Witchcraft Term Paper
Ancient History of Witchcraft (Sihr) in the GCC (Arabian Gulf)
Magic and sorcery originated in the Middle East. Countries like Dilmun (present-day Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar) and Magan (present-day United Arab Emirates, Iran, Pakistan, and Oman) have a long history of commerce dating back to the prehistoric periods. The countires shared common political, social, and ideological developments; more importantly, they adapted to the Babylonian Cuneiform script across the region. With it, there emerged a connected writing culture that was profoundly shaped by the cultures of Babylon and was linked to the cultural cohesiveness of the ancient Middle East (Taggar-Cohen, 2011). Akkadian and Sumerian magical scripts were housed in the royal tablet collections, including the Hittite ritual texts that arose from different Syrian and Anatolian traditions. Thus, many people believed in magic in the ancient Middle East.
Until around the 13th century, exorcists and physicians from Syria, Babylonia, and Egypt were common spiritual practitoners (Schwemer, n.d.). Specifically, those who practiced witchraft during this time were referred to as masmassu or asipu, which could be translated to exorcists. Clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform scripts were the primary sources of information on witchcraft in the ancient near eastern regions. These tablets were part of the correspondence between rulers and their officials and provide insight into the conflicts and quarrels involving witchcraft. Lexical texts were also used to deliver information about witchcraft and magic in the ancient middle and near eastern regions (Jeffers, 2008). Akkadian and Sumerian rituals and incantation texts were linked to southern Babylonia and Syria and northern Iraq. Thus, the occult was quite common in ancient times.
Babylonians considered witchcraft as an ancient tradition that was intoduced by Enki-Ea, the god of exorcism and wisdom. Witchcraft among the Assyrian and the Babylonians was used to protect the people, their houses, and the walls and entrances of their kings’ palaces (Ornan, 2004). Exorcists used drums, gongs, and weapons to remove devils. Guard dogs were also brought in groups of five on every side of the doorway. These dogs had names such as, “The Bitter of His Foe” “Do Not Think, Bite!” and “Loud Is His Bark” (Schwemer, n.d.). Some of the witchcraft activities included pairs of lions guarding the entrances; fish swimming while purifying water; and Lulal, the warrior god, raising an arm to remove evil spirits (Young, 2016). All of these practices were associated with an exorcist’s copper bell, found in Assyria, known for exorcising demons. The bell featured a pair of turtles and lizards that symbolized the gods of exorcism. The lizards were believed to be an apotropaic that could remove the evil approaching the bell (Schwemer, n.d.). Other than this, people within the Middle East who held different beliefs were considered to be practicing witchcraft (Schwemer, n.d.). Overall, Babylonians and Assyrians thought witchcraft could protect their people from evil spirits.
Moreover, the idea of magic is found in the Quran, from the first revelations in Mecca (Hames & Houari, 1996). Sihr, or magic, is a crime committed by the Sahir (the actor) and mashur (the subject) who undergoes the action. In the Quran, as the prophet Muhammad verbally delivers his first Quranic messages, he is accused of practising the sihr and of being a sahir, or a sorcerer or magician (“Muhammad and the Rise of Islam,” n.d.). Some also believe that Muhammad is mashur (bewitched), and the Islamic tradition provides circumstantial narratives. In addition, an isolated verse in the Quran provides a myth of the origin of sihr. The religious text states that it is not Solomon, but two angels, Harut and Marut, who taught men sihr in Babylon. Specifically, the Quran notes how sihr has the capacity to cause sin: “People learn from the two angels what is needed to sow discord between the man and his wife” (“Symptoms of Sihr of Separation,” n.d.). The Quran also condems the sihr: “Whoever buys it, no room for him in the hereafter.” (“Black Magic (sihr),” 2019). Overall, the Quran considers witchcraft to be an evil practice.
Witchcraft (Sihr) Being Rejected by Islam in the GCC
There is no inventory in Muslim literature detailing the rituals, actions, and words that might belong to the sihr. There seems to be two notions regarding black magic (“Sihr (Magic) of Separation,” n.d.). On one hand is instrumental witchcraft (casting a spell through specific objects), which corresponds to Evans-Pritchard’s notion of sorcery (1972), and magic, using various mediations, such as astrology or talismans. This notion is often rendered in English as “magic,” and the Index Islamicus, the most significant English bibliographic database on Islam, retains the beliefs about magic section but ignores the part regarding witchcraft. On the other hand, Muslim literature considers witchcraft to be “a break or deviation from the usual course of things” (Carvalho, 2016)). Therefore, while the Quran condems sihr, the idea of what practices in magic are bad or good is open for debate.
During the 14th century, Ibn Khaldun made significant progress in the analysis of witchcraft and magic in the Muslim community. Khaldun shows the distinction between sihr and talismans. He states that sihr is a “union of a spirit with a spirit” that “the sorcerer needs no one” to act, and that it “exercises a purely spiritual (psychic) influence, without any instrument of mediation or external recourse” (“Sihr (Magic) of Separation,” n.d.). Khaldun also notes that sihr is an activity of an “innate natural disposition” (“Sihr (Magic) of Separation,” n.d.). The holder of talismans, on the other hand, act according to spiritual intermediaries (stars, numbers, and letters), and his or her actions consists of “the union of a spirit to a body,” in order to work properly. Thus, Khaldun made distinctions between different forms of magic.
