Healing with Faith: The Misrepresentation of Integrative Medicine

Afnan Abusheikha

The scholarship published in academic journals is largely concerned with packaging research findings in a presentable, bite-sized way. Whilst this has ensured concise and robust output, this often polarises narratives and overlooks nuance. 

This is particularly evident in the field of medicine. In modern scholarship, allopathic “conventional” medicine and traditional integrative medicine are portrayed as “long time rivals”[1].  The former is legitimised as evidence based and “scientific”, while the latter is misrepresented and dismissed as outdated. In the modern era, scientism has emerged as the acceptable worldview associated with healing. This becomes problematic when faith groups are faced with members adopting this view, where natural (empirical) science is seen to constitute the entire domain of truth.[2]

So where does this leave Muslims? The aim of this article is not to comprehensively discuss the difference between allopathic and integrative medicine and their respective benefits. It instead introduces the discussion of medical practice that does not fit the mold of scientism, including Islamic traditional medicine (hikma), in light of media misrepresentation.

What is Integrative Medicine?

Integrative medicine includes many types of healing and medical practices, both traditional and modern. In general, it has been classified into five categories:

  1. Alternative medical systems
  2. Mind-body interventions
  3. Biologically based treatments
  4. Manipulative and body-based methods
  5. Energy therapies

Though different, they are all identified by their holistic approach, integrating spirit, mind, and body during the healing process.

These varying methods of treatment are evident in different healing practices across the world. Chinese medicine dates back centuries, and relies on practices like acupuncture and herbology. It is also governed by a philosophical approach which takes into consideration the energies of individual people (chakras), which are affected by internal states and struggles. The same is true for Ayurveda integrative practices of the subcontinent, which include yoga, meditation, and following a natural daily cycle dictated by the Dinacharya. This particular concept of Ayurveda medicine looks at how humans can synchronize themselves with the natural cycles of the universe through daily routines. 

Prophetic medicine, embodied in naturopathic hikma, enjoys practices such as Islamic wet-cupping therapy (hijama), nutritional regiment (hamiyah), and the creative use of honey, black seed, and other natural items mentioned in the Qur’an and hadith. A tradition that Muslims expanded on was unani medicine (Arabic for “Greek” medicine), which combined Arab, Turkish, Indian, and Greek healing methods with prophetic medical guidance. Practiced by scholars such as Ibn Sina, it was eventually augmented by Ajmal Khan in 1864 and today it is primarily practiced in the Indo-Pakistani region of the subcontinent. 

There are also more modern forms of integrative practices such as homeopathy, developed in 1789 by German doctor Samuel Hahnemann, or chiropractic, established by Daniel David Palmer in 1895, based on Greek metaphysics and naturalism. Both are contemporary medicinal practices that have their roots in ancient concepts of healing.[3]  

Principally, integrative medicine tailors treatments to individuals rather than using a generalized prescription. These practices share the philosophy that the human body is whole and therefore different components all factor into the healing of one ailment; the body has the ability to heal itself, and impediments to do so are thus removed.

Additionally, integrative medicine seeks to focus on the causes of the illness rather than the symptoms. Consequently, practitioners may suggest emotional and mental healing alongside a physical cure. Importantly, integrative medicine considers religious and philosophical worldviews in its healing process.

Hikma medicine, therefore, is an important link that Muslims have to the prophetic tradition. Yet such forms of integrative medical practices are frequently dismissed as “faith-based” and lacking in empirical evidence according to a scientific worldview. The media in particular frame this vis-a-vis what they construe as ‘real science’.

Misrepresentation in the Media

The misrepresentation of integrative medicine has been executed in two ways: by criticising the methods of alternative therapies, and by blatantly mocking those who engage in them. 

The primary criticism of integrative methodologies is that they are “unscientific”; in 2006, for example, The Times gave homeopathy a one out of four rating due to the lack of research available to support its effectiveness. Critics often point to the lack of clinical trials of treatments, as well as proof that it is free from potential harm.[4] In some respects, this is at least an objective academic review. However, the media frequently exaggerates these concerns until such treatments are written off in the court of public opinion. 

In 2008, research published in PLOS One assessed the media coverage of integrative medical practices after an article in Nature criticised the school of thought. The research attributed negative media coverage of integrative medical practices to the lack of accessible information about these therapies. Incidentally, it was not the presence of negative evidence which fueled the negative coverage of integrative medicine by the media, but rather the absence of available information. The gap of knowledge and research was thus filled with skepticism and scrutiny by the media, all portraying integrative medicine in an unfavourable light.[5]

The additional problem with these criticisms is that they scrutinise integrative medicine by invoking allopathic philosophical foundations; however, integrative medical practices are based on entirely different holistic philosophies and worldviews. Integrative medicine ought not be measured according to standards of a different system – its efficacy is not simply in the physical, but in the mental and spiritual as well, which are not measured by the scientific method.

