Previous month:
August 2009
Next month:
January 2010

Islamic stigmata

Paranormalia has been a bit quiet recently, while I'm trying to finish two books, my own and a client's. How these things do gobble up time. Matt Colborn, who has posted a couple of times, doubtless would have done so again but he too is in the middle of a book - on consciousness, as I'm sure he'll tell us about here before long. So: books three, blogs zero.

Ali_in In the meantime I've been interested in the baby in Dagestan who is apparently running a sort of Koranic slide show on his skin. Ali Yakubov is said to have exhibited the word 'Allah' in Arabic on his chin at a few weeks of age, and subsequently entire Koranic verses have been appearing on various parts of his body, before fading and being replaced with new ones. Initially the parents did not talk about it, but then the phrase, "Show these signs to people" came into view, and now their household is being inundated with pilgrims from all over the region.  Performances are twice weekly, on Mondays and Thursday nights.

There are a few other details. The child is said to have been diagnosed with coronary heart disease and cerebral spastic infantile paralysis at birth, but he recovered suddenly when the scripts started appearing on his body. When this happens, his mother says, he cries, his temperature rises and he seems to be very uncomfortable. The parents themselves are not particularly religious, but the local muftis are all aflutter and maintain the event is a "warning to all Muslims of Russia and Dagestan ... that they should turn to the wisdom of the religion of Allah, repent of their sins, and abandon their discord, conflicts, and the fratricidal confrontation that today shakes the blessed land of Dagestan and the entire Caucasus."

A good sentiment in such a troubled region - but is any of it true? I'm rather allergic to religious 'miracles' - my first reaction was an inward groan and the thought, here we go again (It's all those horrible 'weeping' statues - it just all seems so tacky and sentimental). I'd want to know a great deal more before deciding whether or not it's a hoax.

That said, there are plenty of precedents of this sort of thing in Christianity. Stigmata have been documented frequently enough to be considered a genuine psycho-physiological phenomenon. According to Irreducible Mind hundreds of cases have been reported from the 13th century, in the case of St Francis of Assisi, to the present day, although perhaps only around 50 with adequate testimony. It's usually linked to intense religiosity in young Catholic women suffering from 'hysteria' (whatever that is) - the marks correspond to Christ's wounds on the cross.

Apart from this there are medical cases of patients occasionally exhibiting bruises, blisters and other skin markings that come and go, and correspond to traumas earlier in life, like being beaten, or traumas that are merely imagined but do not actually happen. Ian Stevenson in his book on birthmarks describes the case of an Indian man who, while ill with typhoid fever, 'thought that he had died and that, as he was struggling to return to life, persons in the "other realm" had subdued him by cutting off his legs at the knees. When he recovered, "he was found to have some unusual horizontal scars in the skin across the front of both knees," and the "scars" persisted so that years later [he] was able to photograph them'. (Irr. Mind p. 158)

Emily Williams Kelly, who wrote the foregoing in the chapter on 'psychophysiological influence' in Irreducible Mind, is interested in how ideas in one's head can produce effects in the body. Neuroscience is closing in, as in many things, on the areas of the brain that are involved in triggering specific symptoms of this kind, but as she points out, that doesn't tackle the essential mystery, which is how or where the whole process begins. How do ideas and emotions convert so very directly into physical symptoms?

At least in the cases of female 'hysterics' there is a clear link between the two. But in the case of little Ali, assuming it's genuine - and it strikes me it would be a rather complex hoax, although not necessarily pointless - we are talking about an infant who can have not the smallest notion of anything that is going on - at least on any conventional level. The intelligence behind the phenomenon is literate and knows the scriptures. 

That means we can't address the problem in the same way as we can Christian stigmata; we would have to posit the involvement of some other mind - either living (the parents, a religious relative, a local priest), which would involve mental influence at a distance; or discarnate, which would indicate survival of death; or, as a related alternative that Stevenson might have suggested, the mind of the personality, perhaps a devout religious scholar, who has decided in his next life to bring some of that knowledge with him, and perhaps, as the muftis say, do something to try to counteract the appalling violence in the Caucasus.

Whichever of these we go with involves a jump from something odd, but potentially explicable if neursocience one day cracks the secret of consciousness, to something that is unambiguously paranormal. That's a good argument for not taking it seriously until some sleuth tells us it's the real deal. But if it is real it will be an extraordinary addition to the literature on stigmata.