Could You Get Possessed?
Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
We all catch common cold, flu and other infections. Many of us get a flu shot every year for prevention, as bacteria and viruses are ubiquitous and all around us and the fear is very real.
A large majority of the Muslims also believe that demons exist and they call them by the Arabic word Jinns.
According to a 2007 Pew Research survey, two-thirds of Americans (68%) completely or mostly agree that demons are active in the world. Exorcisms are on a rise in many parts of the world especially since Pope Francis took office. Among religious groups, Mormons (88%), evangelical Christian (87%) and members of historically black churches (87%) are the most likely to agree that demons are active in the world. So, it is not fear mongering to ask a genuine question in this context, could you, me or any one of us get possessed and what can we do about it?
What makes us more likely to get possessed by demons and ghosts? Are there any risk factors? Should we avoid certain places or people to stay safe? How risky is it? How much damage demons can cause us? How do we know that we have been possessed and what can we do to get depossessed?
If two thirds of Americans believe in demons, for them, these should be very realistic concerns, greater than terrorism, bomb threats, floods, hurricanes, car accidents and gun violence.
May be, the exorcists, who offer treatments for demonic possession, could also suggest preventive treatments and even sell insurance policies against such possessions!
In 2014, Pope Francis commended exorcist priests for their fight against “the Devil’s works,” saying that the Church needed to help “those possessed by evil.”
“Until a few years ago, a significant number of people in the Church didn’t believe in the Devil, but people are now going back to the Scriptures,” said a British exorcist priest from Birmingham who asked not to be named.
“Pope Francis has given a certain amount of encouragement to that. A few years ago at least half the dioceses in England and Wales did not have an exorcist. Now, pretty much all of them do.”
Italy has also witnessed a sharp rise in demand for exorcisms. The diocese of Milan recently increased the number of exorcist priests from five to 12, and the diocese of Rome doubled its team of resident exorcists to 10.
Father Truqui, 47, is the chief exorcist for the diocese of Chur, a city in eastern Switzerland, and claimed to have taken part in around 100 exorcisms.i
Exorcists are treating many a psychological and neurological diseases. They are turning the clock back by almost 150 years. Allopathic medicine had a long struggle with the Catholic Church to bring reason and rationality to mental health and psychology, in the 19th and the 20th centuries. But, there is the famous saying, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
In 1858 a simple peasant girl, 14-year-old, named Bernadette Soubirous, living in the small village of Lourdes in southwestern France, announced that she had seen an apparition, a supernatural appearance of mother Mary. A ‘lady’ dressed in white that had appeared to her and told her she wanted to convey important spiritual messages to the community. First chastised for telling tales, then examined by a medical doctor for signs of delusion or hysteria, Bernadette was eventually redeemed in the eyes of the authorities when the apparition provided various signs through the child that she was in fact the Virgin Mary, “the Immaculate Conception.” The apparition then led the child to a previously unknown spring of fresh water in the back of the shrine (grotto); and almost immediately, local people began to report healings after contact with the water.
The visions were declared authentic by Pope Pius IX in 1862. In 1876 the Papacy officially recognized Lourdes as a holy place of healing and pilgrimage.
The underground spring in the grotto, revealed to Bernadette, was declared to have miraculous qualities, and Lourdes has since become a major pilgrimage center.
Miracles began to happen. More than 5,000,000 pilgrims, many of them sick or disabled, visit the site annually.
French medicine needed a strong rebuttal to the Church’s views on Lourdes, and Jean-Martin Charcot was in a perfect position, on behalf of his profession, to provide one. Charcot wrote ‘The Faith Cure’ and arranged for it to be published simultaneously in English and French in 1892, one year before his death.
All the healings at Lourdes, extraordinary as they were, were simply evidence that the natural healing powers of the mind were far more extensive than the medical profession had previously appreciated. Why had it taken Lourdes to reveal this? Charcot focused on the remarkable features of Lourdes as a site. Its remoteness meant that all pilgrims underwent a long, arduous journey to reach it (the train trip from Paris at that time took twenty-two hours). When they finally arrived, they were exhausted and their critical faculties were diminished. Arriving at the shrine (grotto) itself, they were then immediately immersed in multiple sacred symbols of healing. Joining crowds of other believers, they were infected with the emotional contagion of collective hope. It all added up to a fabulous confluence of factors guaranteed to open the mind to any and all influences. In the words of Anne Harrington, describing the history of mind-body medicine in her recent book The Cure Within: “Citing a case of a patient he himself had seen who had been apparently cured of her tumors by a visit to Lourdes, Charcot argued that the conclusion was clear: either hysteria, known to respond to emotions and suggestion, was a larger category of dysfunction than had previously been thought; or else the mind could extend its influence into the workings of physiology in ways that were still not yet well understood.”
Charcot coined a term ‘second mind’ and his description of ‘second mind’ grew into the concept of ‘subconscious’ in the hands of Sigmund Freud. The discussion of Lourdes and Jean-Martin Charcot set the stage for the description of ‘subconscious’ mind by Freud, who was a student of Charcot and the rest, is history.
An 18th Century Viennese medic, Erich Menninger von Lerchenthal, described how students at his medical school picked on a much-disliked assistant. Planning to teach him a lesson, they sprung upon him before announcing that he was about to be decapitated. Blindfolding him, they bowed his head onto the chopping block, before dropping a wet cloth on his neck. Convinced it was the kiss of a steel blade, the poor man “died on the spot”.
We have long known that expectations of a malady can be as dangerous as a virus. In the same way that voodoo shamans could harm their victims through the power of suggestion, priming someone to think they are ill can often produce the actual symptoms of a disease. Vomiting, dizziness, headaches, and even death, could be triggered through belief alone. It’s called the “nocebo effect.”
But it is now becoming clear just how easily those dangerous beliefs can spread through gossip and hearsay – with potent effect. It may be the reason why certain houses seem cursed with illness, and why people living near wind turbines report puzzling outbreaks of dizziness, insomnia and vomiting. If you have ever felt “fluey” after a vaccination, believed your cell phone was giving you a headache, or suffered an inexplicable food allergy, you may have also fallen victim to a nocebo jinx. “The nocebo effect shows the brain’s power,” says Dimos Mitsikostas, from Athens Naval Hospital in Greece. “And we cannot fully explain it.”ii
If the effect of suggestion or idea is positive it is called the “placebo effect.” Expectation, good or bad, creates a self fulfilling prophecy.
It is a scary world out there; you could be a victim of superbugs, addictions, sexually transmitted diseases, floods, hurricanes or terrorism, to name a few. But, there is one thing I can guarantee you; you cannot get possessed by demons or ghosts, for they do not exist. Scientists excluding those holding a priestly office have never found any evidence for them.
I have presented a case against existence of demons from medical science here. For the Muslim readers, now let me link a case from the Holy Quran as well: Jinns and Demons: A Rational Islamic Perspective.iii
Read the article in Muslim Sunrise: Spring 2016 volume