Imran's Djinn, and Theories of Epilepsy

This article and the review comment were first published in “EPICADEC News” (from the Foundation Epilepsy Care Developing Countries, Leiden), October 2000, pp. 9-10, titled “Imran’s Djinn”. They are here reproduced with permission, after slight revision. The article concerns an Asian boy living in UK. His family had trouble using the health services, because of different concepts of Imran’s illness. One of Imran’s teachers met the family half way, respecting their beliefs and giving them time to digest a different approach to epilepsy and its treatment. A scientific reviewer comments on the story. Internet publication URL:

After 22 years in UK, Mr Ahmed decided to bring his wife and six of his children to join him from their Asian country of origin. His eldest son was twenty years old, the youngest just three. Two daughters were married, and they remained in their country. He hoped the eldest son would find work in UK, and there would be school education for the others. He did not know what could be done for thirteen year old Imran, though he had heard there were special schools for children like him.

It was hard for the family to manage Imran in the small, two bedroom house in a cool-climate English city. Back in his home village, Imran had been used to being outside almost all the time, and he had always been given his food outside the house, so it did not matter how much mess he made. But he had not played with the other children of the village ? they had often thrown stones at him. Now, in England, he did not like being confined indoors. He was not used to being in a room with ornaments and electrical goods that must not be picked up and dropped. He was not used to anyone telling him to do this or that.

Mr Ahmed found a special school, and took Imran along to see if he could get him enrolled. Although Mr Ahmed had been in England for many years, he had little English, so I was called in to talk to him and interpret. There is usually a long assessment procedure before children can enter a special school, but we managed to arrange an emergency enrolment within a month, the assessments being done within the school.

I interpreted for Mr Ahmed for interviews with psychologists, social workers and doctors. One paediatrician asked whether Imran had ever suffered from epileptic fits. I translated this with the usual terms used in Mr Ahmed’s mother tongue, and he said ‘No’. In school I worked with Imran, helping him learn acceptable behaviour at mealtimes, advising his teachers on how he could learn to use the toilet, and developing language programmes. I made visits to the family at home, often with the social worker, who was keen to help them ? especially when we realised that there would soon be another baby in the family.

The social worker tried several times to encourage the family to take up an offer of ‘respite care’, whereby Imran could stay in a special hostel for a few days every month. The family always refused, but finally Mr Ahmed felt he was being impolite by continuing this blank refusal, so he agreed to make a visit to the hostel, as long as I would accompany them.

On the way to the hostel, Mr Ahmed said that he wanted to tell me something which I should not translate to the social worker. I agreed. He told me that it was impossible for him to let Imran stay overnight at the hostel ? or anywhere else. I assured him that that nobody could force him to send Imran away from home ? but would he like to say why?  Yes, he would, but I should not tell the social workers. He knew I had lived for a long time in Asian countries and respected their customs and beliefs, but I should not tell the ‘white’ people, because they did not understand ‘the things we know’.

Mr Ahmed then explained that at night a spirit often came to Imran. When this happened, all the family had to rush to his bed and pray and read the Qur’an until the spirit went away. If Imran were to spend the night away from his family, nobody would be able to help him when the spirit came, and it would be dangerous for him.

I asked Imran’s father to say what happened. He told me that Imran would go rigid, and then started to ‘shake’. Sometimes it began with a scream, but at other times the first they knew was when they heard the bed begin to shake. Imran always wet the bed when the ‘spirit’ was there.  Mr Ahmed emphasised that this was definitely not an illness, they were quite sure it was a spirit. (There was no point in arguing about this, as the existence of djinns is a well-attested part of Muslim belief. Instead, I decided to try another approach.)

First, I assured Mr Ahmed that I would not tell the social worker and doctors, and that it was certainly no ordinary ‘illness’ which affected Imran. Then, very tentatively, I suggested that there was another possible explanation. Some children with this sort of ‘spirit’ had been found to have problems with ‘electricity’ in their brains, and it was possible to test for this. If it was an electricity problem, a treatment could be found. This was a new idea to Mr Ahmed, but he did not dismiss it. Electricity has a somewhat magical quality about it ? not just one of these white?people’s illnesses. I said he should think about it, and, if he was willing, I would speak to the paediatrician and we could arrange to have Imran’s brain-electricity tested. Mr Ahmed agreed to think about it. Our visit to the hostel then went ahead.  Mr Ahmed expressed amazement at the quality of the services offered, and his regret that, at this time, he would not be able to allow Imran to make use of them.

Over the next few weeks I discussed the issue of ‘testing Imran’s brain-electricity’ several times.  The family were worried that, by such a test, they might interfere with the spirit and cause it to do something more damaging, or to afflict another member of the family. I assured them that the tests were completely non?invasive, and described the process to them. Eventually Mr Ahmed agreed, and I spoke to the paediatrician. She arranged for an appointment for an electro-encephalogram (EEG), which came within a month. I accompanied them to the hospital, and held Imran’s hands and talked to him through the procedure.

The results were clearly abnormal, and medication was prescribed. Now the family was seriously worried. Imran’s mother was afraid of the consequences for her family if the spirit decided to take other action. We talked it through several times, and finally the family decided Imran should try taking the pills. The first night, the family members sat up all night praying. Nothing bad happened. For several more nights they took turns at continuing the prayers through the night. Imran had no fits, and nothing else went wrong. The family began to relax. Everything seemed to be okay. Well, after all, that was ‘electricity in the brain’, and it was treated by taking little pills. Yes, and Imran MUST keep taking the pills, or the bad electricity will come back.

Within a fortnight it was “Can you phone the social worker, and see if there are still places in the respite hostel?”. Soon Imran was taking as many respite breaks as the social services department could find the funds for.

[To respect the family’s privacy, names have been changed, and a few details obscured.]



This case history shows that by respecting people’s beliefs, and making a point of contact or a bridge across to another way of looking at the situation, it is often possible to provide help according to methods scientifically proven to be effective, even though at the start they do not seem compatible with the culture of the person in need. Mr Ahmed’s family beliefs about Imran’s djinn may seem rather odd to westerners, and they cause a great deal of worry to the family members, but they are still human-sized, and are under the control of Allah (who is called The Merciful).

The djinn calls forth a compassionate family response, that is within the capacity of the family, and for which they are rewarded by seeing the djinn withdraw, at least until the next night. By comparison, modern science, technology and social change are widely perceived as threatening and beyond the control of the single family. Their only refuge is Allah, with whom (to some extent) they are familiar, and who makes (usually) quite reasonable demands, e.g., that they should lead honest, decent lives, take care of each other, and say their prayers regularly.

However, it is not always necessary to confront religious theories and explanations, so as to have people try out the effectiveness of, say, anti-epileptic medication. The fragility of social interlinking and civil society has become increasingly apparent in Britain. It is not so surprising that many people seek security in religious systems of thought, which have been available for much longer than ‘modern scientific’ systems, and which have developed a great deal of flexibility to accommodate new ‘scientific’ facts (which themselves, in the health field, often seem to have rather a short shelf life...)

The occasional puzzling piece of evidence, such as the effectiveness of a regular pill to control ‘brain electricity’, is unlikely to affect adherents of the major monotheistic religions, or the non-theistic religions, or any system where unseen forces are believed to operate outside the statistical probabilities of physics. The modern ‘information supermarket’ encourages people to have a repertoire and toolbox of ways of thinking, to suit all occasions. Scientific rationality is only occasionally called for.