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
The Mu-Ghayeb Belief in Oman
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
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
Denial and 'Culturogenic' Stress
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
did take you away, but not from me.
or alive, you are close to me,
though your time has run its course.
swear that I shall never cease to shed tears for you. "
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Adapted from SQU Bulletin. Nizwa.NET is not responsible for errors.