Faith, trust, lack of access to quality care lead resurgence in religious healing among Arab Muslims

Silueta de un hombre inclinando la cabeza delante de una mezquita

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.

Los médicos y hospitales sensibles a las necesidades espirituales de los pacientes pueden mejorar los resultados sanitarios, mientras que los líderes religiosos pueden ser una importante fuente de educación sanitaria y atención compasiva para las personas que sufren.

Pero las respuestas no pueden depender únicamente del sector privado, sugieren también muchos investigadores. El reto también recae en los funcionarios públicos, que deben proporcionar una infraestructura médica que permita a los ciudadanos recibir una atención médica de calidad a un precio asequible.

Y conseguirlo, en muchas partes del mundo, puede ser el verdadero milagro.

Recursos

  • Asociación de Archivos de Datos Religiosos: Consulte la información religiosa, demográfica y socioeconómica de todas las naciones con una población de más de 2 millones de habitantes con el Perfiles nacionales de ARDA. Recursos religión y salud incluyen citas de más de 350 trabajos de investigación y la posibilidad de explorar más de 3.500 preguntas de encuesta sobre el tema.
  • Programa Internacional de Activos Religiosos para la Salud. La organización, con sede en Sudáfrica, desarrolla investigaciones para ayudar a los líderes religiosos de la salud, a los responsables de las políticas públicas y a otros trabajadores sanitarios en sus esfuerzos de colaboración para afrontar los retos de la enfermedad, reforzar los sistemas sanitarios y comunitarios y promover una salud sostenible.
  • Medicina islámica: Este sitio web ofrece varios enlaces a artículos que ofrecen perspectivas sobre el Islam y la salud.
  • Red Musulmana de Salud: La Red Musulmana de Salud ofrece información sobre salud y educación sanitaria.
  • La religión del Islam: El sitio ofrece artículos sobre todos los aspectos del Islam.
  • Foro Pew sobre Religión y Vida Pública. Los musulmanes del mundo: Unidad y diversidad. Este informe se basa en más de 38.000 entrevistas personales realizadas en más de 80 idiomas a musulmanes de 39 países y territorios.

Artículos

Libros

  • Eds: Ellison, Christopher, y Hummer, Robert. Religión, familia y salud: Investigación demográfica en Estados Unidos
    Este libro reúne a más de dos docenas de científicos sociales para explorar la investigación sobre religión, vida familiar y salud.
  • Pormann, Peter, y Savage-Smith, Emilie. Medicina islámica medieval
    Los autores abordan la tradición médica que se desarrolló en las tierras del Islam entre 650 y 1500, y su relevancia en la actualidad.
  • Verhagen, Peter, Van Praag, Herman, López-Ibor Jr, Juan José, Cox, John, y Moussaoui, Driss. Religión y psiquiatría: Más allá de las fronteras
    Este libro aborda de forma exhaustiva la relación entre la religión y la espiritualidad y la salud mental. El capítulo 7 trata específicamente de la salud mental y el islam.
  • Yucel, Salih. La oración y la curación en el Islam
    El libro explora la importancia de rezar por la salud en la cultura musulmana. Incluye los resultados de un estudio sobre el efecto de la oración en el bienestar de los pacientes musulmanes.