Doctoral student Ana Maria Vinea (Graduate Center of the City University of New York), under the supervision of Dr. Talal Asad, will undertake research on the relationship between traditional healing practices and modern medicine in contemporary Islamic societies. The focus of the research will be contemporary cultural models of mental disease, which involves a complex nexus of diagnoses, treatments, and institutions. Her focus will be on Quaranic healing and exorcism, which is increasingly popular today even though people have other choices including western psychiatric methods.

The research will be be carried out in Cairo, Egypt. The researcher will concentrate on three aspects of Quranic healing that constitute points of controversy in present-day debates: (1) the conceptualization of human psychology; (2) conceptualizations of the nature of interactions between humans and jinns (spirits); and (3) the employment of Quranic verses for healing purposes. The researcher will employ a mixture of social science research methodologies to gather data: analysis of a variety of media and archival sources; semi-structured interviews with psychiatrists, health officials, religious scholars, and Quranic healers; observations of the healing sessions of Quranic healers; and collection of illness narratives from patients. The data will be used to address the following questions: What affective dispositions and notions of normality are articulated in debates on mental disorders and how are they affected by the encounter of different treatment methods? On what bases do the actors involved make authoritative claims about mental disorders and what ideas do people invoke about Islamic orthodoxy, superstition, and science?

This research is important because it will contribute to building better theories of the dynamic relationship between different kinds of medical practices. Findings from the research also will help to devise culturally sensitive approaches to mental health treatment for Muslims in Egypt and elsewhere. Funding this research contributes to the training of a graduate student.

Project Report

This project ethnographically examined two therapies employed by suffering Egyptians—biological psychiatry and Quranic healing—as well as the public debates which have emerged around them in the past decades. These debates have concentrated on a number of key issues such as: the definition of specific patterns of behaviors and emotions, with the main contenders being various mental disorders and jinn possession; the relationship between wellbeing and ethico-religious practices; and the meaning of the generally accepted notion that the Quran is a cure, among others. Occurring in televised shows, on the pages of newspapers, and among ordinary Egyptians, such debates have taken place in response to the growing systematization of centuries-long practices of using the Quran for healing into a distinct and increasingly popular therapy known as Quranic healing (al-‘il?g bi-l-Qur’?n). While its practitioners have presented themselves as offering the only religiously permitted form of healing due to Quranic healing exclusive use of the Quran as opposed to amulets and its employment of jinn exorcism rather than their appeasement, these practices have been contested from both within and without the religious sphere, most vocally by psychiatrists. Taking as its starting point these debates as well as the practices of patients who have recourse to both therapies, this research has analyzed the complex ways in which psychiatry and Quranic healing are practically and discursively drawn together and articulated in relation to each other in contemporary Egypt. It investigated the practices of psychiatrists and Quranic healers, focusing on three interrelated aspects: 1) the concepts of afflictions and ways of being afflicted enacted in these therapeutic practices; 2) the diagnostic and treatment procedures through which these practitioners come to know these afflictions; and 3) the styles of reasoning used in claiming authority for their therapies. In addressing these issues a variety of methods for gathering data were employed: semi-structured interviews with psychiatrists, health officials, religious scholars, and Quranic healers; observations in a mental health hospital and in the healing sessions of Quranic healers; the collection of illness narratives from patients; and the analysis of a variety of media sources. The evidence collected shows that the practices of psychiatrists and Quranic healers enact different objects and entities of intervention (e.g., jinn and neurotransmitters), articulate various afflictions and conceptualization of causality, and presuppose distinct forms of therapeutic transformation. At the same time, the study also revealed moments and practices that show the intersection of Quranic healing and psychiatry and blur the dissimilarity of their ontologies, as when Quranic healers draw on psychological concepts such as suggestion and the unconscious to delimit certain affliction categories or when psychiatrists claim that the Quran can help in healing disorders like depression. This research also uncovered similarities and dissimilarities in what concerns the epistemologies of Quranic healing and psychiatry. While these practitioners root their healing expertise in different knowledge domains (the Islamic tradition and psychiatry, respectively), both groups employ a language of the ‘symptom’ as an epistemological category, both use checklists of specific symptoms in reaching a diagnostic, and base their expertise on a notion of practical experience. Despite the fact that psychiatric claims and therapies are implicitly and explicitly challenged through the therapies and popularity of Quranic healers and the practices of their patients, such challenges do not directly impact psychiatry due to its authorization as the only legitimate way of defining mental health and illness and its insertion in the state’s governing apparatus. This research aims to contribute to anthropological studies of Islam, ethics, and to medical anthropological approaches to mental disorders.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Jeffrey Mantz
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CUNY Graduate School University Center
New York
United States
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