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Islamic exorcism and psychiatry: a film monograph

What is it like to be a Muslim possessed by a jinn spirit? How do you find refuge from madness and evil spirits in a place like Denmark?

As elsewhere in Europe and North America, Danish Muslims have become hypervisible through intensive state monitoring, surveillance, and media coverage. Yet their religion remains poorly understood and is frequently identified by politicians, commentators, and even healthcare specialists as the underlying invisible cause of ‘integration problems’.

Over several years Christian Suhr followed Muslim patients being treated in a Danish mosque and in a psychiatric hospital. With this book and award-winning film he provides a unique account of the invisible dynamics of possession and psychosis, and an analysis of how the bodies and souls of Muslim patients are shaped by the conflicting demands of Islam and the psychiatric institutions of European nation-states.

The book reveals how both psychiatric and Islamic healing work not only to produce relief from pain, but also entail an ethical transformation of the patient and the cultivation of religious and secular values through the experience of pain. Creatively exploring the analytic possibilities provided by the use of a camera, both text and film show how disruptive ritual techniques are used in healing to destabilise individual perceptions and experiences of agency, so as to allow patients to submit to the invisible powers of psychotropic medicine or God.

The fifth chapter explores the sacrifices expected from patients in both systems of treatment. Taking the near-sacrifice of Abraham’s son as a model for healing, the chapter analyses the ways in which patients – through leaps of faith – dismantle those parts within themselves perceived by the healer as the core of their suffering: psychotic delusions, jinn, or the desires of what in Islamic theology is referred to as the lower self. In conclusion it is argued that self-sacrifice of this kind enables the patients to submit to their treatment, and thereby to be reinstated as moral and healthy subjects in the structural order implied by the two systems of healing: biomedicine and Salafi-oriented interpretations of Islam. The chapter expands on the analysis of the scenes from the accompanying film presented in Chapter 4, but also explores additional scenes of the interaction between patients and psychiatrists.

in Descending with angels

Chapter four takes a further step into the specific healing interactions between Muslim patients, psychiatrists, and Quranic healers by analysing how the Islamic and psychiatric treatments that are shown in the accompanying film depend on an oscillation between making visible and keeping invisible – between giving a tangible visual form to the suffering of patients and to possible paths for their healing, and yet simultaneously disabling and dismantling other possible visualisations. Iconoclastic practices in both psychiatric healthcare and Islamic exorcism are related to the issue of faith in healing and the necessity of doubt in order to attain faith. The widely disputed notion of ‘patient’ is of key importance. In contrast to recent user-oriented and holistic approaches in psychiatry, as well as a number of studies in medical anthropology that tend to emphasise healing as an effect of human self-creativity, the issue in the treatments the author studied was not framed in terms of how to gain agency; rather, the main concern was ‘how to become a patient’, which involved the surrender of individual agency in favour of allowing something else to do the work of healing.

in Descending with angels

The second chapter discusses the methodological and personal dilemmas of conducting long-term anthropological fieldwork in a highly politicised context. The chapter begins with a discussion of recent anthropological debates about how to take the viewpoints of others seriously, even when doing so implies accepting the existence of invisible beings and phenomena such as angels, jinn, God, schizophrenia, psychosis, or depression. The chapter explores a number of critical experiences and conversations between the author and the people he worked with and introduces several of the people in the accompanying film.

in Descending with angels

This introductory chapter explores how the invisible has been dealt with in the social sciences, in Islamic theology, and in public debates in Western media on the question of whether Islam is in fact the underlying invisible cause of ‘integration problems’. The exploration of the invisibility and hypervisibility of Muslims in the West leads to a discussion of invisibility in relation to theories about human perceptual agency. While a number of influential studies in anthropology and psychiatry have been concerned with how best to account for human agency, it is proposed that both the psychiatric and Islamic treatments that are the focus of the book point primarily to the idea of human agency as an obstacle that needs to be overcome in order to access either the invisible healing of God, or that of psychotropic medicine. Finally the author discusses his approach to ethnographic film and how he has applied the cinematic gaze as a methodological and analytical tool for displacing his own perception when studying the invisible among Danish Muslims.

in Descending with angels

Based on an analysis of Scene 7 in the accompanying film, the third chapter discusses how young Muslims use the increasing number of jinn exorcisms on YouTube as a form of entertainment, but also as a way of cultivating an awareness and an ethical disposition of the self in confrontation with the invisible. The chapter explores how these exorcisms produce doubt and discuss the ways in which doubt is an integral part of these young Muslims’ practices of faith. In addition the chapter explores how the recurrent discussion of the value of images in anthropology could find new answers by examining the way these Muslims use and respond to visual media. The chapter concludes by discussing the peculiar resemblance between the visual display of photographic images and the bodies of people possessed by invisible jinn. Like the possessed body, the image as a failed example or model of reality makes certain things visible, but simultaneously amplifies the sense of invisibility, pointing toward that which cannot be seen, depicted visually, or represented in writing.

in Descending with angels
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The final chapter of the book concludes on the findings of the preceding chapters, and critically discusses to what extent the analysis as a whole has adequately accounted for the work of the invisible in Islamic and psychiatric healing. If the invisible is indeed invisible, as claimed both by existential phenomenologists like Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas, as well as in Islamic theology, it would be problematic if the analysis of Islamic exorcisms and Danish psychiatry had succeeded in outlining and visualising the work of the invisible in any finite or exhaustive way. For this reason the final chapter of the book is dedicated to those aspects of the treatments that – as pockets of still unexplored invisibility – stubbornly refuse to fit within the overall analytical scheme of the book.

in Descending with angels

Chapter 6 explores the healing encounters between Muslim healers, patients, psychiatrists, and nurses as ritual practices. It analyses the aesthetic forms applied in the healing encounters in order to facilitate the possibility of self-sacrifice, and to move beyond the boundaries of the immediately visible. Inspired by recent attempts to apply the film theory of Eisenstein, Vertov, and Deleuze to the theorisation of ritual and religious art, the chapter analyses the interaction during exorcisms and the psychiatric treatments that are shown in the film as a ritual dialectic moving toward dissolution by way of disruptive montage. The chapter shows how submission to a particular form of healing is facilitated by the healers’ ability to conjure the sense of an all-encompassing world of knowledge and total vision to which the patients’ limited and partial perspectives must subject themselves.

in Descending with angels