For example, one of the most common integrative medical practices rooted in Christian theology, prayer therapy, is frequently criticised for its “unscientific” use of a belief system. While this goes against mainstream medicine which focuses primarily on the body, this criticism cannot apply to integrative therapies because it deliberately uses a holistic approach that incorporates the body and the soul.

The second way in which integrative medicine is misrepresented in the media is by blatant mockery, sensationalism, and polarisation. According to Caldwell, most media coverage “steers clear of the debate over clinical efficacy and evidence from clinical trials for homeopathy and instead attacks other aspects, such as … claim[s] that it has ‘barely changed since the beginning of the nineteenth century’”[6], which assumes that morality is dictated by progress overtime.[7]

In sum, media coverage is lacking balance. Integrative medicine in the public sphere is often subject to mainstream medicinal philosophy, and its own foundational methods are not communicated or respected.[8] Moreover, media producers select which arguments to include based on the projected opinions of readership. Journalists will also often use “trusted sources in the biomedical community” (inferring credibility) to criticize different practices, which produces “biomedical bias.”[9] This nests a space for skepticism of integrative medicine when it does not meet these biomedical standards. 

Research that analogises religious belief and magic advances the contrast of science versus integrative medicine, and religion versus truth. In this process, they not only discredit integrative medicine, but anything sourced from religion altogether.

It’s Philosophical

As mentioned, since integrative medicine makes use of traditional methods, criticism is specifically aimed at equating ‘traditional’ with ‘outdated’. This implies that modern mainstream standards are superior, thereby injuring the credibility of religiously rooted medical practices in the eyes of the public.

The propagation of allopathic medicine as the hegemonic structure within which healing can take place invokes a higher claim: that the empirical worldview is the only system in which the “truth” can be ascertained. Dr. Austin Hughes writes, 

The positivist tradition in philosophy gave scientism a strong impetus by denying validity to any area of human knowledge outside of natural science.[10]

This means that positivism claims that scientific truth is the only truth, stripped of metaphysical truth. This has negative repercussions, not only in the discussion of  knowledge and learning, but specifically in medical practices. 

Muslims often adopt positivism, not realising that that the Islamic worldview differs greatly from modern positivism. Islam understands the importance of revealed knowledge in laying philosophical absolutes, unwavering foundational principles that manifest diversely across times and places. The Islamic worldview understands that creations are forms (suwar) inhabited by meansings (ma’ani). Though one experience forms empirically, it is really the meanings of the forms one seeks. Forms become only gateways to meanings. 

For example, through verbal dua (invocation), healing is bestowed on an individual — the verbal dua is only God’s intervention, and the cause for healing is God. The same principle applies to blackseed, for example, which is used for healing in hikma; it becomes just a mode for invoking healing from God.

Islamic psychology is based on the Qur’anic worldview in understanding the self. The pure fitrah, the primordial nature, is found within every human being. It is understood to be our spirit, child-like and ready to go through the journey of life by which it grows. One of the first selves it grows into is the “soul that commands evil” (al-nafs al-ammarah bi-su’). That is the lower soul which ensures survival through fulfilling carnal needs. Beyond this purpose, it must be tamed, as it influences evil thoughts and behaviours, seeking to fulfil desires more than basic needs. 

This brings about the second soul, the “reprimanding soul” (al-nafs al-lawwamah). In the words of Martin Lings, this soul “wages the Greater Holy War[11], with the help of the Spirit, against the lower soul”. The reprimanding soul must, however, also be controlled so as to not fall into a vicious cycle of self-hate, despair, and low self-esteem due to regret over mistakes. 

That balance is reached in the realm of the “soul which is at peace” (al-nafs al-mutma’inah) where the individual is united, embracing their shadow self in taming it, and embodying their conscious selves to be mindful of their actions, and eventually, to be at peace. 

The denial of spirituality as a factor in healing can leave a patient suffering. For example, an individual confined by the diagnosis of anxiety can be suffering from the lack of connection to al-nafs al-lawamah. This patient is thus left with no comprehensive cure and simply prescribed temporary coping mechanisms in the form of pills. Islamic understandings of the self would approach this patient in a holistic manner, providing emotional and spiritual treatments that would aim to cure the physical symptoms of anxiety by addressing and purifying the self.

