Women’s Practical Healing and Spirituality in the Middle East

Women’s Practical Healing and Spirituality in the Middle East

Written:  October 19, 2001


The topic for this article is women’s practical healing and spirituality in the Middle East; how does Islam mold women’s spiritual lives since so much of their time is spent in private with other women, and what do they do together?  I found this a hard topic to find resources for, but wanted to research it anyway, as one can learn something in what is not found as much as is in what is discovered.  I want to focus on these issues:  women’s physical healing, use of the djinn for divination, and reasons why women have the sort of private spiritual lives that they do.  Also, there are many misconceptions of dance, specifially “bellydance”, being used as a healing technique, but I just could not find any solid research on this rumor.  The only movement practices that I found to be used for healing are the zar, and the sema.

Part I: Annotated Bibliography


  • Alhaq, Shuja. A Forgotten Vision:  A study of human spirituality in light of the Islamic tradition.  Minerva Press, London, England. 


This book has stated what I’ve thought for a long time but wasn’t able to prove; that Sufism, the Mysticism of Islam, did not come after the fact of Islam, but has pre-Islamic roots stemming from India, especially in the “tariq” or ecstatic practices.  Also, that Islam as being practiced today by the majority is dogmatic, while its roots are of a more spiritual origin.  This book does not talk specifically about women, but I felt it was important to include in understanding the split seen in Islam today between the orthodox dogmatic laws and the mysticism that was once its heart, and how it has affected women’s lives.

  • Al-Marmouri, Amjad. Personal interview.  , 2001.


This is my Arabic language tutor, and also a cousin of the family that I dance for in Indianpolis; they are from Jordan.  He also happens to read Turkish coffee grinds for divination very well!  He has told me a lot about how the djinn are seen and used in real life, regardless of what the Quran says about it; these notions are pre-Islamic.

  • Chisti, Shaykh Hakim Moinuddin. The Book of Sufi Healing.  Inner Traditions International, Rochester, VT. 

This book specifically talks about the healing practices of Sufism, i.e. food and health, herbal formulas, the use of essential oils, fasting, breathing techniques, “dhikr” or chanting of the 99 names of Allah, and the “Infallible Remedy” which is the reciting of the opening seven verses of the Quran.  I found this book helpful, as it shows the healing techniques of men and women, religious verse and bodily healing, under the blanket of Sufi mysticism.


  • Doumato, Eleanor Abdella. Getting God’s Ear:  Women, Islam, and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.  Columbia University Press, New York, NY. 

This was the best resource I came across.  I thought it provoking in that the Arabian Peninsula was not Jewish or Christian before Islam sprang from there, even though there were tribes of the former two religions presiding there.  This book specifically deals with women in 20th century Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, and their spiritual lives and healing practices, which is in many ways in opposition to the Wahhabi Islam that is practiced there; their lives are stunted in many ways, but the women’s spirit lives on and is inconquerable in the face of the men’s rules.


  • Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock. “Saints and Spirits”; video.  Icarus Films, 1980.


This short film showed some of the actual “shewafat” or diviners (fortune-tellers) of Morocco, and the shrines of Saints that are used for healing and prayers.  Fernea said that Islam accommodates different ways to worship; that going to local shrines is okay, going to a shewafa is questionable, as they contact the djinn who predict the future, but everyone goes anyway, and usually women!  The common dominator is that this is the dealing in human affairs through healing of the mental and physical states.  The use of music for trance healing is seen in the Gnawa tribe of Morocco; they use chants and a kind of double-headed castanet in both hands.  Also, goat sacrifice is common among the Gnawa; it is descended from Bilal, the black slave freed by Mohammed.  The usage of rose water and incense is said to revitalize a person in trance, and that trance can defy a person’s physical pain, that a “grace” has befallen them.  One of the reasons people go to shrines is that Saints are seen as being closer to God, and so being closer to a Saint means that you skip a couple rungs on the spiritual ladder.  Sleeping at the shrine is done to try to have dreams there; it is thought that the dreams had there are of a higher spiritual meaning.  I found this to be a great resource in the common usage of the shewafat.

6)  Fernea, Elizabeth.  “A Veiled Revolution”.  Icarus Films.  1982.


