Magic: Magic in Islam

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Magic in Islam forms part of what are called ʿulūm al-ghayb, "the occult sciences," which include divination, astrology, oneiromancy, and all fields of learning relating to prophecy. Magic (Arab., sir ) is an important branch, like divination and astrology, with which some forms of magic overlap.

Following the very rich literature of magic in Islam, I shall here treat the various categories of sir in three sections: black magic (ʿilm al-sir ), theurgy (ʿilm al-khawā wa-al-alāsim ), and white or natural magic (ʿilm al-iyal wa-al-shaʾwadhah ). The first section will deal with divinatory magic, exorcism of demons, spells and the summoning of spirits into bodily forms. The second section will examine the properties of divine names, numbers and certain spells, sympathetic magic or sorcery, amulets, talismans and potions, charms, and the properties of medicinal plants. The third section will consider the mutual connections between effective and efficient forces, the ability to vanish instantly from sight, and prestidigitation.

Black Magic

From the many Qurʾanic verses relating to magic (sixty-six, of which only three were revealed in Medina), one might conclude that the phenomenon of sir occurs in the revelation only in the form of a condemnation of pagan practices. In certain verses, however, magic appears as a fragment of a celestial knowledge that was given to humans by fallen angels such as Hārūt and Mārūt (sūrah 2:102). These angels revealed to humans secrets "that they ought not to have known" (Apocalypse of Enoch 64:10). Thus, "God decided, in his justice, that all the inhabitants of the world would die [by flood], for they knew all the secrets of the angels, and possessed the hateful power of the demons, the power of magic" (ibid., 64:6). Another group of verses, condemning this almost instinctive quest by humans to penetrate the will of God, connects magic with divination.

Divinatory magic

The boundaries between magic and divination remain blurred. In their classification of the sciences, the Muslim encyclopedists, such as al-Afkānī, Tāshköprüzade, and ājjī Khalīfah, call divination a branch of magic. According to Edmond Doutté, the transition from magic to mantic takes place via a phenomenon of "objectivization of the desire" (Doutté, 1909, p. 352). Whether inductive or intuitive, divination partakes of magic in certain of its techniques. One of the sources of knowledge common to the magician and the seer is demonic inspiration. Furthermore, the Arab seer (kāhin ), and especially the female seer, practiced magic and divination concurrently (see my book La divination arabe, Leiden, 1966, pp. 92ff.), so that in Islamic magical literature, the two run parallel without mingling. Both make use of supernatural means to predict natural elements; both share a practical and nontheoretical character. One searches in vain for a theoretical definition of magic in the Qurʾān or the adīth (prophetic traditions).

Exorcism and spells

If divinatory magic has recourse to secrets revealed by fallen angels, the magic of incantations and spells is meant to compel the jinn and the demons to accomplish a desired end, by pronouncing the formula "'Azamtu ʿalaykum" ("I command you"). The Qurʾān and the adīth say nothing of this, but theological consideration led to the following conclusion, formulated by ājjī Khalīfah:

This thing is possible and lawful, according to reason and the law; whoever denies it is not highly regarded, because he winds up failing to acknowledge the omnipotence of God: to subjugate the spirits, to humble them before him, and to make them subordinate to men, is one of the miracles of [God's] creation. (ājjī Khalīfah, ed. Flügel, 19551958, vol. 4, pp. 205207)

Two kinds of conjuring, however, may be distinguished. One variety consists in directing the mind toward an object other than God, and thus being unfaithful to him. When this unfaithfulness appears as one of the elements making up the magical act through one of the means used to realize it, it becomes forbidden magic. In this case, the magician acts in a manner that is wicked and harmful to others, and, indeed, a controversy arose among medieval jurists concerning the question of knowing "whether they must be killed because of the unbelief which is antecedent to the practice [of sorcery], or because of their corrupting activity and the resulting corruption of created beings" (Ibn Khaldūn, trans. Rosenthal, 1967, vol. 3, p. 159.).

