Magic may be defined as the seeming control of natural forces or events by ritual invocation of supernatural beings. It includes the belief that men can coerce nature by the use of certain rites, formulas and actions. In Arabic the term sihr (magic) is defined as whatever is caused by hidden or subtle forces. For example, the Prophet () was reported to have said,
“Verily, some forms of speech are magic (sihr).”
The speeches of an eloquent, charismatic speaker who makes right seem wrong and vice-versa, fall into this category. Thus, the Prophet () referred to some aspects of speech as being magical. The pre-dawn meal taken before fasting is called sahoor or suhoor because its time is in the darkness at the end of the night. The magician is called saahir and the one spellbound mas-hoor.
In addition to the above-mentioned terms, a bewitched person is described as matboob from the verb tubba meaning to become bewitched. A magician is termed mu‘azzim, and a spell is called ‘azeemah.
According to Islâmic law, magic has been defined as “a contact or incantation, spoken or written, or something done which will affect the body, heart or mind of the one bewitched without actually coming in contact with him.” It has also been defined as “the occurrence of extraordinary (khaariq) events when something prohibited in the divine law (shar‘) is said or done. Allaah, Most Glorious, has permitted this occurrence to take place spontaneously whenever such acts are said or done.”
Orthodox Islaam rejects the effects of charms and amulets with regards to the prevention of misfortune and the attraction of good fortune. However, most Sunnee recognize that there are other aspects of magic which are real and that they are not all cases of illusion. Al Qaraafee stated, “Magic is real. The bewitched person could die or his nature and habits could change even if it (i.e., the magic) did not touch him. This was the position of ash-Shaafi‘ee and Ibn Hanbal. The Hanafees held that if smoke or something similar reached the person’s body (i.e., magic) could have an effect, otherwise it could not. The Qadarees held that there was no reality to magic.”
Evidence for the Reality of Magic
The majority of Muslim scholars hold that magic is real because of its prohibitions in the Qur’aan and Sunnah. There are severe warnings for those who practice it and a practitioner can be punished, accordingly, in this life as well as the next. Allaah has also revealed how to seek refuge from magic. According to these scholars, it is illogical for Islâmic law and the revealed texts to treat something (e.g., magic) is such a serious and severe manner if it is unreal. There is specific evidence used by the orthodox majority to prove that there is such a thing as magic.
The first proof is the following Qur’ânic verse:
“…But it was the devils who disbelieved by teaching the people magic and what was revealed to the two angels, Haaroot and Maaroot, in Babylon. However, the two would not teach anyone anything until after they had warned them, saying, ‘Surely, we are only a test and a trial, so do not disbelieve.’ But the people went ahead and learned from the two of them what would cause the separation of a man from his wife. However, they could not harm anyone except by Allaah’s permission. They learned what would harm their own souls and not benefit them.”
If there is no reality to magic, what were the devils teaching and what were the people learning? The fact that the magician is referred to in the verse as being able to separate a man from his wife and to harm people [by Allaah’s permission] is sufficient evidence that magic is real.
Another Qur’ânic verse states as evidence:
“And [I seek refuge] from the evil of the witches who blow on knots.”
Blowing on knotted material was a means by which spells were cast. The Qur’ânic command to seek refuge from this act indicates that there is a reality to magic.
Also, al-Qaraafee used as proof the consensus (ijmaa‘) of Muslim scholars. He mentioned that since differences of opinion about the reality of magic occurred after the consensus of the Prophet’s companions, these later-day differences were of no consequence. In regard to the Mu‘tazilee opinion that all magic is deception, Ibn al-Qayyim said, “This [opinion] contradicts the numerous accounts related from the sahaabah and the early scholars, the agreement of scholars of jurisprudence, the scholars of Qur’ânic exegesis and hadeeth, and that which is known practically to scholars of law in general.”
Support for the reality of magic is also found in the hadeeths describing the time when the Prophet Muhammad () was bewitched. In various authentic narrations it is related that a Jew, Labeeb ibn A’sam, cast a spell upon the Prophet (). The Qur’ânic exegete, al-Qurtubee, referred to the statement made by the Prophet after the breaking of the spell:
“Allaah cured me,”
as indicating that magic is real, because cure only follows an actual sickness or disease.
In addition, the following Qur’ânic verses indicate that magic is real:
“They bewitched the people’s eyes…”
“Their magic caused it to appear to him that they were crawling.”
Ibn al-Qayyim stated with regard to these two verses:
If it is possible for the magicians to bewitch all the people’s eyes, in spite of their large numbers, to such a degree that they all saw something in a way different from what it actually was – which is a change in their senses – then what prevents its (i.e., magic’s) effect from changing some of the nonessential characteristics (a‘raad) of humans [like] their abilities and their temperament? And what is the difference between changing what is actually seen and changing the reality of some other characteristic of the body and soul?…For if the senses are changed to the degree that they perceive the stationary as moving, the connected as disconnected, and the dead as living, what, then, prevents the actual changing of characteristics whereby that which is loved becomes hated and the hated becomes loved, etc.?
