Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak in Iran, many Iranians have criticized how religious authorities have handled the crisis. Some blame the country’s ayatollahs – high-ranking Islamic clerics – for not only blocking necessary health measures but also promoting traditional Islamic medicine, which has already cost lives.
The death toll from the coronavirus epidemic in Iran has now risen to 3,036, while the number of infected people stands at 47,593, as of Wednesday, April 1, 2020. However, Iran’s government is accused of hiding the real death toll.
Qom, one of the holiest cities for Shiite Muslims, is believed to have had the first cluster of coronavirus cases in Iran. The first official coronavirus cases were announced in the city on February 19. Although public officials and medical experts called for the city to be put under quarantine, it never happened. Hardline religious leaders refused to enact safety measures like imposing a lockdown.
“What’s the point of disinfecting only one side of the cars?” This video was commented on by many people in Iran. Two clerics apparently are disinfecting cars in the streets of Gorgan in northwest Iran. They are not wearing any protective gear, and they are only disinfecting one side of the cars.
‘Prophet’s perfume’ to cure coronavirus patients
The interference of extremist religious clerics in Iran’s coronavirus crisis does not stop there. Some clerics have pushed for the use of traditional Islamic medicine in the treatment of patients with COVID-19.
On March 21, a cleric and staunch advocate of ‘Islamic medicine’, Morteza Kohansal, visited the coronavirus section of a hospital in Anzali in Gilan province, in northern Iran. He is a follower of Ayatollah Tabrizian, the so-called ‘father’ of Islamic medicine in Iran.
Kohansal holds an unknown “medicine” near the patients’ noses and tells them: ” Smell it. Smell it. You’re going to be fine.”
During his visit to the hospital, Kohansal applied an “Islamic remedy” to some coronavirus patients. He held an unknown liquid that he called “Prophet’s perfume” under the noses of patients. He also published photos and videos of himself standing next to the patients and with doctors and nurses wearing protective equipment. He wasn’t wearing any protective equipment himself.
Two days later, local media in Gilan province announced the death of Mohsen Sharif, a young man pictured with Morteza Kohansal in the photos and videos.
Top-right: Kohansal next to Mohsen Sharif’s bed. In the two other photos are friends of Sharif’s who announced his death.
There is no evidence that the mysterious liquid called “Prophet’s perfume” that was used to ‘cure’ the patients has anything to do with their deaths. However, the general prosecutor of Anzali, Rahman Seyedzadeh, has issued an arrest warrant for Morteza Kohansal, who has so far escaped arrest.
For many years, religious hardliners in Iran have criticized modern medical science, instead claiming to be able to cure any illness through Islamic remedies.
‘Healing, not curing people’
Mohammad Javad Akbarain is a France-based Iranian expert on Shia schools of thought. He spoke to the FRANCE 24 Observers about Islamic medicine.
“What we now refer to as “Islamic medicine” has existed for hundreds of years. Before the Islamic Revolution in Iran, some religious people would use these home remedies to cure physical ailments. It was a minor phenomenon.
But since the Islamic Revolution 40 years ago, the new political regime supports the use of this type of traditional medicine, and they channel money into promoting it. That’s what happened in Qom: the authorities blocked suggestions to put the city under quarantine and close the holy shrines in both Qom and the neighbouring city of Mashhad [Iran finally closed the holy shrines in Qom and Mashhad on March 16].
These extremists say holy shrines are sources of divine power so they cannot contaminate anyone, and what’s more, that people have to come to the shrines to be healed. That’s what Islamic medicine advocates promote: healing people, not curing them.”
Mohsen Sharif is not the only known victim of these ‘Islamic remedies’ for COVID-19.
Ayatollah Hashem Bathaei-Golpaygani was a renowned clergyman and politician in Iran, and a member of the country’s Elite Council. During a ceremony on February 22, he announced that he had contracted coronavirus but had healed himself by using an Islamic remedy. However, he was later hospitalised in Qom, on March 14 and died two days later.
“My lungs were making noises. I’d turn on my side and my lung was making a noise. I put some “Torbat” of Imam Hosein in water, and I drank it. [Torbat is the dirt from Imam Hossein’s grave in Karbala in Iraq, the holiest site for Shiite Muslims.]”
On February 25, the controversial Iranian-Iraqi Shia cleric Ayatollah Abbas Tabrizian provoked controversy by posting 13 tips to avoid contracting coronavirus on his Telegram channel. The advice included brushing one’s hair, eating onion and using a piece of cotton soaked in violet flower oil as a suppository before going to sleep.
Unfounded historic sources
Mohammad Javad Akbarain explains the source of these “Islamic remedies”.
“The original recipes for these medicines are ascribed to the Prophet or Shia Imams in some Islamic history books like “Bihar al-Anwar”.
These books reported that the Prophet or Shia Imams healed different illnesses with certain remedies. The authenticity of most of these reports is questionable. Religious extremists took these recipes from these books and now present them as Islamic medicine that is capable of curing any illness.”
Abbas Tabrizian had also caused a stir in January when he publicly burned a copy of “Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine”, which is one of the main resources for modern medical science.
“In a symbolic act, we burn Harrison’s book, a book about chemical medicine,” Tabrizian says in this video.
Three doctors who criticized the ayatollah’s actions on social media were each condemned to a suspended sentence of 60 lashes in court for “insults”.
Support from the highest levels
Mohammad Javad Akbarain explains the political support for Islamic medicine in Iran that goes as far as the highest levels of government.
“Ayatollah Tabrizian didn’t start out as a famous cleric. But all of a sudden he moved to Qom and soon became a famous ayatollah. He opened an office and a religious school published a book about Islamic medicine and even began to produce these Islamic remedies. At first, he was criticized by many Islamic scholars in Qom, who said that his ideas were unfounded, but eventually he became untouchable after some of the people closest to Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, came out in public support of him.
In a video, Ayatollah Tabrizian even announced that it was Iran’s Supreme Leader who had ordered him to go to Qom and gave him a location in which to hold his classes about Islamic medicine. At the moment, there is a huge market for Islamic medicine in cities like Qom and Mashhad.”
While Khamenei has in the past expressed support for Islamic medicine, he is not known to have spoken publicly about Tabrizian.
Islamic medicine has been blamed for taking some high-profile victims, including Iranian Ayatollahs, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ayatollah Haeri-Shirazi died in December 2017 and Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi died in December 2018. Both were close to Khamenei. Their families said that both ayatollahs delayed using mainstream medicine and were using Islamic medicine to treat themselves until a long way into their illnesses.
First, published here on France24.