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     Volume 9 Issue 17| April 23, 2010|

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Cover Story

The Fake Healers

Syed Zain Al-mahmood

Many spiritual healers claim to be sufi ascetics, but maintain lavish headquarters. Photo: sk enamul haque

Iqbal Chisti would not stand out in a crowd. He is a mild-mannered, non-descript man who constantly chews paan while conversing in his local dialect. His panjabi, although expensive, hangs awkwardly on his lanky frame. Iqbal could be mistaken for anything from a shopkeeper to a farmer, but he has an unusual claim to fame. He is a faith healer adored by thousands.

Iqbal is a Pir or spiritual leader of the Chistiya order with a large following in the Sylhet region. Like other Pirs of his order scattered about the Indian subcontinent, he claims a spiritual connection with Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, the famous Sufi saint of Ajmir.

Iqbal never received formal religious training, but says he inherited the Khilafah or mantle of spirituality from his father. "I try to help people as best as I can," he says. "I guide them, and try to cure their ills. But I am only the wasilah (medium)."

Iqbal's followers believe the Pir can " see" the spiritual world and recognises various diseases through mystical insight or with the help of his "pet spirits" (Jinn). He is capable of curing these diseases with his healing techniques.

According to Iqbal Chisti, the human body has nine latifah or spiritual points and healing can be achieved by paying special attention to these points. "This is the first and foremost one," says Chisti, laying his finger on a spot just above his heart.

Dr Khondoker Mokaddem Hossain, Professor of Sociology at Dhaka University, says the belief in the healing powers of holy men goes back to Vedic times. "Ayurveda or the 'science of life' was grounded in the metaphysical balance of the elements. The advent of Islam took spiritual healing to a new level. For the Sufis within the mystic branches of Islam, the healing of the sick is considered to be the most important of all services to humanity. Unfortunately, with time spirituality has been tainted by greed and materialism."

Every Thursday, after sunset, Iqbal goes to his village where he sits on a raised throne in the courtyard beside his great grandfather's tomb. There is much chanting, and burning of incense. The pir's followers give him their nazrana (gift) and seek his blessing.

Amzad Fakir was flooded with contributions from villagers after he claimed he had received a divine message in a dream.Photo: Kabir Hossain

Iqbal calls out many of them by name. "Shamsu, you want to go to Hajj, I know. Ok, your desire will come true. Salma, your husband misbehaved with you. I see the pain in your heart. I will pray for you."

Although the simple villagers are impressed by the Pir's spiritual insight, Iqbal's henchmen admit that they collect information about the villagers and brief the Pir. "We tell the Saab (Saheb) about the problems faced by the mureed (followers)," says Ramzan Ali, Iqbal Chisti's right hand man. "We do it so he can help them."

Taweej (amulets) and pani pora (blessed water) sell briskly at a shop in the corner. It is a highly profitable business model.

“These so-called spiritual healers are often landlords and they use their stature and power to oppress the poor,” says Professor Hossain. “By styling themselves as saints, they gain access to hundreds of people who are willing to work for them for free. They are far removed from the simple and ascetic lifestyle of the original Sufis."

Once a year, during the Urs or death anniversary of the original Pir (Dada Pir as the mureed call him), there is a grand celebration. It is here that Iqbal displays the full extent of his "powers".

A paraplegic patient arrives in a wheelchair and the Pir "lays hands" on him. He commands the man to get up and to the astonishment of the crowd, the man straightens up and takes a few shaky steps. "Thank God, and thanks to the blessing of the Khwaja Baba, you will be better," intones Iqbal Chisti.

At the centre of such 'miraculous' healings is what scientists call the Placebo Effect -- the tendency of any medication or treatment, even an inert or ineffective one, to show results simply because the recipient strongly believes that it will work. Many so-called 'healings' are extremely subjective. People are most often 'healed' of rather vague conditions that are not visible, such as chronic headaches.

According to Dr Mohit Kamal, Associate Professor and Head of Psychotherapy at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a patient may get caught up in the excitement of the healing service and may even experience a lesser degree of pain for a while. However, the pain usually returns shortly after the process ends.

Snake charmers are considered by many to have healing powers.

A surprising number of 'healings' are actually a simple matter of people taking credit for natural events, as though they were supernatural phenomena. Many healers claim to cure people of viral illnesses which are self-limiting. Others "heal" bone fractures taking advantage of the natural remedial process of the body. People with paralysis are 'cured' after they naturally regain some degree of muscular control.

Hundreds of faith healers like Iqbal Chisti are quietly active in Darbars (courts) scattered about the country, and they wield enormous power in some areas. Many observers consider them to be relatively benign religious figures who offer solace to sufferers. But others believe they prey on the vulnerable to create false hope.

"Faith healers take from their subjects any hope of managing on their own," says Dr. Mohit Kamal, "and they may very well take them away from legitimate treatments that could really help them."