This film documents interviews Fernea did of women in all parts of Egyptian society in 1982.  She noticed a new trend of women donning the Islamic veil, rather than adopting Western dress.  The rationale for these women was that it is the most modest form of dress, and therefore the most spiritual.  However, this part of society was rather disconcerting to the Minister of Culture at that time, a woman.  She said that if women are choosing an Egyptian national dress, then it is a good sign; but if women are choosing the veil for spiritual and societal reasons, it is putting Egypt back several centuries.

An interesting part of the film was when Fernea went to a mosque where Quranic classes were being taught by women for women.  While women have always been allowed in the mosque, they have always been delegated to the back, and the men have been up front.  It seemed these classes were being taught not on Friday, the holy day of Islam, but on an everyday basis so that women may educate themselves on spiritual matters, and also, no men were present for praying.  This showed me that at least since 1982 women have been taking a more active role in their public spiritual lives, and also in religious education.


  • Haddad, Yvonne Yazbeck, and Esposito, John, L., editors. Islam, Gender, and Social Change.  Oxford University Press, New York, NY. 

This is a compilation book of several articles; the one I focused on is called, “Women and the State in Jordan—Inclusion or Exclusion?”, by Laurie E. Brand.  This was of particular interest to me, as I would like to do my graduate fieldwork in Jordan.  The country of Jordan has been noted for its moderate form of Islam, and as an ally to the West; it is generally thought that women in Jordan have much more freedom than their Arab sisters in other countries.  While this may be true in the private homes of Jordanian women, still much has to be accomplished for women outside the home.  The most striking information in this article to me was about the Muslim Feminists who have attempted to reconstruct through historical and textual analysis an original Islam by stripping Islam, as it is presently practiced, of the influence of external factors and developments that occurred following the life of the Prophet (pbuh).  The argument is that Islam has been hijacked by patriarchy to oppress women and that the earliest Islam in fact represented progress for women (p. 106).  Many of these patriarchal ideas about women are in fact pre-Islamic tribal beliefs, and Islam came along partly to give women more rights.  Unfortunately, these tribal morals pertaining to women still persist, and are getting confused with true Islam.  Independent interpretation, or “bab al-itjihad”, is another trend that argues that the door should be opened to reinterpret the Quran in light of present-day considerations (ibid).  These movements are a start, but are definitely the minority; it will take great influence for the patriarchal form of the current Islam to change in the favor of women’s rights, but I feel that we must start somewhere and not stop until we do see Islam interpreted the way it was intended by The Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).  For all of the modern Jordanian women’s rights in comparison to their sisters in other Arab countries, they are still excluded from power outside the home in many ways; they are still second-class citizens, even in that modern Islamic state, and women’s spirituality must take place mainly in the home.

  • Knysh, Alexander. Islamic Mysticism:  A Short History.  Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, The Netherlands. 


While this book covered most of the historical perspectives on Sufism as the former book in this bibliography concerning this topic, I found this book helpful on defining the specific Sufic practices of the path, or “tariq”.  Namely, these are:  khalwa, dhikr, and sema. Khalwa is the silent and solitary chanting of the name or one of the 99 names of Allah; it emphasized isolating oneself from others, and ascetism.  Some tariqas, or Sufi orders, advise this, such as the Naqshbandi order of Uzbekistan, while others, such as the Mevlevi of Turkey, say that one needs the Sufi community to keep one in line and keep one from going to excesses.  Dhikr is the actual chanting of the names of Allah, the “remembrance” of Him through saying his name, out-loud and with others present, namely the Sheikh of the order; this is a method to polish the mirror of the spiritual heart.  Sema is the “time of listening”, particularly to sacred sound, and also listening to what Allah is saying to you while doing the sema, and also the dancing that accompanies the sema.

Again, this book does not talk about women involved in Sufism, as that mainly happened in early Sufism, and only lately have women been allowed back into some of the Sufi orders of the Middle East.  However, women are very involved in the Sufi orders established here in America.  These practices have permeated orthodox Islam in some ways, though, and are the techniques that are similar to some of the pre-Islamic healing rituals done by women in the Middle East, such as the Zar.  While these Sufi practices are rituals of attraction, and the zar is a ritual of repulsion, there are some common denominators such as solitariness, community, chanting, music and dance that can be seen in both spheres.

  • Mohammed, Hasan. Personal interview.  , 2001.


