Islamic Sufism Spirituality

Exorcism – History & Practices

Posted on: June 2, 2008

Exorcism is the practice of evicting demons or other evil spiritual entities, which are supposed to have possessed (taken control of) a person or object. The practice is quite ancient and still part of the belief system of many religions.

The person performing the exorcism, known as an exorcist, is often a priest, or an individual thought to be graced with special powers or skills. The exorcist may use religious material, such as prayers and set formulas, gestures, symbols, icons, amulets, etc.. The exorcist often invokes some benign supernatural power to actually perform the task.

In general, posessed persons are not regarded as evil in themselves, nor wholly responsible for their actions. Therefore, exorcism is generally thought more as a cure than as a punishment. However, the two concepts are often confused in practice, and exorcism has often been (ab)used as a pretext for harsh physical punishment, or even sadism.


The concept of possession by evil spirits and the practice of exorcism are very ancient and widespread, and may originate in prehistoric Shamanistic beliefs.

The Christian New Testament includes exorcism among the miracles performed by Jesus. Because of this precedent, possession was part of the belief system of Christianity since its beginning, and exorcism is still a recognized practice of Catholicism, Eastern Orthodox and some Protestant sects.

In recent times, the practice of exorcism has diminished in its importance to most religious groups and its use has decreased. This is due mainly to a greater understanding of psychology and the functioning and structure of the human mind. Many of the cases that in the past might have been candidates for exorcism have been found to be the products of mental illness, and are handled as such. More generally, the change in worldview since the Age of Enlightenment, which put increased value on rationalism, materialism, and naturalism, has led to a decrease in the belief of the supernatural.

Exorcism in Judaism

In kabbalah and European Jewish folklore, a person may be possessed by a malicious spirit called a dybbuk — which is believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person, escaped from Gehenna (a Hebrew term very loosely translated as “hell”). According to those beliefs, a soul which has not been able to fulfill its function in its lifetime is given another opportunity to do so in the form of a dybbuk. The dybbuk must be exorcised by a prescribed religious rite.

Exorcism in Christianity

Roman Catholicism Solemn exorcisms, according to the Canon Law of the church, can only be exercised by an ordained priest (or higher prelate), with the express permission of the local bishop, and only after a careful medical examination to exclude the possibility of mental illness. The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908) enjoined: “Superstition ought not to be confounded with religion, however much their history may be interwoven, nor magic, however white it may be, with a legitimate religious rite.” Signs considered to indicate demonic possession may include: speaking foreign or ancient languages of which the possessed has no prior knowledge; supernatural abilities and strength; blasphemy; and great aversion to God, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the saints, and sacred objects.

The Catholic Church revised and renewed the Rite of Exorcism in January 2000. The act of exorcism is considered to be an incredibly dangerous spiritual task; the ritual assumes that possessed persons retain their free will, though the demon may hold control over their body, and involves prayers, blessings, and invocations with the use of the document Of Exorcisms and Certain Supplications. Other formulas may have been used in the past, such as the Benedictine Vade retro satana.

Popular interest in exorcism boomed after release of the horror movie movie The Exorcist in 1973. The Catholic diocese of Chicago was inundated with so many requests for exorcism that it had to add exorcists to its existing staff. The importance of the rite was reaffirmed by Pope John Paul II (who is reputed to have performed three exorcisms himself during his pontificate). As a result, a number of dioceses have officialy designated an Exorcist priest. In September 2005, Pope Benedict XVI spoke at the convention of Italian exorcists and encouraged them to “carry on their important work.”

Exorcism in Islam

Posession by evil spirits (Jinn) or the Devil (Shaitan) and exorcism is said to have been a part of Islam since its beginning.

It is believed that the Jinn can gain control only over those who do not hold true to God. According to Islamic scholars, “The Jinni enters the one seized by fits and causes him to speak incomprehensible words, unknown to himself; if the one seized by fits is struck a blow sufficient to kill a camel, he does not feel it.” (Shaikh al-Islam ibn Taymiyyah, Majmoo al-Fatawa.)

Islamic clergy caution against the overuse of exorcism, citing that most cases are due to psychological and physical causes mistaken for possession. Real cases of possession are very rare and the faithful are warned to watch out for exorcists who encourage a diagnosis of possession too quickly, as they may merely be seeking profit.

Islamic authorities also deny the possibility of possession by souls of deceased persons, and warn that evil spirits may make this claim in order to encourage sinful behavior among the living — such as tomb offerings and the hanging of amulets to ward off evil spirits.

Exorcism in the Qur’an and Sunnah

The following verse of the Qur’an compares the state of sinners on the Day of Judgment to the state of those made insane by the Devil: Those who devour usury will not stand (on the Day of Judgment) except as stands one whom the Evil one by his touch hath driven to madness. (Qur’an (Yusufali tr.), al-Baqara, 275)

Islamic scholars such as Al-Qurtabi cite this verse as proof against those who deny the possession by Jinn, or ascribe it to natural causes, as well as those who claim that the Devil (Shaitan) does not enter humans nor does he touch them.

