Islam . . . and Epilepsy



Muhammed had epilepsy.

At least according to some medical historians.

This idea that Mohammed experienced epilepsy has its origins, at least in Western allopathic literature, around the late 19th century.   It became a very popular notion that seizures could be related to creativity and genius.  The examples that existed at the time were important historical leaders like Muhammed, and a number of  the most important religious-political leaders in ancient history and the recent post-Renaissance history of the sciences often refer to illness as the reason an individual becomes an exceptional achiever.

Perhaps the most commonly cited illness linked to creativity is Tuberculosis, with the majority of examples of these famous writers producing during the nineteenth century.  In more recent times, we have related depression to creativity and genius, mostly due to the many famous writers who experienced “melancholy” or some sort of multiple state, multiple personality experience like bipolarism or manic-depression.

But the link between genius and creativity, and neurological and/or psychological-psychiatric manifestations, can also have something to do with the “broken mind”.  This occurs because the brain and/or mind is capable of thinking outside the norm, in ways not normally imagined and followed by the normal person.  The new mindset that creative people develop is nurtured by the emotions it is linked to.  Those who experience feel great about it, sense it as being very important and therefore mustn’t be stopped.  Sometimes, the thoughts go “out of control”, they dominate their patient and make him or her a victim, “diseased”, and therefore in need of remedy.  The impacts of this treatment traditionally are to negate the intellectual prowess the afflicted mind experiences. For this reason, patients often refuse their care; they need to experience that “hyperactivity” once again.

In order for biologists and physicians to accept the idea that the mind, or thought process, had some specific reason it could become creative and special, they need to have a theory which would help them argue and understand the natural science reasons for why such behaviors occur in people.  The theory has to be focused upon the physical sciences, a task hard to achieve for knowledge that is theoretical and, as we might term it today, virtual in nature.

The earlier notion that the mind was its own floating entity contained within the body of a person, along with that person’s soul if you go back far enough in the literature, had to be stripped away from the philosophy on who and what people are, why they behave they way they do, what makes them become what they grow up to be.  Psychology had its roots already well established, and those roots, along with the newest technology in medicine (namely the x-ray and the ability to read the electrical behavior of the brain), enabled us to look into the skull of an individual, and assign physical sighting to each of the behaviors we are trying to describe.

By the end of the 19th century, physicians had a more detailed look at the brain and the structure and anatomy of its most delicate materials used to produce a brain.  The striated linear flowing, radiating lines from the center of the brain to the cortex gave them the idea of a specific form of circuitry involved how and why the brain behaves the way it does.  Science was too much dependent upon the physical world to allow a metaphysical theory be used to explain these structures to prevail.  They saw these structures as connections that linked the centermost part where the primitive brain lies, with the outermost section, the cortex, more advanced in its nature, and so large relative to the rest  of the brain.  This new interpretation of the structures they could see was developed due to the ways in which they recorded and interpreted the minds special activities.  They had the EEG to link to their many previous studies and findings about the behavior of the nerve, the muscle, and other electric producing parts of a living being.  Most central to their ideology on how the mind develops, excites and causes the body to behave, is the notion they developed on what relationships exist between the brain and body.

The sympathetic nerve, which traveled along the spine, outside the bony vertebrae protecting the most important spinal cord within, seemed to exist for some major biological reason  They knew this since the 17th century, when the Great Sympathetic Nerve was first talked about by anatomists, scientists, doctors, surgeon and learned religious writers. (I review this in detail at )

This nerve was called the great sympathetic nerve for a reason.  The most important finding about its purposes included a demonstration of its ability to influence the heart in the chest cavity, as well as many other parts of the internal organs live forms possess.  It function in the body as the means to maintain a balance and “sympathy” in the body of one part to another, including the intestines to the heart, the gut to the blood, the liver to the lungs, the lungs to the mind and soul.  Our vital force could be defined using the notion of electricity and the great sympathetic nerve; physicians didn’t need a vital force concept to come up with a viable explanation for consciousness and life. So even during the late 19th century, as the EEG was developed and perfected, and the electric images of what happens in the skull become documented, the physical structure of what these once metaphysical concepts could be connected to, physically made more sense.  The vital force, a philosophy replaced  by galvanics and magnetism ideologies, could now also be related to the electric poles, the volt, the roles of the storage device for these energies, making the brain a battery of sorts, with parts that exist in order to conduct that force of life and thinking along through the rest of the body.

