Intercessory Prayers Work?
By Mansur Hallaj
28 September, 2007
As a child, the author
learnt that self help, rather than prayers or dua would help. The result
of a recent comprehensive study about intercessory prayers, which is
common in Christianity and Islam, showed that it does not work. Similarly,
having people pray for rain as often done by our leaders is futile.
up in a religious family meant being encouraged to attend the Friday
prayer congregation. The prayer was preceded by a sermon, or khutba,
in which the chubby-cheeked, well-fed Pathan maulvi preached to the
gathered faithful about the hereafter – for the good men there
would be virgins (a term whose meaning I was not too sure about), and
for the naughty ones hell's fire. Those were the days of General Ayub
Khan, and with the dictator there had descended upon Karachi's mosques
hordes of unenlightened clerics.
The prayers always ended
with the congregation raising their cupped hands as the Imam entreated
the Lord to release the Kashmiris from evil hands, free Palestine ,
bless our parents and elders, make everyone happy and prosperous, with
hum of Ameen from the supplicants at the end of each request.
There was always the chance
during the whole ritual for everyone to ask God for a personal favor.
That's when I sneaked in a request for high marks in class exams, though
much of the dua ritual seemed long-winded to me.
Before long I realized from
my report card that the Almighty had better things to attend to than
listen to a lad in Karachi. This was about the time that science education,
books and film documentaries had raised doubts in my mind about this
method of marks-enhancement. Plain hard work turned out to be a surer
way to success. This was also the time when I became aware of the importance
of prime numbers and began wondering about the magic of '3' and '7':
the first was the number of times one washed each limb before prayers;
ablution and '3' went together. As for '7' that would be a whole new
During the service, the maulvi
often alluded to what goodies were on offer in heaven. The promise of
streams of honey and milk was standard ware. Some days he would enthusiastically
describe the garments the virgins would wear as they lolled beside the
streams. These lovely beauties were supposedly dressed in 7 layers of
garments, which nevertheless, were transparent! At that young age I
wasn't too clear why the mullah was so excited about this visual prospect.
I was more curious about the appearance of another prime in the religious
One day I managed to collar
the maulvi on a Sunday morning after he had tutored the young talibs
(students) in the mosque. I asked about the significance of '7' and
how had it been determined that the virgins wore 7 layers? Also, what
would happen if the layers were doubled? His failure to answer coherently
made me add this curiosity about transparent garments in the same category
as asking for high marks from the Lord: just fanciful thinking.
At university I became aware
of the historical battles between science and religion, starting with
the case of Galileo, and the continuing lack of acceptance of Darwin's
theory of evolution. After considerable amount of reading and thought
I could no longer keep the ideas of science and religion in separate
Science is our way of arriving
at empirical truths. Its process of refining truths or turning them
around completely are evolutionary, in that when people come up with
better ideas and experimental results, old findings are altered or discarded.
In contrast, most religious scholars refuse to accept that religious
texts need to be interpreted differently for each age to match the findings
of science and be in line with rational thinking. This is particularly
so for areas where interpretations of religion generally differ from
what science offers. But for religion to be relevant to people's lives
its interpreted doctrines cannot be in opposition to what is found by
science, whose strength is based on the idea that there is no finality
in ideas. Therefore for religion to remain alive and relevant to modern
believers, its interpreters should exercise flexibility. This means
not trying to force science into the straight-jacket of religion.
Some of these contentious
issues will become clearer through a discussion of a ten-year rigorous
study conducted on intercessory prayers, with results announced in 2006.
In Islam and Christianity this is a prayer to God on behalf of another
person or situation. The prayer pleads on behalf of the subject, believing
that God will answer the prayer.
The study cost $2.4 million
and was supported by the Templeton Foundation. It was directed by a
Harvard University cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson, who is a believer
in the power of personal prayer and meditation. There have been at least
10 studies on the effect of prayers since year 2000 with mixed results,
with this one intended to overcome the flaws in earlier investigations.
The US government has itself spent $2.3 million on prayer research over
The outcome of the study
was that prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery
of people who were undergoing heart surgery. Patients who knew they
were prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications perhaps
because of the expectations that prayers created or that their condition
was so bad that prayers for them was warranted.
Some have argued that prayer
is a deep response to illness and it may relieve suffering by some mechanism
as yet unknown. Skeptics contend that studying prayers is a waste of
money and it presupposes supernatural involvement, and therefore, by
definition, beyond the scope of science.
In the study over 1800 coronary
bypass patients at six hospitals were monitored. The patients were divided
into three equal groups, with groups A & B both prayed for. While
group A was told that they would be definitely prayed for, group B was
told that they may or may not be prayed for. This resulted in patients
in group B not knowing for sure if they were being prayed for. Group
C knew that it was not being prayed for.
Members of three different
Christian congregations in different parts of the U.S. were asked to
pray for the patients in any manner they liked but were instructed to
include the following phrase in their prayers: "for successful
surgery with a quick healthy recovery and no complications." Prayers
began the night before the surgery and continued daily for two weeks
after. List of names of people each congregation was to pray for was
given as first names and initials of the last names.
Results showed no statistically
significant difference between prayed-for and non-prayed for groups.
Results were also computed for two types of complications: (a) not serious
and (b) major. Patients who received prayers were marginally more likely
to develop complications of category (59 to 51 percent) – this
is category (a). There were substantially more likely to develop major
complications (18 to 13 percent) than patients who received none.
Needless to say, I as a teenager,
with my experience of prayers, could have predicted the main findings
of this research. The Americans wasted $4.7 million on it.
The conclusion from this
controlled study also applies to prayers and dua that our leaders –
generals or imported bankers alike – ask the people to indulge
in when there is drought or similar calamity. The Lord is fair. He is
as likely to overlook the prayers by a kid asking for high marks, as
he is of millions who at the instructions of their leaders ask Him to
change natural laws to make their lives easier.
Dr Mansur Hallaj Sindhi
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