In Malaysia, Islamic spiritual healing seeks scientific recognition
KUALA LUMPUR, April 21 — In 2006, the Health Ministry started offering traditional and complementary medicine (T&CM) in public hospitals, ranging from traditional Malay massage, acupuncture, herbal therapy for cancer, to Ayurveda therapy.
While recognised in the National T&CM Policy, Islamic spiritual healing that mostly consists of reciting Islamic scriptures and supplications to heal illnesses, has yet to find mainstream acceptance.
Packaging the treatment as “Islamic psychospiritual therapy”, several psychiatrists and religious experts are now lobbying for its inclusion along modern medicine. But a big barrier remains ahead of them: empirical scientific evidence.
“Islamic psychospiritual therapy must prove itself capable to help in rehabilitating emotional disturbance, anxiety and depression,” said Datuk Prof Dr Azizan Baruddin, the director-general of the Institute of Islamic Understanding Malaysia (Ikim) yesterday.
“It must also prove itself capable in helping solve psychosis disorder, personality disorder, and problems involving the LGBT,” she added, referring to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.
Azizan was speaking in a conference organised by Ikim on the topic, bringing together dozens of experts from both scientific and spiritual fields, in order to develop a cohesive module to offer the therapy as a mechanism and intervention method in mental health treatment.
Among the speakers were two psychiatrists who have started using the therapy as a means to cure post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and rehabilitate victims of substance abuse.
“I am confident this Islamic psychospiritual has its place, not just in Malaysia but across the world. But for that we need to have it as more scientific,” said Dr Rafidah Bahari of Cyberjaya University College of Medical Sciences, whose research is on PTSD.
Reciting scriptures as healing method
At the heart of the therapy is a concept called “ruqyah”, which stems from the belief that ailments are caused by djinns and other supernatural beings, and that the recital of Islamic scriptures and supplications could consequently heal the body.
The practice is split into two categories — Shariah-compliant and otherwise — with the latter commonly associated with shamans who mix ancient pagan practices with Islamic teachings. Modern faith healers differentiate themselves by putting themselves in the first category.
But even when it is Shariah-compliant, the practice may seem fantastic and fanciful to those more accustomed to evidence-based medicine, as demonstrated by another speaker in the conference, faith healer Mohd Fauzi Mustaffa.
The president of the Malaysian Islamic Healing Practitioners Alliance, or Gapimma, said that between 80 and 85 per cent of their patients sought the healers to rid themselves of “spiritual hauntings” ranging from black magic to possessions and hexes.
Fauzi also presented a long list of mental and physical ailments that he claimed can be resolved just by reciting scriptures.
Anxiety, rage, sadness, fear, envy, insomnia, impotence, venom poisoning, unattractive appearance, bleeding, toothache, lack of appetite… these are but a sample of conditions he said were treatable with prayer recitals.
He even related briefly that one patient was miraculously healed from Stage IV cancer moments after a “ruqyah” session, to the point of skipping a doctor appointment after declaring herself “cured of cancer”.
Stage IV refers to when the cancer has spread to organs or vital parts of the body. Survivability at this point is often low and requires extensive radiotherapy and chemotherapy treatments.
While confident Islamic spiritual healing and “ruqyah” would work, Fauzi is equally prepared for when they do not.
“If the ruqyah heals, then it heals. But if it doesn’t work, it is because Allah has not permitted it yet,” said Fauzi.
“There are many dimensions of healing … Even if one is not healed, at least he will be relieved. Relief is also healing.”
Lack of validity, reliability in the field
Despite that nonchalance, other presenters were more committed towards the need for empirical scientific evidence to support Islamic psychospiritual therapy’s bid for acceptance among modern medicine.
Dr Zul Azlin Razali, a psychiatrist with Universiti Sains Islam Malaysia, admitted that there is concern over not only the validity, but also the reliability of the therapy, despite the volume of scientific literature and case reports on the topic.
“One researcher may formulate a model for therapy, but others do not wish to apply that model and test it with other populations … We don’t have randomised controlled trials. That’s what we don’t have,” Dr Zul Azlin said.
Quoting a 2011 paper titled Empirically based psychology of Islam, Dr Zul Azlin pointed out that systematic, rigorous and large-scale scientific psychological research on Muslims has been particularly sparse.
“None of them is valid, and none of them is reliable. At least so far. That is based on my rough observation,” he said on Islamic therapies.
Still, the work goes on. Dr Rusdi Abd Rashid of University of Malaya’s Centre of Addiction Sciences, who uses the therapy to supplement methadone maintenance treatment for victims of substance abuse, said he has already started on randomised controlled trials.
Dr Rafidah, admitting that her proposed treatment for PTSD has not gone through the same scrutiny, also has expressed her hope to be awarded a grant for such trials.
Academic discourse on Islamic healing is not new. In November 2014, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia held a forum on spiritual beings and black magic. Earlier this year in February, Universiti Sains Malaysia was set to host a seminar on “santau”, the Malay supernatural act of curse and poisoning, before it was cancelled.
In May 2015, Universiti Malaysia Pahang had made the news for promoting a RM8,750 anti-hysteria kit. The director of the centre responsible for the kit, Dr Mahyuddin Ismail, was among those present at Ikim’s conference.
For Ikim’s Azizan, the conference was at least a starting point to formulate a body or agency at the federal level to further develop the field.
“As a therapy that must be seen scientifically, there has to be more scientific research that becomes the baseline in Islamic psychospiritual policies and practices.
“What is more important is to come up with a definition of standard operating procedures according to local lens and culture,” she said in her speech.