Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Healing Mullahs in Demand

Poor quality of mental health services thought to account for popularity of local faith healers.
By Azeez Mahmood
In the middle of a dark room, three women and a man were laid on the floor side by side. Blankets covered the bodies and faces of the women, and a Koran was placed on their heads. They seemed unconscious and their eyes were closed.

Mullah Nawshirwan, a tall, grey-bearded man, was standing by their heads, reciting the Koran loudly. Then he started beating them with a stick and shouted, "Oh jinn! Get out of the body of this Muslim."

As he beat them, they yelled without opening their eyes, their bodies shaking. This went on for half an hour then Nawshirwan told them, "Get up, the jinn left your bodies."

Nawshirwan’s home in the town of Said Sadiq, 40 kilometres east of Sulaimaniyah, is drawing people who’ve lost faith in conventional medicine and believe their illnesses have a supernatural rather than a physical or psychological cause.

People who visit Nawshirwan are convinced that a “jinn” has taken possession of their body, causing them pain or distress.

In Islamic mythology, a jinn is a supernatural, invisible creature capable of almost everything - and expelling it from the body of a sufferer though religious ritual has a long history in the region.

Sheikhs and mullahs in Kurdistan are considered sacred religious men, who can treat such afflictions. Doctors and psychiatrists dismiss their ceremonies as superstitious ritual, but many ordinary people are convinced of their healing powers.

Abdul-Rahman Abdullah, 55, has visited a number of doctors in search of a cure for his stomach pain. Doctors prescribed injections and pills and examined him with ultra-sound, to no avail.

Eventually, doctors diagnosed him as having psychological disorder and sent him to see a specialist at Sulaimaniyah hospital.

But there he felt his condition was getting worse. He believed he wasn’t being treated properly, so he left hospital and went to Nawshirwan who told him a jinn had slipped into his body and was the cause of his pain.

"He recited the Koran over my head and beat me heavily with a stick. He said 'Allahu Akbar (God is great)' again and again," said Abdullah. "I felt my body grow numb, and then felt something slip out of the top of my big toe.”

Nawshirwan, 42, whose real name is Nawshirwan Mahmood Abdullah, says he’s been expelling jinns for ten years. He never attended medical school and only has a secondary school diploma, yet he is convinced of his healing power. “I have treated many patients that no physician could heal,” he said.

Tara Ahmed, 46, a high school teacher, went to Nawshirwan because of her back pain. Like Abdullah, she had paid many visits to regular doctors but had not been cured. However, after attending a ritual at his house, she said her problem cleared up.

Nawshirwan - who charges his patients 30,000 to 50,000 Iraqi dinars (20 to 33 dollars) for a session - claims that people afflicted with a jinn show typical symptoms, "The patient suffers from migraines, backache, has difficulties breathing at night, is depressed, cries and has no appetite."

Dr Nizar Muhammed Ameen, a psychiatrist in Sulaimaniyah, says that mainly uneducated people or those from traditional families visit the faith healers. "I have highly educated patients who come to me but keep it a secret because they’re from tribal families. They know that if their families found out about their visits to a psychiatrist, they would take them to a sheikh for treatment," he said.

Dr Kareem Shareef Qarachatani, a professor of psychology at Salahaddin University, agrees that such views are widespread, saying, “Our society still has some superstitious beliefs that we inherited from out fathers and forefathers.”

But the popularity of the mullahs and sheikhs is also believed to be a consequence of the poor quality of mental health treatment in the region, "There are many psychological illnesses in our society and unfortunately our psychiatrists treat them all with drugs instead of thinking about other approaches," said Qarachatani.

Azeez Mahmood is an IWPR trainee in Sulaimaniyah.

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