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Magic and Sorcery

By:
Kazuo Ohtsuka
Source:
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

Magic and Sorcery

According to Henri Hubert and Marcel Mauss (“Esquisse d’une théorie générale de la magie,” in Mauss's Sociologie et anthropologie, 1950), magic must be distinguished from religion. While religious rites and prayers are conducted by special clergies for the sake of the community, magic is usually practiced privately for individual purposes. Indeed, the practice of magic has tended to be regarded as an antisocial, malevolent activity, and magicians, wizards, witches, and sorcerers have often been accused of being followers of the devil, punished, and executed—though there have usually been other political, economic, and historical reasons for these persecutions.

A similarly negative attitude toward magic exists in various Muslim societies. Educated people in particular, whether traditionalists or modernists, have been apt to look down on magical practices as mere superstitions of the ignorant and to criticize them as bidʿah or heretical innovation. However, there remain various types of magical practices among Muslim communities, some of them apparent survivals of pre-Islamic belief and practice, and they have in fact played a significant role in popular Islam.

Classification.

In his detailed ethnography of the Egyptian people in the early decades of the nineteenth century (An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Modern Egyptians, 1836), based mainly on the people of Cairo, Edward W. Lane observed that intellectual Muslims in those days distinguished two kinds of magical practices. The first, called al-rūḥānī or spiritual magic, depended on the mysterious supernatural power possessed by spiritual agents such as angels, jinns, and certain names of God. Al-rūḥānī was considered to be true magic and was subdivided into “high” or divine magic and “low” or satanic magic. High magic, which depended on the mysterious power of God, angels, and other good spiritual agents, was always practiced for a good purpose, such as using a charm to avert misfortunes. Low magic, on the other hand, was said to be used for sinister purposes through the agency of the devil or evil spirits. Its practitioner was called sāḥir, a sorcerer. This division roughly corresponded to that between white and black magic.

Second, there was al-sīmiyā or natural magic, in which natural materials like certain perfumes and drugs were used rather than supernatural agents. Lane also discussed astrology, geomancy, and alchemy, which at that time were popular and widely studied by many Egyptians. These “sciences” were generally regarded as being different from magic. There was also a wide range of folk practices that were not based on the forms of magic or the “sciences” mentioned above. These were called “distaff” science or wisdom (ʿilm al-rukkah) and were practiced predominantly by women.

Magicians and Amulets.

Magic is mostly practiced by experts who are believed in some way to acquire special knowledge and techniques for controlling supernatural agencies, which they use in response to requests from their clients. As Winifred S. Blackman described in her ethnography The Fellahīn of Upper Egypt (1927), there was at least one magician living in every village of Upper Egypt in the early decades of the twentieth century. Formally they were respected as possessors of esoteric knowledge who could contribute to the villagers’ welfare. In some contexts, however, they were greatly feared as sinister sorcerers who could use the same power for the opposite purpose of destroying people's fortunes. There is evidence that the magician generally plays a morally ambiguous role in various parts of the Muslim world.

In Upper Egypt these magicians have usually been called shaykh if male, or shaykhah if female. A Sudanese magician is generally called a faqī, a local term supposed to be derived from a combination of two Arabic words, faqīr (a mystic or Ṣūfī) and faqīh (a jurist or one of the ʿulamāʿ). Not only teachers in the Qurʿānic schools but also leaders of Ṣūfī orders (ṭarīqah) could be called faqī. Some of them provide clients with magical medicine or amulets that contain mainly excerpts from the holy scriptures, and they thus play the role of magician in their communities. (There are also magical specialists without any relationship to ʿulamāʿ or to Ṣūfī orders.) One faqī who is also the head of the Qādirīyah Ṣūfī order in a town in northern Sudan writes excerpts from the Qurʿān on small pieces of paper after the collective prayers on Friday, in compliance with clients’ requests. After returning home, the clients may burn them in order to rub their bodies with the smoke or soak them in water to dissolve the ink, which is then drunk. These magical papers are also used as the principal elements in amulets. Similar forms of magical practice are found in many Muslim societies, though with subtle differences. For example, a magician may write a passage from scripture on the inner surface of an earthen bowl in ink, pour water in it, and stir it to dissolve the writing. The client is then asked to drink the liquid as a cure for illness.

