Saudi Arabia authorizes medicine by 'the book'

Islamic holy scripture now among a patient’s legally sanctioned therapeutic options; clinic gets permit to offer Koranic treatment.

Saudi King Abdullah 311 Reuters (photo credit: REUTERS)
Saudi King Abdullah 311 Reuters
(photo credit: REUTERS)
For some people, alternative medicine means acupuncture, for others it's macrobiotics. But now, in Saudi Arabia, Islamic holy scripture is now among a patient’s legally sanctioned therapeutic options.
This week, the government awarded a license to a clinic treating the ill with Koranic incantations. The permit for The Center for Treatment through Ruqiya (Incantation) in the coastal city of Jedda was given by the Ministry of Islamic Affairs, which also oversees the center's activities.
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"You sit with the patient for three to four minutes and begin with general questions like the patient's name, what he likes, his age and weight, all as a kind of mental preparation for the patient," Tawfiq Al-Hashimi, a Koran therapist who won the license for the Jedda clinic, told the Saudi-owned daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat.  
Until now, regulations have been designed  to eliminate the practice of sorcery, which is illegal in Saudi Arabia and punishable by death. Two men were sentenced to death last October following charges of practicing witchcraft in the kingdom. But Saudi practitioners insisted that ruqiya should not be confused with sorcery.
Al-Hashimi told A-Sharq Al-Awsat that  half of all diseases are treatable by using the Koran because they are "Satanic afflictions" that disappear following prolonged verse incantation. Al-Hashimi added that 80% of cancer cases in the kingdom are caused by the evil eye, which is treatable by the Koran as well.
Price regulation was also introduced by the government. According to Al-Hashimi, the price of the first consultation is 100 Saudi Riyals ($27), with treatments for "difficult cases" climbing to as much as 600 Saudi Riyals ($160).
Fawzia Al-Bakr, an education professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, said charlatanism and sanitary concerns drove the government to regulate a practice endorsed by the religious establishment but pooh-poohed by most Saudis.
"This practice is often carried out in private homes, with the verses being read over water or oil," Al-Bakr told The Media Line. "But there have been cases of misuse -- health problems resulting from the reuse of water glasses, and price gouging."
Al-Bakr said Saudi liberals have written about the phenomenon with manifest sarcasm.  
Medical specialists in the kingdom were suspicious of ruqiya as well.
"Eighty percent of women with mental illness visit ruqyia therapists, avoiding the fact they are mentally ill and believing they were afflicted by sorcery or the evil eye," Muhammad Al-Falaqi, an expert in Islamic law (sharia) and a researcher in psychology, told the on-line news daily Ilaf. "Many of these therapists ignore the fact that mental illness is an organic disease that requires real treatment in addition to Koran incantation."
Samira Al-Ghamidi of the mental health hospital in Jedda stressed the need for government supervision over ruqiya, mainly from the Ministry of Health.
Sexual harassment was also a grave concern of government, since most of the patients of ruqiya are women and the therapists must be men.
"Women tend to believe is ritual practices more than men in Saudi Arabia," Al-Bakr said. "Women are generally more religious than men."

Al-Bakr explained that when girls’ education was introduced in Saudi Arabia in 1960, it was handed over to the authority of the kingdom's clerics, whereas males are educated under the more liberal Ministry of Education. Only two years ago a unified curriculum for male and female students was introduced by King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz. A half century of overly religious education explained female tendency towards spirituality, Al-Bakr said.
"I don't think many clinics like this will open," she added. "The government isn't encouraging it."