Traditional Bedouin medicine draws its strength from a fundamental principle of Islam – the belief in destiny.
Everything that happens to a person in his or her life, for better or for worse, is God’s will. Therefore we must accept everything decreed to us with strong faith, courage, and patience. The Bedouins believe that diseases are brought upon men by Allah (God) as a punishment for sins. At the same time, it is possible to heal with the help of natural and supernatural powers that God created. God works through man and heals patients with the help of modern medicine or traditional healers. In the desert, the Bedouin communities’ health care is rooted in a set of rules of hygiene, religion, and moral behavior. They, therefore, refrain from eating carcasses or any unclean food, will not drink contaminated or impure water, will avoid dangers and epidemics, maintain good human relations, and observe their religious obligations.
In traditional medicine, the Bedouin rely on various authorities, such as the Darwish, a holy older man who is thought to have a special connection with God; the Khatib, a writer of amulets; the Mjaber, a healer of broken bones; the Atar, who sells medicinal spices; herbal healers and healers who apply burns. It is also common to turn for help to a holy shrine, such as a Jujube tree or the grave of an ancestor or a prophet.
In the past, the elders tended to view supernatural powers as responsible for illnesses. Therefore they preferred to turn to traditional medicine. Today, community members often turn to modern medicine and sometimes combine modern medicine with traditional medicine.
It is common to refer to two types of traditional medicine – preventive and therapeutic.
There are various methods to prevent illnesses. One is to wear a talisman that contains written verses from the Qur’an. Others are making vows, visiting martyrs’ graves, lighting incense, or deceiving the evil eye by trickery. The evil eye comes upon a person due to an inclination to evil, greed, envy, etc. According to local lore, this is one of the supernatural forces that cause diseases.
Several practices prevent the evil eye from harming. One is placing blue beads (Kushash) on a baby’s head and reading verses from the Qur’an. Usually, the mother or grandmother prepares the beads and puts them on the baby’s head. They’ll sometimes add a crystal that is believed to possess particular virtues. The Bedouins call this crystal Shaba. When the evil hits, it will crush the Shaba into powder instead of harming the baby. When an adult is ill, the grandmother will try and locate the reason for the evil eye. She’ll use the Shaba for a complex healing procedure to treat the patient.
An amulet is not only customary for children. Adult Bedouins will also wear a talisman to protect themselves against the evil eye. Usually, the amulet is written by Khatib, a traditional healer. Using ink and paper, he will write combinations of letters, words, symbols, numbers, and verses from the Qur’an. The paper is consequently folded into a triangular shape and wrapped in cloth or leather. The talisman, called Hajab, is ready to be worn. When the bearer of the amulet suffers from an illness caused by Genim (earthly demons) or suffers from insomnia or nightmares, the amulet will be placed under the pillow. The Bedouins believe the amulet should not be opened or become wet lest the wearer is harmed.
The talisman consists of verses from The Qur’an and is intended to be a protector and healer from diseases caused by demons, evil spirits and the evil eye:
“O Prophet, I seek refuge in the Lord of the daybreak / from the evil of whatever He has created, / and from the evil of the night when it grows dark, / and from the evil of those ˹witches casting spells by˺ blowing onto knots, / and from the evil of an envier when they envy.” (The Qur’an, 113; 1-5)
The custom of reciting verses from the Qur’an for healing purposes was accepted, as narrated by the Prophet Muhammad to whom people turned to ask for salve for their sick. In some cases, the mother or grandmother will take care of the victim of the evil eye, determine the source of the evil eye, and make requests and pleas to God to heal the patient. In other cases – as part of the healing process and after the suspected person from whom the evil eye was “identified” – they will try to take a small piece of cloth from his clothes, even a small thread, without his knowledge, they will put the piece of cloth or thread in the fire, so that the smoke enters the nose and eyes of the patient. This process is named Katur.
Usually an older man, the Darwish is considered a religious saint with a unique connection with God, which he conducts through angels. Darwishes’ qualities are inherited and passed on from father to son with the help of the angels and according to God’s will. Some Darwishes engage in traditional healing and consult on health matters and marital laws. They can also help locate and identify suspects of theft and other crimes. The Bedouins greatly respect the dervishes but also fear them. However, they will not hesitate to turn to them for help, advice, and healing.
The graves of martyrs play an essential role in Bedouin life. There are many legends in Bedouin lore about the uniqueness of each grave and its sanctity and the martyr’s willingness to help every creature, e.g., by curing disease. The Bedouins swear by and on the graves of the martyrs. They believe that if they swear falsely on a martyr’s grave, they will die shortly, or great disasters will befall them. The Bedouins of the Negev and Sinai usually visit the graves of martyrs, which may be of an ancestor or a patron saint, to fulfill vows or to appease the evil spirits and prevent these from harming children or property. During such visits, their requests and supplications are made to the martyr or directly to God. Afterward, in the evening, the family members and relatives will gather in the tent and slaughter a sheep or a goat as a promise to fulfill the vows they made.
Therapeutic Medicine refers to the use of traditional medicines in the treatment of diseases. Music is a healing method that is thought to be of significant influence. Music has a psychological and physiological effect and is attributed the power to reach the human soul and reduce aggressive behavior. Humans respond to music; it is culturally familiar and carries symbolic meaning. In tribal societies, music expresses the state of mind and the tribal approach to life. It is the voice of the shared tribal consciousness. The use of music as a therapeutic form of healing or as background music during healing sessions is rife in the traditions of many cultural groups. After Islam spread among the Arabs, they would have the sick listen to the call of ‘Muazzin‘ coming from the mosque’s minaret before dawn, praying for forgiveness, comforting them during insomnia, and easing their pain. The use of rhythmical musical sounds can also be found among the Nubians in Egypt in ceremonies for curing mental illnesses that communicate with the evil forces that control the patients and cause their illnesses. The ceremony is accompanied by soft drumming, as well as by singing, clapping, and dancing. The Bedouins in Sinai play musical instruments and sing songs called “Yimanya” in exorcism ceremonies.
Another traditional method of healing is related to the sense of smell. Some people will light incense in the house of the sick; others cover the floors with pomegranate tree leaves, the Mastic tree (lentisk), and other aromatic trees that exert a pleasant smell. Bedouins find plants and animals with healing properties in their environment. Medicinal plants (herbalism) have been known in the Eastern tradition for thousands of years. For example, some 6,000 years ago, the Assyrians used the opium poppy, also known as the bread seed poppy plant, as an important medicinal plant. The Arabs used medicinal plants and began using many spices well. The Greek Hippocrates, considered the father of medicine, left descriptions of about 400 medicinal plants. Dating back to 1550 BC in Egypt, we have detailed records of hundreds of medicinal plants. Lists of medicinal plants were found in the Rambam’s writings as well. Medicinal plants are commonly used among all the Bedouins – in Galilee, Negev, Sinai, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula. Today, there is a growing global trend of using plants to produce medicines, and traditional medicine is becoming complementary to modern medicine.
The Bedouins of the Negev know and employ a wide variety of medicinal plants, a large part of which grows in the Galilee, the Jerusalem mountains, the Negev, and Mount Hebron. Other non-indigenous plants come from more distant sources and are bought from the perfume seller, Al Attar.
Examples for the use of medicinal plants
Examples for medicines of animal origin
- Goat/Camel milk: Is given for those who have been stung by a scorpion or those who have been bitten by a snake.
- Camel Urine: Disinfects wounds, anti-dandruff and and strengthening the hair roots
- Donkey milk: Against stuttering for children
- Porcupine blood: drink a small amount as a medicine against heartache and especially to strengthen the heart muscles