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Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 45, No.

2, Summer 2006 (Ó 2006)


DOI: 10.1007/s10943-006-9018-9

Prayer Healing:
An Experiential Description
of Iranian Prayer Healing
FATEMEH JAVAHERI
ABSTRACT: Although mainstream allopatic medicine is the dominant model in Iran, many other
kinds of healing are currently also being used. This paper aims to describe some aspects of prayer
healing in Iran. This study has been carried out using participatory observation and in-depth
interviews with fourteen healers who worked in Tehran. Also one hundred and seventy patients
who referred to healing centers were interviewed through random sampling.The findings are
summarized in terms of a description of some personal characteristic of healers, the methods of
healing, healer–patient communication patterns and, finally, some consequences of visiting a
prayer healer. The findings indicate that, despite the increasing growth in scientific medicine,
traditional healing is still alive. It is a cultural way of coping with health problems. This essay also
makes several suggestion for future research.

KEY WORDS: prayer healing; healer; alternative medicine; scientific medicine.

Introduction

The effect of religion on health is one of the most interesting subjects studied
by medical, sociological and psychological scientists, and prayer healing is one
example of the health–religion interrelationship. A study of this kind may help
to clarify some of the socio-cultural aspects of health issues. In spite of an
enduring tradition of prayer healing in Iran, little is known about the socio-
logical aspects of it and this paper is an attempt to describe various aspects of
prayer healing.
The findings are classified into four sections. First, healers are described
according to their demographic characteristics, training and multifunction-
ality. Next, the healing methods, including various means of healing patients
are explained. Then, the healer–patient relationship is described in terms of

Fatemeh Javaheri is associate professor in Sociology at Tarbiat Moallem University (Teacher


Training University) in Tehran. Her basic interests are focused on Sociology of Medicine, Mass
media and Organization. The article on Prayer Healing: An Experiential Description of Iranian
Prayer Healing is a part of her dissertation which she did in 2002 under supervision of Dr.
Framarz Rafipoor full Professor of National University of Iran. She is currently working on
Transsexuality in Iran. Correspondence to Fatemeh Javaheri, Javaherm@yahoo.com

171 Ó 2006 Blanton-Peale Institute


172 Journal of Religion and Health

the system and setting of the interaction and patient’s experiences. Finally
some possible consequences of visiting a healer are looked at.

The context of prayer healing

Prayer is the most common practice in all religious systems. ‘‘Generally


prayer, understood as a human communication with divine and spiritual
entities, has been present in most of the religions in human history’’ (Eliade,
1987, p. 489).
It has been noted that ‘‘Prayer serves many functions including invocation,
adoration, thanksgiving, confession of repented sin and petition. Petition may
be both for one’s own needs and, in prayer of intercession, for the needs of
others. It may be a request for material or spiritual benefit ‘‘(Grant, 1995, p.
521–522).
There are many different types of prayer, including active or passive, cor-
porate or private, formal and prescribed or free and extemporaneous forms,
praying for oneself or intercessory, direct or indirect prayer.
Sometimes people pray to heal patients in a special manner, and this kind of
practice is known as prayer healing. ‘‘Prayer healing is classified as a spiritual
category of alternative or complementary medicine’’ (Easthope, 1998, p. 272).
Spiritual healing encompasses the various kinds of faith healing, pastoral
counseling, energy therapy, reiki, transcendental meditation and prayer
healing.
Spirituality can be considered as distinct from religion. Religions have
propounded various doctrines and belief systems about the nature of God and
His relationship with humanity. Spirituality refers to the common experience
lying behind these and where it stands vis-à-vis humankind. It is an experi-
ence involving an awareness of and relationship with something that tran-
scends your personal self as well as the human order of things. Prayer healing
is the religious aspect of spiritual healing.
The literature of prayer healing in Iran shows that it did not originate from
Islam but had more ancient roots. ‘‘The Zoroastrian faith as an ancient reli-
gion contributed a great deal to prayer healing in Iran. Zoroaster was known
as a healer and some people referred to him for healing. Also other Zoroastrian
leaders used prayer as a means of healing’’ (Najmabadi, 1962, p. 152).
However, prayer also has a prominent position in Muslim theology. Muslims
are encouraged to pray in different circumstances during their lives. The
Qur’an, the Muslim Holy Book, recommends that people pray to God and call
on Him for every need. Verse 60 of Chapter al-mu’min says: ‘‘And sayeth your
Lord: call ye unto Me, I will answer you’’.
In many occasions the Qur’an is referred to as a means of healing. Verse 82
of Chapter Bani-Israel reads: ‘‘We sent down the Qur’an which is a source of
healing and mercy unto the believers, but it addeth not to the perdition’’.
Fatemeh Javaheri 173

