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Non-Muslims look to Islamic healers for help

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Kim Rahmana Phipps performing a healing. (Courtesy of Kim Rahmana Phipps)

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Attendants at a spiritual healing seminar in Pope Valley, Calif. (Courtesy of Kim Rahmana Phipps)

Kay could never figure out what was wrong. She consulted physicians and yogis, psychotherapists and shamans, but none could fully cure her of her anxiety, depression and fatigue. After a decade of searching, Kay said, a Muslim healer helped her find the problem: she was possessed by a demon.

"I was sitting with the healer who was reciting verses of the Quran," the Muslims’ holy book, she said, describing an exorcism she underwent. "All of a sudden, I started shaking, I couldn’t control it. It seemed like hours of praying and crying, then I just felt something shoot out of my chest."

Kay, who did not want her last name used, said she collapsed from the convulsions. When she finally regained her strength, she said she was scared and disconcerted. But it only took a few hours for her to notice that her depression, anxiety and fatigue had disappeared.

"With the Quranic healing I felt a peace I had never felt before,” she said.

Kay, a soft-spoken 61-year-old Protestant with a doctorate in anthropology, is part of a steady stream of non-Muslims going to Muslim spiritual healers. The healers, who follow a mystical brand of Islam known as Sufism, are largely unknown in the non-Muslim world and are often shunned by traditional Muslims.

But Islamic spiritual healing is gradually growing in popularity, as is mystical healing of other faiths. And Muslim healers, from New York to California, say they are seeing more and more non-Muslim clients.

“Most of my patients are like, well, like me,” said John Wadude Laird, a licensed physician who is also a Muslim healer. “They are mostly upper middle class, white Americans.”

Laird co-founded the University of Spiritual Healing and Sufism in Pope Valley, Calif. and teaches Sufi healing techniques, Quranic recitation and prayer, among other things.

Healing in Islam began with Muhammad, the Muslim prophet, who was said to have encouraged the use of plants, prayers and fasting to cure illnesses. From the 9th to the 17th centuries, physicians and scientists in the Islamic world conducted experiments and published their findings, much of which became the basis for Western medicine.

Modern Islamic spiritual healing attempts to bridge the gap between spirituality and science by using the two for treatment.

While spiritual healers specialize in different practices, all of them recite, write or, in some cases, have their patients consume verses of the Quran.

Viqar Hasan, who holds a doctorate in biochemistry and conducts exorcisms in Los Angeles, uses saffron ink to pen verses on rice paper, which is dissolved in water and given to his patients to drink. Mufti Muneer, a healer in New York City, traces verses on his patients' palms. Laird, based in Pope Valley, recites verses and chapters from the Quran.

"Through God's mercy, I have treated irritable bowl syndrome, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, heart disease, and several other illnesses," said Laird, 60. "For every illness, Allah has provided a cure."

Laird, who was raised Episcopalian, and his wife, Nura, who was raised Jewish, became Sufi in the mid 1970s and have been practicing Islamic spiritual healing for 30 years. After graduating from Dartmouth medical school in 1976, John Laird started a private practice in family medicine in Asheville, N.C. He says he was familiar with many different potent healing techniques, but when he and his wife met a Sufi healer their lives "changed forever."

"We learned that healing in the Islamic tradition is a cleansing process," explained Laird. "God is guiding the healer, who follows God's guidance as best he or she can. The goal is to purify the heart.”

Laird integrates standard medical therapies into his healing techniques, but said most of his patients come to him when "every other treatment option has failed."

Laird said he practices in a small office drenched in sunlight. The four walls are bare, completely naked, so as not to distract patients who must sit for an hour and concentrate.

He begins each session with a recitation of the first chapter of the Quran. He then chants a few of the 99 names of Allah—the merciful, the compassionate, the healer. He "opens his heart" to receive divine guidance about what is troubling the patient.

"I try to sense what the negative energy is, where it’s coming from,” said Laird. “My goal is to help the patient's heart wash itself of grief, envy, anger, the feeling of abandonment, and return it to God."

Thus sit healer and patient for an hour, facing each other with their eyes closed, chanting, praying, meditating.

“It’s as if there is a seedling that isn’t growing well,” explained Jim Morgan, a psychiatrist who lives in St. George, Utah. “The healer takes it into the greenhouse of his heart, nurtures it and puts it back into the patient’s heart when the patient is ready.”

On a cold winter night 10 years ago, Morgan said he turned in bed and heard two snaps and a soft crunch. Unbeknownst to him, he was suffering from acute osteoporosis and had just broken his back.

Two surgeries later, the now 78-year-old said he was still unable to walk or sit up and needed constant morphine to deaden the pain. “It was on a scale of 10 plus,” said Morgan, a practicing Mormon who teaches Sunday school. Two years ago, a friend suggested he try acupuncture and his acupuncturist turned out to be a Muslim healer.

“I felt the pain subside immediately with the acupuncture,” said Morgan, adding that the spiritual healing drastically helped to speed his recovery, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.

“After six months of healing sessions, I went from being in a wheelchair to walking short distances without my walker,” he said, weeping over the phone. “I’m back to seeing patients, I’m off the drugs--I have my life back.”

Still, Muslim healers find themselves under intense scrutiny both by the mainstream medical community and from traditional Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

"There are some who say 'you're not Muslim enough,' and there are others who say, 'you're Muslim? We don't want to have anything to do with you,' " said Laird.

Stephen Barrett, a physician who runs the Web site quackwatch.com, said that there is no reliable scientific evidence to prove that spiritual healing, Islamic or otherwise, actually works.

“The whole concept that you can do something spiritual to affect the outcome of an illness is baloney,” he said.

Morgan, a fellow at the American Psychiatric Association, said he used to agree with physicians like Barrett.

“If a patient came to me and said, ‘Doctor, I’m trying some sort of spiritual thing having to do with Islam,’ I would’ve said, ‘this is bizarre and crazy, we need to put you in a hospital. Spiritual healing? No way, no way,’” Morgan said. “But after going through it, I realize that this is not just a New Age bull story, it’s a very real thing.”

E-mail: zm37@columbia.edu