This is a friend of mine from Kuwait who has a lot of experience with a kind of divination involving Arabic letters called Jafir.  He says that you can add the letters up mathematically a certain way in a question asked, and the resultant sentence is your answer.  Hasan said that it is just too accurate, and so therefore he does not like to use it much anymore; he feels that one should rely upon trust and faith in God, instead of consulting this type of oracle all the time, as knowing the future is not always such a good thing!  I thought it was an interesting example of how the manipulations of words are used for divination, instead of using other material objects.  The book that he and others uses for reference is called, The Big Sun of Knowledge, by Ahmad Bin Ali Al-Booni, and was written sometime in the 14th century; Ali talked about this book, the cousin of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh).


  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Deciphering the Signs of God:  A Phenomenological Approach to Islam.  State University of New York Press, Albany, NY. 

Professor Schimmel of Harvard University has written many book on Islam, and I felt I should research all of them for this paper, even if not particularly pertaining to my topic, as her research is very well regarded in this field.  I found this book enlightening as to how Islam looks at the natural world in relation to God the Creator of the world.  As the natural world, i.e. the plants and minerals, etc., within it, is the basis for healing, I found it useful information as to how both genders apply these phenomenons for healing.  As most symbols can be applied to men or women, I found little in this book pertaining particularly to women, except specific verses of the Quran regarding women’s behavior with the natural world, such as during pregnancy a woman should wear a protective amulet to ward off the “Evil Eye”, which are negative thoughts of others, or demons (p. 91).

11) Schimmel, Annemarie.  My Soul is a Woman.  The Contiuum Publishing Company, New York, NY.  1997.


Apparently, according to Schimmel, the number of books dealing with women in Islam is growing substantially (p.9).  Some of the things being discussed are:  women in historical Sufism and Islam; the fact that the origin of the “soul” in Islam is feminine, while the “spirit” is masculine; in the Sufi symbolism of the Lover and the Beloved, the Lover is the feminine principle of the two, as seen in the story of Yusuf and Zulaykha; and the countless women mentioned in the Quran and Sufi lore that are spiritual, or Lovers of God, such as Mary, Khadija, Fatima, A’isha, and Rabi’a, just to name a few.

Once again, this book did not specifically talk about healing practices, or use of the djinn specifically, but more of the woman’s spiritual role in antiquity.  I see a common thread here; that over the course of time people’s high regard of women as in the days of the Prophet (pbuh) has dwindled as people’s lethargy and complacency have taken hold of society, which has in turn pushed women back into seclusion and forced them to practice their spiritual lives in private.

12) Schimmel, Annemarie.  The Mystery of Numbers.  Oxford University Press, New York, NY.  1993.


I was a little disappointed in this book; while the subject was numerology, it was more about the history of numbers than the divination associated with them.  Being that Schimmel is an Islamic scholar, I thought surely she would touch upon geometry, and the secrets behind the numbers involved in the geometric patterns of art so common to Islam, but not a word did she say, that I could see.  Even her explanations for the esoteric meanings behind numbers did not fit with the Greek gematria that I have read about elsewhere, even though she mentioned gematria.  I was hoping that this book would say something about divinational practices using numbers, but she did mention the chronograms of Islamic poems as being relevant to numbers.  Also, there is a lot of emphasis on numbers and their influence on a culture’s belief systems.

13) Schimmel, Annemarie.  Mystical Dimensions of Islam.  University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC.  1975.


In this book Schimmel goes into depth about her knowledge of Sufism, or the Mysticism of Islam.  She talks briefly about women’s roles, but saves most of it for her book above, My Soul is a Woman.  A few things to note, however, are:  the term “nafs” means the desires of the lower soul, and is likened to a seducing woman; and, Sufism and Medieval Christianity equating a woman with “the world”, a negative image of material reality vs. the positive image of spiritual reality.  Sufism is the most liberal branch of Islam, and even they have an ambivalent attitude towards actual women.  What I believe Schimmel is trying to convey is that in Sufi stories there is the inferior soul, and there is the superior soul, which the latter is what we strive for; but women are always regarded as the same as the inferior soul, instead of it being a part of every psyche, male and female!  The Prophet (pbuh) saw this, and regarded women highly, stating that “God has made dear to me from your world women and fragrance, and the joy of my eyes is in prayer” (p 21).  It’s too bad that this sentiment has been lost to others since his time.