As a result of the importance of praying in Islamic belief, that is transferred


through the process of socialization, people are encouraged to pray.
Muslim daily prayers are a kind of formal prayer. All Muslims are obliged to
pray five times a day. But there are some types of prayer that are informal and
private and may be resorted to in times of crisis. People pray in order to solve
problems in different ways. Sometimes, in the shiite tradition, praying to God
is performed by invoking the Islamic Holy leaders (the Prophet and the
Imams). For example, the shrine of the 8th Imam, which is located in the
Iranian city of Mashhad, is considered a sacred place. People bring their
patients from across the country and reside in the shrine for days and even
weeks while praying for their patients’ healing.
There is a special form of prayer for healing patients that I wish to describe
below. Some patients refer themselves to people who are considered as faith
healers. These faith healers like to visit patients at a given time and place and
perscribe a special kind of prayer.

Theoretical implications

Since prayer is considered as a private expression of religiosity and a multi-


dimentional phenomenon taking different forms, the efficacy of prayer can not
be scientifically measured. There are different viewpoints concerning the
impact of prayer healing. Some believe that prayer healing has only a placebo
effect, while others see this healing as a form of quackery or sharlatanism. The
third group considers prayer healing permissable as long as it does not conflict
with allopathic cures. People can use prayer healing as a complement to
conventional medicine (Adib 2003; Polma 1994; McLennon 1997). The aim of
this article is not a study of the efficacy of prayer, but rather some sociological
aspects of it.
Prayer healing—as a cultural way of coping with health problems—is based
on an action system, with at least two actors who communicate with each
other. The patient is a person who suffers from a mental or physical disease
and seeks to be healed. ‘‘Faith healers are people who use the power of sug-
gestion, prayer, and faith in God to promote healing’’ (Cockerham, 1989,
p. 141).
In order to understand prayer healing better, it is necessary to give a
description of the healers, the methods of healing, the healer–patient rela-
tionship and, finally, some possible consequences of visiting healers.
Parsons’s model can serve well for describing healer–patient interactions.
‘‘Parsons indicated that the expected behavior of people in the social system is
structured by particular orientation. This orientation, which varies from one
status to another, is referred to as Pattern Variables and the model can be
used as a comparative framework for understanding how the holder of status
is expected to interact with others. Parsons introduced five pattern variables
174 Journal of Religion and Health

