Recently I came across a short article titled: The Muslim ‘prayer bump’ and Traumatic Brain Injury. Since I am interested in both religion as well as neuroscience, I eagerly read the short post. To my disappointment, I had to conclude that this was another, yet more sophisticated and insidious, attempt to demonstrate that Islam has horrible consequences for practising individuals. The gist of the article is as follows. Muslims pray five times per day, and as part of the Muslim prayer (salah), the Muslim prostrates and touches the ground with his or her forehead and nose (sujud). The article proceeds to inform the reader that in doing so, millions of Muslims develop what, in Islamic jargon, is called zebibah (Arabic for raisin), or a prayer bump. In other words, the repeated pressure of the head on the prayer mat will produce a discolouration of the skin in the area of contact, and in some cases, apparently, provoking a ‘bump’.
Now the article, after presenting a photo gallery of notoriously controversial, and in some cases criminal, people identified as Muslims, goes on to introduce some recent scientific research published by Oxford University, which advances a new hypotesis in neurotrauma arguing that repeated traumatic brain injury may result in cumulative damage to cells of the brain. The article, through selective quotations, informs us that this produces memory loss and alters cognitive function so that the affected individual is prone to violence and fanaticism.
Finally, we know why Muslims are terrorists, why they protest violently, why they mistreat women, why they commit honor crimes and are dangerous people in general. It is Islam. Of course, we have heard similar accusations before from people like Robert Spencer. However, this article has moved the argument one step further by creating the missing link that was needed to finally demonstrate the deeply dangerous effects of Islam.
In this case, the argument is supported by science, by neurotrauma theories. Science, today, is the holy grail of populist truth. When simplified and made accessible to a general audience, science can become a very powerful weapon since a majority of readers are likely to buy the argument without too much pause. Many would not have the time, patience (much of scientific literature can be rather long-winded or difficult for a non-specialist to follow), or will to read the linked literature and reflect on its application in any given article. Moreover, from our days at school, we have been taught to trust science and not to question it.
So, are millions of Muslims really brain damaged by Islam? Of course not. The article misuses neurological research and provides misinformation about Muslim practices and Islam. Indeed, it is very simple to deconstruct this piece.
We start from the claim that millions and millions of Muslims have zebibah. It is interesting to notice that academic literature about zebibah is practically inexistent. Yet for sure Muslim haters have paid more attention to the ‘prayer bump’ than academics (eg. here and here). Although the ‘pious mark’ can be seen among some Muslims in Egypt, it is rather unusual in other parts of the Muslim world, and very rare in Southeast Asia (the most Muslim region of the world). Personally, I have never seen a woman with a zebibah and after asking some informants, they confirmed that women tend not to have it. An article in the New York Times shows that zebibah is fashionable in Egypt as a marker of piousness, that in certain contexts may be useful (to find a good wife, or a job or be respected as an imam and so on).
The Times article also mentions something very relevant. It sugests that some Muslims in Egypt may ‘facilitate’ zebibah by forcefully pressing their foreheads on the carpet during the prayer. Yet it is also alleged that some may ‘sandpaper’ the spot on their foreheads. I was not aware of sandpaper, but instead I remember being told more than once of other practices to ‘darken’ the skin on that spot. Indeed, as part of a correct prayer, Muslims should not, and do not, ‘smash’ their heads against the floor during sujud.
Even if a person were to perform five prayers a day as well as non- obligatory prayers, the time needed to develop the zebibah would be substantial. Indeed, it is something rarely seen even in old men and in the case of Shi’a, who perform sujud with their foreheads against a piece of clay, I have almost never seen a zebibah. So, can zebibah be used to detect, as some seem to believe, overly pious, or even fanatic, Muslims? Well, just check Khomeini or bin-Laden’s forehead and you may conclude that: 1) they were not pious, or 2) the zebibah has more than one explanation, including the possibility of make-up (some even told me about applying shoe polish to ‘darken the spot’!)
After exposing this point, I can also show that assuming that the Muslim prayer produces brain damage is a rather difficult allegation to make and also that to do so scientifically we would need much more data. The link provided to sustain the theory of the Muslim prayer causing the zebibah and ensuing mild traumatic brain injury (rMTBI), that would in turn cause Muslims to be stupid and violent, provides example such as:
In contact sports such as boxing and some martial arts […] In collision sports, like soccer, ice hockey, rugby and American football […].
Now, this is the level of impact spoken of. Other than in the case of a gravely mentally ill person, we cannot seriously imagine any Muslim in prayer knocking his or her head against the floor hard enough to create injuries like those sustained during boxing, martial arts or rugby!
The other reason for which the scientific paper was misused in a less than innocent way is that science, of course, should be based only on mesurable, experimental facts. One of the main problems of the popularization of neuroscience is the Pindaric flights that it allows to non-experts. In this case, not only does the paper present a hypothesis (so it may be incorrect or at least there is not enough evidence at present to consider it a fait accompli) but also the application of it to the case of zebibah implies a need for some testing.
As usual when commentators speak of Muslims, they seem to suggest that the entire Muslim population of this planet pray five times a day, fast for Ramadan, and follow a strict personal Shar’ia to the point of obsession. Let me destroy the myth: few Muslims go to mosque and even fewer pray all five prayers. To assume that millions of Muslims pray so intensely and with such ardor that they risk causing themselves rMTBI is rather ridiculous.
In contrast to previous blatant anti-Muslim arguments and campaigns, where Muslims have been presented as violent, stupid, barbaric, dangerous, and in particular irrational cultural objects (cf. some good examples here), in recent years, as in this case, I have observed change in sophistication and argument. Indeed, in the case of traditional anti-Muslim arguments, culture had the most relevant role. The below diagram summarises this relationship.
Muslims are seen mainly as expression of culture, and in this case one controlled by the symbols of Islam, as expressed within the Qur’an. Such a cultural essentialist position suggests that all Muslims interpret the Qur’an in the same way, or at least that Islam has the symbolic power to induce a certain collective behavior which reduces the individual to his or her religion (i.e. cultural expression). Of course, as I suggested in one of my books, not only does this approach reduce humans to cultural objects, but it is also constructed upon a serious mistake of logical typing.
Yet certainly, as we have seen in the discussed article, a new pernicious line of argument, which attempts to provide a scientific link to the culturalist stereotyping process, has appeared. A careful analysis will show, however, that even pseudo-scientific arguments have in reality the same culturalist reductionism at heart. Indeed, the new ‘scientific’ argument suggests:
In this case, as the figure shows, culture remains essential in the definition of what is human. Indeed it is Islam, through its cultural practice, that shapes even the most ‘human’ part of the Muslim: his or her brain. The central element here is in any case “abnormality”, which is finally explained scientifically instead of humanistically.
Of course even this time, as in the previous model, we have two problems: one is the fact that Muslims are not cultural objects so, for instance, they pray in different ways, with different styles, with different degrees of passion and in many cases, they do not even pray at all. Muslims are not defined by Islam, and again the above idea of ‘Muslim’ as being the essence of a person is nothing other than a severe mistake of logical typing; one unfortunately that is also spread by the misleading presentation of scientific research.