I wanted to write my thesis on a topic that reflected my story. I’m a British Nigerian Muslim woman, and my different identities have made me a bit of a hybrid, a bit of everything but not fully one thing. That has enabled me to simultaneously hold an insider’s and an outsider’s view of Western, African, and Muslim culture, constantly comparing their different norms and taboos. One of those differences is in the area of religion and mental health. In the Western world, unusual behaviours are believed to be explained mainly by science, whereas in the world I grew up in, religion is one of the main doctrines people go to in order to explain the unexplainable.
In my journey to becoming a mental health professional, I’ve always been aware that beyond the biological and psychological explanations of mental illness, spirit possession is still very much a strong belief in many Muslims and non-Muslims of other faith systems. In the Muslim world, the beings that possess humans are not demons, but another form of God’s creation known as Jinn. Like humans, they are believed to be good and bad; however, they are invisible to the human eye, have superhuman abilities such as being able to travel long distances at lightning speed, and also possess the ability to shape shift into different animals.1 The link between Jinn and “Madness” is so strong in the Arabic language that Arabic word for mad/insane is called mujnun, meaning the one possessed by Jinn.2
In addition, over the course of doing my master’s, I learned about different psychodynamic theories explaining how repressed material that has been pushed out of consciousness to the unconscious mind can be projected onto others. Therefore, possession is simply a manifestation of that intrapsychic conflict.3 This led me to be curious about how Western-trained Muslim therapists work with clients that believe they are possessed. How do they balance their belief in Jinn with their knowledge of psychological/sociological theory?
How do they formulate and work with a client in the British context?
I interviewed six Muslim therapists: a mixture of psychologists, counsellors and psychotherapists who all used psychodynamic theory as part of their formulation, in order to see if they found psychodynamic concepts useful in understanding this phenomenon.
I analysed my data using interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA), a method of understanding interview data, which produced three main, or “superordinate” themes. I shall provide examples from the transcripts for each theme (all names given are pseudonyms).
Being in two worlds
Participants spoke about being part of two worlds: the Western world in which they were professionals trained in Western psychology, as well as being members of the Muslim community and believing in the existence of Jinn. Each participant had varying levels of integration of these two parts. For some, there was no conflict and both of these knowledge systems were mutually held, whereas for others it produced some internal conflict.
What I do is I hold in my mind that this is a reality. Allah has told us that these things exist and that there are certain ways it can affect you, and that’s very much in my consciousness. I’m also very aware that people that go through distress, trauma, or oppression or abuse or anything like can be affected psychologically. —Bushra
For example, Bushra showed a strong identification with her Muslim identity and belief in Jinn but also acknowledged that trauma can manifest itself in different ways, such as possession. Although Bushra understands both worlds, her statement implies that for her, her Islamic identity is what is more important, as she first states that “Allah has told us.” She describes the revelation of God’s words in a very personalised way, like God’s message is internalised in her psyche and likewise in her identity as a Muslim therapist.
However, other participants found it a bit more difficult to hold both:
Well I suppose it’s a kind of split existence. Perhaps, you know, from the… because it’s not talked about, you know, and it’s not something that is presented from a… from myself or professionals, I wonder that it’s… I don’t know what I’m trying to say there. It feels quite separated. —Aisha
Aisha speaks about the difficulties of being in two worlds, referring to it as “split,” and “separated,” suggesting that she may feel that she has to be two different people. She cannot bring her full Islamic identity into her professional work, as there is a stigma of perhaps working with something that is perceived as alien, uncivilised, and in general misunderstood. This creates within her sense of identity a lack of full integration between all her parts. This is shown through the splitting in her speech: she is constantly pausing and hesitating in her narrative.
The thing is, if that’s all you know and you need to be attended to and perhaps you don’t know about therapy or you have a negative view of it and people tell you it’s for psychotic people or something and you don’t see yourself that way and where do you go and you can’t trust the medical system because there is all this stuff about “Prevent” and discrimination… —Maryam
Maryam expresses the baggage clients bring, when they come into therapy, around their identity—feeling misunderstood by their British identity, explaining why they may instead seek out traditional Islamic methods. She explains that Muslim clients experience the stigma of being seen as mentally ill and, even worse, ”psychotic,” which represents a very Western diagnosis. This language may make Muslims feel that therapy is not for people like them. The healthcare system operates within the larger UK socio-political context, in which professionals are trained in “Prevent” to watch out for Islamic extremism (“Prevent” is a UK government counterterrorism strategy that works within the public sector, including healthcare, to train employees on how to spot radicalisation),4 thereby making clients feel unsafe. As a Muslim therapist, Maryam has to navigate and work with the client’s fears and their uncertainty about their identity. The belief in Jinn, as an identifier of being a Muslim, also carries with it the stigma of Islamophobia.
