This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah and is the author of Islam's Quantum Question: Reconciling Muslim Tradition and Modern Science.
‘Roqia’, which I’ve translated above as “Islamic healing”, is the tradition of having some Qur’anic verses read over a sick person in order to achieve some betterment, most people assuming it to be medical. There are hadiths relating that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) practiced it, and it is still widespread in many Muslim communities around the world, including ones in the west (more on that below).
I do not intend to get into the controversy of whether one should believe (or accept) that prayers do produce healing of some sort. First, it depends on whether we’re talking about a spiritual or a medical effect. Secondly, it makes much difference (in my view) whether the praying is done by the sick person himself/herself or whether someone is praying for them. Thirdly, it comes down to whether one believes that spiritual effects within a person can and do lead to a physiological effect or not. I will leave all these issues hanging, although if people want to debate them in the comments section, I’ll gladly oblige.
The problem today is that this practice has turned into a widespread scam. First, there is a social phenomenon to be investigated, namely the strong return of tradition “Islamic” medicine, including bloodletting, “Prophetic”/herbal medicine, and ‘Roqia’/healing through prayers performed by a sheikh. A year ago, I had written a post on this effect, focusing on Muslims’ (and to some extent other peoples’) current infatuation with herbal medicine. Indeed, there is today a huge social trend toward old, medieval medical procedures, such as bloodletting. For Muslims, it is on the one hand because the Prophet practiced that and sometimes recommended it (what else could he have recommended?), and on the other hand, because modern medicine is western and suspect with all its secondary effects and (perceived) disregard for human “wholeness”.
More importantly, however, this social shift toward traditional medicine has been noticed and taken advantage of by the charlatans. There are now “roqia clinics”, both in the Muslim world and in Europe, where charlatans administer “roqia treatments” to ignorant and gullible patients who suffer from anything ranging from “evil eye” to cancer, not to mention sexual problems, which are easier to explain (through allusions) to a sheikh than to a physician. They charge anywhere between $2 for a quick consultation and prayer (in poor places in Algeria) to 100 euros in France, and oftentimes the “healers” ask their patients to undergo regular treatment sessions (weekly or 2-3 times weekly), and to pay for the “medicine” (often in the form of a bottle of mineral water which has been “infused” with the proper verses), hence increasing their scammy wealth… Oh, and some have come up with “group roqia” procedures to multiply the income in each session.
Some of these charlatans have even opened up satellite TV stations, taking international orders for their medicines, which usually consist of herbs, oils, and honeys, and cost up to $150. Others have set up 900-type phone systems, making money just through the calls.
Finally, and most shockingly, a series of cases have recently appeared (at least in Algeria and in Saudi Arabia), where charlatan “raqis” were charged with raping innocent and naïve young women, in one case as many as 30 (sorry, the links are in Arabic and French)!
This is turning into a social catastrophe, combining ignorance, abuse of religious tradition, and multiple frauds and crimes. This needs to be denounced and exposed. Educators and sincere and clear-minded religious scholars need to speak up and address this, in the classrooms and in the mosques. It is truly painful and depressing to see Muslim communities even in the west succumb to this kind of socio-cultural corruption. We must, however, remain steadfast and hardworking in our ongoing efforts to educate everyone at various levels and from many perspectives.
We have a long way to go…