Epilepsy, was the manifestation of that energy travelling throughout the corpus (body).  Any half-trained individual could easily make such a conclusion.  If primitive and ancient in nature, that theory states the seizures is a phenomenon that happens when the electricity within us goes along its own decided routes, not a route we send it on through conscious thought and thinking.  In more advanced settings and training, we believe this uncontrollable flow of the force or energy happens because it someone becomes automated within the brain, but once automated and allowed to spread, it follows these predefined routes the body has for it to take, the sympathetic nerve.

By the latter half of the 19th century, the role of the cerebellum was very well understood.  Its purpose in making the body capable of engaging in motor activity, in a controlled, thought out way, was somehow integrated into this sympathetic nerve ideology as well.  The way the sympathetic nerve behaves and the role and activity of the cerebellum are what made the person in a suspended, unconscious state of mind, move about meaningfully when a seizure happened.  The epileptic walked and moved about in sensible ways, without the conscious person we know engaged in those animalistic activities and behaviors.  We could walk, mumble, make simple cerebellar-engaging decisions about moving our muscles and changing our direction for transport, but intellectual ideas were missing.  You couldn’t easily ask that wandering epileptic what day or time it was, and easily get an answer.

This idea on brain function was well stated in an 1861 interpretation of how the “tumour” in the head can cause an epilepsy to erupt.  From it we can see the turn towards philosophy, when anatomy doesn’t seem to make sense for the cause of epilepsy.  Note the distinction made between the “epileptic fit” and “epilepsy” as a condition or diagnosis.

“In such a case no motor nerve fibre going to the various muscles of the head the trunk and the limbs is directly irritated by the tumour. The mode of action of the tumour must therefore be through some peculiar influence exerted over those parts of the base of the brain where exist the motor nerve fibres. It is in fact by an action on a distant part of the nervous centres that the irritation in the cerebellum then acts, just as is the case when epileptic fits are the consequence of an irritation in the bowels. . . The same thing may be said of epilepsy caused by a disease of the cerebral lobes. So that convulsions or convulsive affections symptomatic of disease located in the cerebral lobes or the cerebellum owe their origin to a sympathetic influence of the part altered upon other parts of the brain ”   [C. E. Brown-Sequard.  Lectures on the Diagnosis and treatment of the various forms of paralytic, convulsive, and mental affections . . . . Lecture I. Part IV.  The Lancet, July 27, 1861.  See at ]

Still, the mind had its own roots, larger nerve paths within, that enables thoughts to flow, fairly reasonably.  This enabled the physicians to differentiate seizures into several types.  Some that consisted solely of motor activity like the Jacksonian seizure, and others with the ability of the brain and body to appear to live consciously; others just made you talk or appear to be performing some specific behavior.  Still others make you do unhealthy, uncontrolled activities, the convulsion and ophisthotonic contraction being the prime examples of this.  By the end of the 19th century, the epileptic seizure was defined well enough to allow physicians to begin to link epilepsy to a pattern in Muhammed’s “enlightened” behavior.

Another aspect of the definition of seizures in the late 19th century pertained to the human affect forms of seizures that were being described.  These seizures were based upon the emotional interplay of behavior and seizure related facial expressions produced by people with specific seizure types.  The most common of these were those in which the individual appeared as though he or she were communicating with an alternative being or higher power.  This behavior was documented in the early 1800s and termed divine somnambulism (divine or god-like power generated sleep walking).  By the late 19th century, the different affective states, like fearful, elated, happy, or melancholic, were linked to these seizures.  There was a psychiatric part of the epilepsy that some patients could demonstrate.