and set them up as five dichotomous or twofold role definition choices in


interaction patterns’’ (Kurtz & Chalfont, 1991, p. 116).
Also, there is a special framework in which prayer healing is supposed to
take place, and healer–patient activities are governed by a set of rules.
Furthermore, there is a reproduction system that allows prayer healing to
continue during the period in question. Some of these techniques are gener-
ated by a set of rules and some of them are located in the healers’ own human
capital.
The fourth issue is whether going to prayer healers would result in deeper
trust in the healer and in future referrals. Homans believes that ‘‘men are
likely to take actions that they perceive are, in the circumstances, likely to
achieve rewarding results’’ (Ritzer, 1988, p. 263).
According to Homans’s description, if the patients are satisfied with the
results it will be expected that they are not only encouraged to visit the healer
more frequently, but it is also possible that this relationship will go beyond the
healing domain. More trust is accumulated following future satisfactory visits,
and the patients give up to the healers control over some aspects of their lives.
Based on Colman’s point of view, people sometimes give up their right of
control over others because they believe that they are better off following the
other relationship. Social and personal disorganization, being under threat or
promise and the special qualities of a charismatic person are conditions which
are seen to be effective in leading to the transfer of the right of control. It is
hypothesized in this study that, if patients are to expand their trust in and
relationship with the healer, it will imply that the patients are giving over
their right of control to the healers.
Max Weber also emphasizes the personal qualities of the charismatic person
as necessary in this visiting of the right of control. ‘‘Events in life can not
simply be accepted but should be prevented, alleviated and controlled. Those
able to undertake such activities and to satisfy these particular needs may be
seen to be endowed with a special gift, which Max Weber (1978) would argue
legitimizes their power. This he calls charisma: a certain quality of an indi-
vidual by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as en-
dowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional
powers or qualities’’ (Scambler, 1987, p. 204).

The research method

This report, as a qualitative study, describes certain aspects of healing. The


data was gathered from two sources. The first unit of research is the healers
who work in Tehran and the second is the patients who refer themselves to
healers.
In Iran, prayer healing is not conducted under the supervision of any formal
institution. Since there is no clear information regarding healers’ names,
Fatemeh Javaheri 175

addresses and schedules, the total number of healers is unknown. This situ-
ation limits the use of a probabilistic sampling method. Since there is no
formal listing of the prayer healers, this research was carried out on the basis
of information from people who know such healers. After one month of
searching, fourteen healers who were frequently mentioned by people were
found. The research took more than 100 hours of field work over a 3-month
period using participatory observation techniques and in-depth interviews
with healers. Patients’ impressions and experiences also have an important
role to play in understanding prayer healing. For this reason, one hundred
and seventy patients who referred themselves to healing centers were chosen
and interviewed through random sampling.
But, as was the case with healers, there were some barriers in finding pa-
tients randomly. Since some patients were suffering from serious psycholog-
ical or physical conditions, some were children (and thus too young to be
interviewed) and some came from villages and worried about being able to go
back soon, not all of the patients were equally able to talk. Accordingly, the
researcher had to see the patients one by one and the interviews were con-
ducted only if the subjects gave their acceptence.
Finally, 105 females and 65 males were interviewed. Thus the base of both
samplings was inevitability nonprobablistic. ‘‘The nonprobability sampling
method is used whenever the researcher has no desire to generalize the
finding beyond the sample’’ (Bailey, 1982, p. 97).

Findings

As has already been mentioned, the findings are described in terms of the
healers, the methods of healing and healer–patient relationships.

Description of healers

Healers’ demographic characteristics


As a starting point, the healers’ characteristics may help to describe prayer
healing. Two of the healers were female and all the others were male, of whom
three were clergy. The average age of the healer was 56 years old, the youn-
gest being 40 and the oldest 75. They had an average of 18 years experience in
this field. Five of healers had been working in healing for more than 20 years.
Two of them had chosen healing as their jobs, while the rest had other pro-
fessions.
Ten of the healers were ‘‘sayyed’’ i.e. one who claims descent from the
Prophet Muhammad. This religious label brings healers extra respect as true
and faithful people whose prayers will be accepted by God. Both the clergy and
laity are increasingly benefiting from practicing healing. To be male, to be
176 Journal of Religion and Health

skilled and to have a religious label may be influential in gaining patients’


trust.

Healers’s training process


How the healers acquired their skill is another important issue for under-
standing prayer healing. There are numerous ways in which this can happen.

