and between two (historical and contemporary) bodies of knowledge. In both these bodies of knowledge, the existence of the phenomenon of contagion is highly contested. I will be looking into the tension between individuals’ observations of the phenomenon of contagion and the resistance of the bodies of knowledge in integrating the concept of contagion. In referring to (Islamicate) Humoral Medicine and Prophetic Medicine, I have had to make up umbrella categories that can be used to denominate two bodies of knowledge from both historical and contemporary perspectives: (Islamicate) Humoral Medicine encompasses both Greco-Arabic medicine and Traditional Persian Medicine; Prophetic Medicine denotes both the historical, literary genre (prophetic and imamite) and medical practices in contemporary Iran. Drawing on historical (philological) and contemporary (sociological) sources, I will focus on the role of individual actors in negotiating the role of the concept of contagion in the theoretical framework of their corresponding bodies of knowledge.
Before joining OII, in my PhD dissertation entitled “Localization of the Avicennean Inner Senses in a Hippocratic Body”, I worked on the transmission and transformation of concepts related to the mind and the brain (and their relation) from the classical Greek tradition to the medieval Arabic tradition, in a dialogue between medicine and philosophy, physiology and anatomy, and text and image.
What role does the concept of “knowledge” play in your own research?
In both my PhD dissertation and my current project, I deal with the history of concepts and ideas; I deal with both explicit and implicit knowledge, and the transformation of concepts through transmission beyond various borders: linguistic, cultural, paradigmatic, political, etc.. This transmission and transformation occurs against a backdrop of the manner of the organization of the bodies of knowledge that host these concepts. For instance, the body of knowledge known as medieval Arabic medicine is mainly organized in encyclopedia, and this manner of organization of codified experience affects the transmission and transformation of concepts and ideas. Apart from these circumstantial forms of knowledge, I am also learning to observe and analyze how actors have, and still do, engage with bodies of knowledge that they regard as revealed, eternal, and infallible, as can be seen in the case of the body of knowledge labeled as “prophetic medicine” in the Islamicate tradition.
Have there been any surprising moments in your research recently?
As mentioned, I work with a medieval textual tradition in which the concept of contagion is highly contested. There is a set of prophetic traditions (hadith) referring to the concepts of contagion, which have invited generations of commentators to engage with them. I was reading one such engagement in the work of a 14th century Damascene commentator when I came across a stunning argument. He gives an elaborate argument for why the Prophet had advised to run from the leper, while at the same time declaring that there is no contagion. He argues that if one associates long with a leper, and is later afflicted with leprosy, as God has decreed, one might think that one has contracted the disease from the leper, and in thinking so, one would commit a sin, and one’s faith would be in jeopardy. Hence, the danger of compromising one’s faith is greater than contracting a disease, and one must still flee from a leper to protect one’s faith, even if leprosy is not contagious. I was amazed to read of this level of commitment by the agent of knowledge to his material and the ingenuity in his argumentation.