Popular Medicine, Witchcraft & Sorcery [Archives:1998/07/Health]

February 16 1998

By: Dr. Abdullah Mo’amar Medical Anthropologist, Dept. of Sociology, College of Art, Sanaa University

Popular medicine is a widely discussed issue, generally including customs, tradition and witchcraft. It can be divided into two parts. The first is physical, in which herbal compounds are used. The second part is non-physical, in which witchcraft is practiced in special ceremonies for the purpose of treatment. Both kinds of “treatment” are widespread across Yemen. Sometimes popular therapists try to relate their treatment to supernatural powers, this is what is known as sorcery. This phenomenon is very common in Yemen, differing from one region to another. It is more widespread in the rural areas where living conditions are difficult and people are generally uneducated. If we look at a geographical map of Yemen, we will find that the coastal areas are where sorcery is practiced the most. The reasons differ from those mentioned above. Many years ago, these coastal areas were centers for Qura’an teaching. Popular medicine came as a religious means of curing people. In addition, medical services were very limited before the September Revolution, 1962.

There were no medical institutions. In 1959, there were only 15 doctors in the entire country, all foreigners.  That means one doctor for every 500,000 citizens. Another reason is that educated people who had knowledge of religion started going through ancient Arabic religious books. With these books, they learned about many herbs used to treat people and turned their knowledge into a profession. But, sorcery was preferred over all their medical methods. This was due to ignorance, illiteracy and the predomination of myth in the Yemeni mind during that time. Therefore, people started attributing their illnesses to supernatural causes and so accepted the idea of faith-healing. On the other hand, some great authors and philosophers of ancient times wrote several books about sorcery and faith healing, like Aristotle and Ibn Al-Azraq. For example, Ibn Al-Bauni, an Algerian scholar of the 6th century, wrote a book that all popular therapists have. They use his methods of treatment on their patients.
Yemen, because of its trade activity and coastal location, opened the way for some African magic ceremonies to enter. One of these was curing through jinn. For a long time, people in Africa practiced such ceremonies seeking the favor of their god, Koushine. As time passed, people started using these ceremonies for medical purposes rather than religious ones. They are very similar in Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia, despite cultural differences. In Yemen, the same thing takes place. Every popular therapist diagnoses his patients’ conditions from his own beliefs. If a person  suffers from lung or heart disease, a sorcerer may say that it is due to some evil spell. Another sorcerer may say that they are possessed by jinn or the devil. These sorcerers do exactly what people want. The people push them to treat them this way, since they have complete faith in the sorcerer.
Popular therapists must be very religious and simple people, who always pray and invoke God. In their speech they are unclear, leaving it to the people to understand what they mean. They are very clever when it comes to having good relations with everyone they come across. None of these sorcerers ever ask for large amounts of money for treatment. They ask patients to pay whatever they can afford. Some patients are very rich, so they pay a lot. Others are poor and pay very little. They always try to develop friendships with their patients. The patients accept presents and are hosted generously at the sorcerer’s homes. Patients are always welcome at a sorcerer’s house to eat, drink, sleep, take a bath, or stay for days.
Sorcerers have their own methods of treating their patients. When they conjure, they may use a drum, a pipe and they might offer up a sacrifice. Some prescribe special kinds of herbs as medicine. They burn the herbs and then condense the arising vapors to form the ‘tar,’ which is the only way to expel jinn and devils. They also use a plant called Shadab for this purpose. They use dry cactus as an incense in ceremonies expelling jinn.
Customs and traditions are two things that directly contribute to the folklore. People tell tales of supernatural events that happened to their ancestors. As a result, some places are thought to be inhabited by jinn or devils and passing by these places could cause harm to the traveller. It is very hard to get people to believe otherwise. When a woman delivers a baby, it must be charmed for the first seven days. Shadab and cactus are used as incense for the baby. They might also put ambergris in the milk. They may even put an amulet on the baby until he is 15 or 16 years old. The Almighty says in the Holy Qura’an “I have created jinn and man to pray to Me.” Despite this, it is believed that relations between man and jinn are aggressive. They believe that man is weaker because he cannot change his shape. A jinn can be a rat, dog, snake and whatever it chooses. So it is believed that they are stronger.
Another contributor is astronomy and astrology. According to his star sign, a man is born in a time belonging to some kind of jinn or devils. Accordingly, if a man meets his jinn mate in a special time at a specific place, he might be possessed by him. A lack of knowledge is the main reason for the spread of sorcery. When people suffer from a disease, they immediately go to a sorcerer for a cure. Through some of my studies, I saw that people know nothing about psychological or nervous disorders. This makes them more susceptible to such backward ideas. Another reason is differentiating between men and women.
Popular medicine is originally a science. Great philosophers of ancient times discussed this kind of medicine in their books. We have Aristotle and Abo-Ma’ashar Al-Falaki as examples of these philosophers. It is a very complicated science including astronomy and astrology. Several ideas were invented by people as time passed and they, unfortunately misused this science. If we use this science in the right way according to its original, non-distorted methods, we may achieve great prosperity in the field of medicine.