On the other hand, the conjuring of spirits is permissible when it is performed "with perfect piety and the complete absence of all unlawfulness, in solitude and isolation from the world and in surrender to God" (ājjī Khalīfah, op. cit., pp. 205207). This interpretation is basically consistent with the demonological conception of Islam, which considers the jinn servants of God, somewhat in the manner of humans and angels.

The writers differ on how this power derived from God is applied. Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī sums up the opinion of the theologians thus:

When the conditions are brought together and the incantations pronounced, God makes the latter like a mighty devastating fire, encircling the demons and the jinn, until the [four] corners of the world close in around them, and there is no place left for them to hide, nor any other choice than to come out and resign themselves to do as they are commanded. What is more, if the performer is skillful, being of good conduct and praiseworthy morals, God will dispatch powerful, rough, and strong angels to the demons to inspire them and lead them to obey and serve him. (quoted in ājjī Khalīfah, loc. cit.)

Summarizing the views of the Muslim theologians, ājjī Khalīfah adds: "The obedience of demons and jinn to humans is not something unimaginable, either from the standpoint of reason or from the standpoint of accepted practice." The best illustration of this conception of magical incantation is given by certain exalted mystics, the North African marabouts, or ālib s, who transform the old pagan magic and subordinate it to the omnipotence of the one God. How, in this case, can obtaining a miracle by divine favor be distinguished from the effects of magic?

For the philosophers, whose views are summed up by Ibn Khaldūn,

The difference between miracles and magic is this: a miracle is a divine power that arouses in the soul [the ability] to exercise influence. The [worker of miracles] is supported in his activity by the spirit of God. The sorcerer, on the other hand, does his work by himself and with the help of his own psychic power, and, under certain conditions, with the support of devils. The difference between the two concerns the idea, reality, and essence of the matter. (Ibn Khaldūn, op. cit.)

Ibn Khaldūn himself locates the distinction in external criteria, which he defines as follows;

Miracles are found [to be wrought] by good persons for good purposes and by souls that are entirely devoted to good deeds. Moreover, [they include] the 'advance challenge' [taaddī ] of the claim to prophecy. Sorcery, on the other hand, is found [practiced] only by evil persons and as a rule is used for evil actions, such as causing discord between husband and wife, doing harm to enemies, and similar things. And it is found [practiced] by souls that are entirely devoted to evil deeds. (ibid.)

He adds that "this is also the view of the metaphysicians," and he concludes that "among the Sufis some who are favored by acts of divine grace are also able to exercise an influence upon worldly conditions. This, however, is not counted as a kind of sorcery. It is effected with divine support" (ibid.).

One should point out, finally, that wishing does not make a magician; indeed, to be a magician presupposes a disposition and a preparation not required of the worker of miracles. "This art," the Pseudo-Majrīī tells us, "can be practiced and applied only by one who has [the power of ] it in his nature" (al-Majrīī, ed. Ritter, 1933, p. 187), and Ibn Khaldūn says that the philosophers "think that a sorcerer does not acquire his magical ability but has, by nature, the particular disposition needed for exercising that type of influence" (op cit., p. 167). This disposition is called al-tibaʿ al-tamm, "the perfect nature"; the person who possesses it attains "knowledge of the secrets of creation, of natural causes, and of the mode of being of things" (al-Majrīī, op. cit., p. 187; cf. Fahd, 1966, p. 192, n. 29). Pseudo-Majrīī's quotation from the so-called Book of Hermes the Sage defines this perfect nature in these terms:

The microcosm that is man, if he possesses the perfect nature, has a soul like the solar disc, unmoving in the heavens and illuminating every horizon with its rays. It is the same with the perfect nature whose ray is found in the soul; it flashes out, touches the translucent forces of wisdom, and draws them to the soul that is its point [of origin], just as the sun's radiance attracts the forces of the universe and lifts them up into the atmosphere. (al-Majrīī, op. cit., pp. 193194)

The progressive assimilation of the magician to the forces that he conjures, evokes, or invokes contributes to the effectiveness of his work and the success of his endeavor. The spiritual beings (rūanīyah ) then appear to him as if in person, speaking to him and teaching him all things.

