Prayer bumps, Muslim haters, and the danger of scientific popularization
by Dr. Gabriele Marranci
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 zebibahis 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) thezebibah 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.