14) Taymeeyah, Ibn; abridged, annotated, and translated by Philips, Abu Ameenah Bilal.  The Jinn (Demons).  Tawheed Publications, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.  1989.


This was the only scholarly book I could find on the jinn and how Islam looks at them.  It is packed with information on describing the jinn, possession, exorcism, and the difference between good and bad jinn.  Apparently, there are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim jinn who have converted.  Jinn are seen as the equivalent of humans in the pantheon of creatures made by Allah but they are invisible to humans, and their temperament is more childish and volatile than that of humans, therefore they are seen as dangerous.  Philips’ translation of Taymeeyah’s work talks about different rituals done to attract the jinn’s’ favor, but that it is a waste of time, as all is in God’s hands anyway, and these rituals are similar to walking against the wind, as in the end one will have to account for one’s actions on the Day of Judgment.

15) UNESCO.  Social Science Research and Women in the Arab World.  Frances Pinter Publishers, Paris France.  1984.


The article I focused on in this compilation book of several articles was, “Survey of Research on Women in the Arab Gulf Region” by Farida Allaghi and Aisha Almana (p. 14-40).  This article only covered data on women up to 1984, but I found it useful to get a background in the women’s liberation movement of the Gulf Region; this is the area of:  Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.  The state that the women’s movement started in Egypt in the 1930’s, but that it did not spread to other Arab countries until the 1950’s and ‘60’s (p.14).  They say that this movement is made up of women who are looking at all forms of injustice towards them, refusing their low status, and aspiring to gain their full rights in all sectors of life (ibid).  While most of the research looked at in this article focused on education, and work, little is said about women engaging in a more public spiritual life, such as having their own time to pray at the mosque while the men aren’t there, and holding classes on the Quran at the mosque.

Part II:  Essay

While researching women, religion, and healing in some of the Islamic Middle East, I discovered that the societal women’s liberation movements could not be separated from their spiritual lives.  The reason for this is that Islam is a way of life, not just a set of rules about God; the Shari’a is a set of laws on how members of an Islamic society should conduct themselves at home and in the public which directly affects the governments of Islamic nations, and it should be noted that their society is gender segregated.  While I certainly cannot look at all Islamic countries, and all aspects of society, I have decided to focus on the region of the Persian Gulf, and Morocco.  I have divided the material into the differences of how society structures healing techniques for each gender, what appears to be Pre-Islamic healing, and what appears to be Islamic healing; “shamanism”, and spirit possession certainly infiltrate all of the above.  As resources on definite facts in this area are scant I will be linking together different sources and making my own conclusions; the best resources by far on actual healing techniques are Getting God’s Ear:  Women, Islam, and Healing in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf by Eleanor Abdella Doumato, Philip’s translation of Taymeeyah’s essay of the Jinn, and Fernea’s film on Moroccan healing.  The rest of my resources have given me the context and historical perspective with which to look at these healing techniques.

The information below deals with traditional Arabic society, not people educated in Western society.  In the Islamic gender-segregated society women’s realm of influence is the home; men’s is the public sphere.  Therefore, religion and healing take place for each gender in their prospective areas; however it is important to realize that the treatment is always keyed to the expectations of the patient (Doumato, 2000, p. 131).  As men deal more with Islamic scripture, it only makes sense that the type of healing they impart deals with words, and especially holy words of the Quran.  As men are allowed more access to education, and religious guidance, their cures entail writing amulets, uttering healing words correctly, and prescribing “Prophetic” medicines (ibid).  Women, however, are not as educated, and therefore their level of expertise is usually not as scientifically or religiously elevated, although individuals may have more experience than some of the male healers.  The women’s knowledge is of practical experience and heterodox rituals, prescribing herbal cures and homemade amulets as prophylactics against disease, and votive offerings to facilitate the intervention of the supernatural (ibid).  Women could also utter healing words, but only up to their level of expertise; as a result of lack of education, women’s healing is regarded in less esteem than men’s, and their access to the best medicines limited (ibid).

