MUGHAYEB- Grieving the Dead

A Culture Specific Response to Bereavement in Oman

Dr. Samir Al-Adawi, 

Department of Behavioral Medicine, College of Medicine


Dr. Samir Al-Adawi is lecturer in the Department of Behavioral Medicine & Deputy Editor of Journal of Scientific Research-Medical Sciences. A doctorate from Institute of Psychiatry, King's College, London, his clinical and research interests focus on functional recovery following brain damage.  He is also collaborating with others in studying how stress and distress manifest in different populations and cultures

People mourning their loved ones’ death often show a range of coping responses. Some are unusual, like Mu-Ghayeb, a curious bereavement mechanism adopted by traditional Omani society and being practiced since ancient times to overcome the grief caused by sudden death. Believers in Mu-Ghayeb completely deny the loss for a long period, expecting that the dead person will return. In this article, Dr. Samir Al-Adawi presents an analysis of this cultural belief.


In this age, when mental experiences tend to be attributed to neurogenic factors, research exploring traditional beliefs and rituals has largely been given fringe importance. We in the Department of Behavioural Medicine at the College of Medicine aspire to bridge the gap between social and biological sciences in order to tease out how Omani culture and environment shape the formation, distribution and manifestation of human suffering. The ultimate aim of this quest is to establish a holistic and culture-relevant approach to the treatment and management of human suffering. Studies of bereavement have been a starting point on this endeavor as death is a universal phenomenon yet the reaction to it tends to vary from culture to culture. Several studies on bereavement have been conducted in industrialized countries. The findings reveal that in grieving the dead, the bereaved person has to go through a progressive course of psychosocial reorganization. She or he must do the 'grief work' first of all by accepting the reality of the loss, and then working through the pain of grief, before she or he can finally reduce emotional attachment to the deceased and reformat his/her personal identity. These stages probably do the job of 'decathecting' the mental representation of loss. However, there is a dearth of research on bereavement in cross-cultural communities, and we do not know whether people in non-western cultures such as Oman follow similar phases of bereavement. 


The Mu-Ghayeb Belief in Oman

In the traditional Omani society, a sudden, untimely death is often associated with the Mu-Ghayeb belief. The concept has been encapsulated into the writing of Al-Salmi (1909), the diary of Said-Ruete (1888) and a novel (Al-Mudhaffar, 1989). The believers in Mu-Ghayeb assume that the "dead" individual is really not dead, but has been stolen by a powerful and evil magician, who has attained his power from some unspeakably horrible act, such as eating his own children. The magician places a spell on the chosen individual from pure jealousy, or from other reasons. Consequently, the targeted individual appears to be dead or "experience death of a sudden nature", while in fact the 'deceased' is still alive. As in the normal course of mourning rituals, the deceased is washed and buried by his family, in the presence of other relatives and friends. After the funeral, the bereaved family usually observes three days of mourning or more depending on the socioeconomic status of the deceased and the community to which the deceased belongs. Although people who come to express their condolences disperse at the end of the mourning period, family members may refrain from going to ceremonies such as weddings, for at least forty days. In grieving the deceased by the family, friends and acquaintances seem to indicate their acceptance of the reality of the loss. However, they continue to believe that the individuals are still alive. They expect them to rise from the grave, and move around to lead a shadowy existence, sleeping naked in a cave during the day, rising at night to wander the countryside, feeding on leaves, and performing the order of the magician - the master or the controller. During this period, the dead may be seen as a wraithlike figure at night by their family and friends. Alternatively, such individuals may be reported as being seen normally clothed during daylight in rapidly passing cars, or in other situations, not easily amenable to verification. According to the belief, the return of the "deceased" to their families can occur in one of the two ways. First, the magician may be discovered and killed, or destroyed in some other way (this includes his own natural death). At the death of the magician all the people he has enthralled become automatically free, and return to their families. The discovery of the "deceased" can sometimes be accomplished with the aid of a white magician. Alternatively, the enchanted persons may be discovered wandering and be overpowered: if they are hit on the forehead with a stone, they become automatically released from the bewitchment. These are the bare details of the belief system. All the suspected cases have followed a sudden and unexpected death. 

The Mu-Ghayeb belief system tends to develop gradually. It normally takes between three and six months to develop and be firmly established but usually fades away slowly. Individuals in whom the belief has become chronic and persistent for a considerably longer period are rare. However, the belief returns with renewed intensity during occasions, which bring the dead person strongly to mind. 

