Last year, the BBC reported on a case where four family members were found guilty of murder. The victim, Naila Mumtaz, an expectant mother, was found smothered in the home she shared with her husband, Mohammed, in Birmingham, England. Mohammed and his parents, Zia Ul-Haq and Salma Aslan, along with his brother-in-law, Hammad Hassan, denied the allegations and defended themselves by claiming that Naila’s injuries were self-inflicted, and that she was possessed by a jinn (djinn), an Islamic evil spirit, similar to the Christian concept of a demon.
Although it received some media attention, this was not an isolated case. Catrin Nye (BBC) reported a rise of criminal abuse in the UK related to the exorcism of jinn (a practice called “Ruqyah”) in recent years. Some of these cases have resulted in the victims’ death, with the so-called “healer” (“raaqi”) often escaping punishment, being hidden by members of their communities. Even in the majority of cases, where death does not occur, we find victims of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and other mental health issues being denied the proper medical treatment in favor of exorcism.
The jinn are described in the Qur’an (55:15) as a race of creatures with free will, created from a “smokeless flame” by Allah. They are physical in nature, but are invisible to humans. The fact that the jinn have free will means that they can be good, evil, or neutral. However, Islam’s Satan, known as Iblis or Shaytan, was the only jinn to be considered equal in standing to the angels. The Qur’an tells the story of the creation of Adam, where Allah commands the angels to prostrate before the freshly minted human. Only Iblis refuses (7:11-12). This story may be the reason behind the general view of the jinn as essentially malevolent.
The jinn are said to have the power to possess matter in our world. They can possess whole human bodies or can possess specific organs. The possession is generally believed to be the result of a magical attack inflicted by an evil magician. Symptoms include a feeling of heaviness about the head or shoulders, distasteful reaction to reading or hearing verses from the Qur’an, an anxious reaction to the azan (call to prayer), nightmares, suicidal tendencies, auditory hallucinations, withdrawal from society, irrational anger, and others. It is also said that the jinn can cause someone to be unsuccessful in business, schooling, and reproduction.
The general nature of these symptoms makes it fairly easy to diagnose almost anyone with possession, especially victims of mental health disorders like schizophrenia, psychosis, or bipolar disorder. There is a cultural stigma against disorders of this kind within the Islamic community, making it desirable to attribute these issues to the interference of jinn, as it lays the blame on an external source.
Ruqyah is traditionally performed by reciting certain passages of the Qur’an in Arabic. While these passages are read, the raaqi will blow air into their cupped hands, and then pass the hands over the body of the possessed. Sometimes, the raaqi will enter into conversation with the jinn, and will urge it out of the person’s body.
While the described method of Ruqyah does not seem violent or painful, there are others that aren’t so harmless. Victims are sometimes tied or held down, some are beaten with sticks, and some, like Naila Mumtaz, are actually smothered. The blame is always put upon the possessing jinn, who will make the victim thrash or enter into what doctors know as epileptic seizures (a noted symptom of possession). Obviously, this type of Ruqyah can have devastating results.
Health officials continue attempts to curb these traditional views, but belief in jinn possession is still prevalent in modern Islamic culture. And while it would be presumptuous to say that the jinn do not exist, we cannot ignore the very real mental illnesses that we know do exist. Some of these disorders become worse with time and lack of treatment, and by ignoring modern science and attributing these symptoms to a supernatural source, the individuals who make these judgments are guilty of criminal negligence. As long as the stigmas against mental health continue to proliferate in Islamic communities, law enforcement and health officials are fighting a battle they cannot win.
An example of Ruqyah performed by Younus Mirza, a raaqi in India