The controversy behind sage and how to smudge properly and ethically

Today, I took my friend to a spiritual shop for the first time and we saw sage sitting on the counter, so I started to explain how to use it. The lady behind the till started laughing and she told me that the moment the shop re-opened after lockdown, people were running in for sage. I love sage because it’s something that is prominent in my Palestinian culture, but I’ve been reading a lot of content written by Native Americans on cultural appropriation and the inflation of sage.

Sage is a very healing herb. In Arabic, we call it meramiya (مرامية) has a root in Virgin Mary’s Arabic name – Mariyam.

According to Palestinian folklore. In my culture, we drink it with the belief that it will cure anything. Funnily enough, a whole campaign had to be orchestrated at the start of coronavirus because many believed that all you need to cure the deadly disease was a few glasses of sage or camomile tea (or both, as my grandma used to make whenever I got sick). We don’t drink white sage, the sage we drink is called common sage in English.

In my culture, we also smudge. But instead of smudging sage, we use scented wood chips (bukhoor and oud). In the Gulf, my dad grew up on using incense sticks and would often find them in Mosques. I didn’t know this until I saw him buy some recently and he told me this! These traditions have been with us for thousands of years, but I’ve heard a lot of Islamic controversy on it with people thinking bukhoor (smudging) is bida’h (an innovation that deviates Islam) or shirk (to associate anything with God and the only sin to take you out of the fold of Islam).

I personally don’t understand why this is shirk because in order to associate anything with God or to declare polytheism, you need to intentionally do so. Also, bukhoor is something the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) used to use bukhoor for healing purposes and because it smells amazing. In fact, here’s a hadith by the Prophet himself:

Hadhrat Umm Qais Bint Mihsan narrates that “I heard the Prophet (sallallahu aleihi wa sallam) saying, “Treat with the Indian incense, for it has healing for seven diseases; it is to be sniffed by one having throat trouble, and to be put into one side of the mouth of one suffering from pleurisy.” (Saheeh al-Bukhari, Hadith # 5368, Kitab al-Tibb)

I did not know all of this when I looked into sage. I didn’t even make the connection between Native American spiritual healing and Palestinian physical healing of the herb! To me, I just read about it “clearing your space” and was initially taken aback. And then I found out that sage actually clears out up to 94% of bacteria in the air, improves your mood and helps to relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety through aromatherapy, kills off lingering scents from cooking without chemical air fresheners, releases negative ions in the air which neutralise the positive ions and so forth.

So on a somewhat scientific basis, I tried it out and loved it. From an Islamic perspective, it didn’t seem any difference to using bukhoor. Until I started to read about it the cultural appropriation and environmental element of it. My conclusion on this is that we should be mindful where this spiritual practice originates, but also understand that sage is famous for its healing processes in different parts of the world.

Sustainable sage and alternatives

Contrary to popular belief, sage as a whole is not endangered. White sage is the type of sage that is most commonly used for smudging and it is not yet on the Endangered Species List but conservationists are still concerned about the future survival because of overproduction. So yes, we do need to be careful. If we are going to use sage, we need to be mindful of how we use it, not erase its identity and make sure we do not ruin the environment, the local economy and lives!

This means, don’t buy sage from Urban Outfitters and try to buy from sustainable sources that actually help the economies that plant the sage. It’s also best to come up with alternatives to burning sage.

Some could be:

Oud

Rosemary

Yerba santa

Palo Santo

Sandalwood

Lavender

Pine

If you don’t want to burn anything, you could make sprays out of water essential oils of healing herbs, or use a himalayan salt lamp. Sound healing is one of my favourite ways to uplift the energy in my room as well!

How to smudge

Now, this is where we can differ because really, it’s an intuitive process. But we need to ensure safety so make sure your windows are open and you’re being careful around anything flammable. The sage is not supposed to be on fire, but you’re supposed to light it so that there is smoke coming out of it. Make sure you have something to fan the sage to keep the smoke going so you don’t have to keep lighting the sage. Traditionally, a feather is used (if you use one, make sure it’s responsibly sourced!!!!) but I just use any piece of paper around me.

The way I learned is to sage is to first sage myself before saging the room, objects or other people. This way, you’re energetically clean. It all starts from within, right? I do this through hovering the sage over my head so my crown chakra is cleansed and work down my chakra line, which is from the top of your head down to your pubic bone. I do this at the front and back and then do my arms and legs and I make sure I sage my hands and feet, because those are where you’re absorbing a lot of energy from outside.

If you choose to smudge another person, you repeat the process with the strong intention to heal the other. If you intend to smudge a room, you start by smudging outside the room and the door, then the door from the inside of the room. You do all corners of the room and places you sit/lay on because they absorb energy. It’s very important to sage your bed and inside drawers and cupboards.

You could also just leave the sage to burn in a well ventilated room and let it do its thing! Give thanks and trust it will clean the air, literally.

When you’re done, you can extinguish it with water, or what I do is I just leave it in a jar and close it so it doesn’t react to oxygen anymore and it will naturally extinguish.

I tend to sage once a month, but I’d recommend that you use your intuition. When you feel like you need an energetic pick-me-up, when you absorbed some negative energy from outside, or maybe you just want to sage for the sake of it. As long as you’re being safe, there’s no harm. What I also do is I mix up my energy cleaning. I use my salt lamp before I sleep so I can relax better. I also play my singing bowl when I feel like it, put on some Qur’an, or listen to healing sounds. If it makes you feel good, it’s valid!

I remember when we were younger and my dad used to smudge us with bukhoor, he used to smudge over his head and recite Qur’an and allow the bukhoor to travel. Then he used to smudge us the same way, reciting protective verses and chapters of the Qur’an.

PS: I am not an Islamic scholar so don’t take anything I say as an authoritative opinion

Love you all!

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