The cause of illness has a religious base, too.  While it is believed that there is a reason behind most diseases, and that God knows best, there is a common belief in witchcraft, and malevolent spirits, in the form of Satan or jinn, who are seen as “pesky impish creatures” (ibid) that can infect the victim with disease and maybe possess them; but God is seen as in control of all his creatures, so he is never entirely “off the hook”, according to Doumato.  Rather, since God has created all diseases, He has also created all of their cures; realizing that the outcome of any treatment is in God’s hands, people in Najd, Saudi Arabia where Doutmato did her research came to the healers in flocks; even with the acceptance of fate people were willing to try to be cured of their disease, “insh’Allah”, or God willing.

In the documentary film of healing in Morocco, Fernea saw the use of “shewafat”, or fortune-tellers, that sought out the advise of the jinn for psychologically helping their clientele, and also the people going to Saint’s shrines to pray for a cure.  Even though the people know that Islam does not condone the use of the jinn, or praying to anyone but Allah, such as a Saint, for healing, it seems to me that people will go anyway!  Hope for a cure is strong medicine, despite the knowledge that everything is fated and in God’s hands.  Whether man or woman as the healer, it is the prestige of the clients that defines a healer’s reputation, and hence their skills rely upon how much practical experience they get (ibid, p. 144).

Men’s Healing:

Even thought this is a paper on women’s healing, I would like to briefly take a look at the different forms of men’s healing.  According to Doumato they are:  ink, spit, and holy words; in the Moroccan film some of the shewafat were men, and almost all of the Saint’s were men.  As men have more access than women to the mosque in traditional society it is their spit that is collected outside the door by women wishing to use it to heal their sick ones at home.  It is believed that since they have just finished their prayers, and men are purer in spirit than women, their saliva has healing powers; the patient then drinks this saliva (Doumato, p. 138-9).  Ink is another “medium” with which to impart the holy words, and hence, the cure.  The ink can contain tree sap, saffron, water, salt, gum Arabic, grilled nuts, iron sulfate, honey, and carbon black, as called for in one tenth century recipe (ibid).  The words would be written on a piece of paper, pottery, or parchment, and then washed off with water or rosewater, and then the patient would drink the water containing the ink.  Apparently, this is good for many nervous ailments, and also including the pains of childbirth.  Before the advent of modern medicine these practices were common for cures; even Jesus spat in the eyes of a blind man to make him see again (ibid).  However, sometimes it is the placebo effect that is actually working; if the patient believes that the ink, spit, or holy words will work, they often do.

Another form of divination by mainly men is called Jafir.  As mentioned in the bibliography, it is a type of mathematical system of adding up the letters in a question to get an answer.  It is not a simple process, as there are many sophisticated equations one must perform for each letter, but according to Mohammed (personal interview, 2001) the answer is usually, uncannily correct.  Hasan Mohammed is from Kuwait and studies engineering, and while he was at university in his home country the book of The Big Sun of Knowledge, an ancient Arabic text written by Ahmad Bin Ali Al-Booni was passed around his circle of engineering friends, as they were interested in the math involved; it is not commonly known to most Muslims, even Islamic scholars.  He said that it is believed that there is a secret language hidden within every language, and that all languages can be broken down by numbers to this secret language; it is a pre-Islamic mysticism of the Arabian Peninsula that I thought was strikingly similar to the mysticism of Judaism, or the Kabala.  However, I thought this was an interesting example of how men use words for divination and healing.


Women’s Healing:


Now I would like to turn to the specifics of women’s healing techniques.  According to Doumato they are prophylaxis (preventative or protective devices/medicines), witchcraft (negative manipulations), exorcisms (expulsions of negativity), trial by ordeal (a kind of sympathetic magic technique using an inanimate object to judge the owner’s innocence or guilt), zar (a communal ritual of expulsion of negative energy manifesting as physical or mental disease), midwifery (pregnancy and child-birthing specializing), and the use of fragrance and herbs (a kind of ancient aromatherapy and herbal medicine).  I would like to add as far as divination is concerned for psychological healing the reading of coffee grinds is a skill many Arabic women and some men possess (Al-Marmouri, 2001, personal interview).  For I know personally that many an hour can be spent with the diviner reading the swirling patterns in the grinds at the bottom of a cup of Turkish coffee and that it can be as mentally healing as going to a therapist!  Also, the shewafat, or fortune-tellers, provide a similar psychological service; they use cards and other “mediums” with which to contact the jinn for answers to questions by their clients (Fernea, 1980, video).  Going to Saint’s shrines can be a communal prayer session that leads to healing, as well (ibid).

