Faith, trust, lack of access to quality care lead resurgence in religious healing among Arab Muslims
By Larbi Megari*
The two shops – one for men and one for women – stand across the street from one another in this East Algiers neighborhood where large families crowd into small apartments above modest, ground-floor stores.
An iron gate opens to lead visitors needing medical attention from the uneven, cracked sidewalks to a waiting room. Later, in a small room lacking the diagnostic tools and sanitary precautions of a modern doctor’s office, practitioners will make incisions under their skin, and use a suction device to draw out what is believed to be “harmful” blood lying below the surface of the skin.
The practice known as wet cupping has ancient roots in Chinese and Middle Eastern culture and is a form of alternative medicine practiced in the East and West. But what makes it particularly prized by many Muslims is a teaching attributed to the Prophet Mohammed (Peace be upon him): “The best of remedies you have is cupping (hijama).”
At a price of 500 Algerian Dinar, or about $5 in U.S. currency, customers such as Fairouz, 40, also find in wet cupping shops affordable solutions to their physical and mental ills.
“This is the third session of wet cupping,” she says. “This time I am doing it only to relieve anxiety and stress that I am suffering from. But next time I will do it to treat varicose veins.”
She is not alone.
Wet cupping shops, along with stores selling medicinal herbs with roots in Islamic scripture, are increasingly familiar sights in East Algiers and in working-class neighborhoods throughout the Arab world.
So, too, are lines forming inside mosques for the practice of Ruqyah, where spiritual leaders recite the Qur’an and say supplications over the sick seeking healing.
For those who cannot make it to the mosque, there is an expanding amount of Arabic-language satellite television programming offering on-demand spiritual healing. On the Al-Hakika channel, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Hashimi advises callers to stay next to their television set for his healing prayers.
In a Saudi Arabia study, nearly 85 percent of participants said they or a member of their family have used alternative treatments, including prophetic medicine, for physical or mental ailments. More than a third said someone in their family used wet cupping.
And a 2012 Pew Research center survey found more than four in 10 Muslims in Iraq, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia said they had enlisted the aid of religious healers when they or a family member were ill.
Why are people in the Arab world rushing back to the use of prophetic medicine?
The answers are complex, and range from issues of faith to affordability to trust.
Belief matters: “Second to faith, no one has ever been given a greater blessing than health” is one of nearly 130 prophetic sayings on medicine and health providing Muslims with a large amount of practical advice and encouragement for religious healing. The Pew survey found that in some countries, Muslims who pray several times a day are more likely than those who pray less often to use traditional religious healers. In Jordan, for example, 47 percent of those who pray more than once a day have turned to traditional healers, compared with 31 percent of those who pray less often.
Affordable care: Don’t look for wet cupping shops in the fashionable neighborhoods of downtown Algiers or in other Arab cities where the well-off have access to quality care either at home or abroad. But income inequality also means medical inequality for many with little alternative. In the Saudi Arabia study, three-quarters of participants cited the low cost of alternative medicine. For Fairouz in East Algiers, the cost of a wet cupping session is less than a tenth of what she paid for medical imaging costs for her varicose veins, and four times less than a visit to a doctor.
Safety first: Prayer, wet cupping and medicinal herbs are considered to be relatively safe treatments. There is a huge literature across the globe and in the Arab world on the harmful side effects of the chemical substances present in conventional medicines. Natural medicines, especially herbs mentioned by the Prophet Mohammed, are an attractive alternative.
Who are you going to trust? During the Ebola crisis in Africa, there were numerous account of people who traveled far away for treatment being turned away because the medical systems were overwhelmed. So, too, have people in the Arab world had negative experiences in ill-equipped hospitals with improperly trained doctors. As a result, many have turned their backs on conventional medicine.
In East Algiers, Karim, 40, found wet cupping did not work for him. He said, however, “I think that people are rushing to wet cupping because it is recommended by the Prophet Mohammed and as you know we all have total trust in our Prophet.”
Faith works: There is a gap between what religious individuals believe are “miracles,” and the ability of science to quantify a direct causal relation between a medical cure and divine intervention. But several studies in the rapidly growing field of religion and health have indicated that belief in a loving God, along with the support of being part of a social network whose members care for one another, leads to all kinds of positive physical and mental health outcomes, including lower rates of depression and anxiety and greater overall happiness. Even the act of praying for others is associated with greater hope and optimism, studies have found.
In the Saudi study, 94 percent of participants said alternative medicine practices were effective.
But there are also fears that too great a reliance on religious healing can lead to greater suffering, particularly if faith is relied on as a substitute for medical care.
In a separate study of 225 doctors at a Saudi Arabian hospital, nine out of 10 physicians said that religion had a positive influence on health, but more than half never asked patients about religious issues. A major reason: Six in 10 doctors were concerned that religion could lead to the refusal of medically indicated therapy.
Those fears are not lessened by the popularity of television programming making extravagant promises for religious healing. On the Al-Hakika channel, Sheikh Mohammed Al-Hashimi, the founder of Al-Hashimi centers of natural herbs in 22 countries, suggests his methods may cure everything from cancer and AIDS to diabetes and hypertension. Much of the programming consists of users of Al-Hashimi centers witnessing how they have been healed after spending huge amounts of money on conventional doctors and wasting years suffering from their various diseases.
There are such practitioners among many of the world’s religions. In Christianity, it is referred to as “the health-and-wealth gospel.”
When the hoped-for healing does not take place, individuals are often left either abandoning their faith, and losing the social support system and other benefits of religion that can help them through medical crises, or struggling with guilt and self-blame as if their condition was the result of a lack of faith or divine favor.
What works best, analysts say, is when religious individuals and medical professionals work with each other in the best interest of the patient.
Doctors and hospitals who are sensitive to the spiritual needs of patients can improve health outcomes, while religious leaders can be a major source of health education and compassionate care for suffering individuals.
But the answers cannot depend on the private sector alone, many researchers also suggest. The challenge also lies with public officials to provide a medical infrastructure that enables citizens to receive quality medical care at a price they can afford.
And accomplishing that, in many parts of the world, may be the real miracle.
*Larbi Megari is a freelance writer based in Algeria.
Association of Religion Data Archives: View religious, demographic, and socio-economic information for all nations with populations of more than 2 million with the ARDA National Profiles. Resources on religion and health include citations for more than 350 research papers and the ability to explore more than 3,500 survey questions on the topic.
International Religious Health Assets Programme. The South African-based organization develops research to help religious health leaders, public policy decision-makers and other health workers in their collaborative efforts to meet the challenges of disease, to strengthen health and community systems, and to promote sustainable health.
Islamic Medicine: This website offers several links to articles providing perspectives on Islam and health.
Muslim Health Network: The Muslim Health Network offers information about health and health education.
The Religion of Islam: The website offers articles about all aspects of Islam.
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