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To Hakeem: On Prayers and Miracles

Dear Hakeem,

In your February 12, 2006 commentary you spoke of "The process of non thinking". Indeed, when one has faith there is no need for thinking, reason or logic. Therefore, it is reasonable for us to conclude that, at best, it is impossible to reason someone out a position that he did not reason himself into it in the first place. But I do find the subject of faith, prayers and the miracles of God funny enough to deserve a discussion.

There are several levels of understanding prayers. The most common one is that prayers are acts of communicating with God directly to offer praise, make a request, obey a command as in the case of Islamic prayers or simply to express ones thoughts directly to God. Religious people turn prayers into occasions to ask for special requests from God. The requests can cover the entire human experience, but prayers for the sick are the ones that I find most interesting, illogical and amusing.

First, I am amazed on why God would need this human intervention in the form of prayers to offer an obviously needy person some help or to save a human life. And if God can actually intervene once, and save a life, why does his ability to save lives seem to diminish as people get older! Ultimately there comes a time where no amount of intervention, medical or otherwise, can extend life by a single moment. The only credible extension of life is accomplished through medical advances and improved hygiene and food supplies. In spite of the statistically insignificant contributions of prayers to health and life extension, people continue to pray. Of course any treatment has a placebo component and prayers can be understood in that context.

But even if we forfeit this portion of the argument and agree with religious people that prayers do have some value, we would still be left with a big open question. How come God is willing to take credit only for positive outcomes and does not take any credit when outcomes are negative! What about deformed babies and all the children that are born with horrible diseases! Who is going to take the credit for this obvious injustice and suffering! Apparently even Muslim doctors and patients don't really believe in the power of prayers. Well if they did, then all Muslim hospitals in addition to regular departments as such Emergency, Surgery, EKG or Internal Medicine, would have departments called "Prayers Department". This would be a special section in the hospital where devout Muslims can receive prayers as an alternative form of therapy. Let us just see how many Muslim cancer patients would choose this department over surgery or chemotherapy!

During August of 2004 Iraq's top Shiite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, arrived in Britain for medical treatment as a result of health crises involving his heart. Now here we have a man who can command millions of Muslims to march into certain death, and he is the "Grand Ayatollah", the man who is very high in the religious hierarchy and certainly can have a much better access to God, yet he seeks the land of the "Kufar" when he is sick. So he too must not be very certain of the power of prayers or the miracles of God. It is also interesting how Muslim doctors confront the families of patients whom conditions have deteriorated beyond any possible help. When all medical possibilities are exhausted and the patient reaches a terminal stage, Muslim doctors usually turn to the families and say: well, now we have to place this patient into the hands of God. Now, if the hands of God do actually work, they would have been taken as the first option and not the last resort.



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