Beyond these definitions, Khaldun compares the sorcerer and the maker of talismans with those of prophets and saints who are also endowed with the power to “change the course of things” (Asatrian, 2003, p. 99). He considers the sorcerers to have the miraculous powers of the prophets, whereas the talisman makers and witches are considered to be evil (Abu-Rabia, 2005). Nowhere else, it seems, has Muslim thought been so close to a dualistic view of the world (Wilson, 2010). However, Khaldun notes that the mu’jizat (miracles) are stronger than the sihr because divine assistance is at work among the prophets. Overall, Khaldun further noted differences between good and bad magic.
As far as symmetry, one might wonder if the sorcerer receives the support of satan. Although Khaldun mentions a “demonic force” in the wizard’s work, he does not place it on the same spiritual level as the personification of evil (Johnson, 2019). Instead, Khaldun notes that while Islam associates evil with the devil, they do not consider sihr as originating from the devil. There is a difference between the two: Evil is caused by shayateen (satan), while witchcraft is associated with jinn (Sakat, Masruri, Dakir & Wan Abdullah, 2015). Although Iblis, a Koranic equivalent of the Christian-European satan, is based on the Greek diabolos, he plays a marginal role in Muslim theology and society (Farrer, n.d.). Instead, Islam makes distinctions among different forms of magic.
Furthermore, Khaldun explains that the Sharia law condemns not only witches but also the maker of talismans, who uses astrology and numbers etc (“Astrological Talismans,” n.d.). Khaldun further notes that the wizard is “the man of the bad causes,” but contradicts himself when he says that talismans can often be socially beneficial (Michot, 2009). Khaldun, therefore, does not present a clear definition of the differences between good and evil magic.
The religious or social condemnation of witchcraft has historically resulted in Muslim jurists who sentence sorcerers to death (Durrant, Bailey, & Bailey, 2013). Nevertheless, this debate between religious condemnation and criminal conviction or between a social condemnation and a law of retaliation remains contentious (Doutte, 1984). Overall, the use of punishment for witchcraft seems to be ambiguous.
Recent News Stories on Witchcraft (Sihr) in the GCC (Arabian Gulf)
Witchcraft is common in the Arabian Gulf. Numerous news reports have noted how people suspected of practicing witchcraft continue to receive capital punishment (Lee, 2018). Sorcery in the Middle East is considered to be wearing certain amulets, sacrifcing animals, worshiping shrines, performing exorcisms, consulting fortune-tellers and spiritual healers, and peforming rituals and customs that provide protection from demons, jinn, and the evil eye (Hays, 2019). Many people continue to believe that this type of sorcery will result in curses, hauntings, illnesses, poverty, and daily misfortunes. Conversly, these practices are believed to bring good fortunes and increased social status (Alhumami, 2012). Sorcery is always in the form of reading cards, coffee grounds, and pals and dice. Thus, people in the Middle East seem to agree upon what they consider to be magic.
People in this region also seek sorcerers to remove evil spirits, for advice on social problems, and to predict the future. In Afghanistan, for instance, such people are found in small shops or outside shrines and mosques. Many of their clients are the elderly or women who seek guidance on how to protect their families. In Iran, people seek magic in the form of fortune telling to search for security and happiness (Arakelova & Asatrian, 2009). In Pakistan, the belief in astrology is common, and it is featured in some of the television shows. While these practices are clarified as sorcery, some, such as fortune telling, is not and cannot be punished as sorcery or witchcraft (Perlmutter, 2013).
Unlike black magic, which is considered to bring misfortunes and is punishable under Sharia law, fortune telling is likely viewed as the use of magic to acquire unseen knowledge. Such kind of business is common in areas like Saudi Arabia where fortune tellers are earning money from magic spells, bad souls, effects of jinn, and other demands by local customers. Customers who want to remove spells have to purchase such products. These makeup items and food often carry stickers to show that they are blessed with spells. The work of the reciter, in this case, is to blow some breaths into the bottles and then remove the magic spell that is viewed as evil. While these reciters occasionally do not have shops, they have constantly relied on social media to popularize their services mainly through Whatsapp, Instagram, and Facebook. The move to use social media has been popularized by the fact that perfume shops are not allowed to sell such services. Despite the warnings from the Saudi Food and Drug Authority (SFDA) on the sale of such services, shop owners have consistently offered services pertaining to panic attacks, depression, and obsession openly in these shops (“Black Magic Victim?” 2016). Thus, fortune telling and magical remedies remain popular.
In sum, sihr in the Arabian Gulf helps people understand the gulf culture, history, and stories. Sihr in several Arabian countries is in the form of fortune telling, where people seek the help of fortune tellers to live better lives without misfortunes. However, due to their laws on sorcery, practicing black magic or witchcraft is strictly prohibited, and anyone found engaging in it is liable to capital punishment, which includes death. Nonetheless, various countries have laws concerning sorcery and witchcraft and what to practice and what not to practice.
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