– Some of them had relatives, such as father or grandfather, who had already
been a healer.
– Some had learned from a spiritual director and at the end of their learning
period were given permission to act as healers.
– Some stated that they had an inner intuition.
– Some went through certain soul purification practices to prepare them-
selves for the ability.

The study of the healers’ backgrounds show that some followed only one
route while others had followed more than one route simultaneously to learn
this ability.

Healers’ roles
Healers perform various roles at the same time. First of all they heal patients
through prayer, but their role is not limited to healing. Sometimes, for
example, people go to healers who act as problem solvers. Their function is to
give advice and act as social workers to people who ask for it. While doctors
generally perform the role of treatment, it is possible that the multifunctional
role of healers makes them more reliable for their clients.

The healing method

It is important to recognize an essential distinction between healing and


curing. ‘‘A cure is an externally applied medical intervention that removes all
evidences of the diagnosed disease. Healing is an internal process of recovery
that takes place on the physical, emotional, mental or spiritual level and re-
sults in the person’s having a sense of being complete in balance or harmony
with self and surroundings’’ (Chez & Jonas, 1997, p. 1157).
Thus, the doctor is focused on curing whereas the healer is focused on
healing. A healer uses various tools to reach this goal. Patients go to the
healer, in turn, according to a previous appointment. Some healers ask pa-
tients to explain their problems, but in some cases the healer asks patients not
to talk at all. They just need to consider their problem internally and then the
healer offers appropriate prayer. Generally speaking, prayer healing takes
place in the various following ways.
Fatemeh Javaheri 177

– The healer prays and blows the prayer out to the patient.
– The healer gives a written prayer that the patient has to read or keep with
him or her at all time.
– The healer prays and blows the prayer out onto a certain material such as
sugar or water and the patient has to eat it.
– The healer moves his/her hand on or over the patient’s head and shoulder
while praying. It seems that it is as if they are providing positive energy or
drawing out negative energy.
– Some healers prescribe herbal drugs and special diets.
– Some of them ask for some help from supernatural creatures such as an
angel or a genie.

It is significant that, just like a medication that must be taken at a partic-


ular time and at a specific dose, the prayer needs to be carried out following a
particular prescription offered by the healer.
The other issue which needs to be mentioned is the payment system. There
are four kinds of payment:

– Some healers accept no kind of visitation fee or reward.


– Some of them accept no money but only gifts.
– Some accept whatever amount of money the patient wishes to pray.
– Some have a special rate but show flexibility towards their patients’
economic limitations.

The variable system of payment in prayer contrasts directly with the fixed
payment system of doctors. The healer payment system is more flexible and
allows patients to choose the one that is most compatible with their own
financial situation.

Healer –patient relationship

The healer–patient relationship will be discussed in relation to three aspects:


the system of interaction, the setting of the interaction and patients’ experi-
ences.

The system of interaction


The healer–patient interaction takes place in different ways. Some healers do
not contact patients directly but rather deal with them by letter.
Further, there are healing methods carried out by proxy. In this method, an
individual will sit in for another person who is not able physically to be
present there.
178 Journal of Religion and Health

