CAIRO (Christian Examiner) – More than one time during the Rio Olympics, champion swimmer Michael Phelps was photographed diving into the pool with large purple spots across his back and shoulders – evidence of the ancient Chinese medicinal technique called "cupping."
However, fundamentalist followers of Islam in the Middle East are claiming that Phelps's obsession with the treatment is indication – oddly enough – that he has accepted Islam and the "Prophet's medicine," according the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), which monitors Arab-language news and social media networks.
In the technique, which is supposed to relieve muscle soreness and stiffness, much like ancient bloodletting or leeching, small jars are heated with a wick and then the cup is affixed to the skin, creating a vacuum that pulls the skin and the capillaries up to improve blood flow. There is no scientific evidence that the treatment works and it can lead to severe injuries because large bruises form where capillaries burst. If the cups are left on too long, the skin and underlying soft tissue can die.
But to Salafists – fundamentalists Muslims who believe in restoring Islam to its former glory under the first three successors to Muhammad – cupping (or hijama) confirms the Quran to be true. One Arab-language website included some of Muhammad's sayings praising cupping and said the new interest in the science of cupping "proves [the sayings of Muhammad] accurate every day."
Another website said cupping is "a practice known in Islamic societies for centuries" with roots in medicinal remedies offered by Muhammad, MEMRI reported.
Muslims also teach that even angels use the technique and they believe that certain days of the month are ideal for achieving the best result.
Salafist praise for cupping, however, has drawn the ire of a columnist in the Egyptian daily Al-Watan. Khaled Montasser said modern Muslims should reject the practice because, if Muhammad was alive, he would have accepted modern medicine by now.
"This is not 'the Prophet's medicine,' but rather medicine that was practiced during the time of the Prophet. Had he lived today, he would have adopted modern medicine, getting ultrasounds, MRIs, etc. Anyone asking nowadays for treatment by cauterization or bloodletting is like [one] asking for anesthesia by being hit on the head with a hammer. As for those who preach and trade in 'the Prophet's medicine,' which has nothing to do with the Prophet – why don't they implement the Prophet's transportation and ride a she-camel instead of driving a Mercedes?" Montasser wrote.
Worse, Montasser wrote, are those who claim Phelps's use of cupping is somehow a victory for Islam over the West. Many Muslims, "particularly Salafis," saw the swimmer using the technique and believed he "had become convinced of the principles of Islam and had converted to Islam, and that this was proof that Islam is right."
The columnist then said Islam looks particularly weak when Muslims make "ridiculous" claims that Islam is confirmed as victorious by the use of a practice such as cupping. It makes Muslims look ignorant and desperate, he wrote.
"My Salafi brothers, [modern] culture is a package deal, and you are welcome to the whole thing at no charge. But this culture is not a vegetable stand where you can pick and choose. ... We must adopt [modern] means, which are brains and knowledge. ... So I am saddened when I see you [Salafis] begging a swimmer who underwent cupping for acknowledgement of your religion," Montasser said.