When Raqi Abu Tharr goes live on Facebook, comments from his followers — there are more than 50,000 of them — start pouring in immediately. Bearded and bespectacled, Abu Tharr has the easy manner of a radio show host — he kind of looks like one too, with his elaborate audio set-up — one that elicits a certain sense of community. He introduces himself, updates viewers on how previous clients are faring, and thanks everyone for their duas.
On Abu Tharr’s page, there are three types of videos. The first, answering viewers’ questions in real-time, shed light — if only fleetingly — on the inner lives and private anxieties of the men and women who form Abu Tharr’s clientele, many of whom appear to be South Asian. A relative is suffering from serious depression; his parents think he is possessed through black cumin. Can a jinn enter our body and make us aggressive and beat someone? Every time I go to the bathroom, I hear a voice in Urdu saying “come with me;” this has been happening to me for 10 years. The second genre — the informational ones where Abu Tharr scrutinizes signs of black magic — are the ones that send you down rabbit holes. In one, Abu Tharr dons gloves, picks up a shovel, and goes digging in a client’s garden. His efforts yield an earthen pot filled with black lentils, split lemons pricked with needles, and a jar with strands of knotted hair. These are all signs of sihr, black magic, he tells the camera. Other signs: red powder under pillows, resembling dried blood, unexplained scratches or bruises on your body.
The category of videos you can’t tear your eyes — or ears — away from are the ones where he performs live exorcisms. “This is making my heart uneasy,” says one commentator, as the U.K.-based Abu Tharr recites Quranic verses against a backdrop of piercing screams; “I’m scared,” says another. In more recent videos, you can’t see the people on whom the exorcisms are being performed — you can only hear them — but earlier videos feature bodies twitching, writhing, fainting. His most popular video, with over 7.8 million views, features the exorcism of a "Jewish jinn."
Abu Tharr is a raqi: he performs ruqyah, a form of faith healing that summons jinns — spirits — by reciting verses from the Quran, then commands them to stop wreaking mischief. Many Muslims believe in jinns: they are considered invisible entities of a separate, parallel world. A jinn can take over our mind or body for a number of reasons: it may be evil or infatuated, or simply bored. In a typical exorcism, you lie down, while the raqi places their palm on your head and recites verses. If the jinn is being especially frisky, Abu Tharr sometimes sprays the client with water from a squirt bottle. These days, he charges £70 ($96) for each of these sessions.
No expert worth their salt will make a diagnosis on the basis of Facebook comments, but the general sense you get from Abu Tharr’s page is that it attracts people struggling to cope. Definitive data is hard to come by, but research suggests South Asian countries have a higher prevalence of common mental disorders — including depression, anxiety, and various forms of psychosis — than the global average. South Asian immigrants also appear unusually susceptible: one study from the U.K. reported significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety in middle-aged Pakistani men and older Indian and Pakistani women. South Asian immigrant women are more prone to self-harm.
Statistics on religion are even more elusive. According to a 2018 survey, though, 32% of young British Muslims have suffered suicidal thoughts at some point, 52% have suffered from depression, and 63% have struggled with anxiety. (In contrast, only 16% of people in the U.K. as a whole report experiencing a “common mental disorder,” such as depression or anxiety, in any given week.) What we do know — from research and anecdotal evidence — is that Muslim communities are particularly leery of seeking clinical help for psychological distress. For many, faith healers like Abu Tharr — who initially agreed to be interviewed for this story but later demurred — are their first and only port of call.
Faith healing isn’t limited to Islam. Some version of spirit possession exists across almost all faiths, from major Abrahamic religions to indigenous and folk beliefs — exorcisms are par for the course in Catholicism, and are also common in Pentecostalism, a Protestant Christian movement growing rapidly across Africa and Latin America. In the U.S., where Hollywood tends to release at least one new film about exorcisms each year, more than half of Americans believe in demonic possession, according to a 2013 YouGov survey. Last year, after a summer of demonstrations in the U.S., exorcisms took on a social-justice twist in at least two instances: in Portland and San Francisco, archbishops performed the rite to purify sites of protest of “lingering evil.”
