Theology and Ontology of Healing in Islam

وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى آله وصحبه وسلم

INTRODUCTION

This article seeks to educate the reader about the theology and ontology of healing in Islam in a clear, understandable way for the common reader.

ONTOLOGY

Ontology, in this article, relates to the worlds that we exist in and interact with as they relate to healing.

Muslims believe that human beings go through stages of their existence. There are five in total:

  1. The primordial life of the spirit without a physical body, before this world. In this world our souls were circumambulating the throne of God, until He gathered us on the plain of Arafat, where we all witnessed Him, and then He asked us: “Am I not your Lord?” All of our souls replied, “Nay, we bear witness!”
  2. The worldly life (“dunya”). This is the world of the test where the spirit and body are brought together and tested. After bearing witness that He is our Lord, this world is a test of that question.
  3. The afterlife.
    • The barzakh, the intermittent period between the worldly life and the Day of Judgement. The life of the grave which includes questioning by two angels, Munkar and Nakir, and where a person’s grave is either a meadow of Heaven or a punishment, based on how they lived their life in the Dunya and God’s mercy on them.
    • The Day of Judgement. This includes the Resurrection, the gathering of mankind on the plain of Arafat, Judgement, the sirat or bridge to Heaven which passes over the Hellfire.
    • Heaven and Hell. Those who enter Heaven will never leave. Those who enter the Fire and have an atom’s weight of faith will eventually be taken out and entered into Heaven.

In this phase of our existence, we interact with several realms of existence. The first is the lahut, the absolute and eternal Divine existence, where God exists outside of creation. God is outside of space and time. One way of understanding this is that God “Is.” He is not moving through space and time like created beings. From the lahut, all created things issue forth, including healing.

وَإِذَا مَرِضْتُ فَهُوَ يَشْفِينِ ٨٠
And He ˹alone˺ heals me when I am sick.Quran 26:80

The next realms are the jabarut, the malakut, the mithal, and the mulk/ajsam. The jabarut is the world between the lahut and the malakut. Some say the spirit (ruh) exists in the jabarut.

The malakut is the also known as the world of souls or spirits (arwah) and other beings, such as the angels and jinn. Angels are created from light and serve as God’s agents performing various duties such as spreading blessings, asking God to forgive His servants, delivering healing, and delivering human supplications to God. When someone prays for a cure, angels take that prayer up to God. Nothing escapes God’s knowledge and He does not depend on the angels’ delivery, but the angels are blessed with carrying this supplication and as an act of worship. Supplications are also rewarded as good deeds and can enhance a Muslim’s faith in and dependence on God.

There are angels in the Highest Council and the Lowest Council. The angels in the Lowest Council are near the Earth and lower reaches of the Heavens. The angels in the Highest Council, nearest to God and His throne, pray for mankind and curse evildoers such that the angels in the Lower Council become angry with the evildoer. Angels also inspire mankind to goodness and purity and Satanic jinn may inspire mankind to evil. Muslim jinn may also help believers at times, as well. The spirit in the body is what gives it life and the person dies when the spirit is drawn out by the angel of death.

The mithal is the world of forms, images, and similitudes which we dream in. Dreams may inform us about a coming illness, about its cause, a potential cure, and about the sources of magic when certain kinds of magic are involved. Angels may deliver dreams to people. The mithal and the imagination (khayal) exist in the malakut.

The mulk or ajsam is the world of God’s lower Kingdom and of corporeal bodies perceived through our five senses and includes everything in the universe, from the stars and galaxies to our bodies, organs, and cells. Means of healing such as herbs, medications, exercise, and nutrition exist in this realm.

  • Lahut: Divine existence outside of time and space.
  • Jabarut: World of the Creator Names, between the lahut and the malakut.
  • Malakut: world spirits (arwah) and other beings such as angels and jinn.
  • Mithal: World of dreams, forms, and similitudes.
  • Mulk or Ajsam: The world of the lower Kingdom of God and corporeal bodies. This is perceived through the five senses.