Mohammed’s apparent seizures or seizure like activities were not principally or solely motor.  They were of a cognitive nature.  They engaged the emotional centers of the brain.  They made use of the were as much cortical in nature as they were cerebellar and sympathetic in nature. These seizures hadn’t a well defined name for them during his time, except for the ‘epilepsia’ defined by Hippocrates and colleagues, promoted by Galen and perpetuated by Maimonides, who around 1200 claimed epilepsy is “due to pressure on the ventricles of the brain,” possibly a result of the occasional hydrocephaly of the brain  that physicians noted in association with young children with seizures–the association of the seizure with an already documented state of hydrocephaly was very high.  To counter this intracranial pressure problem, Maimonides recommended a healthy lifestyle with proper diet (for more on Maimonides, see Jewish Encylopedia, Vol. 7, p 295 at ).

For other interpretations (mostly the same) of this aspect of Muhammed’s health see: 

Why Muhammad thought he was a “prophet” (Temporal Lobe Epilepsy)

Was Muhammed an Epileptic?

Did Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) suffer from Epilepsy? 


The notion that Muhammed has epilepsy, in the beginning, is not culturally denied.  The seizure or epileptic fit was different from Hippocrates’ Epilepsy diagnosis.  The ‘epileptic fit’, as perceived by an Islamic scholar at the time, may have been likened to the fits that other priests and prophets had according to the Old testament, in which, as traditional  stories state, “God” had conversed with them.

For example, in the July 16, 1910 The Reform Advocate, a paper on religion, during a discussion on how the Koran authored by Muhammed came to be, it was mentioned that Muhammed used the epileptic fits to gain the “enlightenment” needed for parts of his writing.


Page 1131, The Reform Advocate, July 16, 1910, at

In the Karl Baedeker series on Travels, his Egypt. Handbook for Travellers, this interpretation of Muhammed’s life experience was discussed extensively in its forward.  A footnote to this forward includes a note penned by “Prof. Socin”, in Section III, on the “Doctrines of El-Islam”.  The footnote to the first page is as follows:


To make clear the main point that he spent the latter part of his life as an epileptic:

[W]hen Mohammed was about forty years of age, he too was struck with the vanity of idolatry. He suffered from epilepsy and during his attacks imagined he received revelations from heaven. He can scarcely, therefore, be called an impostor in the ordinary sense. A dream which he had on Mt Hira near Mecca gave him the first impulse and he soon began with ardent enthusiasm to promulgate monotheism, and to warn his hearers against incurring the pains of hell. It is uncertain whether Mohammed himself could read and write. His new doctrine was called Islam or subjection to God.  [Source:  Alternate source: ]. 


Muhammed’s seizures could have been separated from those considered to have full-fledged or “true epilepsy”.  They, therefore, could just labelled epileptic, meaning they resemble epilepsy, but lack the repetitiveness and debilitating aspects that were so clearly pronounced in people whose seizures resulted in convulsions and the great sickness or “grand mal” version of seizures.  Such a clarification might minimize the cultural judgments made of the individual, setting the stage for how society would react to this person’s natural history and “purpose” in society.


Muslim Prayer ritual, from Baedeker.

In a 1907 discussion of the same topic concerning Muhammed and epilepsy by W. S. Monroe, in his book on Turkey and The Turks, and Account of the lands, the peoples, and the institutions of the Ottoman Empire (source ), several explanations are given for Muhammed’s state:

“Mental pathologists on the other hand have explained the contradictions in the life of the Prophet by theories of epilepsy and hallucination. Dr. William W. Ireland, an eminent Scotch alienist, believes that Mohammed was subject to some nervous disease accompanied by hallucinations. Theophanes Honoras and contemporary Greeks assert that he was afflicted with epilepsy. After a careful examination of all the evidence touching the mental health of the Prophet, Doctor Ireland concludes that it seems likely that Mohammed at the commencement of his mission was subject to hallucinations of hearing and sight, which, taking the tone of his deeply religious feelings, and his dislike to the idolatry and polytheism of the people of Mecca, were interpreted by him as messages from God. In this belief, he was prompted by his wife Kadija and some of his relations and was thus induced to commence his remarkable course of apostleship. How far these hallucinations accompanied the remaining twenty one years of his life it would be difficult to say.”