Faith healing and psychiatry, however, have always had a tense relationship. “Psychology, with all its by-products and off-shoots, has assumed in the West the status of religion, and for many people has replaced it,” lamented Sudanese psychotherapist Malik Badri in The Dilemma of Muslim Psychologists, a book first published in 1979. “Do Muslims really need modern psychology at all? Is modern psychology wholly Western? Is there a way in which it could be reconciled with Islam?”
Descriptions of psychosis were reportedly rare before 1800, but there is some (limited) evidence that medieval Islamic physicians likely diagnosed and treated many cases of schizophrenia. Their conception of human psychology was predicated on a four-part structure of the soul: the nafs (carnal self), the aql (intellect), the qalb (heart), and the ruh (spirit). Since the advent of modern psychiatry, however, says Harold G. Koenig, professor of psychiatry and founding co-director of Duke’s Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health, such articulations — across religions — have been treated with antipathy. “There’s been a long tradition in psychiatry to discourage people from engaging in such practices because of writings from well-known Western psychologists like Freud, saying ‘religion is neurotic, religious beliefs are delusional’ and ‘unhealthy’ for people. That’s been the setting for the last 100 years,” he told me.
This might be one reason devout Muslims don’t seek clinical help: they can pick up on the judgment from a mile away. “They’re reluctant to have their beliefs challenged and not respected,” said Koenig, who describes himself as a devout Christian and is an enthusiastic advocate of the positive effects of religion on mental — and consequently, physical — health. “A lot of work needs to be done on the side of the mental health professionals for this relationship to improve.”
Technology has, on the other hand, made faith healing more accessible than ever. Ruqyah apps are available on the Google Play store; YouTube is teeming with multi-part ruqyah training courses and videos in which men with dubious claims to expertise hold sessions on topics like quantum computing and demons, viruses, and jinns. “Stay away from technology,” warns one spiritual leader, dressed as an Ottoman sultan. (The irony of proclaiming this on YouTube seems lost on him.)
This development extends beyond Islamic practice: in 2018, citing an increase in demonic possessions, Roman Catholic cardinals began teaching aspirants how to conduct exorcisms via cellphone. (South Asian exorcists beat them to this a while ago: immigrant Urdu newspapers in New York have carried advertisements from Gujranwala-based "Baba Jinna Wala" for many years now — he offers exorcisms on WhatsApp, claims to specialize in both Muslim and non-Muslim jinns, and assures potential customers his skills have immediate effect — 24 hour guarantee! — overseas.)
Modern technology, much like mental illness, easily lends itself to interpretation through the lens of the supernatural; as it becomes increasingly complex, it has compounded a free-floating sense of the unknown. “DOES TECHNOLOGY COME FROM JINNS?” reads the title of one YouTube video. (Short answer, according to the presenter: yes.) “Can jinns use technology?” someone wonders elsewhere on an online Islamic forum. “I wonder if they have Facebook and Twitter accounts,” someone muses. “I wonder if jinns can be bipolar,” another asks. Then someone else chimes in: “I came across a jinn — on a ruqyah Facebook page, actually. One of the admins, although she was very pious, was struggling with attacks from jinns. So most days, she’d post Quranic ayats and duas but once in a while she’d come out with stuff like ‘WHERE IS YOUR ALLAH NOW’ and go all kinda MWAHAHAHAHA lol. I thought it was hilarious, but you could tell others on the page were getting freaked out and commenting authobillah and stuff like that. I’m pretty sure that was a jinn possessing her.”
Swaran Singh, professor of psychiatry at Warwick University in the U.K., used to provide home-based psychological care in inner-city Birmingham, which, he explains, is almost 100% Pakistani. “The early signs of psychosis can easily be misinterpreted by families as teenage turmoil: moody, irritable, isolated. As long as the symptoms were non-specific, the explanations given by the Pakistani community or the Muslim community were the same as anywhere else: it’s work-related, relationship-related, their diet is bad. But the moment psychotic symptoms appear, the moment a person hears voices or becomes deluded or starts having strange beliefs — conspiratorial beliefs, a sense of persecution — in the Pakistani community, the explanations change [to be] supernatural. The commonest were either jaadu (black magic) or saaya (malevolent shadow) or jinn. And the port of call for seeking help was via the mosque or through taweez (amulets) or Quranic inscriptions.”