Certain passages from the Qurʿān are frequently used in magical practice. They include passages such as sūrahs1, 112, 113, and 114, and single verses such as sūrah12:64 or sūrah61:11 for an amulet, and sūrah9:14 or sūrah10:58 for a cure. The ninety-nine epithets of God, the ninety-nine names of the Prophet, and the names of the “companions of the cave” (Aṣḥāb al-Kahf) as well as copies of the Qurʿān itself (muṣḥaf) are believed to have supernatural power that can be effective in a variety of magical practices.

Besides these holy scriptures and writings, some objects are believed to have supernatural power and can be used as effective amulets. Among them are water from the Zamzam Well in Mecca and pieces of the cloth cover of the Kaʿbah (kiswah). Relics of Muslim saints are treated as sacred in the same way.

Sorcery.

Many Muslims believe in the existence of black magic or sorcery in their own societies. Blackman, in the account cited above, mentions a case in which a man who wanted to divorce his wife asked a magician to make her hate him, and another in which a magician, at a client's request, used magic to kill one of the client's enemies. She cites a story that in one village a marriage notary who fell in love with the beautiful wife of a villager asked a magician to write a charm to drive her husband insane. It is noteworthy that in these magical practices, the name of the victim's mother must be referred to in the charm and incantation, not that of the victim's father; this is inconsistent with the usual emphasis on patrilineality in Arab societies.

According to Edward Westermarck, sorcerers in Morocco called saḥḥār (male) or saḥḥārah (female) practiced magic related to sex, for instance to make a man impotent or to protect the virtue of an unmarried girl. This type of magic was named thaqāf.

Cursing and the Evil Eye.

Folk belief in the evil eye can be distinguished from ordinary magic and sorcery and is widespread in Middle Eastern societies. The evil eye, which is called ḥasad (envy) or ʿayn (eye) in Arabic and chashm-i shūr (salty eye) in Persian, is a folk belief that some persons can glance or stare at someone else's favorite possession and, if they are envious of the latter's good fortune, can hurt, damage, or destroy it. Although some people, especially the educated, tend to disdain this belief as mere superstition, others insist that the evil eye really exists because of a reference to it in sūrah113:5 of the Qurʿān. There are a number of ways to defend oneself against the evil eye. One of the best ways to avert the misfortunes it can cause is to use the holy scriptures and other forms of writing mentioned above. Since the hand is believed to be effective in warding off its attacks, hand-shaped amulets made of metal or plastic are popular forms of protection. It is said that a boy is much more vulnerable to attack than a girl, and some parents may disguise a boy in girl's clothes or call him by a name other than his real one to protect him.

Although the evil eye attacks its target secretly, people can put a curse on their enemies openly by speaking. A person may curse another by invoking the names of a supernatural being, either God or a saint. Unlike an ordinary curse that resembles sorcery in its function, curses that use the names of God or saints are generally considered as punitive attacks on sinners rather than malevolent attacks on the innocent. In Morocco, people can put a conditional curse called ʿār on others in order to compel them to comply with requests. Even though the ʿulamāʿ often criticize ʿār as non-Islamic, among the Moroccans, it appears that one can cast an ʿār on the Prophet or the saints, or even on God.

See also BIDʿAH; FAQīH; and POPULAR RELIGION.

Bibliography

  • Ibrahim, Hayder. The Shaiqiya: The Cultural and Social Change of a Northern Sudanese Riverain People. Wiesbaden, Germany, 1979. Ethnography of an ethnic group of northern Sudan that includes information about the Sudanese faqī, jinn (spirit), and the evil eye in villages.
  • Savage-Smith, Emilie, ed.Magic and Divination in Early Islam. Aldershot, U.K., and Burlington, Vt., 2004.
  • Westermarck, Edward. Ritual and Belief in Morocco. 2 vols.London, 1926. Reprint, New Hyde Park, N.Y., 1968. Encyclopedic study of Moroccan folk beliefs and rituals based on the author's field research at the turn of the century, from which we can obtain valuable information about magic, sorcery, the evil eye, and ʿār.
  • Winstedt, Richard. The Malay Magician: Being Shaman, Saiva, and Sufi. Rev. and enl. ed.Singapore, 1982. Account of magical practices in a Muslim country of Southeast Asia, a region not covered in this article.
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