ON Monday evening, the BBC’s Newsnight aired a controversial investigation into an aspect of Islamic theology and practise which is attracting an ever-increasing amount of attention; exorcism.
As someone who is both a practicing Muslim and an investigator of supernatural occurrences, I had a double interest in what Newsnight had to say about the matter.
First of all, let me make it clear that I most certainly do believe in the existence of the Jinn – invisible, elemental creatures who walk among us.
Some psychologists and psychiatrists argue that the Jinn do not really exist; they are merely creations of a disturbed personality and have no objective existence outside of the afflicted person’s head.
No offence intended, but this is nonsense. I have seen too much evidence to the contrary.
If you haven’t seen a Jinn-possessed person up close and personal, you have no right to pontificate on the matter.
But what of exorcism? Some of the professionals interviewed on Newsnight didn’t deny that exorcism can help; their issue was that the default setting of some Asian communities was to look for spiritual answers when, in reality, the problem often demanded the intervention of mental health workers.
In the West, some health professionals want everything their own way.
They want Muslims to accept that some people allegedly possessed by the Jinn are really mentally ill – fair enough – but they refuse to give ground themselves and admit that the opposite may also be true; some people – both the mentally ill and the mentally healthy – may actually be possessed by a Jinni.
It’s easy to criticise Islamic exorcism (and indeed exorcism in other religious traditions) by focussing on the dramatic, the dangerous and the less than successful.
There have been rare cases where victims of Jinn possession have died after being beaten by the exorcist as he tries to drive out the invisible interloper.
Actually, whether one agrees with this procedure or not, it is rare and only done as a last resort.
When finished, there should be no injuries sustained by the victim and no marks or weals on their body.
Unfortunately, it is the failures that hit the headlines.
There’s been a clutch of high-profile cases recently where people have died during exorcism – or worse, been murdered. No right-thinking person, Muslim or otherwise, would countenance such behaviour.
Unfortunately, cases like this are often presented as the norm and not the exception.
In Islamic tradition, the Jinn are believed to have been created by God before human beings.
Some are “good” and do not harass humans. Others are believed to be “wretched” and can attack and even possess humans for a number of different reasons.
They can, Muslims believe, cause physical harm to humans and also precipitate mental illness.
So, although not all people who are mentally ill are possessed by a Jinni, some – probably a small number – are.
For well over a millennium Muslim exorcists have battled the Jinn, and all the ones that I know will refer those who consult them to their doctor if they believe the problem is purely a psychological one and not a case of possession.
Some Muslim exorcists believe that talking to the Jinn is an important part of the exorcism process.
By establishing who they are, what religion they follow and why they have targeted that particular person they are, they believe, in a better position to get rid of it.
Others do not speak to the Jinn at all on the basis that they are so untrustworthy we simply can’t trust a word they say. Personally, I subscribe to the latter notion.
The practice of exorcism is a symptom of the huge cultural divide that exists between Islam and the West.
Both sides need to learn from this and be prepared to understand each other a little better.
Muslims are not going to change their belief, substantiated by the Qur’an, that the Jinn exist and occasionally possess people.
What we need to do is work with this belief as we strive to ensure that people suffering from mental illness receive the right treatment and are not stigmatised – either for their illness, or their belief in the Jinn.
* Had a strange encounter? Tell Mike at email@example.com