Last month, a raid on a New Mexico desert compound revealed eleven malnourished children and uncovered a confusing and bizarre tale of an Islamic exorcism, guns and a dead young boy.
The young boy who died was called Abdul-Ghani Wahaj. His father, Siraj Ibn Wahaj disappeared with his child, who he said he was taking him to the park. The press has reported that he believed that his son’s multiple health challenges, including seizures, were the product of possession by jinns, or evil spirits and in need of an exorcism ritual.
Upon reading this tragic story, many close friends and associates have asked me whether it is true that Muslims participate in exorcism ceremonies. In popular culture, we are familiar with such rituals taking place in a Christian context. But, they asked, do Muslims conduct exorcisms too?
My answer is: “It is complicated.”
In normative Islamic traditions, exorcism is neither popular, widely known or practiced in the mainstream. In the simplest terms, the concept connects to a fusion between the Islamic concepts of spirits, the supernatural realm and Islamic mythology and theology. Because this idea is rooted in various interpretations of Islamic religious texts, the practice of Islamic exorcism and how to assist individuals who are “possessed” fuses a milieu of Qur’anic verses and cultural practices that differs depending on Muslim ethnicity, country and religious scholarly support.
As a result, like many other items in Islam, interpretation and culture have been the deciding element in how individuals practice their faith, and the concept of Islamic exorcism is no exception. Muslims like Christians and other faith traditions of the world, have varying cultural, linguistic and ethnic traditions, some of which are regional in nature. For example, Pashutnwali, the ethical and traditional tribal code that governs indigenous Pashtun society in present day Afghanistan, is more conservative than the mandates of normative Islamic tradition. As you can imagine, some of these ideas and themes are more cultural than religious, but many societies make no clear distinction between culture and religion. Tribal and cultural practices that have been engaged in for centuries sometimes are hard to differentiate between the rich and diverse Islamic traditions. Furthermore, combine these cultural practices with conservative interpretations of Islam, and it becomes extremely difficult to navigate the space of what is acceptable, normative and mainstream ways of living and being Muslim in the world.
For Western and Modern Muslims living in the West, cultural practices brought over from the “old world” or “village” interpretations of Islam can often be seen as the “right way” to practice Islam. The late Shahab Ahmed, the Harvard University professor who published the book, What is Islam? The Importance of Being Islamic takes us on an intellectual and metaphysical journey which encourages us all to re-think our practice of categorizing practices into the boxes of “religion” and “culture”. Ahmed encourages us to go beyond our narrow thinking to constantly view as Islam as a timeless tradition that is not only connected upwards to the celestial heavens, but which is also firmly rooted horizontally to our fellow women/man. He challenges us to open our eyes to the limitations which result from our own framing of these concepts.
American Muslims must continue to strive to assert the reality of establishing a uniquely American encounter with Islam. It is important that we embrace the heritage of indigenous Muslims in America. Over time, those views, perspectives and practices may diverge from the manner in which they have been practiced in their previous places of origin. However, when such a development takes place, it is important that the American encounter with Islam is not devalued or dismissed. American Muslims are well placed to offer an Islam which is simultaneously fresh, timeless and utterly unique.