When I recently read Annemarie Mol’s new book Eating in Theory, it left me wondering: How does ingestion take shape in bodies that not only are biomedical, but also move in an Islamically informed world? This question emerges from my research in Zanzibar about kombe, written Qur’anic verses that are liquefied in water and given to those afflicted to be drunk as medicine. I scrutinized kombe’s textuality, asked about the body, and examined how Christians who drink kombe provide a different take on the otherwise antagonistic discourse about Muslim-Christian relations in Zanzibar. I developed a “diffractive ethnography” that pays attention to the relation between the “what” and the “how” of writing. Having learned about the liquefaction of Qur’anic text and its ingestion, I became interested in what happens after it is swallowed sip by sip, after it has entered the body, after it is drunk – what happens when the Qur’an meets the belly and becomes absorbed. Despite various attempts to ask people about their experiences and their insights about the ingestion, the responses to my questions remained rather brief: Good. Unaona raha. You feel calm, at peace, happy. It tastes like water, nondescript. I acknowledged that my interlocutors were not apt on talking about the taste of the Qur’an or the sensations that this ingestion brought forth.
Annemarie Mol’s book, Eating in Theory,[i] is about eating as core principle to ask the question what it is to be human. Giving primacy not to thinking, but to metabolizing bodies, she revisits some of the major philosophical tropes, “Being,” “Knowing,” “Doing,” and “Relating” and argues for an “empirical philosophy.” Certainly, there is much to say about Mol’s book, the selection of philosophical dialog partners, and the establishment of self and other in formatting. However, rather than writing a book review, I chose to write an experimental[ii] blog post that, experimenting with fusion cooking as method,[iii] combines reading Mol’s book and my research. This blog post selectively takes ingredients from both Eating in Theory and my work on kombe, allows them to simmer, and dresses them as text; this written dish, I contend, allows for explorations of the different flavors’ nuances, the contributing particularities of both Mol’s book and my research. In being fused together, these particularities give rise to the following themes: “inside,” “anticipation,” “movement,” and “transformation.” In the following, I explore how my research and Eating in Theory relate to these themes and how these themes bring the two works together.
Just like food, kombe needs to be swallowed and becomes absorbed. Like food, the Qur’an’s containment in water “agrees” with human bodies’ metabolisms: it meets microbes in the stomach and in the bowel, it is ingestible – at least, the bodies that drink kombe do not show biophysical reactions of rejection. Like absorbed nutrients, the Qur’an takes a different path from the water once it is inside the body. Unlike food, the Qur’an does not leave traces of itself to be brought to the toilet.[iv]
While my interlocutors were not very articulate about how kombe tastes, questions about mwili (the body) were answered with considerable detail. I learned that mwili creates a material inside, enveloped by the skin with thirty-two/thirty-three openings: eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, breast nipples, belly button, openings in the genital area, and the spaces between the nails and their beds. The boundary between inside and outside and bodily openings need to be continuously cared for. Ritual washings, applied to the skin, for example, prevent spirits from entering and close the body off. For a short time. All too soon this inside requires renewed attention and care. Explaining mwili to me, my interlocutors made clear that the care for a bodily inside provides space for roho, akili, nafsi and moyo (English approximations: esprit, mind, self/soul, heart) to be bound to each other and a bodily material substance to navigate through life’s moral landscape. By way of ingesting kombe, the Qur’an suffuses this bodily inside and from there targets a specific affliction.
In Eating in Theory, Mol shows how different bodily insides become established through eating. The throat, bowel lining, and cell walls all constitute boundaries that the nutrients of food, aided and biochemically changed by microbes, need to overcome in order to nourish the human body from its inside. The bodily inside, in which and through which both food and kombe become purposeful, perhaps gives way to multiplicity (Mol 2002), allowing the body to be more than biomedical, more than spiritual, but less than many. And perhaps not. Or sometimes. A fusion of Eating in Theory and my work on kombe, however, most certainly draws attention to bodily insides – never fixed, but almost always in a metabolizing process, never sealed off, but always restrictively permeable.
One of my interlocutors explained:
“When you drink medicine, it passes here [points to the stomach]. And then it circulates. But before that, you know, the afflicted person has an imani [belief/trust]—which imani? The imani that it will help her/him. So, the information was already given to her/him. It is already in the heart and has started circulating before it [kombe] reaches the stomach.”
In anticipation of the material ingestion, the Qur’an already acts. The “information” about the future ingestion reaches the heart and starts circulating. Swallowing and thereby materially bringing the Qur’an into the bodily inside is no less important–only in light of the future event does anticipation form relations. Knowledge about the ingestion-to-be already has an effect; the heart transgresses temporalities.