THEOLOGY

Ya’mar al-‘Uthri reported: I asked, “O Messenger of Allah, the incantations we use (ruqya), the medicines which heal us, and our fortifications against the enemy; do they repel anything from the decree of Allah?” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “They are part of the decree of Allah.” [al-Tirmidhī 2065]

As Muslims we believe that nothing can benefit or cause harm except Allah, and all forms of healing are, in reality, Allah’s action (al-Sanusi, Shah al-Muqaddimat). This applies to every form of medicine, from herbs to pharmaceuticals and everything else. There are three terms to understand here:

  1. The sabab (سبب) is the means of the cure. It is the medicine. The plural of this word is asbaab (أسباب).
  2. The musabbab (مسبَّب) is the effect of the sabab, or means. For example, if you take an herb and it kills a pathogen, this is the effect.
  3. The musabbib (مسبِّب) is the causer of the effect. This is Allah ﷻ. Allah is al-Shafi, the Healer.

For further lingustic reading on these terms consult the website Ejtaal.

So when you read about any means of healing, understand that they are the asbaab, or means, and the effects are determined by God who is the true Healer. When we say, “the medicine cured him,” this is permissible when understood as a metaphor (majaz mursal) and the speaker and listener should understand them as such, that in reality God cured them.

SEEKING HEALING

We believe that God sent the cure for every disease except death. Thus, there is no incurable disease except death. There are diseases that Western medical doctors may not know the cure for, and they may say it is incurable. The truth is that it is indeed curable, but the patient just needs to find the right people who have the knowledge of how to cure it. Another common misunderstanding is that we have to wait for Western science to catch up and develop pharmaceutical cures for this illness, so wait until the cure is discovered. The reality is that the cure is already out there, today, the patient just needs to find those who have it.

We have many narrations about healing and medicine. The following are a few select narrations:

Jabir reported God’s messenger ﷺ as saying:
“There is a medicine for every disease, and when the medicine is applied to the disease it is cured by God’s permission.” [Mishkat 4515/Muslim]

Abud Darda’ reported God’s messenger ﷺ as saying, “God has sent down both the disease and the cure, and He has appointed a cure for every disease, so treat yourselves, but use nothing unlawful.” [Mishkat 4538/Abu Dawud]

Narrated Abu Huraira:
I heard Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) saying, “There is healing in black cumin for all diseases except death.” [Bukhari 5688]

Abu Huraira reported God’s messenger ﷺ as saying that “There is no might and no power except in God” is a remedy for ninety-nine diseases, the lightest of which is anxiety (al-hamm). [Mishkat 2320]

‘Abd al-Mālik b. ‘Umair reported in mursal form that God’s mes­senger said, “Fātihat al-Kitāb contains healing for every disease.” [Mishkat 2170]

Asma’ bint ‘Umays reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Whoever is afflicted by anxiety, grief, illness, or hardship and he says, ‘Allah is my Lord without partner (اللهُ رَبِّي لَا شَرِيكَ لَهُ),’ it will be removed from him.” [al-Mu’jam al-Kabīr 396]

Aisha reported: When the Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, would visit a sick person, he would say, “Take away the pain, O Lord of all people, and give healing for You are the Healer. There is no healing but Your healing, a healing that leaves no trace of illness.” [Bukhari and Muslim]

Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, entered upon her as a woman was treating her illness or performing recitations over her. The Prophet said, “Treat her with the book of Allah.” [Ibn Ḥibbān 6098]

Umm Salamah reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, saw a servant girl in her house whose face has become discolored. The Prophet said, “Treat her with protective recitations (ruqya), as she has been afflicted by an evil stare.” [al-Bukhārī 5739]

Aisha reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, when anyone from his family was sick, he would blow over them with the two chapters of refuge (surat al-Falaq and al-Nas). When he was sick with the illness in which he died, I blew over him and wiped himself with his hands, as they had greater blessings than my hand. [Muslim 2192]