Thus, was Matthew Wood’s story about three epileptics, each of whom had a profound effect upon the world meaningful and correct.  In Wood’s In Spite of Epilepsy, being a review of the lives of three Great Epileptics,–Julius Caeser, Mohammed, Lord Byron,–the Founders Respectively of an empire,  religion, and a school of poetry (New York: Cosmopolitan Press, 1913 – – accessible at ), he becomes another example of the many authors trying to understand the inner workings of the brain, . . . the content, ingredients,  and substance or makings of the mind, . . . the power of human feeling, and emotions, . . . and the attachments of each of these to life and the potential of some high power or ‘the universe’.

Relating this to contemporary health care, Islamics have three causes for epilepsy noted in their combined medical-religious philosophy. Muhammed could experience this because he is young and “gifted”.  It could be a test of his purpose in life. Or it could be a condemnation of who he is or is soon to become, but more importantly, this same message can be interpreted by his parents as some form of punishment to them, for reasons never made clear.

In such a case, if your child is young and you suspect “epilepsy” due to a seizure, you go to the physician immediately with hopes of learning if this is due to Allah’s discontent with you or not. If it is Allah’s test of the child, and not just you, you will more than likely find out later, but still need to know now.  And equally important, especially in the modern medical world, you wish to know if the seizure is due to those scientific ideas circulating about for its cause–is this simply a manifestation of the physical world influencing the child’s body?

The answer to this question about the three options for why seizures and/or epilepsy are manifesting in someone (like Muhammed) are lacking for the moment.  They may even be forgotten . . . briefly.

The notion that Muhammed himself had epilepsy is essentially absent from their contemporary writings, but may be present in scholarly Muslim works on him.  This philosophy was essentially promoted, if not generated and promoted largely by Western European scholars, an irresistible reason for Imahs to ignore its publication by other parts (the bulk) of the world (see Criticism of Muhammed, on wikipedia at ).

Muhammed developed his epilepsy (if that assumed diagnosis is right) in his thirties or late thirties.  He was not born with it.  He did not obtain it as a hydrocephaly or any other function or physical birth related defect.  Thus, it was not the Epilepsy of Hippocrates, and it was not produced deliberately by Allah.  The production of a child with epilepsy is believed to be one generated of Allah’s intent; that which will result in a child born with the epilepsy or who develops signs of being born with it early on in life.  So, the first theory of why Allah allows disease to happen–Allah allows the person to be born into a life with it, for whatever reason–does not pertain to Muhammed’s history.

There is also the theory that epilepsy develops in someone because Allah allows it, and thus it becomes a test of the individuals strength, wisdom, and other talents needed to overcome this malady.  Children who develop seizures and adults would certainly relate to this theory, which is the theory most closely related by Muslims to Muhammed’s reason for possessing it (if they believe).  Thus, epilepsy is like other cultures state–a test of one’s strengths in life, the route to developing a much needed wisdom.

There is also the third cause for epilepsy which focuses on the physical world theories, and approximates the western medical paradigm for why seizures and epilepsy happen.  Although such a theory of Muslim writing and belief may not focus on the same paradigms taught by western scientists about the intricacies of the brain, there is enough of this physical and anatomical, functional knowledge in Muslim doctors writers to allow them to produce their own “take” or “spin” on theory for why epilepsy happens.  Since it is of Muslim origin, and because it is complex to many, like the western paradigms that barely a non-medically trained professional could understand, this Islamic theory about the cause and reason for seizures or epilepsy become irrefutable.

Now, relating this to contemporary medicine . . . a recent review of a significant number of Islamic patients demonstrated that Islamic children today are being brought to the family physician at the age of 1, 2 and 3.  This is occurring more for Islamic children than for any other race or religiously related raised child.

This expenditure of time and money for medical services in a young child, due to concerns for epilepsy diagnosis, stem from the Islamic belief that this seizure is a test of who the child is, who the parents are or might be, and whether or not Allah is pleased with these people or not.  Their visit of a doctor for a child so young is needed, in order to know your fate, your child’s fate, as soon as possible in life.

In my next review, I will go over the contemporary literature on this, and the Islamic medical writings I have reviewed over the past 25 years on this subject.



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