Iqbal Chisti would not stand out in a crowd. He is a mild-mannered, non-descript man who constantly chews paan while conversing in his local dialect. His panjabi, although expensive, hangs awkwardly on his lanky frame. Iqbal could be mistaken for anything from a shopkeeper to a farmer, but he has an unusual claim to fame. He is a faith healer adored by thousands.
Iqbal is a Pir or spiritual leader of the Chistiya order with a large following in the Sylhet region. Like other Pirs of his order scattered about the Indian subcontinent, he claims a spiritual connection with Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti, the famous Sufi saint of Ajmir.Iqbal never received formal religious training, but says he inherited the Khilafah or mantle of spirituality from his father. "I try to help people as best as I can," he says. "I guide them, and try to cure their ills. But I am only the wasilah (medium)."
Iqbal's followers believe the Pir can " see" the spiritual world and recognises various diseases through mystical insight or with the help of his "pet spirits" (Jinn). He is capable of curing these diseases with his healing techniques.
According to Iqbal Chisti, the human body has nine latifah or spiritual points and healing can be achieved by paying special attention to these points. "This is the first and foremost one," says Chisti, laying his finger on a spot just above his heart.
Dr Khondoker Mokaddem Hossain, Professor of Sociology at Dhaka University, says the belief in the healing powers of holy men goes back to Vedic times. "Ayurveda or the 'science of life' was grounded in the metaphysical balance of the elements. The advent of Islam took spiritual healing to a new level. For the Sufis within the mystic branches of Islam, the healing of the sick is considered to be the most important of all services to humanity. Unfortunately, with time spirituality has been tainted by greed and materialism."
Every Thursday, after sunset, Iqbal goes to his village where he sits on a raised throne in the courtyard beside his great grandfather's tomb. There is much chanting, and burning of incense. The pir's followers give him their nazrana (gift) and seek his blessing.
Iqbal calls out many of them by name. "Shamsu, you want to go to Hajj, I know. Ok, your desire will come true. Salma, your husband misbehaved with you. I see the pain in your heart. I will pray for you."
Although the simple villagers are impressed by the Pir's spiritual insight, Iqbal's henchmen admit that they collect information about the villagers and brief the Pir. "We tell the Saabmureed (followers)," says Ramzan Ali, Iqbal Chisti's right hand man. "We do it so he can help them."Taweej (amulets) and pani pora (blessed water) sell briskly at a shop in the corner. It is a highly profitable business model. (Saheb) about the problems faced by the
"These so-called spiritual healers are often landlords and they use their stature and power to oppress the poor," says Professor Hossain. "By styling themselves as saints, they gain access to hundreds of people who are willing to work for them for free. They are far removed from the simple and ascetic lifestyle of the original Sufis."
Once a year, during the Urs or death anniversary of the original Pir (Dada Pir as the mureed call him), there is a grand celebration. It is here that Iqbal displays the full extent of his "powers".
A paraplegic patient arrives in a wheelchair and the Pir "lays hands" on him. He commands the man to get up and to the astonishment of the crowd, the man straightens up and takes a few shaky steps. "Thank God, and thanks to the blessing of the Khwaja Baba, you will be better," intones Iqbal Chisti.
At the centre of such 'miraculous' healings is what scientists call the Placebo Effect -- the tendency of any medication or treatment, even an inert or ineffective one, to show results simply because the recipient strongly believes that it will work. Many so-called 'healings' are extremely subjective. People are most often 'healed' of rather vague conditions that are not visible, such as chronic headaches.
According to Dr Mohit Kamal, Associate Professor and Head of Psychotherapy at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), a patient may get caught up in the excitement of the healing service and may even experience a lesser degree of pain for a while. However, the pain usually returns shortly after the process ends.
A surprising number of 'healings' are actually a simple matter of people taking credit for natural events, as though they were supernatural phenomena. Many healers claim to cure people of viral illnesses which are self-limiting. Others "heal" bone fractures taking advantage of the natural remedial process of the body. People with paralysis are 'cured' after they naturally regain some degree of muscular control.
Hundreds of faith healers like Iqbal Chisti are quietly active in Darbars (courts) scattered about the country, and they wield enormous power in some areas. Many observers consider them to be relatively benign religious figures who offer solace to sufferers. But others believe they prey on the vulnerable to create false hope.
"Faith healers take from their subjects any hope of managing on their own," says Dr. Mohit Kamal, "and they may very well take them away from legitimate treatments that could really help them.
Nusrat Sharmin of Dhanmondi has a bitter memory of the time her father came under the influence of a Pir. "In the late 90s my father, an engineer, began to see this Pir named Mujibur Rahman Chisty. He came to believe that fame and fortune awaited him if he would follow the pir's guidance. He resigned from his government job and began to spend a lot of time away from home. He sold a piece of land we had in the city. I don't know if he gave the Pir money, but we certainly felt as if we were losing him." It was only after Mujibur Rahman was murdered in 2000 did Nusrat's father gradually return to a normal life.
Although most of the spiritual healers in Bangladesh are Muslim, people of all religious faiths visit them in the hope of getting a cure. Similarly, many Hindu "holy men" or Sandhus have large followings. "Faith healers are not regulated by any hierarchy," says Prof Mokaddem Hossain, "Their social recognition depends on their ability to recruit disciples and followers."
Although a few people like Iqbal Chisti claim a connection with well-known Sufi orders, most are loose cannons, and totally unpredictable. As in the case of Amzad Fakir, the vegetable-vendor-turned-faith-healer who has gained notoriety for his criminal 'treatment' methods, many traditional healers use violence on the body to force 'the spirit' into submission.
According to detailed reports published in the daily Prothom Alo, Amzad of Sirajdikhan, Munshigonj, turned into a faith healer overnight, claiming God spoke to him in his dreams. Aided by a clique of local business-people, he set up a 'darbar' where his treatment methods ranged from hanging sick babies upside down to kicking patients in the ribs. Amzad Fakir was arrested after Prothom Alo published disturbing images of the 'Pir' trampling on a pair of two and a half month old babies.
Amzad is not an isolated case. There are claims of widespread abuse, even deaths resulting from methods employed by these fake fakirs.
One woman in Ghorasal was taken to a traditional healer complaining of fever and headache. The healer gave her herbal medication for months, chanted prayers and asked her family to pour 'holy water' on her everyday. When she was finally taken to a government hospital, doctors found that her liver and kidneys had failed due to the herbal medication. She died shortly afterwards.
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