We may seek God’s cure through a variety of means (asbab) including:

  • Adopting Islamic virtues like tawakkul (reliance on God) and sabr (patience and holding firm to God)
  • Reciting the Divine Names, du’a (supplication), sadaqa (charity), tadabbur and tafakkur (reflection and contemplation about lessons to learn), and recitation of the Qur’an
  • Alternative medicine such as herbs, homeopathy, acupuncture, acupressure, supplements, ayurvedic medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, and meditation
  • Conventional medicine such as medications, surgeries, nutrition, and therapy

The Islamic tradition is also rife with books on medicine in our history. The most famous in English today is “Medicine of the Prophet” by sheikh ibn Qayyim (God have mercy on him). There are also mujarribat books that detail various ailments and treatments, such as by imam al-Ghazali and imam Suyuti (God have mercy on them). There are also works on the human body and medicine such as “God’s Wisdom in the Creation of Man” by imam al-Ghazali and The Canon of Medicine by ibn Sina (God have mercy on them).

Making du’a is a means of seeking the cure, which may be taken up by angels to God, and God may answer by sending an angel to deliver a cure, sending His healing light, guiding or inspiring the person to the cure or the source of the illness, or other answers. Another means is giving charity on behalf of a sick person, which is a good deed recorded by angels and can lead to God’s cure. The prophet ﷺ said “treat your sick with charity (sadaqa)” [source].

An ill Muslim is also encouraged to adorn himself with virtuous character traits such as reliance on and trust in God (tawakkul), firm belief (iman), keeping a good opinion of God (husn al-zhunn), optimism (al-fa’l), and patience (sabr). Adorning these virtues can be a means of healing in themselves. The Muslim is encouraged to completely rely on God and trust in Him without panicking, even if no means of healing seem to be available. Muslims who seek and use means of healing should rely on God and not on the medicine, understanding that God is the source of healing. Muslims may also reflect on any lessons the illness may bring and this can lead to God’s cure as well. Illnesses may carry lessons with them that may involve other people as well. Obstructions to a person’s spiritual path can also lead to illness, perhaps from the person’s own soul, as a wake-up alarm to address something in their life.

إِن يَنصُرْكُمُ ٱللَّهُ فَلَا غَالِبَ لَكُمْ ۖ وَإِن يَخْذُلْكُمْ فَمَن ذَا ٱلَّذِى يَنصُرُكُم مِّنۢ بَعْدِهِۦ ۗ وَعَلَى ٱللَّهِ فَلْيَتَوَكَّلِ ٱلْمُؤْمِنُونَ ١٦٠
If Allah helps you, none can defeat you. But if He denies you help, then who else can help you? So in Allah let the believers put their trust (tawakkul).(Qur’an 3:160)

The opposite of patience (sabr) is restless anxiety (jaz’) and an outburst of grief (hala’).

يَـٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ ٱسْتَعِينُوا۟ بِٱلصَّبْرِ وَٱلصَّلَوٰةِ ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ مَعَ ٱلصَّـٰبِرِينَ ١٥٣
O believers! Seek comfort in patience and prayer. Allah is truly with those who are patient.(Qur’an 2:153)

REWARD, FORGIVENESS, AND A BETTER EXCHANGE

Afflictions can result in forgiveness of sins, reward and mercy in the afterlife, and perhaps a better exchange in this world. According to some narrations, illness can be caused by sins as well.

Umm Salama, the wife of the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ), reported Allah’s Messenger (ﷺ) as saying:

If any servant (of Allah) who suffers a calamity says:” We belong to Allah and to Him shall we return; O Allah, reward me for my affliction and give me something better than it in exchange for it,” ‘ Allah will give him reward for affliction, and would give him something better than it in exchange. She (Umm Salama) said: When Abu Salama died. I uttered (these very words) as I was commanded (to do) by the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). So Allah gave me better in exchange than him. i. e. (I was taken as the wife of) the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ). [Muslim 918b]

In a hadith qudsi in al-Mustadrak of al-Hakim God says, “If I test my believing servant and he does not complain about Me to his visitors, I release him from his sickness and then I give him flesh better than his flesh and blood better than his blood. Then his deeds will restart (as his sins are forgiven).”