There is a strong belief in mysticism, a fact exploited by fake fakirs. Photo: Star File

Nusrat Sharmin of Dhanmondi has a bitter memory of the time her father came under the influence of a Pir. "In the late 90s my father, an engineer, began to see this Pir named Mujibur Rahman Chisty. He came to believe that fame and fortune awaited him if he would follow the pir's guidance. He resigned from his government job and began to spend a lot of time away from home. He sold a piece of land we had in the city. I don't know if he gave the Pir money, but we certainly felt as if we were losing him." It was only after Mujibur Rahman was murdered in 2000 did Nusrat's father gradually return to a normal life.

Although most of the spiritual healers in Bangladesh are Muslim, people of all religious faiths visit them in the hope of getting a cure. Similarly, many Hindu "holy men" or Sandhus have large followings. "Faith healers are not regulated by any hierarchy," says Prof Mokaddem Hossain, "Their social recognition depends on their ability to recruit disciples and followers."

Although a few people like Iqbal Chisti claim a connection with well-known Sufi orders, most are loose cannons, and totally unpredictable. As in the case of Amzad Fakir, the vegetable-vendor-turned-faith-healer who has gained notoriety for his criminal 'treatment' methods, many traditional healers use violence on the body to force 'the spirit' into submission.

According to detailed reports published in the daily Prothom Alo, Amzad of Sirajdikhan, Munshigonj, turned into a faith healer overnight, claiming God spoke to him in his dreams. Aided by a clique of local business-people, he set up a 'darbar' where his treatment methods ranged from hanging sick babies upside down to kicking patients in the ribs. Amzad Fakir was arrested after Prothom Alo published disturbing images of the 'Pir' trampling on a pair of two and a half month old babies.

Amzad is not an isolated case. There are claims of widespread abuse, even deaths resulting from methods employed by these fake fakirs.

One woman in Ghorasal was taken to a traditional healer complaining of fever and headache. The healer gave her herbal medication for months, chanted prayers and asked her family to pour 'holy water' on her everyday. When she was finally taken to a government hospital, doctors found that her liver and kidneys had failed due to the herbal medication. She died shortly afterwards.

Some of the worst sufferers are people with mental illnesses. A study by Prof Shah Alam and Prof. Mahfuzul Haque in 1998 found that of all the patients who visited psychiatrists, 80.6% had been to a faith healer first (Bangladesh Journal of Psychiatry, Alam and Haque, 1998).

"There is a stigma attached to mental illness, which leads people to go to traditional healers instead of psychiatrists," explains Dr Mohit Kamal. "By the time they decide to go a doctor, the psychosis is often deep set, and the prognosis much poorer."

Six months into her marriage, Rehana Chowdhury, a school teacher, found that her husband was abusive and prone to drinking. "We quarrelled continuously. I became very depressed and withdrawn," says Rehana. "My in-laws took me to a pir who said I had been possessed by an evil spirit or Jinn. They said I was speaking in a man's voice, and it was really the jinn speaking through me."

According to Dr Mohit Kamal, the changes in Rehana's behaviour can be explained by a combination of emotional turbulence and physical stress. "The change in the tone of her voice was due to something called stress conversion," he says. "She was ill, not possessed."

Recalls Rehana: "I was prodded with sticks and deprived of sleep as a way of getting rid of the evil spirit. I kicked and screamed in protest, but it was of no use. Whatever I did was attributed to the Jinn." After a nightmarish few weeks, Rehana was rescued by her relatives, who took her to a psychiatrist. She made a rapid recovery after being treated for clinical depression.

What drives people to seek help from faith healers? One reason could be the woefully inadequate healthcare facilities in rural areas. Bangladesh has about 48,000 registered doctors to serve its 145 million people, and a traditional healer is sometimes the quickest and cheapest option in the remote villages.

But faith healing is not limited to the rural poor. "Many well-educated people from the cities visit faith healers," says Prof Mokaddem Hossain. "This may be due to a lack of faith in mainstream medicine. Or they may be acting out of some blind religious belief."

Mufti Muhammed Nuruddin, a teacher at the Jamia Rahmaniya Madrasah in Mirpur believes it is a lack of religiousness rather than an excess of it that leads people into the clutches of faith healers. "These are people who have been alienated from religion in some way," he suggests. "They want to surrender themselves to the Creator but don't know how. Islam teaches us to pray directly to Allah. Prayer can heal, but an intermediary is not necessary."

Amzad Fakir employed violent methods of 'healing' that carried the risk of serious injury. Photo: Kabir Hossain

In many cases there is an unholy nexus between local business-people, politicians, and the faith healers who exploit religious sentiment to make money. Advertisements claiming to cure everything from marital woes to Hepatitis B infections are a common sight on the streets of Dhaka. Despite the huge strides made by medical science, faith healing is still big business.


