Peshawar: Basmina Bibi raises her hands in the air like saying a benediction. Flanking her on the string cot where they sit are three women whose faces grow hopeful, expecting a miracle. Bibi, her head covered with a white shawl, closes her eyes and repeats verses from the Quran, calling on someone or something.
Suddenly her face turns crimson. Tears roll down her face as the tone of her voice changes. And then she speaks in the voice of a man, questioning the women sitting with Bibi about their troubles. One by one, Bibi or the thing that has possessed her gives verses from Quran as prayers to the women. She/he asks them to say the prayers regularly at appointed times to see a resolution of their problems.
Bibi, 32, is a mother of five children. She is from village Qaziabad in District Mardan, the second most populous city in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkwa and the 19th largest city in the country. She is a spiritual healer who inscribes amulets offer prayers that professedly cures deadly diseases, infertility, resolves relationship problem as well as domestic disputes.
In rural Pakistan, where people have limited access to professional healthcare and precious little to psychological or psychiatric care, people trust spiritual healers and herbalists for their troubles and health problems more than the doctors. While medical experts and women rights activists warn of abusive practices and questionable methods, people, especially women, continue to frequent these healers in droves for prayers and herbal medicine.
There is no actual data available on how many healers there are in Pakistan or in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. However, according to social activist Qamar Naseem, the number of such healers is on the rise as “people are fed up with professional doctors, placing their trust in healers and amulet writers.”
“Social issues have assailed our societies and people are desperate for solution,” says Naseem. “They are willing to go anywhere for that, for whatever price.” And that includes seeking help from supernatural entities.
According to villagers in Qaziabad, there is a specific time of the day when a male djin possesses Bibi, listening to people’s problems and offering prayers for their resolution. Scores of people see Bibi’s help, converging from far afield at her place in the village to seek deliverance. Among them are those whose prayers have been answered. They come ladened with precious gifts for Bibi.
Naseem says that trust on faith healers is not the realm of the illiterate and the superstitious alone. Educated people equally trust these healers, especially women who convince the male members of the family to visit them. Women, according to Naseem, get to hear about the healers through word of mouth and push men saying if problems of others could be resolved with help from healers, why can’t be theirs.
One of Mardan’s reputable healers is Babajee whose counsel is much sought by people not just in the district but from all over Pakistan. Babajee, an elderly man, is based in the town of Rustam where people arrive in droves every day at his place, seeking help with marital problems leading to divorce, property, love interests, business and career opportunities.
Babajee has been in the practice of faith healing for 12 years now. He says he turned to faith healing after years of research and meditation. Encounters with djinns, said Babajee, are an important part of his practice.
“I braved hardships and visited dangerous places to gain this experience,” he said. “Working with djins is not for the faint of heart.”
Abid Hussain, a young faith healer who writes amulets for people seeking his help, says the practice of taweez naweesi – writing amulets – is over a thousand years old.
“We never indulge in any practice that is against Islamic values which would degrade us as Muslims,” Hussain told News Lens.
He said that there were a number of fake healers with no knowledge of religion or the Holy Quran. “They are in the business to make money from gullible people. This is not how I work. I just listen to people’s problems and then look for solution in the light of Holy Quran. It is up to God to give them good health and resolve their issues.”
A majority of cases, said Hussian, related to family disputes where family members were jealous and created hurdles for each other through black magic. “They spend thousands of rupees on black magic to foment trouble for family members with the help of immoral magicians.”
He said that “by the grace of God” they search out cases of black magic and neutralize their impact with the verses from Holy Quran.
However, according to famous cleric of Mardan, Mullah Muhammad Bilal, taweez naweesi or the writing of amulets is only permissible in religion as long as certain rules are obeyed. “The name of Allah or Quranic verses must appear in the amulet inscription.”
Bilal said Islam prohibited healers from inscribing amulets with the intention to harm others. Islam, he said, prohibited the use of black magic that harmed others or disturbed people’s lives and peace.
According to psychiatrist, one reason for people turning to faith healers for help is that depression and anxiety has become a near epidemic in the Pakistani society that has seen much conflict and displacement in recent years. Dr. Mohammad Sultan, Head of Department of Psychiatry at Khyber Medical College Peshawar, said that 40 percent of the people in country suffered from anxiety and depressive disorders.
He said majority of patients did not receive treatment for psychiatric disorders because nearly 52 percent of them had no access to treatment facilities. The reason for this, he said, was lack of government funding, shortage of psychiatrists and mental health professionals, lack of awareness, cultural beliefs and approaches to mental illness and treatment by faith healers and quacks.
Dr. Sultan criticized healers for unfair and illegal treatment of people, demanding that the government take action against them as they cheated poor people of their money. He said when the people cannot afford the high fee of regular medical treatment they follow healers or visit shrines for treatment.
“The government should provide health facilities at the district level so people have access to hospitals and qualified doctors,” said Dr. Sultan.