Scholars also use the occurrence of magic as evidence for its being real. Ibn al-Qayyim stated, “Magic exists, for its effect cause illness to the dimwitted and the intelligent, love and hate, and even bleeding. It is known to the masses, and many know it from personal experience.” Ibn Qudaamah added, “So much information about magicians has been narrated that it is virtually impossible for all those who narrated them to conspire to convey such a lie.”
Evidence Against the Reality of Magic
There were a few early scholars and a number of more recent scholars who considered magic to be merely an illusion created by tricks. They consider that any effect it might have on humans was purely psychological. Among the early scholars who denied magic’s reality was al-Jassaas. He defined magic in its linguistic meaning according to Islâmic law, saying, “The philologists mention that its (i.e., magic’s) basic linguistic meaning includes everything whose cause is hidden – anything which is imagined to be other that it is in reality and anything which occurs by tricks and deception.” Ibn Hazm and Fakhruddeen ar-Raazee were among the later scholars who accepted Jassaas’ view. Ar-Raazee quoted al-Jassaas’ definitions and arguments verbatim in his exegesis of the Qur’aan, and after mentioning the eight different types of magic, he said, “The Mu‘tazilees unanimously reject all of these types [of magic] except the types caused by deception, and by sowing dissension and slander.” Among the more recent Muslim scholars, Sayyid Qutb echoed this view, stating “Magic is deception of the senses and the nerves, and it is a suggestion to the mind and feelings. It neither changes the reality of things nor does it create any new realities for them. Rather, the senses and feelings imagine whatever the magician wishes.”
Following is some of the evidence brought by those who believed that magic is only deception. Concerning the Qur’ânic verses 7:116 and 20:66, al-Jassaas stated, “Whenever it (i.e., the word magic) is used unrestrictedly (mutlaq) it refers to something false – having no reality or stability. Almighty Allaah said, ‘They bewitched (saharoo) the people’s eyes.’ They deluded them into thinking that their ropes and staffs were crawling. And [Allaah also] said, ‘Their magic caused it to appear (yukhayyalu) to him that they were crawling.’ He informed us that that which they thought was crawling was actually not. It was only an illusion.”
Al-Jassaas logically argued:
If the magician and charmer (mu‘azzim) were actually able to cause benefit and harm in the way they claim – to fly, to know the unseen and information about [what is going on in] distant lands, to steal thing [without being seen], and to harm people in other ways – it would be possible for them to seize property, extract treasures from the earth, and conquer countries by killing the rulers without any harm befalling them. They would be able to prevent anyone from hurting them, and they would have no need to seek the common people’s wealth. If this is not the case, they will [appear to] be in the worst condition, having the greatest desire and fanciest tricks to take people’s money, and they would be the most obviously poor and impoverished. Thus, [since the latter is the case], you can be certain that they are unable to do any of that [which they claim].
Some of these scholars also logically argued that if magicians were actually able to do as they claim, their magic would become indistinguishable from the miracles of the prophets. Al-Jassaas said, “It is amazing to see those who combine belief in the prophets (may peace be upon them) and their miracles with belief in similar acts by magicians when the Almighty has said: “The magician will never be successful, no matter what amount of skill he may attain.” Belief in them [is belief in] those whom Allaah has declared liars, and [He has] informed [us] that their claims are false.”
Many of those who denied the reality of magic claimed that the traditions about Prophet Muhammad () being bewitched were false. Al-Jassaas said, “Such traditions are among the disbelievers’ fabrications in order to play, by interpolation, with [the minds of] common people and to drag them into falsifying the miracles of the prophets (peace be upon them).” Others held that the assertion of a spell being placed upon the Prophet () contradicted the Qur’aan. Fakhruddeen ar-Raazee quoted the argument, the disbelievers would not deserve the rebuke in the Almighty’s statement: ‘And the wrongdoers say, “You are only following a bewitched man.” ’ ” Yet others declared the traditions false on the basis that they all had chains of narration with individual reports (khabar aahaad) which they (i.e., those who denied the reality of magic) argued cannot be used as a basis for establishing articles of faith.
Analysis of the Arguments
The evidence used by the majority of scholars is more substantial, because it not only utilizes the Qur’aan, logic and human experience, but it also finds support from the Sunnah and the consensus of early scholars. The minority, who are mainly from the Mu‘tazilees (so-called rationalist school of thought), follow their usual pattern of preferring human reason over revelation. Consequently, there evidence is only from three sources: the Qur’aan, logic and human experience. Their denial of the evidence from the traditions is not based upon criticism according to the science of hadeeth, but upon their own logic. There is an established principle in the science of jurisprudence (usool al-fiqh) to favor the view supported by a preponderance of evidence. It is therefore apparent that the view of the majority is the correct Islâmic view.[B][U]