Abu Huraira reported: The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Nothing afflicts a Muslim of hardship, nor illness, nor anxiety, nor sorrow, nor harm, nor distress, nor even the pricking of a thorn, but that Allah will expiate his sins by it.” [Bukhari and Muslim]

Ibn Abbas reported: If the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, entered the home of sick person to visit him, he would say, “It will not harm you. It is purification, if Allah wills.” [al-Bukhārī 5332]

Abu Zuhair reported: He said, “O Messenger of Allah, will we be recompensed for every evil thing we did?” The Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “May Allah have mercy on you, O Abu Bakr. Are you not afflicted by harm? Are you not struck by grief? Do you not endure illness? This is how you are recompensed.” [Musnad Aḥmad 72]

Al-Bara reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “The veins and eyes do not tremble with illness but due to sins, yet Allah repels even more.” [al-Mu’jam al-Ṣaghīr 1009]

ATTRIBUTION

When we look at the following verse and exegesis, we learn a valuable lesson about etiquette and attribution of the sickness and the cure:

وَإِذَا مَرِضْتُ فَهُوَ يَشْفِينِ ٨٠
And He ˹alone˺ heals me when I am sick.Quran 26:80

Tafsir Ibn Kathir:

وقوله: “وإذا مرضت فهو يشفين” أسند المرض إلى نفسه وإن كان عن قدر الله وقضائه وخلقه ولكن أضافه إلى نفسه أدبا كما قال تعالى آمرا للمصلي أن يقول “اهدنا الصراط المستقيم” إلى آخر السورة فأسند الإنعام والهداية إلى الله تعالى والغضب حذف فاعله أدبا وأسند الضلال إلى العبيد كما قالت الجن “وأنا لا ندري أشر أريد بمن في الأرض أم أراد بهم ربهم رشدا” وكذا قال إبراهيم “وإذا مرضت فهو يشفين” أي إذا وقعت في مرض فإنه لا يقدر على شفائي أحد غيره بما يقدر من الأسباب الموصلة إليه.

Translation:

And His speech: “and when I am sick, then He heals me.” The sickness is attributed to himself, even though they are from the decree (qadr) of Allah and His judgement (qada’) and His creation, however he attributes it to himself out of etiquette and appropriateness (adab), like when He Most High commanded the one praying to say:

اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ
(Guide us to the straight way) (1:6) to the end of the Surah. Grace and guidance (الإنعام والهداية) are attributed to Allah Most High, but the subject of the verb with reference to anger is omitted out of etiquette (adab), and going astray is attributed to the servants (abeed). This is like when the Jinn said:

وَأَنَّا لاَ نَدْرِى أَشَرٌّ أُرِيدَ بِمَن فِى الاٌّرْضِ أَمْ أَرَادَ بِهِمْ رَبُّهُمْ رَشَداً
(And we know not whether evil is intended for those on earth, or whether their Lord intends for them a right path) (72:10) Similarly, Ibrahim said:

وَإِذَا مَرِضْتُ فَهُوَ يَشْفِينِ
(And when I am ill, it is He Who cures me.) meaning, “when I fall sick, no one is able to heal me but Him, by the means (al-asbaab) that lead to healing.”

REFERENCES AND RESOURCES

I used Darul Qasim paper, “Causes And Means Of Healing – An Islamic Ontological Perspective” as a basis of this article. I also recommend Dr. Ibrahim Jaffe’s book “God’s Way: Sufi Spiritual Healing.” I also used Abu Amina Elias’s website for hadith searches.

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