Most healers, however, meet patients directly. According to Parsons’s


model, the healer–patient relationship can be analysed in terms of five
dichotomous patterns of interaction as follows.
Affectivity—affective neutrality: In general the interaction pattern of healers
is based on affective neutrality such as that of a doctor. But sometimes the
patient’s orientation toward the healer is based on affectivity. If patients are
affected by the healer’s personality, they experience emotional changes such
as weeping, happiness or hope.
Specificity—diffuseness: Like doctors, healers communicate with patients in
terms of a functionally specific context, i.e. one that is restricted only to
information about the disease. But when healers perform different roles such
as problem-solving and counseling, their relationship extends to other spheres
of the patients’ life.
Self-collectivity orientation: Healers such as doctors are supposed to be more
interested in the welfare of their patients than in their own personal gain. But
the range of collectivity is different. In comparison with those who ask for a
consultation fee, those healers who work free have more collectivism and an
asymmetrical orientation. This is because they have no expectation of
receiving a reward.
Universalism-particularism: It seems that healers act upon a universalist
approach because they react to all people as if they are patients.
Ascription-achievement: A person can become a doctor only through special
education and training. Therefore, a doctor interacts with patients in terms of
his/her achieved status. Their authority results from their knowledge
of medical science. In contrast, a person can not become a healer only in terms
of special training, but the inner abilities, heritage factor and teacher’s
permission are essential factors for occupying the status of healer. Indeed the
healer’s interaction with his/her patients is based on the status of ascription
and achievement. Also healers’ authority comes from their personal charac-
teristics and people’s attitude toward their being true believers in God.
The healer–patient relationship can also be analysed in terms of means of
control. Healers and doctors work under different control systems. Although
healing activities are not forbidden, healers are not permitted to use any kind
of advertising. Healing is not based on an established or any other professional
institution. Therefore, if recipients have any problem with healers, they have
to resort to the police. In contrast, doctors practice under the control of pro-
fessional groups such as medical associations or councils.

Setting of interaction
Healing takes place in public, semi public and private places. For example,
patients can submit their written problems and receive answers while they
are waiting outside on the street. Religious centers such as mosques are both
semi public and closed places. Some healers allocate a part of their houses to
healing tasks within their own private space. Regarding these three different
Fatemeh Javaheri 179

settings, it seems that religious places are considered as a sacred environment


and that private places have an intimate atmosphere for clients. In these
settings there are some pictures on the walls that have a religious themes and
include verses from the Qu’ran, an image of a religious figure or the sayings of
religious leader. In contrast to that of a healer, a doctor’s office is regarded
more as a secular place.

Reproduction system
Prayer healing—as an action system—is based on a reproduction system that
makes it endure over time. According to Iranian law, every kind of healing is
considered an intervention in medical matters. For this reason, formal
advertising for prayer healing is forbidden, but there are several informal
means of advertising.

– Some healers have no way to advertise, but happy clients are their
voluntary advertisements.
– Some healers have a business cards that are distributed.
– One healer has a listing of successful clients, including their names and
telephone numbers, that is available to other potential patients.
– Another healer has published a book containing his father’s biography that
is related to prayer healing.
– A film has been produced based on another healer’s biography and this has
been a great motivation for people who are in search of a shelter.

Patients’ experiences
Patients’ interpretations can be useful in gaining a better understanding of
prayer healing. During interaction with the healer, patients have some special
experiences. Patients’ experiences are described in terms of their emotional
feelings and their interpretations. When they are asked about the emotional
feelings during the visit, they refer to experiences such as hope, happiness,
lightness, tranquility, weeping and an unidentifiable feeling. How the visitors
interpret their feelings is the next question. Their responses to this question
include the sense of being in a sacred place, inner evolution or absorption in
the charismatic personality of the healer. Although most patients are opti-
mistic about the healer’s chance of success, there are some patients who are
doubtful. The results indicate that, in comparison with mainstream medicine,
prayer healing is associated with desirable, spiritual experiences for people.
This may be a significant factor in directing people towards prayer healing.

Possible consequences

In order to clarify some possible outcomes of going to healers, four indicators


were considered. According to the research preposition, the creation of trust
180 Journal of Religion and Health

and a relationship between the patient and the healer can result in various
outcomes. This additional relationship takes forms such as returning and
coming again for treatment purposes, for religious reasons, for problems other
than disease and, finally, refering others to the same healer. Further visits
take place for treatment purposes.
To investigate these consequences scientifically, the four questions were
asked of patients listed in Table 1.
Based on the data given in Table 1, the research preposition, is confirmed.
The client’s satisfaction results in trust in the healer and promotes the pa-
tient’s relationship with the healer. It is not just the client who benefits from
this relationship, but also the healer who is provided with social capital. That
is the secret that lies beneath the enduring tradition of prayer healing in Iran.