Science accesses knowledge through a trial-and-error method. Under modernity, with the absence of universal standard law, the “truth” only evolves over time through this method, with scientists supposedly getting closer and closer to it.[12] Additionally, modern science adopts Occam’s Razor, a philosophical principle that claims that the simplest explanation of something is the truth. 

However, in the Islamic worldview, reality is more complex than what can be seen or measured. Consequently, complex understandings of Islamic hikma and other integrative medical practices are subject to severe reductionism and are belittled under mainstream standards.

It was reported that during the Battle of Khaybar, Ali (ra) had an eye infection. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ used his own spit to apply onto Ali’s eye. To that, Ali said: 

I have never had an eye infection since the Prophet ﷺ spat in my eye.[13]

Prophetic healing practices understand that there is something divine to a particular substance — the sanctity of things by virtue of their affiliation with the divine. This is because the form of the saliva is not in itself important, but due to its symbolic meaning of faith, Ali was healed.

Towards an inclusion of integrative medicine

It is important to realize that integrative medicine represents a point of connection to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ and to the Qur’an. Allopathic and integrative practices are foundationally different because of these varied philosophical backgrounds. Yet, when taken to extremes, this polarisation can also constitute a false dichotomy, because both schools still share the same goal: healing the patient. 

Allopathic standards of medicine pertain to allopathic medical practices, and subjecting them to integrative medical practices would be academically dishonest. Similarly, integrative medicine must be evaluated on its own terms. Ultimately, the respective role of both medical schools, as well as their limitations, should be recognised without playing them against each other. 

The reductionist view of the media should also be noted; the association of religion with ‘bad medicine’ contributes to singling out scientism as the only acceptable source of knowledge. This serves more broadly to secularise knowledge and discredit religion in general. 

Muslims are taught to separate between what is true according to Islam and and what is true according to everything else. Subconsciously, this teaches us to separate between Islam and science, when traditionallly this was not the case. Muslims were scientists whose foundations were metaphysically rooted. The realities that God presents to us through revelation, prophecy, and divine intervention are woven into the fabric of life. We know that what is real is only the form of things, but God, who knows the meanings of all, is the ultimate cause and the Healer. 

Afnan Abusheikha is a 4th year student in Communications & Media Studies. She is interested in holistic health, history, and Islamic theology. She is currently publishing her forthcoming poetry book, Palms and Pomegranates.


[1] Steuter, E. (2001). Consumer Advocacy or Quack Attack?: Representations of Homeopathy in 

the Media. Canadian Journal of Media Studies.

[2]Hughes, (2012), The Folly of Scientism

[3] Steuter, E. (2001). Consumer Advocacy or Quack Attack?: Representations of Homeopathy in 

the Media. Canadian Journal of Media Studies.

[4]  Murdoch B, Carr S, Caulfield T. (2016) “Selling falsehoods? A cross-sectional study of Canadian naturopathy, homeopathy, chiropractic and acupuncture clinic website claims relating to allergy and asthma” BMJ 6

[5]Bonevski, B., Wilson, A., & Henry, D. A. (2008). An Analysis of News Media Coverage of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. PLOS One.

[6]Caldwell, E. F. (2007). Quackademia? Mass-Media Delegitimation of Homeopathy Education.

[7]Alattar, S. (2020), The Illusion of Moral Progress, Traversing Tradition

[8]Moreno-Castro, C., and Lopera-Pareja, E. H. (2016). Comparative study of the frequency of use of natural therapies among the Spanish population and their public image on digital media. 14th International Conference on Public Communication of Science and Technology (PCST)

[9]Caldwell, E. F. (2007). Quackademia? Mass-Media Delegitimation of Homeopathy Education.

[10]Hughes (2012), The Folly of Scientism, The New Atlantis

[11]Lings, M. (1983), Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources

[12]Alattar, S. (2020), The Illusion of Moral Progress, Traversing Tradition

[13]Musnad Ahmad 579

2 thoughts on “Healing with Faith: The Misrepresentation of Integrative Medicine

  1. “Muslims are taught to separate between what is true according to Islam and and what is true according to everything else. Subconsciously, this teaches us to separate between Islam and science, when traditionallly this was not the case. Muslims were scientists whose foundations were metaphysically rooted.”

    This is my favourite bit, and is so true! It’s ironic that allopathic is so adamant it’s right when so we can’t even explain why many of the treatments we use actually work – including drugs as ‘simple’ as paracetamol. To acknowledge that there is plenty we are yet to understand, would be in keeping with scientific thinking (or so you’d think)

    Like

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