Witchcraft is primarily seen as a female phenomenon; it is defined by Doumato as “the influence of wicked spirits and the reaction of natural forces on them” (p. 159).  These forces are most likely to descend upon those who are weak in their faith, and the Wahhabi Islam (a kind of fundamental literal approach to Islam that will be discussed later) practiced in Najd, Saudi Arabia where Doumato did her research see women as being some of the most afflicted.   As Quranic prayer is said to be the best medicine for one who has been inflicted with witchcraft, it is ironic that women are the least likely to be able to administer this medicine as they are not as educated in religious text as men.  So, women are the “perpetrators, victims, and incompetent healers in a disreputable transaction” (ibid, p. 160).  A common excuse for witchcraft is the “love spell”; animism in the form of sympathetic magic is the principle operating underneath the love spell.  Dream interpretation is another form of “witchcraft”, as well as astrology, and any divination involving spirits.  The use of amulets to ward off the Evil Eye, while very common throughout the Middle East, according to the extremist Wahhabists in Saudi are seen as anti-Islamic; they are accepted, however, by most Sunni and Shi’a sects of Islam.  As this form of Islam was used as a vehicle for expansion by the government it is no wonder that tribal healing techniques were being quelled so that the new politicians could usurp the people’s personal and tribal power.  Witchcraft is seen as a crime against religion as only God should be addressed in granting requests from the supernatural; just as the government did not want the people to ignore them, they saw that the people should not ignore God in being the ultimate bestower of fortune.  Hardly true Islam, in my opinion.  Even though the government forbade all forms of “witchcraft” in Saudi, it most certainly still went on, as it does in most all other areas of the Islamic world, except for in Najd, Saudi Arabia in the late 1990’s and perhaps still now.

Attacks of melancholy, hysteria, anger, excess foolish talk, delirium, fainting, convulsions, or symptoms of illness that could not be diagnosed or do not respond to medical treatment would fall into another category than possession by malevolent spirits; a certain spirit called a Zar.  The Zar is an invisible being that enters the body of the opposite sex, and demands things for the possessed; the literal translation of Zar is “visitor” (ibid, p. 171).  There are actual societies of women who congregate in each other’s homes specifically for these Zar ceremonies in most areas of the Gulf and some of North Africa, but not in the town of Najd where Wahhabism took firm root.  The use of music and dance are central to the Zar ritual, and most of the musicians come from East Africa (ibid).  As the form of Islam that is being practiced today subjects women to their homes most of the time, isolation is common amongst women who have not been educated and do not work outside the home, or are too old to keep up with the rapid expansion of Westernization that separates families from the traditional Arabic community lifestyle.  These societies provide a fellowship for women that would otherwise not be available.  The Umm az-Zeeraan, or head female leading the Zar ritual, are often women from the marginality of society, and often East African black women.  These rituals of antidotes to isolation and depression have become increasingly popular, and I can only guess that this is because the need is so great for women to congregate and share each other’s stories; when the hunger is there, one will find a way to feed it.

Prophylaxis such as amulets to ward off the Evil Eye come in many forms; these are worn on the body, and placed in the home.  Some common forms are miniature Qurans in silver cases hung around the neck, and the blue glass beads with an “eye” painted in the middle, or a turquoise stone in a gold setting; anything with blue in it is seen as a ward against negative energy from either others witchcraft or negative thoughts, or against negative spirits (ibid, p. 149).  There are also verses of the Quran that can be written on a piece of paper and worn on the body or placed in the home that have the same effect.

The trial by ordeal method of divination was very interesting to me.  A human “medium” is not used as the judge, but rather the personal inanimate objects of the accused or any inanimate object are used to assess the verdict.  A great example Doumato uses is the case of stolen money in Jeddah a hundred years before her arrival in Saudi.  The suspects were servants of a household, and the sheikh gathered them together and said a prayer, then gave them each a piece of paper to swallow; he told them that whoever could not swallow the paper was guilty.  Only one could not swallow it, and confessed his guilt and made restitution (ibid, p. 170).  Whether this is an effective method of divination is questionable in my opinion, as it rather sounds like the “witch hunt” of the 18th century in Salem, Massachusetts!  However, it is a method steeped in tradition employed by Arabs.