There are also Sunnah (traditional statements not part of the Qur’an) that the Prophet Muhammad and his followers expelled evil beings from the bodies of believers using verses from the Qur’an, supplications to Allah, and holy Zamzam water. This example is related by Ya’la ibn Murah:

I saw Allah’s Messenger (sallallahu alaihe wa-sallam) do three things which no one before or after me saw. I went with him on a trip. On the way, we passed by a woman sitting at the roadside with a young boy. She called out, ‘O Messenger of Allah, this boy is afflicted with a trial, and from him we have also been afflicted with a trial. I don’t know how many times per day he is seized by fits.’ He (sallallahu alaihe wa-sallam) said: ‘Give him to me.’ So she lifted him up to the Prophet.

He (sallallahu alaihe wa-sallam) then placed the boy between himself and the middle of the saddle, opened the boy’s mouth and blew in it three times, saying, ‘In the name of Allah, I am the slave of Allah, get out, enemy of Allah!’ Then he gave the boy back to her and said: ‘Meet us on our return at this same place and inform us how he has fared.’ We then went. On our return, we found her in the same place with three sheep. When he said to her, ‘How has your son fared?’ She replied: ‘By the One who sent you with the truth, we have not detected anything (unusual) in his behavior up to this time… (Musnad Ahmad (vol: 4, p. 170), and al-Haakim, who declared it Saheeh)

On the nature of the Jinn In Islamic belief, the Jinn are intelligent creatures made from fire, much like human beings in that they have free will to choose between good and evil. While a Jinn may possess a human for pure wickedness, it may do it also for other reasons . Shaikh al-Islam ibn Taymiyyah suggests that the Jinn may do it in order to experience the physical world, for reasons of desire or love. In this case the Jinn might not actually have malicious intent, or may be unaware of the harm it is causing.

A Jinn might also do it for revenge. Jinn are said to be quick to anger, especially when they believe themselves to have been harmed on purpose (since Jinn are usually invisible to humans, a person can accidentally injure a Jinni not knowing that one is there).

Exorcism in other religions

In Hinduism the possession of the body by spirits is often accorded a more holy status as it is believed that Goddess Kali or her various incarnates enter a body. People often worship them and also ask for their blessings. However if the spirit refuses to leave after sometime then a village exorcist is brought in to drive out the spirit. Often the priest resorts to beating the said person with neem leaves in an elaborate and dramatic “exorcism”.

In Wicca, because no spirits/people/things are inherently evil, the practice of an exorcism would be unlikely. Demons however, in Witchcraft are often seen as psychological and non-corporeal.

In Shamanic cultures a form of spirit releasement exists. Anthropologist Michael Harner PhD, has argued that a form of exorcism exists in all shamanic cultures. Various new age proponents use a format of spirit releasement, and authors such as Ken Page have pioneered its popularity in that community.

Exorcism-related deaths

Exorcism may end up bringing considerable physical harm to the patient. This is particularly the case when it is performed by improperly trained people, given the common belief that exorcism is necessarily a violent process. Some of the most notorious cases are listed below.

  • Anneliese Michel (September 21, 1952 – June 30, 1976) was a German college student who died during an exorcism. Her parents and the two Bavarian priests who carried out the exorcism were later convicted.

  • Kyung-A Ha was beaten to death in 1995 in San Francisco, California by members of the Jesus-Amen Ministries.

  • Kyung Jae Chung died in 1996 in Glendale, California from blunt-force trauma by her husband (a reverend) and members of the Glendale Korean Methodist Church.

  • In Ontario, 1996, two-year-old Kira Canhoto was killed by her grandmother Ana Maria Canhoto, who force-fed water to the child in order to “ward off evil spirits”. (Vancouver Province, 1/11/96)

  • Charity Miranda was suffocated with a plastic bag in 1998 in Sayville, New York by her mother and sister, during a Cuban Voodoo exorcism ritual.

  • Terrance Cottrell Jr., an eight-year-old autistic child, died of asphyxiation in 2003 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin during an exorcism carried out by members of the Faith Temple Church of the Apostolic Faith, in an attempt to expel the boy’s demons. The coroner ruled that the boy died “due to external chest compression” as the part-time pastor lay on top of him. On July 10, 2004, the pastor was convicted of child abuse.

  • In June 2005, in Tanacu, Bacău County, Romania, Maricica Irina Cornici, a 23-year-old nun, was found crucified to a wall in her convent room. She had been undergoing exorcism with Father Daniel Petru Corogeanu, a Romanian Orthodox priest, who faced murder charges.


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