Mechanisms of Healing: An Analysis of Spiritual Healing in the Sufi Practice

Kate Stevens
Harvard College
Joint Concentration in Human Evolutionary Biology
and the Comparative Study of Religions

Sufism is commonly regarded as the “spiritual realm” of Islam. This sect of Islam is often characterized by a particular focus on Islamic spirituality, asceticism, and esotericism. The ‘whirling dervishes’ are an example of this mystical practice; Sufis spin quickly in circles with their arms stretched out wide and palms facing up, towards god, and down, towards the earth, in an effort to connect, receive, and internalize God’s beneficence. This practice is acknowledged as a physical form of Sufi meditationand is an example of the “mystical” side of this Islamic order. Unique within the Sufi tradition, is the spiritual understanding surrounding the uses of the body. Shahzad Bashir’s book titledSufi Bodies outlines the discussion surrounding the uses of the body within the spiritual realm of Islam. As someone who studies the physical body from a western academic approach (mostly through the lens of human evolution and physiology) this other scholarly perspective, as highlighted in Bashir’sbook, seemed intriguing given my preconceived notions. In this essay, I willanalyze the breakdown of the corporeal (physical) body and the corporeous (spiritual) body in Sufi Islamthrough Bashir’s lens. I will also apply Bashir’s construction to an analysis of Joyce Burkhalter Fleuckiger’s book titled In Amma’s Healing Room and apply these Sufi themes to how I see fit within modern conceptions of medicine.

Shahzad Bashir’s Sufi Bodies highlights the notion of how the body is interpreted and appreciated through the lens of medieval Sufi conceptions of the human body as a multidimensional and multilayered framework of thought. This idea is famously summarized by French philosopher MerleauPonty with his notion of layered bodies. Ponty describes the dichotomy between the physical “present” body and the “habitual” body as two layers ceaselessly interweaving one another. The habitual body is formed from the “sedimentation” of sociocultural effects and personal experiences that mold together to create an aura that is cast around the physical body. He goes on to explain that this is often why amputees continue to feel the presence of their severed limb long after their amputation. Bashir continues this framework with his exploration of the Sufi faith and specifically how this notion of “layered bodies” is translated into different Sufi ideas regarding the relationship between master and disciple, principles of love and desire, and the maintenance of leadership and authority.

In Amma’s Healing Room discusses the relationship between Amma, who identifies herself as a pirānima (the wife of a pīr, a Sufi teacher), and Fleuckinger, a professor of religion at Emory University. Fleuckinger first came across Amma’s healing room when she noticed the waving green flag flying above Amma and her husband’s home, signaling Islamic ritual activity. Fleuckinger had been participating in a three-week course at Osmania University in Hyderabad, India, located in the same neighborhood as Amma’s Healing room. An intense personal relationship was crafted between the two women, and thus began Fleuckinger’s extensive research and recording of Amma’s healing activity. Her book discusses how Amma derives her healing authority from the Quran; it is this scriptural text that is the basis for her diagnosis and treatment of patients, though Amma often remarks that in her healing room all religious divisions are broken down. Amma sees patients from a variety of different religious backgrounds, ranging from Muslims, Hindus, Jews, and even Christians.

Her patients come for a variety of ailments including infertility, colicky babies, disobedient youth, difficulty sleeping, and general overall pains and troubles. Amma guarantees the validity of her healing power with her treatments for disorders caused by “saitani”, meaning evil forces infringing upon the physical world that can manifest in the mind, body, and spirit of individuals. Amma uses the written word (a typical male Islamic practice) to treat her patients, beginning with the abjad tradition of calculating numerical values to names and places and then dividing by three or four to prescribe the diagnosed illness;however, she also acknowledges that it is often her ‘understanding’ that delivers her success. The typical prescription usually tends to be a piece of folded paper with various instructions that is either burned, smoked, or inhaled. While it is often cited that patients seeking help from Amma come with more psychological problems rather than pure physical illnesses, the breadth of what she sees extends into the physical ailment territory, including patients with Parkinson’s Disease and unknown heart and chest pain. As acknowledged within Bashir’s work in Sufi Bodies, the understanding of the body beyond the physical realm has powerful implications that can also be noted within Amma’s healing powers; it is the concept of layered bodies that provides a different lens into how we seek overall healing, whether that be physical or spiritual. Amma taps into the habitual body, deriving healing from the treatment of the mind and soul that has the potential to perpetuate down to the physical body. Perhaps seen as unconventional to the western eye, her practices possess validity that have helped hundreds of people and showcase different mechanisms of healing. 

When considering Sufi Islam and sainthood, Sufi masters are recognized as Sufis who are authorized to teach and guide other Sufi Muslims toward lives of piousness and devotion. Like in Christianity, Sufi masters are akin to traditional Christian saints. Saints, too, are associated with exceptional degrees of holiness or devotion to their faith. In Greek Orthodoxy, derived authority from sainthood echoes into modes of physical healing. For example, Tatamaare votive offerings with miniature body parts that are often placed by icons of different saints, in hopes that physical healing miracles, provided by sainthood, will occur. While the practices of Sufi spiritual healing, as described by the breakdown between the habitual and physical body, and Greek Orthodox Tamata votives are evidently different, the principles of using spirituality as a mechanism for healing remain the same.

In terms of my own understanding of healing, I recognize the importance of learning the physical body through what is seen as “science” and “fact”; however, I often feel as if western medicine today neglects other perceptions of the body. There is a strong division between what has been conceptualized as the habitual vs. physical body, or corporeal vs. corporeous body, with the physical triumphing over all else. We often see the physical realm as the superior and only source of our being. But in order to effectively seek true healing, it is my belief that we must cross these boundaries and tackle both realms of the body or else we risk lacking considerable human understanding. When considering the medical phenomena known as “phantom limbs”—the condition where amputees continue to think their severed limbs are still part of their physical bodies—it is useful to consider this situation through the lens of “layered bodies” and Sufi Islam. Although the physical body is missing a limb, the habitual limb (which has developed from years of prior experience and societal influence) remains intact. The body is simply not what is just visible to the naked eye, and through the perspective as depicted in Amma’s Healing Roomand the lens provided by Bashir’s Sufi Bodies, much authority can be granted to also treating the spiritual, corporeous body.


Bashir, Shahzad. Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam. Columbia University Press, 2013. 

Flueckiger, Joyce Burkhalter. In Amma’s Healing Room: Gender and Vernacular Islam in South India. Orient Longman, 2008. 

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