Running with Mol’s chapter on “Relations” (although she does not use the word anticipation):
Through eating, an apple, for example, becomes part of the eater while eating apples fosters more apples to be cared for. Eating builds on anticipated relations between a body—that agrees with apples—and the substance of the apple—that will be undone in the process and harbors new anticipations for more apples to be eaten in the future. More generally: In anticipation of an agreeing inside, outside substances are selected, grown (or chemically produced), transported (leaving a carbon footprint), processed (cooked, and/or cut), and forwarded into the mouth where, together with saliva, they are prepared for their entrance into the body’s insides, to be in- and digested. While this process transforms that which is eaten (see below), it also ensures cultivation of its kind. Through future (and also past) relations, the eater’s metabolism extends into the world.
Fused with kombe, Mol’s analysis of the networks that are fostered by eating points to anticipation as a theme. Fused with Mol’s take on eating, the knowledge about the future ingestion of the Qur’an becomes a matter of relationalities. As an emerging theme, anticipation draws attention to the entanglements of knowledge (kombe), relations (eating), and the transgression of temporalities.
Ingestion gives shape to movements between the inside and the outside. Externally grown and cooked food does not only become part of the body and composes the body from its inside to enable bodily movement, but also ceases to be food in moving through the body and in becoming expelled. Mol writes: “while, as a walker, I move through the world, when I eat, it is the world that moves through me” (2021: 49).
A Qur’anic verse is to travel with the ink and contained in water to become enmeshed with the bodily substance. Its inside. To be in proximity to and spatially meet roho, akili, nafsi, and moyo. However, kombe also affects a different kind of movement as it acts within a moral world.
Another interlocutor explained:
Mwili is like a boat [that sails] until you arrive before the one who created you. Now this boat, if you have not prepared it, will it not break? Water will enter, you will drown. When you drown, now, that is it. […] You will go far, but not in the sense that we [Muslims] think of, you will not make use of the things we wish for.
Travelling through life and its Islamic moral tasks, like a vessel at sea, the future of mwili’s precariously bounded inside (its possibilities for reaching resurrection) is subject to its movement through an unstable outside world. Kombe acts on afflictions. Afflictions range from stomach aches, business problems, itching skin, to a neighbor’s jealousy; afflictions occur inside and outside of carefully maintained bodily boundaries. Inviting kombe into mwili, into the vessel that carries through life, allows the Qur’an “prepare it,” as my interlocutor said. The ingested Qur’an, by working from mwili’s inside, eases navigation. This becomes clear in that kombe heals afflictions as that which hinders movement in the morally right direction.
Taking a cue from Mol’s formulation: While, as a vessel, mwili moves through life, when ingesting kombe, the power of the Qur’an and its healing qualities equip mwili from the inside for it not to break and drown. Ingestive movements, both in eating and with kombe, allow for movements in the world and through life.
Kombe is the product of quite literal transformations: ink forms Qur’anic words in writing; water dissolves these words, thereby transforms them from their two-dimensional existence as written text into the three-dimensionality of kombe. Ingesting the Qur’an transforms. It fosters a visceral relation of the ingested written verses with an ingesting mwili. It turns mwili into a more resilient vessel to steer towards a good afterlife. Mwili’s establishment of an inside provides space from where and through which healing – a transformative force on its own – occurs. Various transformations are at work here.[v]
Similarly in Eating in Theory, “transformations” abound. Plants and other earthly creatures are transformed into food; the chemistry of enzymes and cooking fires transform ingredients, giving them a form that human bodies can transform further into nourishment and energy (92). Food transforms (or, in a literal sense, transubstantiates) eaters (41-44) on the one hand and on the other hand their “discerning skills and […] appreciative inclinations” (71). Eating both shapes food and eaters and in the process transforms them both (74). Preparing food and eating entails caring relations – care for a meal as well as care for the relations of those who share the food – and this caring is (trans)formational.
Fusing Mol’s Eating in Theory and the ingestion of kombe also marks an important dissonance with regard to transformation: while Mol shows how food and eater transform each other, the ingestion of kombe transforms the one who drinks, but not the Qur’an. Mol describes the boundaries of bodily insides, the “ingestion” in light of the body’s internal ability to transform food into energy, and thereby blurs the boundaries between ingestion and digestion. With kombe, however, the distinction between ingestion as that which enters the body and digestion as that which transforms inside the body, becomes important. With kombe, the Qur’an enters the body, but not for the digestive system to work on it. The water that contained the verse in order to facilitate ingestion may take the same path as food, but not the Qur’an itself: it does not travel through the digestive system, it does not become transformed, and, most decidedly, it does not create residue to be excreted. With mwili as vessel—with an inside the boundaries of which need to be cared for, in anticipation of material relationalities, and moving through life—digestion does not matter, but ingestion does.
