A holy mark or normal callus? Baxter Jackson uncovers the mystery of the third eye of Islam.

Photo: Zaninni H

MY DAD WAS THE FIRST in the family to see it.

Fresh off a hitch on an Egyptian oilrig, he had a house full of friends and family to entertain with tales from abroad.

Much to the delight of his guests (but to my horror) his story about the third eye of Islam culminated with his finger tapping against the middle of my forehead, as he asked pointedly, “How’d you get that mark right there, Mohammed? Huh? Huh?”

Shrugging his shoulders and slapping his forehead to answer his own question, he busted out laughing. Guests followed suit.

Personally, I didn’t get it until years later when I came face to face with it on the Cairo metro.

Meeting The Eye

As the train chugged along the tracks, I felt like something was watching me. Turning my head slowly to the right, there it was – smack dab in the middle of a good believer’s forehead: the third eye of Islam.

In the Middle East, this epidermal phenomenon is commonly known by its Arabic name zabeeba, which means raisin.

My dad’s anecdote popped into my head then – and now every time I see one (which is often), I think of him.

While my father’s theory had been entertaining, I knew there was probably some kind of alternate explanation for this strange mark I was seeing between everyone’s eyes. To get to the bottom of this, I decided to talk to a specialist.

According to Dr. Sameh Attia, Professor of Dermatology at Mina University in Cairo and noted researcher on “Moslem prayer nodules,” the mark was nothing more than a callus in a seemingly incongruous place, the forehead.

In the Middle East, this epidermal phenomenon is commonly known by its Arabic name zabeeba, which means raisin. As it turns out, it was neither the finger jabbing nor the palm slapping that caused the mark as my dad had hypothesized, but one of the five pillars of Islam itself.

Worship Meets Reality

The doctor explained that praying and prostrating oneself towards Mecca five times a day (as stipulated in salat, the second pillar of Islam) means putting repeated pressure and friction on the forehead when it meets the carpet.

Photo: T Bet

As the full weight of the body is placed entirely on the forehead during the 34 daily prostrations (part of the five daily prayer sessions) the mark naturally begins to appear over a period of years (with four years generally the minimum amount of time required).

Dermatologist Sameh Attia agreed with this summation of the situation: 5 doses a day of religious inculcation + years of Islamic prostration = epidermal accumulation. As a medical specialist, however, he preferred to call it by its clinical name, hyperkeratosis.

The process of hyperkeratosis or calvus (as it’s also known) is accelerated through the exposure to secondary fungal and bacterial infections found where calluses normally preside – on bare feet.

A Mark Of Distinction

As worship is a communal experience and ritual cleansing of the extremities with just water are a part of that process, it does not remove all fungus and bacteria from the feet.

When the forehead meets the floor, the pressure and friction “plow the field” so to speak, and there among the corns of the guy’s feet in front of you, the seed of a zabeeba is sown.

A callus sown on a Muslim man’s head is like a key to the heavenly palace; it is brought about by the notion of social devotion and awarded with communal deference and general reverence.

It is, as Dr. Attia pointed out in his article Muslim Prayer Nodules, “a badge of distinction.” Some say that even the Prophet Mohamed, peace be upon him, had a zabeeba.

Small wonder it’s purported that some fake it till they make it.

For just as some falsely modest women can wear the veil, so can some less piously inclined men fake their zabeebas. So if the third eye you spied on the metro appears to be moving with each passing day, something besides piety may be a foot.

After all, with just a little sandpaper and soot, the payoff can be huge.