The first words Imad Elawar ever uttered when he was not yet two years old were ‘Jamileh’ and ‘Mahmoud’. In itself nothing unusual, except that this Lebanese child later claimed that these were the names of people he had known in a previous life. For his family this was the start of a time of confusion, for little Imad talked constantly about his ‘previous life’.
He mentioned names of people, spoke about possessions which had been his, said his family name used to be ‘Bouhamzy’, and that he had lived in Khriby (even before he could pronounce the name properly he spoke of ‘Thliby’), another village in Lebanon not all that far from Kornayel, the village where he now lived.
He regularly begged his parents to take him to visit Khriby, but they did not respond. It was not so much that they were not open to the possibility that Imad’s claim to remember a previous life might be genuine – after all, they were Druzes, a religious community for whom the concept of reincarnation is an accepted part of their religious dogma. But even then it can be rather annoying when a child is constantly ‘going on’ about what he thinks is his previous family, and even more so when the comparison between the two is made to the present family’s detriment.
For instance, Imad was wont to rhapsodize over the beauty of a “Jamileh”, compared with whom, he implied more than once, his mother could not compare.
You were my neighbour
Whatever the reason, Imad did not get the opportunity to go to Khriby but, one day when a villager from Khriby was visiting Kornayel, the small Imad ran up to him, grasped his knee and said, “You were my neighbour”. That is how matters stood when, in March 1964, Professor Ian Stevenson, an American scientist, visited Kornayel. He was looking for people who appeared to remember past lives and here he came across a rather striking case.
Imad had never visited Khriby. There was also no contact between Imad’s present family and the ‘Bouhamzys’, the family Imad claimed as his in his previous incarnation. Stevenson had the opportunity to hear at first hand from Imad, then five and a half years old, what he could remember and to take him to Khriby to compare the information with the reality. Before they travelled to Khriby, Professor Stevenson noted down 47 claims by Imad, which later proved to be verifiable.
Of those claims, 44 turned out to apply to the life of a certain Ibrahim Bouhamzy, who had died of tuberculosis in 1949 at the age of 25. Only 3 of Imad’s claims could not be corroborated.
To begin with, there was Jamileh, Imad’s childhood dream, about whom he had continued to romance for years – although, at the age of ten, realizing that the subject of his worship had meanwhile grown too old, he announced that Jamileh’s daughter would do for him. This Jamileh had been, it seems, Ibrahim Bouhamzy’s mistress and, according to the people in Khriby who had known her then, she had indeed been exceptionally beautiful. Imad described accurately some of the clothes Jamileh used to wear.
He gave the correct names of Ibrahim’s friends and family; and he mentioned a motor-vehicle accident in which a man broke both legs and later died – something which had indeed occurred to a cousin of Bouhamzy’s shortly before he himself died. Imad went on to say that while he was Ibrahim, one of his friends had been the Lebanese politician Kemal Jumblatt (the friendship had indeed existed and when, in order to test him, he was told that Jumblatt had died, the small boy became extremely upset. The fact that Imad correctly stated that Ibrahim had possessed a double barrelled shotgun and a rifle was less unusual, as weapons are common in Lebanon. What was unusual was the fact that without ever having set foot in the Bouhamzy house he was able to describe exactly, where the (illegal) gun was hidden – something only Ibrahim’s mother knew.
Imad also recalled a story, curious to say the least, that as Ibrahim, he had once bitten a dog. As any journalist will tell you, this is always more interesting news than when a dog bites a man. Ibrahim had actually done that, Professor Stevenson found out from his still living family, when his dog was losing a fight the young man had ‘intervened’. Imad recounted many more accurate instances from Ibrahim’s life: he had owned a small yellow car, a bus and a truck, was fairly well to do, he loved hunting, near his house there were two springs – and so on. Moreover, Professor Stevenson soon discovered that Imad had several predelictions and character traits in common with the deceased Ibrahim, and learned French with marked rapidity, a language which Ibrahim had picked up when in the French army. And, to be sure, the man from Khriby whom the two-year-old Imad had recognized as his former neighbour had indeed been Ibrahim’s neighbour.
Imad’s visit to Khriby, under the observant patronage of Professor Stevenson, produced still more interesting discoveries. Imad had never been there before and had also never met any of the Bouhamzys. Yet this did not prevent him from recognizing various members of the family and calling them by name. Ibrahim’s mother he did not remember (she had changed a great deal) but he did identify his sister by her correct name (Huda). He recognized his brother Faud from a painting, and when shown a snapshot of Ibrahim Bouhamzy and asked who it was, he answered, “That’s me”. Still more amazing is that he was able to remember exactly the last words Ibrahim uttered on his deathbed: “Huda, call Faud”. There were many more detailed facts but this, in a nutshell, is the ‘case’ of Imad Elawar.
This is only one of the hundreds of alleged ‘memories’ of previous lives which Professor Stevenson traced and investigated. Being a cautious scientist he did not quite conclude that reincarnation is a proven fact. He prefers to speak in terms of “cases suggestive of reincarnation”. In the course of his research he discovered that such cases tend to occur particularly in areas where the people are familiar with the concept of reincarnation: Asia, the Lebanon, North-West Canada.
Some people regard this as a weakness in his premise, for they assume that parents familiar with the concept might tend to encourage ordinary childhood fantasies and to blow them up out of all proportion. Stevenson denies this. He discovered that even in communities where reincarnation is a firmly held belief, talking about memories from past lives is very seldom encouraged by parents – in fact it is more often discouraged. Often the form of discouragement used is to wash out the child’s mouth with soap, which soon stops them from bringing up the subject again.