Discussion and conclusion

Prayer healing works within a closed system in Iran. Healers rarely tend to
transfer their skills and experiences to others, since they like to do their work
in secret. Healers prefer to work within a traditional framework. They don’t
benefit from any modern techniques such as special associations, journals,
home pages or web sites. A common theme of various categories of prayer
healing is an appeal to God to change a person’s physical or psychological
condition for the better.
In contrast with mainstream medicine, which is based on secularity,
objectivity and rationality, prayer healing is based on spirituality and flexi-
bility toward patients that gives them a feeling of support (Table 2).

TABLE 1

Some Possibles Outcomes of Visiting a Prayer Healer

Low Average High Number


How likely is it that you will come 4/2 5/3 90/5 168
again for treatment purposes?
How likely is it that you will come 12/0 12/8 74/2 140
again for religious reasons?
How likely is it possible that you 8/2 14/7 77/1 170
will come again for a problem
other than disease?
How likely is it that you will refer 2/4 13/0 84/6 169
others to this healer?
Fatemeh Javaheri 181

TABLE 2

Contrast Between Healers and Doctors

Healers Doctors
Domain of work Various Problem Treatment
Base of action Value oriented Instrumental oriented
Setting Sacred Secular
Base of authority Healer personality Medical knowledge
Control agency Nonprofessional Professional
Approach to patient Holism Particularism
Training process Traditional medicine Scientific medicine

As noted by, ‘‘also western medicine tends to adhere to the positive view of
science reflected in the Cartesian mind–body dualism. Positive medical sci-
ence focuses its study on that part of individual that can be objectively ob-
served—the body—which it tends to view as a machine acted upon by
external, mechanical forces as it is subjected to the mechanistic, random laws
of an impartial nature’’ (McKee, 1988, p. 776).
As regards religious healing, Foskett and Jacobs have stated that ‘‘the
philosophy behind religious healing is based on the whole person as an indi-
vidual, as well as part of a family and social unit; and as a whole person, body,
mind, and spirit but with particular reference to the person’s psychological,
ethical, and theological frames of reference’’ (Foskett & Jacobs, 1997, p. 319).
Belief in the efficacy of faith healing is not limited to Muslims. ‘‘The majority
of Americans also believe in the healing power of prayer. A recent Time/CNN
poll found that 82% of American believe that prayer can cure serious illness.
Seventy-three percent of Americans in that poll also believe that praying for
others can cure illness and 64% want their physicians to pray with
them’’(Ameling, 2000, p. 41).
Although it is not possible to answer the question as to whether or not
religion can cure our troubles, peoples’ reference to prayer healing indicates
an important reality. Despite the increasing dominance of scientific medicine,
traditional healing is still alive. It is a cultural way of coping with health
problems. ‘‘Religion has exercised more direct control of bodies by itself pro-
mulgating moral norms controlling sexuality, reproduction, eating, drinking,
entertainments, modesty, cleanliness and purity’’ (McGuire, 1966, p. 105).
This reality shows that modern and traditional phenomena exist parallel to
each other. As Ronald Ingelhart stated, ‘‘economic development is associated
with pervasive, and to some extent predictable cultural changes. Empirical
evidence from 65 societies indicates that values can and do change, but also
that they continue to reflect a society’s cultural heritage’’ (Ingelhart, 2000,
p. 49). What lies behind the cause of people’s attitude toward religious healing,
182 Journal of Religion and Health

such as prayer healing, and its consequences is a considerable point for social
and medical scientists.
‘‘There are a few comparative studies about prayer healing in Christianity,
Judaism, Islam or other religious groups to show the similarities and differ-
ences of religious healing in various arena’’(Foskett & Jacobs, 1997, p. 327).
Such studies show that religion as well as medicine has its own influence on
people’s search for health and the regulation of the body.

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