MULTAN: In the scorching Multan heat, when everyone is looking to duck under the nearest shaded space, 18-year-old Hafsa is literally doing somersaults. After several flips, she falls to the ground, unconscious. Saira Bibi, her mother, then breathes a sigh of relief.
“She is under a witch’s spell,” explains Saira Bibi, who has brought the teenager to a local ‘faith healer’ named Aamil MA Khan Bashir to cure her of the ‘possession’.
“He will reverse the spell. This is the treatment he advised,” says Saira who hails from Daira Deen Panah in Muzaffargarh. “Hafsa falls unconscious every time she does this and when she wakes up, she is back to normal.”
Saira is among the thousands of people in this country who believe that so-called faith healers like Bashir can save them from possession, evil spirits and diseases, despite any evidence.
Wall-chalked advertisements for these pirs, aamils, and black magic practitioners adorn walls all over the country’s cities and villages. They promise the return of estranged lovers, marriage with the person of your choice, children for childless parents, removal of evil spirits, and cures for all ailments. The cure is always a few ritualistic prayers and religious text incantations, a practice more commonly known as faith healing.
Considered an alternative to medical treatment, faith healing is practiced by large groups of followers of many religions – Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism – all with their own variations. Over time, the practice has become a profitable business, with hundreds of so-called aalims and pirs exploiting unsuspecting people for money, claiming they have the solutions to everything from a broken relationship to financial woes to black magic. In the name of faith healing, some of these ‘healers’ have been known to torture, rape, or even murder their ‘patients’.
Summayya, a resident of Dolat Gate, told The Express Tribune that she thought her six-year-old daughter was under the control of evil spirits. So taking a neighbour’s advice, she took the child to a faith healer.
“He tied her to a tree to cast the spirits out. That’s how she died,” says Summayya.
Multan is home to around 1,000 of such so-called faith healers, says Farah Gurmani, the secretary general of the New Vision Foundation, a human rights advocacy NGO. According to Gurmani, when her organisation collected data on rape cases, scores of women told them that so-called faith healers had raped them when they had gone to them to seek their help in becoming mothers.
Meet the scammers
These ‘healers’ take thousands of rupees from people who fall prey to their claims of being able to solve any problem within a week. Childless women usually become easy targets for these fraudulent ‘healers’ as they flock to these aalims in hopes of being cured of infertility. Many a time these ‘healers’ demand things like a black hen or the decapitated head of a pig, both of which are not easy to procure. So these people, can barely make ends meet, and must scrimp and save to cover these demands.
Many of these ‘healers’ claim to be from far-off exotic places like Bangladesh, Nepal and Tibet, where they meditated for years and received spiritual powers. A typical ‘faith healer’ runs his business through the help of an aide who works as an advertiser for him bringing people in. They sit in rooms surrounded with pictures of goddesses and vials of animal blood, bones, and wine to supposedly summon evil spirits.
Since the literacy rate in several subdistricts of Multan such as Shujabad and Jalalpur Pirwala is low, people head to faith healers with their ailments instead of going to doctors, especially where the ailment is a mental disease.
The story of violence
Punjab seems to have turned into a hub for particularly violent faith healers. In April last year, a ‘faith healer’ in Bahawalnagar slashed a young’s man tongue and beat him with clubs and iron rods. The following month, two such pirs tortured a woman to death in Okara. In Sahiwal, a self-proclaimed ‘faith healer’ burnt a 13-year-old girl alive during an exorcism, while a pir and two of his accomplices were arrested from Dera Ghazi Khan in February for torturing a woman to death. As recently as last week, a spiritual leader tortured and murdered 20 people in a shrine in Sargodha.
There is no evidence to suggest that the shady practices of these ‘healers’ actually work, but they insist otherwise.
“Everything is possible if you have faith,” says Baba Faizi Qalandri. “We give up all our possessions to attain spiritual knowledge to be able to help people.”
“You have to lose something to gain something,” says Yasin alias Naag Shah. “So what if we make people bear some physical pain to get rid of spirits.”
Speaking about exorcism, Allama Farooq Khan Saeedi, a prominent religious leader from Multan, said Islam mentions no such way of getting rid of evil spirits.
People who go to these ‘faith healers’ are weak in their faith, he said, adding many people also turn to these pirs because of the lack of mental health providers in the country.
According to Zain Abbas, the president of Imambargah Hussainia, people fall victim to ‘faith healers’ because of their ignorance and lack of understanding of the Holy Quran.
He said the greatest responsibility lies on religious scholars to educate people about these things. “People look for shortcuts to deal with their problems and that’s how they become prey to these fake faith healers.”