Meaning making & integrating
This theme reflects the different ways participants worked with clients to understand the meaning of Jinn. Participants spoke about how the Jinn was often a symbol, expressing what is happening in their client’s unconscious minds. By bringing the Jinn out into the conscious mind, participants gave it meaning using theory.
The Jinn played that role in giving meaning to something that just seems like it’s out of your control and Jinn very much played a role in that, being able to provide a sort of metaphysical meaning that “this is not in my control.” —Mohammed
Mohammed states that Jinn “played that role,” implying that the Jinn is a character taking on a part in the client’s narrative, its role being to represent something that the client is not usually able to communicate. The Jinn being an external being, outside of themselves, provides a way for clients to explain that their distress is not in their control; something outside the physical world has taken over them. Mohammed illustrates how the client makes sense of their feelings of powerless and helplessness.
Ok when did you first notice, you know, what did it look like that your son or daughter had Jinn possession? You know, more the behaviour… I’m kind of looking at a timeline: OK, what was going on for you as well at that time, you know, alongside it and just taking… I think you have to have a very solid, secure base as a psychotherapist to listen to those conversations and be open to them. —Aisha
Aisha narrates how, as a family therapist, she enters the client’s world by trying to gain an understanding of what was going on in the client’s life when they started to believe their child was possessed. She also refers to having a “solid, secure base” which mirrors the language of attachment theory—perhaps implying that lack of secure base within the parent-child relationship is the issue. It could also imply that the therapist needs a secure base within themselves, and to feel confident and self-assured, in order to be able to be empathic and listen to the client’s experience.
Islamic faith as an integral part of healing
In this theme, participants went beyond the secular model of personality into understanding the soul. Participants explored and aimed to understand their client’s connection with God.
An Islamic framework for me begins, at the outset, that suffering serves as an existential purpose, and that purpose is for us to be able to return to god, so when we suffer, we are supposed to recognise god’s majesty by the fact that we are necessarily weak. —Mohammed
Mohammed expresses that we are spiritual beings, therefore suffering has an “existential purpose” to remind us of our own mortality and weakness in contrast to God’s strength and might. He states that we are “supposed to,” implying that suffering naturally evokes or commands a sense of humility and reverence in human beings. This suggests that he believes the Muslim therapist’s role is to help the client “return to god” by helping them understand the deeper spiritual meaning behind their suffering.
That their attachment with Allah has been ruptured somewhere because of a trauma, abuse, or something that’s happened to them in their lives, and whilst on the surface they are praying and their saying alhamduillah (praise be to Allah), I’m grateful blah blah blah, actually there is a wound in their heart and they are struggling to understand why Allah allowed something like that to happen to them. —Bushra
On the other hand, Bushra describes the impact of psychological trauma on one’s faith—that a client’s relationship with Allah can become broken, using the word “attachment,” which has connotations of a parent-child relationship, perhaps showing the importance of a spiritual bond for Muslim clients. This suggests that when a client has an insecure relationship with God they can still be visibly Muslim, practising external acts of worship, but it’s only on the surface. There is a “wound in their heart.” The use of this metaphor suggests that the therapist’s role is to help heal this scar by helping the client restore their heart to be truly connected to God, not through external worship but internally, within themselves. Therefore, Bushra suggests that possession may be a symptom of this rupture.
This study shows the different ways Muslim therapists incorporate their Western psychological training with their Muslim identity. Eneborg5 stated that many Western-educated Muslims held a hybridised explanation of illness, as they mutually accepted biomedical and religious explanations. This study highlighted that the belief in Jinn is an important marker of Muslim identity, which Muslim therapists and their clients find meaningful.
