Tijani Al-Mahi, The Encyclopedic Psychiatrist

Tijani Al-Mahi, The Encyclopedic Psychiatrist

By: Dr. Yahia al-Hassan

KHARTOUM (Sudanow) - With the increasing incidences of mental disorders, Sudanese should stop to pay tribute to the pioneer of psychiatry in the country, the late Professor al-Tijani al-Mahi, who in 1949 made this treatment possible in the Sudan. 

Seen as the father of Sudanese and even African psychiatry, Tijani  now has a mental hospital carrying his name in Omdurman City, just across the Nile from  Khartoum, the Capital: ‘The Al-Tijani Al-Mahi University Psychiatry Hospital’, after he had already pioneered psychiatric medication by launching the Clinic For Nervous Disorders in Khartoum North as early as 1949. 

This clinic later on opened the doors for many other similar government-run and private facilities around the country.   

Born in 1911 in the rural Kawa village of the White Nile District, Tijani  led a life of knowledge and scientific research until his death in his Khartoum home in the early hours of 8 January, 1970. 

Tijani’s biography says psychiatry was just part of his borderless knowledge. An encyclopedia  incomparable in the Sudan, Tijani was an unchallenged authority on psychiatry (of course), history, geography, Egyptology, African culture, languages and traditional medicine. He had published books and papers on many of these disciplines. 

His respectable personality and his vast knowledge encouraged the leaders of the democratic revolution of October 1964 to name him as member of the five-man supreme state council (the presidency), which was chaired on rotational basis. 

He had published research on magic and the spiritual Zar practice. 

In the cultures of the Horn of Africa and adjacent regions of the Middle East, Zār is the term for a demon or spirit assumed to possess individuals, mostly women, and to cause discomfort or illness. The so-called zār ritual or zār cult is the practice of exorcising such spirits from the possessed individual. Zār exorcism has become popular in the contemporary urban culture of Cairo and other major cities of the region. Zār gatherings, now banned in the Sudan, involve food and musical performances, and they culminate in ecstatic dancing, lasting between three and seven nights. In this ritual the zar leader invokes the evil spirits (the lords as they are called) to ask for forgiveness for the so-called demonized woman and let her go as a healthy person. 

Tijani has considered the Zar phenomenon as no more than an illusion.

Inspecting guard of honour with Queen Elizabeth

 

In his research on African culture Tijani studied the African ancient civilization with an insight in hieroglyphic language of historical Egypt. 

In addition, he played the piano and had handsome knowledge of all arts. 

Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain was reportedly stunned by his vast knowledge during her visit to the Sudan in 1964, during which he stood as chairman of the supreme state council. 

Tijani had written in-depth on psychiatry and culture. 

His fellow Psychiatrist Taha Ba’ashar had written that Dr Brock Chisholm, WHO’s first Director-General from 1948 to 1953, had introduced Tijani during a panel discussion on “Africa. Social change and mental health” - conducted in the United Nations building, New York, 1959 - by saying that: “Tijani al-Mahi is an outstanding psychiatrist. I have seen him on several occasions, among different groups of persons qualified in different technical domains. On each occasion he was surprising in meetings discussing African or other countries affairs. His expertise is wide, but how could he make it so deep at the same time, just to be so comprehensive? This is a matter I could not understand so far. May be his researching mind , his exceptional  motivation, his limitless concern with human behavior, his courage and his dedication are the things that made Tijani’s unique personality.”

Tijani had left behind a vast and resourceful library which was gifted to the University of Khartoum. In addition to books, the library contains a wealth of rare manuscripts, maps and valuables.

Life History:   

  • Born in al Kawa, White Nile Province, in April 1911
  • Graduated from the Kitchener School of Medicine in 1935.
  • Joined the Sudan Medical Service and worked in Omdurman, Khartoum, Wadi Halfa and Kosti.
  • He was granted the Diploma in Psychological Medicine in July 1949 from the United Kingdom (UK).
  • On return back home he founded the clinic for Nervous Disorders in Khartoum North.
  • From 1959 to 1964 he joined the WHO-EMRO as a Regional Adviser on Mental Health.
  • In 1964 he was chosen as Member and Rotational President of the Supreme Council of State.
  • In 1969 the University of Khartoum (U of K) offered him the chair of Psychiatry in the Faculty of Medicine which he held up until his death.
  • He was the first Sudanese Psychiatrist, and hence, known as the father of African Psychiatry.
  • He conducted numerous original studies on psychological medicine. His visionary community mental health services and their incorporation in the general health have been expressed in his scientific contributions decades ahead of their formal endorsement by the international community.
  • He participated in several international conferences such as the 1st Conference on Education of Psychological Medicine where he participated as President, a UN sponsored conference held in Geneva on the application of science and technology in developing countries, and another on the effect of social change on psychological health in New York.
  • He also delivered more than forty lectures at American universities and institutes during his stay in USA.
  • He was elected President of the Sudan Doctors’ Union and was a member of the Academy of Arabic in Cairo.
  • He has been granted a DSc degree by the University of Colombia in the USA and a DSc degree by the University of Khartoum
  • Tijani also mastered a number of languages. In addition to his native Arabic he was also competent in English, Latin, Hausa and Persian.
  • He compiled a personal library which was classified as one of the most valuable libraries acquired by an individual in the world. The collection itself contains about 19,000 items, 6000 documents which include maps dating 500 years ago, and 20,000 letters, 5000 of which are rare copies. In 1972 the library was gifted to the Khartoum University Library.
  • El Mahi’s collection included some of General Gordon’s correspondences together with some of his personal notes. The collection is the largest of its type. Professor Tijani presented some of these items to Queen Elizabeth II during her visit to Sudan in February 1964.
  • Tijani’s library also contains 2000 coins some of which date back to the times of Alexander the Great.
  • A rare collection of stamps also forms part of the library together with rare artistic tableaus.
  • Committees of which Tijani was a member include: The WHO Committee on Mental Health, The Executive Committee of the International Union of Health, The Scientific Council for Technical Assistance and other scientific bodies.
  • His original publication “Introduction to the History of Arab Medicine” was greatly praised by physicians and academics across the Arab World.
  • He was a man of varied talents and interests. He was best known for his encyclopedic knowledge of history, sciences, literature and poetry, especially those of Sudan, Arab, Muslim, and the Old World.
  • He was an Egyptologist; he pioneered the studies of ethnopsychiatry and traditional medicine in the Sudan.
  • He died in the early hours of Thursday morning 8 January 1970.

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