Interfaith Inspiration

Seeking a Powerful Prescription for Life in Traditional Medicine 

By Ibrahim Abdul-Matin
Ibrahim Abdul-Matin in panel discussion at Interfaith America & Center for Earth Ethics event "Black Interfaith in the Time of Climate Crisis," May 2022. Photo ©John Drew

Ibrahim Abdul-Matin in panel discussion at Interfaith America & Center for Earth Ethics event "Black Interfaith in the Time of Climate Crisis," May 2022. Photo ©John Drew

This is one of the most important pieces I will ever write. It has to do with a simple yet incredibly powerful prescription that I received from a traditional Muslim healer that quite possibly changed – and saved – my life. 

The healer’s name is Abdallah and to understand his prescription first I must share some context. Abdallah is a “hakim.” A hakim is an Arabic term that refers to a wise or knowledgeable person, particularly in matters of traditional medicine or herbal remedies. In Islamic culture, a hakim is a person who practices traditional medicine – prophetic medicine – and is an expert in Hijama. 

The best way to understand hijama is to share a bit about its cousin, “cupping” which is integral to traditional Chinese medicine. Cupping, also known as “ba guan” in Chinese, has a long history in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Its origins can be traced back to the ancient Taoist alchemist and herbalist, Ge Hong (283-343 AD), who wrote about cupping therapy in his book, “A Handbook of Prescriptions for Emergencies.” 

In TCM, cupping is believed to help balance the flow of “qi” (life force energy) in the body and improve circulation. It involves placing heated glass or bamboo cups on the skin, creating a vacuum effect that draws up the skin and underlying tissues. 

Cupping has been used for a wide range of conditions in TCM, including respiratory disorders, musculoskeletal pain, digestive issues and more. In recent years, it has gained popularity with some athletes and celebrities endorsing its benefits for pain relief and relaxation – if you recall seeing the round discolored markings on the back of Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, this is from cupping. 

“Hijama” is the Islamic version of cupping therapy. The roots of which are rooted in Hadith. 

A Hadith is a saying or action attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, that has been transmitted through a chain of narrators. Hadiths are an important source of Islamic teachings along with the guidance provided in the Quran, the holy book of Islam. Muslims consider Hadiths to be second only to the Quran in terms of their authority and importance in understanding and practicing the religion. The study of Hadiths is an important part of Islamic scholarship and involves verifying the authenticity and reliability of the narrators and chains of transmission. 

Muslims practice hijama cupping therapy, in accordance with the way of the Prophet and it is mentioned in various hadith.  

Hijama is a “wet cupping” form of cupping therapy that involves creating small incisions on the skin afterward similar cups are applied. This is done to release stagnant blood, toxins and other impurities from the body. The procedure typically involves the hakim placing several cups on the skin, usually on the back, neck, legs, or other areas of the body. The cups are either heated with a flame or placed on the skin with a vacuum pump, creating suction. The cups are left in place for several minutes, allowing the skin and underlying tissues to be drawn up into the cup. Next, the therapist removes the cups and makes small incisions on the skin using a sterilized blade. The cups are then reapplied over the incisions, and a small amount of blood is drawn into the cups, creating a vacuum effect that pulls out impurities from the body. After the cups are removed, the therapist typically covers the incision sites with a sterile dressing or bandage. 

Wet cupping was the practice of the Prophet and therefore integral to Islamic medicine and is believed to have therapeutic benefits for various conditions, including musculoskeletal pain, digestive issues, and more. However, it is important to note that wet cupping carries certain risks, such as infection and bleeding, and should only be performed by a qualified and trained practitioner in a safe and sterile environment. 

“You did not make you. Being human is hard and you are in a state of disease, but our thoughts are our seeds.”

A traditional hijama session does not start with just the physical examination. Nor does the follow-up have to simply deal with the physical. Often the roots of disease are this imbalance, what traditional Chinese medicine calls qi. Balancing this energy is also about balancing our lives holistically. 

I have been diagnosed with a complex medical condition that affects my immune system and requires ongoing treatment and management. This condition can have serious implications for my health, so I am working closely with my health care team to explore all available treatment options and make informed decisions about my care. One of the first steps that I took was to understand what approach traditional Islamic medicine would mean. I reached out to people close to me to try and find a Hakim that was trained in a traditional way; i.e., someone who learned their craft under the guidance of an experienced practitioner. Someone who engaged in a period of hands-on learning and practical experience, working alongside a more experienced mentor or trainer to develop the skills and knowledge required – I wanted someone trained in a traditional way. 

In Abdallah I found that person. 

He just so happened to be traveling through the city I was in at the time and was able to schedule a visit. I wanted to do a hijama session and cleared my calendar, arranged the living room to accommodate his table and equipment and waited eagerly for him. When he arrived, it was as if a breeze of calm enveloped my home. His smile was as effortless as a thirsty person being offered drinking water on a dry balmy day. 

The first thing we did was talk. We sat on the couch, and I told him my story, he shared bits and pieces of his. We were getting to know one another. I burned some Oud, a type of aromatic resin that comes from the wood of the Agar tree. It is one of the most valuable and sought-after ingredients in perfumery and is often called “liquid gold” due to its rarity and inflated cost. When heated, the resin releases a fragrant smoke that is often described as woody, musky, and slightly sweet. 

