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Jinn and Mental Health: The Dark Reality of Spiritual Healing in Our Community

spiritual healer or opportunist?

Mental disorders are increasingly on the rise in the Arab world, with depression and anxiety as the most common disorders, according to the World Health Institute (WHO). Also on the rise within the Muslim community is the notion that jinn could potentially induce psychological disturbances in humans through affliction or control. A 2018 study carried out on 49 eligible Muslim participants in the Netherlands found that 21 of them (43%) were positive that their psychiatric symptoms were the result of jinn, highlighting that the phenomenon of attributing mental health symptoms to being possessed is a widespread belief among the Muslim demographic.

In the Quran, jinn are depicted as beings formed by Allah from fire that leaves no smoke. They are referenced in 29 distinct instances, including in the section named “Al-Jinn” and one concerning King Solomon. In the Hadith (sayings of the Prophet), jinn assume a more prominent role, though their portrayal is most vivid in Islamic folklore. Drawing from these sources, jinn are envisioned as entities typically imperceptible to human sight, yet able to reveal themselves at will and exert considerable influence over us. They possess the capability to traverse vast distances swiftly, overhear conversations of humans and supernatural entities, navigate solid walls, adopt the forms of diverse animals, take control of humans, and clandestinely marry mortals to hinder their relationships. Being easily affronted and enjoying significantly longer lifespans than mankind, they are thought to settle longstanding disputes with those who have wronged them, bridging gaps across generations. Due to this inherently unequal power dynamic and the integral role of jinn within the Islamic worldview, many Muslims associate these entities with negative events.

Due to the increasing stigma against mental health within Muslim communities, families will have their loved ones treating for jinn troubles instead of helping them get therapy or seek professional psychiatric help. In many Arab, African, as well as South Asian countries, those experiencing mental health issues will typically opt for ruqyah (Islamic cleansing ritual) before considering seeing a professional for accurate assessment and appropriate support.

Ruqyah is the act of reciting verses from the Quran to exorcise demons from oneself or another person, to cure the evil eye, or to counter magic. Religious healers say the words over water, which the “patient” then drinks.

Aside from delaying the prognosis and medical treatment for what can be years, a major issue with going to a traditional religious healer to treat psychological symptoms is that a lot of women will unfortunately experience violence at the hands of those performing the exorcism to expel the evil spirit as a large number of people have been using this practice to abuse and sexually or financially exploit their clients.

Mistreatment linked to exorcism is a well-documented phenomenon as there is an increasing tendency for vulnerable people to fall prey to those using spiritual healing as a guise for control and abuse. In 2021, Hossam Metwally, a former NHS anesthetist from Grimsby in the East of England was jailed for 14-years after repeatedly trying to rid of the evil entity inhabiting his partner, Kelly Wilson’s body, via a series of exorcism ceremonies which included injecting her with near-lethal doses of drugs. Meanwhile, in 2019, a self-proclaimed Moroccan “imam” was arrested for drugging the water of his female clients before sexually assaulting them. These are just two disturbing cases out of hundreds.

In addition to documented cases, there is also plenty of anecdotal evidence. Just ask any of your friends, and they more than likely know someone who has had pain inflicted upon them as a means to expel them of jinn. In Algeria, I’ve been unwillingly dragged to several of these exorcists by family members convinced I was suffering from evil eye and black magic, and I’ve seen first hand how those performing these spiritual cleanses would physically restrain and abuse women (my aunt used to get violently beat with a hose to get the jinn out of her, even though it was evident she just suffered from anxiety), and if they resisted, it’s interpreted as the evil force or entity refusing to cooperate. I’ve even seen one unsuspecting woman have her toe crushed (because that’s where the evil entity allegedly resided) by an exorcist, as she screamed in agony.

While both men and women are susceptible to this kind of abuse and mistreatment, it disproportionately affects women more within these communities. This is largely because, within the Arab world and diaspora, due to stigma, men aren’t encouraged to openly acknowledge their struggles with mental health or seek help. Consequently, it is often not men who are paying a visit to these spiritual healers, which far outnumber mental health practitioners, with an average of one psychiatrist per 50,000 people in our region.

However, while this issue is extremely important, it’s crucial that it is tackled from a non-orientalist frame. In Evil Eye, Jinn Possession, and Mental Health Issues: An Islamic Perspective, a book by G. Hussein Rassool published in 2019, the author argues that it is vital to view mental disorders as a complex interplay of various factors, encompassing spiritual, social, psychological, and physical elements and that differential diagnosis skills can significantly contribute to providing assistance to individuals who attribute their issues to possession. Additionally, the author offers accessible resources on clinical matters, interventions, management, and evidence-based practices that can aid healthcare professionals in gaining a deeper comprehension of how possession is perceived within Muslim beliefs to help equip them to effectively engage with patients who hold such convictions.

“Muslims have a different worldview of mental health and illness and their explanatory models of illness causation in relation to mental disorders may not always be medically oriented. A Muslim patient may believe that their illness is caused by possession and it is tempting to dismiss this as a spiritual problem. Evil eye, jinn possession, and black magic are essentially a spiritual problem, but mental disorders are a multifactorial affair, in which spiritual, social, psycho-logical and physical factors may all play an aetiological role,” writes Rassool.

Ultimately, understanding the intricate interplay between cultural beliefs, mental health, and spiritual practices is essential to creating a more supportive and comprehensive framework for individuals struggling with mental health issues within the Muslim community. By bridging the gap between tradition and modern medical understanding, we can pave the way for a more inclusive and effective approach to mental health care that respects individuals’ beliefs while prioritizing their well-being.

Illustration by Aïcha El Beloui

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