Mu-Ghayeb and 'Zombification'

Mu-Ghayeb has some curious parallels in other parts of the world. Examples include 'zombification' in Haiti, 'nginginge' in Africa and 'wandering fugue' in Victorian England. According to Haitian folklore, as documented in the works of Wade Davis, zombies are living dead, raised from their graves and animated by malevolent voodoo sorcerers, usually for some evil purpose. Davis reported cases of zombies who narrated to him that they have observed their own 'demise' and described how they were exhumed from the grave and forced to work as slaves in sugar plantations. Davis has suggested that the zombies are 'produced' by a cocktail of poisons that paralyze the victim, inducing a 'death-like' state. The ingredient is thought to have derived from the 'puffer' fish. Interestingly, puffer fish are found in the seas of Oman, which increase the possibility of a link between zombification and Mu-Ghayeb. This is a tempting subject for future research. The medical anthropologist, Roland Littlewood, suggests that bereaved relatives mistake wandering, mentally ill strangers to be their loved ones who have been transformed into zombies. We could take a similar skeptical view about Mu-Ghayeb. While everyone in Omani community has heard of someone who has returned to his or her family after death, no one knows of such a case at first hand.


Mu-Ghayeb, Denial and 'Culturogenic' Stress

There are various angles from which we can look at Mu-Ghayeb. Here we restrict ourselves by viewing it from within the framework of Omani culture and history and speculate on the functions Mu-Ghayeb might serve to the Omani society. In the Muslim-Arab culture, there is some evidence that bereaved people may suffer from grief reaction as vividly expressed in the following lines of verse of Leyla Al-Akhyaliya (cited in Ullah 1963, p.40).

"God did take you away, but not from me.

Dead or alive, you are close to me,

Even though your time has run its course.

I swear that I shall never cease to shed tears for you. "

Although clinical observations have supported the "grief work" hypothesis, death being foreordained in Islam, to grieve excessively is incompatible with Islamic teachings. Muslims carry out elaborate rituals associated with the ablution of the deceased, and communal prayer for the deceased. It is therefore expected that such elaborate burial and mourning rituals would facilitate acceptance of the loss and affirm the fact that the loss has happened. Furthermore, acceptance of death may also be facilitated by the Islamic portrayal of life and death as a continuous process leading to an eternal desirable afterlife where the faithful will be united with their loved ones.

Since the belief of Mu-Ghayeb appears to be incompatible with Islamic teaching, we in the Department of Behavioural Medicine concentrated our effort on identifying the socio-cultural 'reinforcer' of Mu-Ghayeb belief. Long before the advent of Islam, Oman's shipping industry and seafaring had been vital to its economy. Omani young men had been exposed to the vagaries of the sea and its dangers. The fate of these seamen was almost always unknown during their voyages across the seas; sudden and untimely death of young seamen had been rife in this society. The occasional return of young men many years after being presumed dead was part of the precarious life in the sea. This might have reinforced the Mu-Ghayeb belief.

We suggest that the Mu-Ghayeb belief and perhaps death anxiety are both associated with the higher than average rates of sudden and unexpected death in the Omani traditional society.

The Mu-Ghayeb belief or the denial of the reality of death in the Omani society may be mainly related to culture-specific stressors. Often the consequences of this belief are a series of frenetic activity, involving the consultation of magician and wise men, sitting up at night to look for the deceased and so on. Colored with desperation while traumatized by loss of their loved one, the search for the deceased may result in misidentifying others while scanning the environment in the hope of finding the 'deceased' alive. Some of the bereaved have reported sensing the actual presence of the deceased and sometime engaging themselves in the interpretation of signals and sounds as if the deceased had returned. Other mourners have reported to have experienced something akin to visual and auditory hallucinations of the deceased or felt an intuitive sense of their presence.



To health professionals, such an extreme behavior appears to border on psychotic delusion. It is quite similar to delusory cultural beliefs, which are accepted by the group, but appear abnormal to an outsider. However, Mu-Ghayeb is a culturally determined and sanctioned belief, which helps the bereaved to deal with the psychological consequences of loss. As stress researches have shown, at times when the reality of loss becomes too anxiety provoking, denial could be a beneficial coping mechanism. This may allow the unconscious processes of the self, gradually, and perhaps more naturally, to come to terms with the events. There is little evidence to suggest that the enforced imposition of 'reality' is beneficial.

Contained in Mu-Ghayeb belief, also, is the idea of being able to make the lost one return, by overpowering the magician, or finding the wandering one, seizing and rescuing him or her from a living death. This shadowy figure thus forms a focus for the expression and projection of hostile feelings. In those communities with the relative rule of rationalism, such focus is often lacking, leading to difficulties in expression, catharsis and working thorough, which can lead to inappropriately blaming individuals or institutions such as health care professional or hospitals. Studies by the thanatologist, Collin Murray Parkes, assert that the fading of rituals of mourning as a result of "modernization", has removed an important source of support for the bereaved, and consequently encouraged pathological reactions to bereavement. Future research ought to examine whether the decline of belief in Mu-Ghayeb would encourage pathological reaction of bereavement.

Our research on traditional beliefs of Oman such as Mu-Ghayeb has paved the way to view the cultural refractions as well-recognized psychological reactions. In its present form, the Mu-Ghayeb belief is a remnant of an adaptive response to sudden death, and might disappear with acculturation. However, for the traditional Omani society, Mu-Ghayeb has brought hope, reduced stress of sudden death and facilitated a long but easy transition through bereavement.

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