The smoke produced by burning oud has a rich and complex aroma that can fill a room with a sense of warmth and comfort. 

Instead of jumping right into a hijama session (which we later did) Abdallah talked me through a process that allowed me to decompress, to show him the parts of me that I needed to untangle, to allow him to see where I was not at ease. 

“You did not make you,” he reminded me. “Being human is hard and you are in a state of disease, but our thoughts are our seeds. What you plant is what you get, and you must train your mind to think in a unique way – you must plant the proper seeds to grow and heal yourself.” 

We sat inches from one another on my couch. The smoke wafted in the air gently curling around and infiltrating the quiet spaces between our conversation. I was cross-legged with my journal in my lap answering his questions deliberately, carefully, and he asked me and spoke with the precision of an expert wood worker chiseling away with his word and firm yet gentle stare as though I was a block of wood. He could see the healed form beneath the rotten core – but at the time I could not. 

“What you need to,” he said, “is to train your mind to think in a new way. To stop carrying around the pain and the stress that is in your life, figure out a clean slate. Try and incorporate the following things into your life for 30 days (about four and a half weeks) straight, then make an adjustment as needed…”. Then he told me his prescription, rooted in the Prophetic tradition, anchored in the sunnah, or example of the Prophet. 

  • To establish a gratitude practice. Entrepreneur Omar Brownson says, “Gratitude is the simple act of seeing good revealed in multiple ways.” Practicing gratitude has been shown to improve mental health by reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Grateful people tend to have a more positive outlook on life, feel more satisfied with their lives, and have better coping skills. Studies have found that practicing gratitude can have physical health benefits such as reducing symptoms of chronic pain, improving sleep quality, and boosting the immune system. 
  • To be in nature. Being in nature is healing for human beings. We were meant to be anchored and grounded in nature. Abdallah said, “Nature is a teacher. It is Allah’s classroom.” We were meant to be immersed in the natural world. Our modern life has separated us from an intimacy with nature and has created a disconnect – an imbalance – that has us in a state of disease. 
  • To be with animals. Like the relationship with plants and in the natural world, our relationship with animals is part of how we were made. We were made to be in the right relationship with animals – to understand them, to respect them, to live off them and to support them as they support us. (For my situation, Abdallah specifically mentioned that I should spend time with horses). 
  • To worship Allah as though He is your friend. This one was hard for me. To understand why you should read this essay I penned on this very platform.  The idea of worshiping Allah as though He is your friend suggests developing a close and personal relationship with God. It means to strive to have a deep and sincere connection with Allah, and to approach Him with love, respect, and humility, just as you would with a close friend. This approach to worship encourages us to view God as someone who is always there to listen, to provide guidance, and to offer comfort and support in times of need. It involves seeking Allah’s guidance and help in every aspect of your life and trying to build a strong and meaningful relationship with Him. 
  • Finally, for us to heal we need to be in the service of others. This is in part because service to others is a crucial part of what it means to be human. It helps us fulfill our innate need for social connection and belonging. As social beings, humans are wired to seek out and build relationships with others. When we serve others, we strengthen our connections with them and deepen our sense of community and belonging. Second, being of service to others helps us develop a sense of purpose and meaning in life. When we serve others, we can positively impact the world and contribute to something greater than ourselves. This can give us a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that is difficult to find through other means. Third, being of service to others can help us develop important skills and qualities such as empathy, compassion, and generosity. These qualities are essential for building healthy and productive relationships with others, as well as for creating a more just and equitable society. Finally, being of service to others can help us address some of the most pressing social and environmental issues facing our world today. 

Renegotiate our relationship with the earth.

Abdallah’s prescription highlights the connection between climate change and disease. The metaphor of climate change as a disease affecting the planet and human diseases affecting the body is a powerful one that demonstrates the interconnectedness of human and planetary health. 

Just as a disease can start with a small infection or inflammation and spread throughout the body, climate change can also start with minor changes, such as a slight increase in temperature or a small decrease in rainfall and spread throughout larger areas and even the whole planet, leading to more extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and other dramatic impacts. 

Similarly, just as a disease can affect various parts of the body, climate change can affect different regions (including hyperlocal areas) of the planet, with some areas experiencing more severe impacts than others. And just as a disease can be caused by a variety of factors, including genetics, lifestyle, and toxic exposures, climate change is caused by a complex set of factors, including human activities, natural processes, and feedback loops. 

I invite you all who read this, to take Abdallah’s prescription as your own. Be of service to others, worship God as though God is your friend, get into an intimate and right relationship with nature and with animals, and be grateful for the big and trivial things.

Could you imagine if we all took this prescription to heart? 

We would, as Winona LaDuke once said, “renegotiate our relationship with the earth.” 


Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an Interfaith America Senior Fellow. He serves as a Senior Fellow with New Yorkers for Clean Power, serves on the NYS Advisory Board of the Trust for Public Land and is the author of “Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet.