Health

'Islamic medicine' on the
rise in Southeast Asia

Halal treatment: In this photo taken on Aug. 21, 2011, a man receives a treatment of bekam, or blood-letting by use of suction cups, at Insani Herbal Clinic in Depok on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia. A growing number of Muslims in Southeast Asia are turning away from Western medical care in favor of al-Tibb al-Nabawi, or Medicine of the Prophet, a loosely defined discipline based on the Quran and other Islamic texts and traditional herbal remedies. (AP/Irwin Ferdiansyah)
Halal treatment: In this photo taken on Aug. 21, 2011, a man receives a treatment of bekam, or blood-letting by use of suction cups, at Insani Herbal Clinic in Depok on the outskirts of Jakarta, Indonesia. A growing number of Muslims in Southeast Asia are turning away from Western medical care in favor of al-Tibb al-Nabawi, or Medicine of the Prophet, a loosely defined discipline based on the Quran and other Islamic texts and traditional herbal remedies. (AP/Irwin Ferdiansyah)

A 47-year-old housewife who recently started using Islamic medicine emerged tearfully from an exorcism, speaking of newfound tranquility after a turbulent period. Also, her abdominal pains are finally easing.

Suratmi, who suffers from an ovarian cyst, has been taking a mix of herbal medicine harking back to the dawn of Islam, as well as undergoing exorcisms at a clinic in Jakarta.

She is among a growing number of Muslims in Southeast Asia turning away from Western medical care in favor of al-Tibb al-Nabawi, or Medicine of the Prophet, a loosely defined discipline based on the Quran and other Islamic texts and traditional herbal remedies.

"I heard that so many people have been healed, so I hope Allah can help me. I followed His path here," said Suratmi, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

The Islamic medicine trend is often associated with fundamentalists who charge that Western, chemically laced prescriptions aim to poison Muslims or defile them with insulin and other medicines made from pigs. Members of terrorist groups have been involved in Islamic medicine as healers and sellers, while some clinics are used as recruiting grounds for Islamist causes.

But the bulk of those seeking out Islamic clinics, hospitals and pharmacies, appear to be moderate Muslims, reflecting a rise in Islamic consciousness worldwide.

"Islamic medicine carries a cachet that, by taking it, you are reinforcing your faith - and the profits go to Muslims," says Sidney Jones, an expert on Islam in Southeast Asia with the International Crisis Group.

Islamic medicine, toiletries and beauty products have become a big business with a customer base in Southeast Asia alone of roughly 250 million Muslims.

The industry's advertising is as gimmicky as any in the West.

Capitalizing on the popularity of U.S. President Barack Obama, who spent four of his childhood years in Indonesia, one company produces a popular anti-stress concoction called Obahama - in a corruption of an Indonesian phrase for herbal medicine.

Siwak-F, also exported to the Middle East, is hailed as "toothpaste just like the Prophet used to use."

The industry also is going high-tech.

Malaysia's Petronas University of Technology is developing an application for mobile devices to query what Islamic remedies are recommended for anything from toothaches to depression, says Hanita Daud, one of the developers.

Like much of Islamic medicine, it's grounded on the saying that "Allah did not create a disease for which he did not also create a cure." This is taken from Prophet Mohammed's teachings known as hadiths, which along with the Quran make frequent references to diseases, remedies and healthy living.

What is termed classical Islamic medicine developed in medieval times when it far outshone that in Christian Europe, and exerted a significant influence on it.

Practitioners say many ingredients in today's treatments were used in Mohammed's time, including honey, olive oil, bee pollen, dates and black caraway - which one ad claims is "a cure for every disease but death."

In Indonesia, traditional medicine really took off after a government promotional campaign in 2009, says Brury Machendra, owner of the Insani Herbal Clinic in suburban Jakarta where Suratmi and up to 400 other patients per month seek treatment.

Only one such clinic existed in the Depok suburb two years ago, but now there are 20, with 70 others waiting for government permits.

Machendra, who also is secretary-general of the Traditional Herbal Medicine Association of Indonesia, says most Indonesian Muslims don't doubt conventional medicine. But he says Indonesia's health services are so poor and expensive that many people seek out alternatives.

His clinic offers herbal medicine, a bloodletting treatment known as bekam and exorcisms in which a white-gloved therapist places a hand on a patient's head while chanting verses from the Quran.

An exorcism costs about $12, while Machendra's government-certified herbal products such as the anticancer BioCarnoma and anti-diabetes BioGlukol go for no more than $5 for 60 capsules.

He acknowledges that clinics such as his benefit from traditional Muslim rules forbidding certain ingredients and that many fundamentalists "tell people not to go to infidel doctors and say that buying Western medicine is forbidden."

Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaida-linked militant network that is essentially banned in Indonesia, is believed to have links to some herbal manufacturers and operate many of the country's Islamic medicine clinics, International Crisis Group says.

But Jones says the clinics are aimed more at building solidarity among Islamists rather than recruiting militants.

Some doctors are trying to bring Muslim elements into the Western tradition.

"We practice evidence-based medicine but we incorporate the spiritual for both our patients and staff," says Dr. Ishak Mas'ud, director of Al Islam hospital in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

This approach, he says, allows such normally taboo practices as abortions and pig heart transplants if these can save lives.

"I don't agree with some clinics which say that, 'This is Islamic, so it has to be good,' " says Ishak, who was trained in Australia and Great Britain.

The 60-bed hospital, which attracts patients as far away as Somalia and Saudi Arabia, stresses holistic diagnoses, refrains from giving definite prognoses since "death is in the hands of Allah," and believes it is wrong to practice medicine with profit in mind, he says.

Fees are 20 to 30 percent lower than at most Malaysian hospitals.

"I am just the instrument of Allah and doctors must tell their patients this," Ishak says. "You know doctors can be arrogant. They will tell you that they can cure you in five days and five days later you can be six feet underground. It's not me that is healing. We are not powerful. In Islamic medicine, this is the key, the main concept."

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