Ingestion highlights transformations that disrupt an assumed stability of subject/object, eater/eaten, (Mol) and attends to the instabilities of life through which our bodies sail (my work). Ingestive transformations do not mark the passage from one form to a conclusive other form – the metabolizing body is never finished (until death when its substance decomposes in one way or another) and neither is humans’ journey through life (until the day of judgement). Ingestion provides formulations for ever more repetitions of metabolic and navigational processes and turns them into ever more starting points for new transformations: what does that, which has become of an eaten apple, become after digestion; which moral challenges does life provide after successfully treating a particular affliction? Ingestive transformations remain inconclusive.
This blog post inconclusively comes to an end. Fusing a selection of ingredients from Annemarie Mol’s Eating in Theory with my work on kombe has given rise to the themes of this blog post: “inside,” “anticipation,” “movement,” and “transformation.” The fusion has shown: As movement to a bodily inside, ingestion is inconclusively transformational and nourishes anticipation. Like in fusion cooking, the result is not a mere juxtaposition, but an experiment and experience in itself in which certain tastes thrive and not others. I will thus finish this blog post by savouring this experiment for a few more lines, by drawing attention to this text itself and the reading experience it offers. As reader[vi], you have ingested this text, your eyes have scanned and absorbed the words, they have become part of your inside although we would have to work on the boundaries of this inside. With the title and the introduction, the blog post has foreshadowed and nurtured an anticipation of the fusion experiment. This text has moved onto the screen by your hand clicking a link, and as it then moves across the screen, enabled by movements of the hand scrolling slowly down, it moves you, the reader, in a linear fashion, as texts do, from line to line, from theme to theme. The text transforms: its formatting changes depending on the screens it appears on (the screen of a cell phone will show this text differently than a desktop screen) and this textual dish with Mol’s Eating in Theory and my work on kombe becomes transformed as you, by reading, bring further relations to and knowledge of ingestion to the plate. The text is inconclusive. More themes appear on the plate: care, relationality, politics. Saving them for another meal, however, this text about ingestion inconclusively ends the experiment of textual fusion cooking as method. I hope you have enjoyed the meal.
Hanna Nieber is a social anthropologist and a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, interested in how people live concepts and how this affects academic practice. Her work deals with questions of materiality, diffraction, and (non)representation at the intersections of Africa and the Indian Ocean. Her doctoral thesis, supervised by Birgit Meyer and Kai Kresse and defended in Utrecht in 2020, was based on extensive fieldwork and ethnographically scrutinized the materiality of text, its liquefaction, and body concepts through Qur’anic verses that are washed off and ingested as medicine in Zanzibar.
[i] Mol, Annemarie. 2021. Eating in Theory. Durham: Duke University Press.
[ii] I am inspired by recent developments in anthropology to take experimentation seriously. See, for example, Fitzgerald, Des. 2015. Experimental Anthropology in the Making: A Conversation with Andreas Roepstorff.
Somatosphere, 25 March 2015: weblink, Estalella, Adolfo; Sánchez Criad, Tomás. 2017. Ethnographic Experimentation: Other Tales of the Field #Colleex. AllegraLab, 18 September 2017: weblink, Fischer, Michael. 2018. Anthropology in the Meantime: Experimental Ethnography, Theory, and Method for the Twenty-First Century. Durham: Duke University Press. See also the new research department at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology: Anthropology of Economic Experimentation.
[iii] Fusion cooking as method is something I have come up with as alternative to the method of “reading diffractively” as developed by Evelien Geerts and Iris van der Tuin: weblink. Attuning to the matter at hand here, ingestion, I have explored how to write text where content and metaphorical content diffract in productive ways.
[iv] Despite the scarcity of words about the ingestion, my interlocutors were very explicit about the Qur’an not being brought to the toilet as that is forbitten in Islam.
[v] However, and in relation to the first endnote, I do not speak of ingestion as transforming the Qur’an. Unlike other texts that are actualized in every reading, the Qur’an is already determinate, made definite by memorized recitations and a canon of commentaries (Messick, Brinkley M. 1992. The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society. Berkeley: University of California Press. 30-31.).
[vi] Based on Wolfgang Iser, I take readers as being complicit in bringing the text into existence: Iser, Wolfgang. 1972. “The Reading Process: A Phenomenological Approach.” New Literary History 3 (2): 279–99.