Mental illness and possession

Published February 3, 2021
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

I FIRST learned about jinns in school. One afternoon, our Islamiat teacher, a dour woman with a tendency to scare us, began to talk about jinns. Like the rest of the class, I listened with rapt attention. Jinns were invisible, she told us, and were often around in desolate and unfrequented places. Unlike humans who are made of earth, the jinns were made of smokeless fire we were told.

All of this was new information for me. Terrified, I convinced myself that the stories were meant only to scare us girls. Later that day, after getting home, I brought up the topic with my mother, hoping to be reassured that this wasn’t true. No such reassurance came my way. Instead, my mother told me that the teacher was right, that jinns do exist and like humans they can be good or bad. I was 10 or 11 years old at the time and I was terrified in the way only children can be. From then on, I began to recite the quls every time I was alone. It’s a habit that has served me well.

As an adult, I began to hear jinns spoken of in conjunction with stories of being possessed. One distant family acquaintance, a woman with children, was rumored to be possessed by a jinn. The proof of this lay in the fact that the woman in question would speak in a deep voice and foreign language every time she fell into a trance-like, possessed state. Like most other such cases, this woman was being treated by a faith healer. This, of course, is what takes place most of the time such cases surface in Pakistan, in fact, much of the Muslim world.

This is markedly different from the rest of the world where symptoms such as those exhibited by this woman, speaking in different voices, reporting hallucinations, doing things that are socially inappropriate, loss of inhibition, etc are considered symptoms of mental illness. Psychiatric care for those with these symptoms relies on medications and forms of therapy other than faith healing. In Muslim societies, the question is which of these approaches — faith healing or psychiatry — is the best approach.

One wonders how many people with mental illness in Pakistan have been viewed as being possessed by a jinn.

Some direction comes from religious beliefs themselves as the scriptures mention jinns a number of times. According to these, like my teacher said, they are constituted of smokeless fire. However, they are supposed to inhabit a separate plane of existence as humans. Mediaeval Islamic studies scholar Ali Olomi says that some folklore even holds that a jinn civilisation existed on earth prior to human civilisation and seven jinn kings ruled the earth. At the same time, there is no mention of jinn possession in religious texts as relating to mental illness. In this sense, no connection is drawn between jinn, mental illness and possession at all. Many Islamic scholars hold that magic and possession are pre-Islamic beliefs that became a part of folklore.

Most Muslims continue to believe in possession and black magic today. Studies from around the Islamic world have revealed that a very large number of Muslims studying medicine believe in this supernatural phenomenon. This is in stark contrast to Western medicine, which is purely empirical, based on science alone and reliant on pharmaceutical and other biomedical approaches to treat a patient who exhibits symptoms of ‘possession’.

This is a deep and consequential conundrum. One wonders how many people with mental illness in Pakistan have been viewed as being possessed by a jinn when their anxiety, withdrawn and inappropriate behaviour and psychotic episodes are in reality mental illness. The predilection to allot a supernatural cause, imagine the person possessed, sequestering and socially excluding them as examples of evil, can severely impede their ability to get the right kind of help. And yet, this is just what happens.

Reiterating the earlier observation, recent surveys of Muslim nursing students showed that they believe in possession, black magic and the evil eye, though studying medicine. It is an open question as to which of the two sets of beliefs would dominate patient care if they had to treat a patient with symptoms that cannot easily be discerned as psychiatric or somehow supernatural.

One way to proceed in Muslim societies, where the belief in prayer is strongly rooted, is to avail the services of both those who are seen as spiritual healers and medical personnel in the treatment of patients who exhibit symptoms of psychosis. Intelligently done, and with checks, the integration of the two methods of treatment means that those perceived as having the ability to sooth and comfort with prayer and spiritual advice could provide emotional support in keeping with the religious convictions of a patient, while medical teams could ensure that all the appropriate therapies and medicines alleviate a sick person’s anguish. The combination of the two therapies, ideally with care providers working in tandem, are likely to have the best outcome for the patient.

This is not currently happening. In most of Pakistan, there is little awareness about the scientific and medical nature of symptoms like anxiety, psychosis (which can manifest themselves in various ways such as speaking in different voices, thinking you’re someone else etc) and inappropriate behaviour and the only treatment that is provided is that by faith healers, who often abuse the trust reposed in their perceived abilities. This lack of awareness means that individuals who would otherwise be able to have a complete recovery with medical intervention do not avail this option. This is a tragedy, because the evil associated with some of these phenomena are attached to these individuals and they and their families live with that stigma for the rest of their lives. The very empathy that religion prescribes is required to change this status quo and the task of doing so must begin now.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

Published in Dawn, February 3rd, 2021


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