In late January 2020, the Iranian cleric Abbas Tabrizian publicly set fire to a copy of “Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine,” a foundational text for doctors around the world. It was a dramatic gesture to his hostility to modern medicine.

The following month, when Covid-19 began to ravage his home city of Qom, he had an immediate alternative remedy. “Before going to sleep, put a cotton ball soaked in violet oil into your anus,” he told his 200,000 Telegram followers. A year on, he made international headlines by declaring that coronavirus vaccines would “make people gay.” 

Tabrizian is often referred to as the “father of Islamic medicine” by his followers and is known for pushing unproven remedies to believers, with no regard for scientific consensus. Thousands of shops in Iran sell herbal treatments. This has increased since the imposition of U.S. sanctions in 2012, and the country’s internet is full of start-ups advertising “Islamic” oils and potions for every kind of ailment, backed by religious influencers like Tabrizian.

Mehdi Sabili, an “Islamic medicine specialist” with over 60,000 followers on Instagram, runs one such company. In April, he urged Iranians to sip hot camel urine to ward off the virus. Another even more popular figure, with 185,000 followers, is Dr. Hossein Ravazadeh, a conspiracy theorist and promoter of Islamic medicine who considers much of modern medicine to be a “colonial conspiracy” dreamed up by Zionists and the British. His remedy for the virus is simpler than Sabili’s: drop bitter watermelon oil into your ears, morning and night, and “all obnoxious creatures” will be unable to enter the body, including Covid-19. 

Rather than being fringe figures, Ravazadeh, Sabili, Tabrizian and others like them are prominent and powerful anti-science voices in Iran. They regularly appear on state TV stations, and draw the support of members of parliament and religious authorities. 

“These people aren’t necessarily popular among the middle class or educated people, but they are being supported, they are being funded, and they have followers who believe what they’re saying and do whatever they say. It’s obviously harmful,” said Farhad Souzanchi, editor of the Farsi-language fact-checking site Fact Nameh

The Islamic alternative medicine industry creates a new class of religious “experts” within Iran, who claim miraculous results by prescribing unscientific treatments. The ideology they promote is upheld by some within religious factions of the regime. 

Iran has a history of traditional medicine that stretches back thousands of years. Some traditional remedies have been shown to be effective. For instance, modern clinical research suggests that saffron, a highly prized spice, may have mood-boosting properties that could be effective in helping people with mild to moderate depression.

In Iran, experts make a distinction between legitimate research into time-honored practices and the endorsement of pseudoscience that relies upon interpretations of Islamic scripture, obsolete medical theories, and the whims of contemporary religious figures. 

In recent decades, the revival of traditional Iranian medicine has been a top priority for the government, which has provided funding for universities to research age-old treatments. “The interest is political,” said Kiarash Aramesh, Director of the Bioethics Institute at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. He explained that promoting Iranian traditional medicine will in turn “promote Iranian identity and the notion of self-reliance.” 

Traditional remedies are a source of national pride in many countries. In China, Xi Jinping is leading a similar drive to leverage traditional Chinese medicine to his advantage, believing it to be an effective soft power tool for the Communist party. Beijing is now proposing a ban on all criticism of such treatments, in order to stop scientists questioning their legitimacy.

Homayoun Kheyri, an Iranian-Australian biologist and journalist based in London,  believes there is a big difference between the use of complementary herbal remedies for common complaints, and religious figures advocating that unproven treatments be used as replacements for science-backed medicines during a pandemic. 

“You grow up with these kinds of traditions and you believe they work,” he said. “But you can’t sell it by ideology, whether Islamic or communist, or imperialist, or whatever.”

Still, scientists in Iran can be hesitant to push back against the clerical endorsement of such treatments. “It’s very dangerous to question Islamic texts — it’s risky. But whenever they get the chance, the scientific community object,” said Souzanchi. 

Last year, three doctors were reportedly sentenced to 60 lashes each after they criticized Tabrizian’s burning of the medical manual. But there was also disagreement among clerics: Grand Ayatollah Ja’far Sobhani stated that “insulting medical learning is against the spirit of Islam.” 

Iran has experienced a steady rejection of established science during the pandemic. In January, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned the importation of vaccines from the U.S. and U.K., branding them “untrustworthy” and saying that it was “not unlikely they would want to contaminate other nations.” 

The Iranian regime may condone public advocacy of unproven treatments because it has few alternatives. Crippling sanctions mean that the country has struggled for years to get hold of essential medicines. During the coronavirus crisis, human rights groups said those same measures have impeded its ability to import medical equipment and vaccines. 

As a result, Iran’s black market for medical supplies is flourishing, and religious figures have been busily promoting alternative Covid-19 treatments. In March 2020, one cleric visited a ward full of coronavirus patients in northern Iran, swabbing what he called “perfume of the Prophet” beneath their noses. Even fewer resources are needed for the practice of so-called “energy healing,” which relies on “the invigorating power” of healing hands. 

“Iran is in a corner with no access to anything,” said Kheyri, the bioiogist in London. “If someone can say, ‘OK, well, we can provide energy without any medicine’ – people will try it.” 

In June 2020, Iran’s ministry of health announced that all students in medicine, dentistry and pharmacology should take Islamic or traditional medicine modules. 26 Iranian MPs have also presented a plan to create an official “Islamic-Iranian medicine organization,” overseen by the health ministry, that would give licenses to sellers prescribing alternative remedies. Last week, the head of Iran’s medical council, the country’s main doctors association, said that such plans were “playing with the nation’s reputation,” and would “undoubtedly cause disillusionment towards both Islam and Iran in scientific and international forums.”