Ana Maria Vinea is a Ph.D. candidate in Anthropology at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. In 2010 she received a Dissertation Fieldwork Grant to aid research on ‘Between the Psyche and the Soul: Mental Disorders, Quranic Healing and Psychiatry in Contemporary Egypt,’ supervised by Dr. Talal Asad. For this installment of the WGF blog interview, we’ll take a step into the world of Quranic healing and Vinea’s work tracing the boundaries of and treatments for ‘mental disorder’ in contemporary Cairo.
I’d like to start with some scene-setting. What is Quranic Healing, and what other kinds of healing practices does it share space with in contemporary Egypt?
Quranic healing—in Egyptian Arabic, al-‘alag bi-l-Qur’an, which translates literally as therapy or treatment with the Quran—is a popular healing method in contemporary Egypt, which, as the name indicates, centers on the Quran as the main therapeutic tool. In grounding their practices, Quranic healers draw on centuries-long traditions of using the Quran for healing, alongside other methods, all the while reworking and systematizing them in new forms. Quranic healers, as many Egyptians, are convinced that the Quran, as the Word of God, can cure any disease including physical and mental ones. In their daily practice however, they concentrate on a restricted number of afflictions, deferring for the others to physicians and psychiatrists. These afflictions are jinn possession (mass), black magic (siḥr), and the evil eye (ḥasad), with the first two being considered the most widespread and serious ones. Both these afflictions presuppose the ability of jinn—a type of sentient, invisible creatures whose creation by God from fire is mentioned in the Quran—to harm humans, either directly, by entering their body and possessing them, or indirectly, from the outside.