The unconscious meaning of Jinn within a British context where Muslims are a minority group was also explored by the therapists. Participants in this study spoke about the stigma that Muslim clients face when accessing services, and how that also impacts their work as therapists. For example, Aisha felt that part of her Islamic identity was split off, which made her feel uncomfortable to fully bring Jinn into her professional space. Maryam spoke of the difficulties Muslim clients face when seeking help from the system, and the impact of measures like Prevent, the UK government counter terrorism strategy training healthcare employees on how to spot radicalisation. This approach has been widely criticised as contributing to islamophobia, as Muslims are by default seen as suspects. Muslims who have visible markers of their religious identity, such as wearing a scarf, beard, and skin colour face even more discrimination and prejudice.6 Therefore, Jinn may be a manifestation of the powerlessness and lack of autonomy that Muslim clients may feel.
Communication theory proposes that possession and exorcism occur when there is a mistrust in institutions that are supposed to provide care, as well as providing a means for the powerless in society to have a voice. This has been widely documented in anthropology and sociology, from the Zar ceremonies in Egypt where Women would take on male personas and demand for material goods, to epidemic hysteria in Malaysia where a breach of social taboo led to possession of young women who, while possessed, were able to speak out against injustice they faced.78
The last theme highlighted the role of Islamic psychology and spirituality in exploring the subjective meaning of Jinn. According to Islamic psychology, humans are spiritual beings that have an innate divine guidance called fitrah and can receive spiritual inspiration through the Ruh (soul), which has the ability to transform the self.9 However, this can become blocked due to being distracted by the worldly life and due to mental distress, which can lead to a loss of purpose. Skinner⁹ stated that the aim of Islamic psychology in therapy is to help the client open parts of themselves (especially their spiritual heart) that may have become closed off from consciousness, and reconnect to God. This highlights that Muslim therapists working with Muslims have the advantage of being able to go beyond the unconscious and delve into the spiritual self of the client. This synchronicity is likely to enhance the therapeutic relationship.
I believe it’s important for all mental health professionals to realise that spirit possession is not just a fantasy that they may see in horror movies, but it’s a belief for many people, including Muslims. Even if their Muslim client doesn’t believe they are possessed and fully subscribes to Western diagnostic criteria, they may come from families that strongly hold this belief, which may be having a negative impact on their recovery. Gunson et al.10 found that only two out of thirty healthcare professionals had an awareness of Jinn possession, and those two were Muslims. They concluded that current training courses are too broad in their curriculum, do not focus on teaching trainees the differences between religions, and that there is also a lack of awareness of faith-based therapy.
This study provides evidence that it’s important for courses to provide an in-depth training about how the intersection between religion and mental health can affect the way the client perceives their mental distress and provide guidance and resources on how to deal with it. In addition, it’s also important to teach trainees about other Non-Western models of the self, such as Islamic psychology. This would help to heal the splitting that Muslim therapists and clients may face, and help integrate these two important aspects of their identity.
The full paper can be found through this link.
- Ameen, A.M. (2005) The jinn and human sickness: remedies in the light of the Qur’aan and Sunnah. Riyadh: Darussalam. ↩
- El-Zein, A. (2009). Islam, Arabs, and intelligent world of the jinn. Syracuse University Press. ↩
- Ivey, G. (2002). Diabolical discourses: demonic possession and evil in modern psychopathology. South African Journal of Psychology, 32(4), 54-59. ↩
- Cohen, B., & Tufail, W. (2017). Prevent and the normalization of Islamophobia. ↩
- Eneborg, Y. M. (2013). Ruqya Shariya: Observing the rise of a new faith healing tradition amongst Muslims in east London. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 16(10), 1080-1096. ↩
- Bonino, S. (2013). Prevent-ing Muslimness in Britain: the normalisation of exceptional measures to combat terrorism. Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 33(3), 385-400. ↩
- Ellenberger, H. F. (1970). The discovery of the unconscious: The history and evolution of dynamic psychiatry. New York: Basic Books. ↩
- Teoh, J. I. (1975). Epidemic hysteria and social change: An outbreak in a lower secondary school in Malaysia. Singapore medical journal, 16(4), 301-306. ↩
- Skinner, R. (2010). An Islamic approach to psychology and mental health. Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 13(6), 547-551. ↩
- Gunson, D.,Nuttall, L. Akhtar S,. Khan, A., Gizala., & Thomas, L. (2019). Spiritual beliefs and mental health: a study of Muslim women in Glasgow (Report No.4). Retrieved from Amina Muslim Resource Centre: https://mwrc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Spiritual-Beliefs-and-Mental-Health.pdf ↩
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.