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Have faith, but trust your doctors

Published in Malay Mail Online

THE WAR ON SCIENCE

These four menacing words were on the cover of this month’s National Geographic magazine, as if to remind Americans and the rest of the world of the dire times we are in.

Listed on the cover are five dangerous assertions that have achieved notoriety in recent times, especially over in the US:

Climate change does not exist.

Evolution never happened.

The moon landing was fake.

Vaccinations can lead to autism.

Genetically modified food is evil.

In December last year, a measles outbreak started in Disneyland, California. Over 100 people were infected with the viral disease in the US as of last month. Measles had been declared virtually eliminated in the continent by the end of 2002.

The cause of the recent outbreak? The above belief that “vaccinations can lead to autism”, perpetuated by celebrities and a growing misinformed anti-vaccination crusade.

This movement has also started to take root in Malaysia, aided by the belief that vaccines contain non-halal ingredients — a notion that apparently allows parents to risk their children’s lives.

Indeed, the anti-medicine undercurrent in Malaysia might be more worrying, especially with the prevalence of untested traditional healing and its more sinister variant: faith healing.

Faith healing is especially prevalent in the Malay community in its Islamic healing form, called ruqyah.

Literally meaning “exorcism”, ruqyah stems from the belief that ailments are caused by djinns and supernatural beings. Treating a patient requires the recital of Islamic holy texts and performing rituals to “scare” these beings away, thus leaving the body in its natural state.

This practice has a long history with Malay society. Before the advent of modern medicine, the Malays used to blame malicious black magic involving malevolent makhluk halus — fairies, or “unseen beings” — for the illnesses.

Historically, the community would consult each village’s own bomoh or pawang, a shaman who mixes ancient pagan and Islamic teachings.

As humans learn more about diseases through science and evidence-based medicine, the bomoh and pawang are increasingly associated with witchcraft and black magic, performing chants and preparing potions for Malays desperate to court love or to enact revenge.

The previous role of “exorcists”, meanwhile, is increasingly undertaken by pseudo-scientific faith healers, who see themselves as guardians and enforcers against such witchcraft and black magic.

In Malaysia, the premier faith healing institution is Darussyifa’, founded by newly-elected PAS spiritual adviser Haron Din. The body has over 80 outlets nationwide, easily offering employment opportunities to its own industry.

The commercial potential for traditional healing laced with pseudo-Islamic flavours is massive. Just walk through shopping malls and you will see stalls selling all sorts of potions and salves and oils. Flip through Malay newpapers and you will see similar advertisements promising the gullible public the sky.

Traders frequently cite several foods and drinks allegedly consumed by Prophet Muhammad back in the day, as panacea: dates, honey, fennel seeds (nigella sativa), figs, olive oil, saffron and water from the Zamzam well.

These ingredients can allegedly cure every single thing under the sun: from cancer to weight loss to satisfying your wives to scaring spirits away.

Even Darussyifa’, which proclaims to offer its services for free, actually offers several merchandise to its patients, including charging RM3 for a bottle of plain water with holy text already recited to it.

Go to a bookstore, and you will see titles such as Rasulullah is my doctor. Which would be very awesome, if these folks really do not have to see doctors anymore when they actually fall sick, thus freeing our already clogged healthcare system.

It is astounding how much of our education grants are awarded to faith healing, not to ever find evidence that it actually works, but merely to validate it.

Last week, Universiti Malaysia Pahang announced that it has formulated a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to combat the use of witchcraft, through its so-called Committee for Advanced Studies in Witchcraft Law which received RM189,000 funding from the Education Ministry.

The week before that, Universiti Teknologi Petronas touted a RM5 mobile phone application which it claims can help cure illnesses just by using it. No need absolutely to see any doctors, ever.

How? By playing recitals of Quranic texts and supplications, read by Haron Din himself. The cost to develop this app: RM50,000.

Do not forget the two-day regional forum on djinns and black magic in November last year organised by a student group under the Long-Term Research Grant Scheme — a RM7 million five-year programme between Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Sains Malaysia.

Held in collaboration with the Federation of Islamic Medicine Practitioners’ Associations (Gappima) and a UK-based faith healing group Professional Islamic Support and Nurture Group (Pisang), it was perhaps nothing more than a ploy to award these groups academic credentials.

It is perfectly understandable for the Malay and Muslim community to have faith in their religion and its ability to cure illnesses. But it becomes dangerous when patients seek faith healing ahead of medical treatments that could ultimately save their own lives and of others.

Because time and time again, the faith healing would mostly fall apart and patients would still have to meet their medical doctors in the end. But by that time, the patients would be too critical with little chance for treatment.

In the end, the patients would blame conventional medicine instead of their own choice to trust alternative healing first — a choice which led to their own suffering.

So, the next time you are thinking of seeking alternative healing first, ask yourself this: if it really works, why are we not using it to eradicate diseases for the past how many hundred years?

Published inMMO column
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