In the Shadow of Coronavirus the Iranian Authorities Respond to "Islamic Medicine"

Miriam Nissimov*

ACIS Iran Pulse no. 105 | May 13, 2020


The outbreak of coronavirus, followed by the rapid spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in Iran in February 2020, forced the authorities in the country to cope with yet another side effect of the disease - remedies and potions that were offered by alternative healers based on what they define as “Islamic medicine”. On April 4, local cleric Morteza Kohansal was arrested for offering Covid-19 patients an Islamic potion called the “Perfume of the Prophet” (attar-e payambar). Videos shared on social media show Kohansal promoting his wares in hospitals where, seemingly, Covid-19 patients are hospitalized, while speaking disparagingly of the institution’s doctors who are unable to cure the disease. Other headlines touted the arrest of Mehdi Sabili whose method was slightly more sophisticated than that of his colleague Kohansal. Sabili posted a video in which he called on his colleagues from around the country to accept the “wandering healer” (tabib-e dawar) challenge, visit Covid-19 patients who live in their vicinity, and offer them treatments based on Islamic medical principles, which would also give them an opportunity to observe the inability of conventional medicine to deal with the epidemic. Sabili was arrested after he disseminated an online video praising the medical virtues of camel urine for body cleansing, and documenting himself sipping yellowish liquid from a glass while standing near a camel.


These and other similar videos elicited a range of reactions on and off social media, and provoked strong reactions from both the Iranian medical establishment and senior religious officials who warned of the dangers inherent in the phenomenon. Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi issued a statement denying the existence of a medical codex that could be called “Islamic medicine.” He further condemned those people who, without any relevant education or training, introduce themselves as having such knowledge. Shirazi’s statement is another instance of the efforts to suppress manifestations of folk religion that the clerical establishment has been making since the early 2000s. Despite the authorities’ forceful reaction to these two healers, and although their activities are exceptional cases, they occurred against a background of the mounting popularity of folk and traditional medicine in the Islamic Republic. On the one hand, the coronavirus crisis and the widespread anxiety it is causing among the general public have opened a window of opportunity for purveyors of folk medicine, and among them those practicing “Islamic medicine,” who proffer miraculous solutions to treat the mysterious epidemic. On the other hand, the crisis obliges the state authorities to curb the activities of these healers, and control – to the extent possible – all information and policies concerning the treatment of Corvid-19 patients.


Folk medicine, traditional/Iranian medicine, and Islamic medicine are three distinct areas of knowledge in Iranian therapeutic discourse, although the distinction between them is not always clear, and at times they may even overlap. Folk medicine makes frequent use of herbal remedies, and one of its most familiar traits is the use of wild rue (scientific name: Peganum harmala) seeds. Known in Iran as “espand,” rue seeds are used to treat a variety of ailments and aches, for purifying the air, removing the evil eye etc. Viper flowers (scientific name: Echium) are also commonly used for treating varied diseases, including kidney stones and colds.


Traditional medicine, sometimes called “Iranian medicine,” relies on an ancient tradition that dates back to the greatest physicians of the early medieval period, most prominently Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (854-925 CE) and Abu ‘Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina (known in the West as “Avicenna,” 980-1037 CE). Since the early 2000s, traditional Iranian medicine has been undergoing a process of formal institutionalization and recognition, similar to the transformations in the status of other forms of alternative medicine, after international health organizations expressed support for incorporating Chinese and Indian medicine as complementary medicine that can augment conventional medicine. In 2007, a Faculty of Iranian Medicine (Danshkade-ye Teb-e Irani) was opened at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences, followed by similar faculties at other universities across the country. Furthermore, there has been an increase in the number of clinics offering complementary and preventive medical treatments. The Department of Iranian Medicine operating in the Ministry of Health is charged with encouraging and promoting training in this field at Iranian institutions of higher education.


“Islamic medicine” is a field of knowledge based on the Qur’an and Islamic tradition, which attributes magical healing powers to the sacred Islamic text. In August 2019, an international conference devoted to Iranian-Islamic medicine was held for the first time in Tehran and attended, according to its organizers, by experts from thirty countries. Prior to the conference, its chief organizer, Hossein Rawazadeh, addressed a letter to President Hassan Rouhani requesting the establishment of an independent national authority for Islamic medicine, which would not be subject to the Ministry of Health.


Rawazadeh and two of his colleagues, Hossein Khayrandish and Ayatollah Abbas Tabrizian, whom their followers call “the fathers of Islamic medicine,” are the most prominent promoters of this discipline in the Islamic Republic. They are also conspicuous for their opposition to modern medicine, which they sometimes call “Zionist medicine,” and claim it is aimed at weakening the Iranian nation. More than once their radical statements have been severely criticized by various people within the Iranian medical and scientific establishment, as well as in the Iranian media. In an article titled: “Why Do I Oppose Traditional-Islamic Medicine?” historian Ayatollah Rasul Jafarian, a member of the Iranian Academy of Sciences, pointed out that proponents of “Islamic medicine” position science and Islam as opposing each other, thereby reinforcing the distorted claim that religion is contrary to science.


Another article “Medicine in the Flames of Superstition,” published in the newspaper Ebtekar, presented the claim that a sharp rise in drug prices, caused by international economic sanctions against Iran, was a key factor in the growing popularity of Islamic Medicine. The paper explained that because many citizens are financially unable to pay the high cost of medical treatment, in addition to the skyrocketing cost of medicine, many in Iran to seek refuge in the snare of superstition. In addition to identifying Islamic medicine with superstition, this field has gained disapproval from practitioners of traditional Iranian medicine. The latter are careful to present their field as complementary medicine, and not as a method intended to replace conventional medicine or deny modern medical science.

The Coronavirus opened an extraordinary window of opportunity for traditional medicine. Videos released on social media just days after the first cases of the Corvid-19 were discovered in Iran, showed people sanitizing hospital hallways with wild rue seeds, while another documented a nurse holding a smoky container, and saying, “With espand we will fight Corona.” At the same time that such videos were making the rounds, experts in Iranian medicine were being interviewed by media outlets, and explaining at length about the ability of these and other plants to purify the body and the home or strengthening the immune system. Conversely, proponents of Islamic medicine, including Rawazadeh, made statements reassuring the public that the medical system they advocate has immediate, available solutions for treating the disease. The popularity of these healers and the dangers posed by some of the remedies they suggest would appear to be among the reasons that Iranian authorities are taking a firm stance against the advocates Islamic medicine. For example, the Minister of Health released a statement to the press, in which he denounced the “uneducated charlatans and deceivers, acting under the guise of Islamic and Iranian medicine,” who besiege the public’s body and soul while crudely trampling on medical science in Iran.

Dr. Miriam Nissimov is the coordinator of the ACIS Program for Iranian Jews in Israel and a lecturer at the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at the Tel Aviv University 

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ACIS Iran Pulse No. 105 ● May 13,  2020 

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