In Pakistan, faith healers have no shortage of believers


KHURRIANWALA, Pakistan — Villagers in this small textile town thought Saeed Mehmood ul Hasan had a pipeline to God. They believed that his Koranic maxims — sometimes scrawled onto wadded scraps of paper, stuffed into a leather pouch and worn around the neck — could cure headaches, mend an ailing kidney or patch up a family rift.

Allah Wasaya was among those who believed, and last year he hired Hasan to resolve a family spat over money. He and his family stopped believing, Wasaya said, when they determined that Hasan’s remedy was a diversion for darker pursuits. After sending Wasaya’s wife to a butcher to buy a black goat’s head that he said was needed to work his magic, Hasan raped the couple’s 15-year-old daughter, who was alone in her bedroom, Wasaya recently recalled.

Hasan then threatened to curse the family with a dose of black magic if she told anyone what had happened, Wasaya said. Hasan, in custody awaiting trial, denies the allegations.

“Almost everyone in Khurrianwala believed that Hasan could cure people and solve everyone’s problems,” said Wasaya, a driver and father of two. “It’s just the way we think here.”

The penchant for faith healers and black magicians spans Pakistani society, from the moneyed landlords of the Punjabi plains to the slum dwellers of litter-strewn Karachi. Pakistanis from all walks of life routinely turn to them to remedy various health problems, from abdominal pain to epilepsy, avert marriage meltdowns and pocketbook crises and even fend off the powers of other healers.

When the national cricket team geared up for its 2011 World Cup match with archrival India, thousands of Pakistani youths streamed into a stadium in Karachi for a collective prayer session aimed at shielding their heroes on the pitch from any black magic conjured by the Indian side. Regardless, Pakistan lost.

President Asif Ali Zardari regularly had black goats slaughtered at his official residence to deflect any black magic directed his way, according to a 2010 article in the English-language newspaper Dawn. Zardari’s spokesman later said the practice was designed to distribute meat to the poor.

“The main belief is that this practice invokes the pleasure of God,” the spokesman, Farhatullah Babar, told the British newspaper the Guardian. “The corollary is that bad things will not happen, of course, but that’s a matter of interpretation.”

Even some academics believe there’s room for demons and spirits.

“At times, it works; I don’t know why and how,” said Khalid Zaheer, one of the nation’s foremost experts on religious affairs and the dean of arts and social sciences at the University of Central Punjab in Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city.

He said an acquaintance turned to a faith healer to treat severe abdominal pain. The healer found two demons in her abdomen, exorcised them and cured her, Zaheer said.

“There are many cases that can be explained by a placebo effect. But there are certain instances of cures taking place in which there simply are no explanations,” Zaheer said. “Doctors and scientists can be biased in not admitting that, in certain situations, there are things that happen that cannot be explained.”

Pakistani faith healers are known as pirs, a term that applies to the descendants of Sufi Muslim saints. Under Sufism, those descendants are thought to serve as conduits to God. The popularity of pirs as a viable healthcare alternative stems from the fact that, in much of rural Pakistan, clinics don’t exist or are dismissed as unreliable. For the urban wealthy, belief in a pir’s powers is either something passed down through the generations, or a remedy of last resort, a kind of Pakistani laetrile.

“The lower-income classes have a bigger belief in pirs, but I know rich people who have resorted to pirs after exhausting all other possibilities,” Zaheer said. “They’re prepared to go to anyone who offers a solution.”

Most pirs shy away from discussing the fees they charge. Masood Ahmed, a 30-year-old aluminum window dealer who sidelines as a pir, said sometimes he charges a few dollars, sometimes nothing at all. The most he has ever received for his services, he said, has been about $1,600, an amount volunteered by the patient’s family. In a small, darkened living room in the industrial city of Faisalabad, Ahmed explained how he cured the man, a 60-year-old farmer who claimed to be possessed by demons.

“I told him that his brain, his whole body, was in a state of dryness,” Ahmed said. “I told his family to get him to stop smoking and stop drinking tea. I told them to give him liquids, soup and butter. I told them to make him eat the butter, but to also rub it on his skin. Massage it on.”

In six months, the demons were gone, Ahmed claimed.

Ahmed said he treats 50 to 100 clients each week. His demeanor was tranquil and measured, nothing like that of the fire-and-brimstone healers of the American South. He spoke in a hushed monotone. On a recent chilly morning, Ahmed sat down with a patient, a 50-year-old driver named Allah Ditta, lightly placed his right hand on Ditta’s chest and then blew a puff of air into his face.

“This person’s problem is acid reflux,” Ahmed said. As a remedy, he gave Ditta a verse from the Koran to say daily. “I told him to recite these words 1,100 times every day. I believe it will cure him.”

Police crackdowns on pirs and black magic practitioners are rare. Last fall, two men who said they planned to sell bones from corpses to black magic practitioners were arrested after they were caught stealing cadavers from a cemetery in Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city.

Hasan, the Khurrianwala pir, was arrested last fall on the rape charge. Seated in a small office at the Khurrianwala police station, Hasan, 70, appeared haggard as he explained how he quit his job as a driver three years ago to work as a pir.

“It’s God’s will if I cure someone,” he said. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”

He acknowledged knowing the Wasayas, but said they falsely accused him after he balked at lending them money. “I’m an asthma patient,” he said. “How can I rape her?”

Wasaya said Hasan is lying.

“I knew this pir for 22 years,” he said. “I trusted him. Before this incident, I thought he was a genuine pir. Now, of course, we know the truth.”