Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Politics of Muslim Magic

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Politics of Muslim Magic

Article excerpt

"Saudi Woman Beheaded for Witchcraft" read media headlines around the world on December 13, 2011. News reports described how a 60year-old woman was executed after being convicted of practicing witchcraft on the basis of such evidence as books on witchcraft, veils, and glass bottles full of an "unknown liquid used for sorcery."1 Yet the majority of news accounts implied that the woman was a victim of persecution by the Saudi government; as one of Amnesty International's directors declared: "The charge of sorcery has often been used in Saudi Arabia to punish people, generally after unfair trials, for exercising their right to freedom of speech or religion."2

No Western reporters seemed to consider that the victim was actually practicing witchcraft, or why witchcraft is considered by the desert kingdom a crime punishable by death. In the West, there is a societal need to place this seemingly inexplicable incident in an understandable context such as the violation of human rights rather than examining this Islamic tradition that includes the belief, practice, and prohibition of magic.

In fact, the practice of what can be termed Islamic magic is prevalent throughout the Muslim world, manifested in the theological concept of jinn, inhabiting the entire sphere of the Muslim occult. Furthermore, magical beliefs can constitute an existential and political threat to Islamic religious leaders, provoking severe punishments and strict prohibitions of anypractice not sanctioned by their authority. Conversely, political leaders, including Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari, have employed magical beliefs to advance their political agendas.

ISLAMIC WITCH HUNTS

Belief in witchcraft, sorcery, magic, ghosts, and demons is widespread and pervasive throughout the Muslim world. Magical beliefs are expressed in the wearing of amulets, consulting spiritual healers and fortunetellers, shrine worship, exorcisms, animal sacrifice, and numerous customs and rituals that provide protection from the evil eye, demons, and jinn. Fears associated with these beliefs range from hauntings and curses to illness, poverty, and everyday misfortunes. Supernatural practices that are intended to bring good fortune, health, increased status, honor, and power also abound. Magical beliefs are not relegated to rural or povertystricken areas. On the contrary, they are observable in every segment of society regardless of socioeconomic status.

One of the more popular customs is fortunetelling, which is different from the Western practice, which is usually relegated to the status of a carnival act and specific to predicting the future. Generally, the practice of fortunetelling in the Middle East focuses more on spiritual protection and family counseling than prediction and prophecy. In addition to reading cards, dice, palms, and coffee grounds, activities include selling amulets to ward off evil spirits and providing advice for marital problems. In Afghanistan, fortunetellers operate out of small shops or outside of mosques and shrines across the country but are rarely consulted to portend the future; most often their clients are women or the elderly seeking guidance for problems affecting their families. In Iran, fortunetelling has become increasingly popular, and people of all ages turn to fortunetellers in search of happiness and security.3 In Pakistan, fortunetelling and belief in astrology is so widespread that practitioners appear on morning television shows.4

All magical practices arc denounced as unIslamic by clerics. Although they condemn fortunetelling, the practice is not punished as severely as witchcraft and sorcery. This is likely due to the fact that fortunetelling is viewed as using magic to acquire unseen knowledge while sorcery is viewed as intentionally practicing malevolent or black magic. Recently, in Afghanistan, Gaza, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, stricter laws, arrests, and executions have resulted in efforts to deter magical practices. …

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