In some areas, particularly in Asia, it is regarded as undesirable to remember a past life. Besides this, parents are enough preoccupied with large families and a harsh life, and do not have the time to spare to pay much attention to the ideas of their children. Nevertheless, familiarity with the concept of reincarnation does see to it that specific statements from children are interpreted in the right context, whilst in other cultures, unfamiliar with the notion of rebirth, such stories have been ignored. As a result, in the Christian West, reincarnation (until recently that is) was not a subject that one spoke about. This has changed, however, and there is much experimentation – often with the aid of drugs and/or hypnosis (regression therapy) – to recall past lives.
The number of spontaneously occurring cases also seems to be increasing, Professor Stevenson says. “It remains true that in relative numbers we have far fewer cases from the United States (apart from Alaska) and Europe than we have from Asia. However, the number of cases reported to me from the United States has increased markedly since 1966 and more reports have also come from Europe”.
In Stevenson’s estimation, in the regions where reincarnation is an accepted fact, about one in every thousand children spontaneously remembers a past life. One of his informants estimated that among the Druzes it is as much as one in five hundred. This does seem to be a clear contradiction of the argument, frequently used to discount the hypothesis of reincarnation, that no one ever seems to remember a past life.
Stevenson’s findings also counter another frequently heard and often justified objection: those few who claim to remember a past life are often very unremarkable people now but always with an impressive history as a king, a princess or a general; Napoleon, Cleopatra and Marie Antoinette seem to be top favourites. There is no question of this in Stevenson’s ‘cases’ for all of them are average people who may have risen a notch in society, or been reborn in lesser circumstances. Here there seems to be no evidence of a commonly felt longing to escape from harsh reality into rose-tinted dreams of previous lives. Yet there are common features to be found among the cases researched by Stevenson and his assistants which seem to strengthen rather than weaken the hypothesis of reincarnation.
One of these is that children usually begin to speak about memories of past lives between the ages of 2 and 4 years. Stevenson: “The child often begins talking about this previous life as soon as he gains ability to speak, and sometimes before his capacity for verbal expression matches his need to communicate so that he mispronounces words that are later better understood or uses gestures to supplement what he cannot yet say clearly with words.” In these cases it is highly unlikely that the adults’ familiarity with reincarnation would encourage the children, who are just beginning to communicate verbally, to come forward with their own fabrications. This makes the credibility of their claims significantly greater. Professor Stevenson states that “In most cases the volume and clarity of the child’s statements increase until at the age of between five and six he usually starts to forget the memories; or, if he does not forget them, he begins to talk less about them.
Spontaneous remarks about the previous life have usually ceased by the time the child has reached the age of eight and often before. “Unexpected behaviour of various kinds”, Stevenson goes on to say, “nearly always accompanies the statements the child makes about the previous life he claims to remember, or occurs contemporaneously with them. This behaviour is unusual for a child of the subject’s family, but concordant with what he says concerning the previous life. “This unusual behaviour may take the form of phobias, such as for guns or bladed weapons, or of philias, such as special interests and appetites for particular foods, motor vehicles, books, and other subjects, as well as attachments to certain persons. The child often also shows ‘adult’ attitudes and behaves with gravity, wisdom, and sometimes patronizing condescension towards other children.
“In many cases, the subject has some birthmarks or congenital deformity that corresponds in location and appearance to a wound (usually fatal) on the body of the related previous personality. This occurs frequently in cases among the Tlingits of Alaska. In some cases the subject suffers from an internal disease that corresponds with one from which the related previous personality suffered but of which other members of his family have been free”, according to Professor Stevenson.
During the course of his extensive research Professor Stevenson did not neglect to investigate the possibility of explanations other than that of ‘reincarnation’. He tried to test other hypotheses too and thoroughly investigated the possibility of fraud, unintended fantasizing, the resurgence of forgotten memories from the present life, extra-sensory perceptions and even of ‘possession’. “Reincarnation should only be considered the best interpretation of any case after the alternative interpretations have been considered and found unsatisfactory”, concluded Professor Stevenson, although he could find no indications in most of the cases he investigated which undermined the hypothesis of reincarnation. But neither was there positive proof, as Professor Stevenson himself said: “Neither any case individually nor all of them collectively offers anything like a proof of reincarnation. My most important single conclusion about them is of the need for further study of similar cases.”
One of the most frequently used arguments in favour of reincarnation is the phenomenon of ‘child prodigies’: their achievements are sometimes too great to be acceptable that they develop out of nothing. Mozart was an outstanding example.
Perhaps an even more amazing story, though less well known, is that of the ‘child prodigy of Lubeck’. At 14 months old he knew all the stories from the New Testament; at the age of 2, he knew the complete histories of Greece and Rome, and aged 3 to 5 years he was able to speak in French, German and Latin on geographic dissertations in which he was interested. On his deathbed, shortly afterwards, he had a skeleton brought to him of which he named all the bones and then said in Latin, “Death adapts itself to all ages”.
The evening before his death he asked what time sunset would be. At the reply “At two-thirty”, he replied, “Well, then it is good”. According to his biographer, he subsequently died at exactly two-thirty with the words, “Lord Jesus, take my soul up to thee”.
The Dutch scientist Professor van Praag, who mentions this case in his book about reincarnation, concludes: “On reading about this short life one gets the feeling that here is a case where information from a previous existence was being drawn upon.”
Authors Details: Peter Liefhebber – Peter Liefhebber is the Dutch chief editor of Share International and a veteran journalist with Holland’s largest daily newspaper.