The Psychology Behind Superstition

Anika Hossain

“It had been four days since I lost my favourite pieces of jewellery and I was desperate. Through a

Voodoo dolls being made for black magic.

friend I learnt about this woman who could help locate stolen property, and arranged to meet her. The four of us, the woman, her husband, my friend and I sat on the dirty floor and waited nervously as she prepared to start. She pulled out a winnowing fan (kula) and a piece of paper and asked me to write down the names of everyone living in my house. After I had done this, she asked my friend to balance the edge of the winnowing fan on the tip of her forefinger from one side while she did the same from the side opposite. She then started saying a prayer under her breath and asked me to read each name out loud. At first nothing happened but when I mentioned the name of the little girl Champa (not her real name) who works for us the fan swung back and forth. She asked me to go through the list several times, and each time the fan swung when I reached Champa's name. After the fifth time, the woman told me that she was positive that Champa had stolen my jewellery. She charged me five hundred Takas for her services and sent me on my way with some rice, which she had blessed. This rice would supposedly make the culprit admit her crime. I went home and searched all of Champa's belongings but found nothing there. I even told all the help I would give them the rice if my jewellery did not turn up. The next day, I found the missing pieces of jewellery inside my closet, as though they had been there all along. I am still not sure if Champa had really stolen them but I do remember I had searched my entire closet before and the jewellery had not been there."

This was an account of an educated woman from an upper class family, who is a teacher at a prestigious school in Dhaka. Shocking because in this day and age we don't expect to hear of such beliefs existing in our society, but unfortunately, not only are such superstitious beliefs and rituals widespread in Bangladesh, but they are also a source of income for those who take advantage of peoples' ignorance or naiveté. In cases such as this, conflicts are created and innocent people are accused of crimes they may not have committed.

Psychosomatic illness may be mistaken for demonic possession.

In another case, a senior government official had been suffering from pains all over his body for quite some time. During a visit to his village home, he was told that local healers could help him with his pain. He visited one such healer who massaged his legs and then pricked a hole in one of his toes to extract what he called "bad blood." The procedure, however did not work and the patient went abroad and went through three consecutive surgeries before his condition improved. When asked why he had his toe pricked, he said, "These things help sometimes."

Superstitions and the belief in a higher power exist in every society in different degrees.

In Bangladesh, both cultural and religious superstition are intricately woven into peoples' lives, and superstitious beliefs tend to play a large part in the decisions we make everyday, for example, it is considered unlucky to leave your house right after something has been broken, or if you stumble before you leave. It is also considered unlucky if you wear red in the afternoon and after maghrib, sit with your head resting on your arm, get a haircut or walk around with your hair loose after nightfall (the jinns might possess you), if you are pregnant and you eat during an eclipse, cut your nails or comb your hair after dark, hand a knife to someone with your left hand, do not straighten a shoe which has been left upside down, your left eye twitches, turn if someone calls you from behind after dark, if you walk over someone when they are lying down, if you take only one helping of food when you are serving yourself, it is also considered unlucky if children feed their parents with their own hands and the list goes on. Of course there are positive superstitions as well, for example, it is considered lucky if your right eye twitches, it is believed that if your right hand is itching you will be receiving money and if your right foot itches, you will be travelling abroad, if you put your palms together and the lines make a perfect half moon, it is believed you will have a good looking spouse. Some people put black spots on their children to ward off the evil eye while others will never accept a compliment, saying it might jinx them. Such beliefs dictate the way people live their lives and when things go wrong, however trivial they may be, people will blame it on unlucky omens and seek help from pirs and local healers to bless them and tell them ways to correct the situation and make the effect of the so called bad omens disappear.

It is clear from the cases mentioned that ignorance is not the only contributor to such beliefs and

Tabeej and Ring (protective religious jewellery)

behaviour, although it does play a big role in many circumstance. Researchers say that wanting control and certainty is one of the driving forces of superstition. We always look for a rule or an explanation for why things happen. Situations such as job interviews, exams and others where we expect or hope to achieve a positive outcome tend to spur superstition. No matter how well prepared we are for these situations; we still have no control over the outcome. Engaging in superstitious activities reassures us that we have done just one more thing to ensure that things will go well. The greatest benefits of having superstitious belief is a sense of security and confidence we gain from it. If wearing a tabeej (amulet), a ring or having all our pens blessed before an exam have given us good results before, chances are that doing the same every time will boost our confidence and hence improve our performance. Of course this can have its disadvantages as well. Loss of the tabeej, pens or rings or overconfidence in them can result in poor outcomes.

Superstitions can also have a negative effect on our lives. Phobic superstitions, such as fear of a certain number, of broken mirrors etc can cause anxiety and influence decisions regarding future plans of travel or appointments for example. Superstitious beliefs can be used to cause harm to others. In Bangladeshi culture, a popular way to do this is to use a tabeej or voodoo dolls and try to bring harm to your enemies.

In one case, a couple living in a joint family found a tabeej sown inside their mattress, which had a piece of paper inside it, containing a diagram of a human body with arrows pointing at it's different parts, a prayer written backwards (kufri kalam) which is a common sign of black magic and the names of all the family members listed on one side, with the word bibaad which means separation written beside some of the names. They never caught the culprit, but one of the couples on the list divorced soon after. Expectations can be extremely powerful and suggestive and in a frenzy to prove their beliefs are correct, people may act in ways to ensure a certain outcome, which may prove to be harmful to others in cases such as these.

The intelligence of a person has little to do with superstitious beliefs and behaviour. Rather, these beliefs are instilled in people from a very early age. The family environment and beliefs of those around them strengthen their conviction that their irrational notions are not baseless.


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