In 2013, Singh published a five-year study into why patients from ethnic minority backgrounds were reaching mental health services in a more severely ill state than the rest of the population. “Almost half the cases who came to us had first been to a faith healer,” he told The Juggernaut. His current research project investigates whether faith healers can be integrated with psychiatric care in a way that maintains people’s well-being and human rights. “Some people think it should not be done, that it is unethical from a biomedical point of view. I take an agnostic position: I believe people will go to faith healers and I know of instances — not always, but a small minority — where they are vulnerable and are exploited. But the large majority of faith healers are not trying to do that.”
The cathartic effect of sharing your problems with someone can be very positive — and in this regard, Singh noted, faith healing may prove beneficial for some. “There are certainly conditions that are not mental disorders as much as mental distress for people seeking comfort. Your child is ill, you pray; you’re in a difficult relationship, you go to an imam. What’s wrong with that?” What concerns him is that faith healing may adversely affect the treatments of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which require early intervention — within months of symptoms appearing, he says, if not sooner. “They’re treatable — very treatable. I used to be a surgeon, and I can tell you: psychiatric treatments are as effective as surgery.”
Dr. Farha Abbasi, Detroit-based psychiatrist and convener of the Muslim Mental Health Conference, said people can sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between religious delusions and spiritual experiences. Last Ramadan, she told The Juggernaut, a young Muslim boy — who’d stayed up multiple consecutive nights to worship — began to say he was seeing visions of jannat, heaven. First, he went to the local imam. “The imam has been trained in first-aid mental health and he said, ‘Yes, I’ll recite ruqyah with you, but consult Dr. Abbasi also because I feel this is psychosis.’ So, he came under my treatment. I told him, ‘You need to take these medications and continue praying with the imam.’ That’s where my model of faith-based mental health comes in. We don’t say: stop making dua.”
There is evidence that some faith healers recognize when their clients are suffering from a serious mental condition, said Singh. “They will say things like, ‘this curse is too strong, take him to a doctor.’” In one of his live Q&A sessions, for instance, Abu Tharr immediately pushes back against the notion that autism is a form of jinn possession.
Not all imams or faith healers are amenable to working with mental health professionals. In the wake of 9/11, the subsequent scrutiny and surveillance of Muslims have bred a sense of paranoia in communities across the West. As a woman who doesn’t observe hijab, Abbasi faced disapproving skepticism from the imams she reached out to at several mosques. Non-Muslims are likely to be viewed with even more suspicion.
“If you go with the idea that tum log sab badmash chor ho (you are all frauds), they’re not going to cooperate,” Singh continued. “They’re not bad guys, sitting in a chair, stroking a cat, saying welcome, Mr. Bond. They’re not criminals — they’re poor people trying to make a living. So we’re going to sit with them and examine what they do and try to find out what proportion of people who come to them have serious mental disorders.” And sometimes, imams and faith healers don’t even figure into the equation. In September 2012, for instance, four members of the same family were found guilty of the murder of 21-year-old Naila Mumtaz in Birmingham. Six months pregnant, she was smothered to death a year after an arranged marriage brought her to the U.K. The defense claimed the relatives were attempting to rid Mumtaz of demonic possession.
Still, even as they advocate working alongside them, most mental health professionals agree that regulating faith healers is a good idea. In the U.K., for instance, government statistics from 2017 indicate that witchcraft and demonic possession — across all beliefs — are linked to almost 1,500 child abuse cases a year. In 2019, this number increased to nearly 2,000. Indian and Pakistani newspapers frequently carry reports of sexual abuse, blackmail, and murders linked to faith healers.
In Malaysia, since 2010, the government requires faith healers to obtain practicing licenses. In Pakistan, efforts were made to do the same in 2017, after a self-proclaimed faith healer in Sargodha murdered 20 disciples over the course of a single night. But no further regulation exists — in South Asia, the U.S., or the U.K.
“It’s important to have some training, some line of authority,” agreed Koenig. “As a doctor, I’m responsible for my state license. I’m also responsible to the people I work for, the university. I have many different levels of people watching to make sure I behave myself. It would be a good idea for faith healers to have the same.”
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Alizeh Kohari is a Pakistani journalist who divides her time between Karachi and Mexico City. She has reported on identity politics, ethnic conflict, and social justice.