There are few forms of what we would call surgery in Arabian culture, although the skill of the midwife may entail some cutting of the flesh, and circumcision of the male is most definitely a common surgery (ibid, p. 188-90).  Female circumcision is not indigenous to the Arabian Peninsula, but was once practiced, and it is thought that the black slaves from East Africa may have brought the custom (ibid).  Bonesetting is another common practice to many Bedouin tribes of the desert.

The use of smells is seen as something to constitute a cure, also.  While a person is not seriously ill, good smells, such as food or perfume, are seen as beneficial, and bad smells, usually body odors or something of the like, are seen as harmful.  However, if one is seriously ill, sweet smells can be harmful (ibid).  Herbal formulas taken as medicine are also common for cures of disease (ibid).

Pre-Islamic vs. Islamic :

What I have noticed in all of these methods for curing is the predominant use of practices that seem to stem from the Bedouin desert cultures before the advent of Islam.  Polytheism, or the belief in “shirk”, other gods besides Allah, was a common factor of the Arabian Peninsula before the Prophet Mohammed’s time (pbuh).  When Islam came it united the tribes in a belief in one God, Allah; however, this God was also present before Islam.  It seems to me that the use of these healing techniques mentioned above are still present in most of the Islamic world, except for the extreme fundamentalist states such as the Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia, and recently in places such as Afghanistan.  Doumato stated that most Sunni and Shi’a sects of practicing Muslims still incorporate their tribal healing beliefs into Islam.  However, fundamental Islam seems to be a governmental tool to “crack down” on the ignorant Bedouins, and make them conform to state laws.  I really do not have much patience for fundamentalism in any religion, whether it is Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, as I believe literal translations of sacred text can be a very dangerous way to interpret the Word of God.

I personally use the following metaphor when asking myself whom I should pray to for what:  I think of the world of God’s creation as a family.  Usually it is best to go to Dad or Mom (Allah) when you want something; after all, He/She is the Creator of all things, and therefore has the most power to help you with your problem.  However, sometimes your parents can not be bothered with small things, so then you go to your aunts, uncles, cousins, siblings, etc. for help.  These latter people can translate as helpful jinn, angels, or other spirits in the universe.  However, one must have a personal relationship with these other beings, as just with humans, as one does not know if one can trust them; they must be tested to see if they have good intentions, or are tricking you for their own fun and games, or because they are working on someone else’s behalf.  This uncertainty of trust is perhaps why these religions of the Book say to go directly to God, because He can always be counted on for being on your side.

Another reason I think fundamentalism is not the real religion is the position it has put women into in these societies that practice it.  I know from reading Sufi stories, and also Taoist stories, for that matter, is that they are spoken in metaphors of the Inferior vs. the Superior voice of the soul.  The Inferior voice is soft and weak and succumbs to suggestion very easily, and may even seduce others; it likes to indulge in the senses and is very selfish.  The Superior voice is strong, ascetic, and patient, and will behave in a more rational manner.  It can be very easily be misconstrued that real women are the Inferior voice, and real men the Superior voice, as women are more emotional, and men more logical on the whole.  However, these are metaphors for the struggles of the psyche that is within all humans!  It should not be taken literally, as humans have male and female parts of their psyches!  One must strike a balance between these two forces in order for their soul to grow and reach God.  These fundamentalists have used these metaphors against women to control them, and hence, society.  It is really sad to me, as when Islam came to be it was a good thing that liberated women.  Mohammed (pbuh) loved women, and his religion gave them many freedoms they did not have in their societies before him.  However, over time the pre-Islamic notions of women’s roles have crept back into Islam, and the good that was done by him was undone.


I agree with the Feminist Movement in Islam that says that Islam has been hijacked by the patriarchy and used for their own selfish needs to control government and society, and it is time for Islam to be reinterpreted.  In light of the present circumstances the world is facing this need is greater than ever.  Women’s spiritual lives are suffering as a result of the fundamentalist approach to Islam, and as a result of their suffering, the whole Islamic society is suffering.  While there is no evidence that any of the societies in the Middle East (not Islamic North Africa) were ever matriarchal, women were once given more powerful roles within their communities, and that has been taken away from them.  I believe this is great benefit and merit to many of the pre-Islamic healing techniques, and they should be used, not destroyed.