Evocation of spirits

In conjuring and incantation, the magician relies on the service of jinn and demons to accomplish his ends; in evocation, he compels the spirits of the dead, the demons, and the planets to carry out his wishes.

Necromancy, which really belongs with divination, is steeped in black magic. Like the summoning of demons, it generally involves two phases: a material phase, consisting of the preparation of a mixture of various products belonging to a special pharmacopoeia and fumigations of every kind, plus an intellectual phase, consisting of the formulation of a prayer naming all the qualities and attributes of the spirit invoked and stating the wishes to be realized.

The evocation of the spirits of the planets is based on the knowledge of the qualities and properties of each of them: its color (red-gray for Saturn, white-gray for Jupiter, the yellow-green-red of red-gold for Mars, red-gold for Venus, a mixture of all colors for Mercury, and green-white for the Moon), its odor, and its flavor (for details, see al-Majrīī, op. cit., pp. 140, 150156). To evoke the spirit of a planet, one must be dressed in its color and perfumed with its scent; further, by means of ingestion, one must assume its essence and flavor. Having done so, one must watch for the moment when the planet reaches the point corresponding to it in the zodiac, on a direct line that does not cross the line of another planet of a different nature. When this is so, the line from the planet to earth will be straight and uninterrupted.

Next, from metals attributed to the planet, one must fashion a cross, hollow from top to bottom and with a hole at the top, resting on two feet. This cross is to be mounted on the image of whatever it is one plans to ask of the spirit invoked: that of a lion, for example, or a serpent, in case one desires to go to war or to overcome an enemy, that of a bird if one wishes to escape danger, of a man seated on a throne if one aspires to fame, power, or respect, and so on. Likewise, to gain control of someone, one carves that person's likeness from a stone characteristic of the planet that presided over his birth, at the proper time and in the position described above. This image then serves as a base for the cross. The choice of a cross has to do with the fact that every body takes this shape; thus it serves to establish a connection between the higher spiritual entity and an image that resembles it. An incense burner made of the same metals as the cross is also used; it must have only one opening at the top of the cover, for the smoke to escape.

To summon a celestial spirit, a proper location must be selected, completely open to the sky. The ground should be strewn with plants of the same properties as the planet whose strength is to be attracted, on the principle that like attracts like; there must be nothing else on the ground or in the area. Incense of the same essence as the planet being evoked must be burned so that the fumes, escaping from the single opening in the burner, will pass through the hollow cross from bottom to top. All this must be done at a propitious time. If all these conditions are met, the upper world will be in harmony with the lower and thus the request will be received favorably. (See al-Majrīī, op. cit., pp. 182186; for a French translation, see Fahd, 1966, pp. 170171.)


Other techniques aimed at tapping the planetary and stellar virtues lie on the borders between magic and theurgy. The distinction between the two, according to Ibn Khaldūn, lies in the fact that

the sorcerer does not need any aid, while those who work with talismans seek the aid of the spiritualities of the stars, the secrets of numbers, the particular qualities of existing things, and the positions of the sphere that exercise an influence upon the world of the elements, as the astrologers maintain. The philosophers, therefore, say that sorcery is a union of spirit with spirit, while the talisman is a union of spirit with body. (Ibn Khaldūn, op. cit., p. 166)

"As they understand it," Ibn Khaldūn continues, "that means that the high celestial natures are tied together with the low [terrestrial] natures, the high natures being the spiritualities of the stars. Those who work with [talismans], therefore, as a rule, seek the aid of astrology" (ibid., p. 167).

Such is the theory, but in practice it is rare to find mention in the texts of a magical act carried out without recourse to a material support. While the talismanic art assumes a perfect technique, grounded in astronomical, astrological, and other data, this is not required for the practice of magic, which is performed with the help of prayers, evocations, and attempts to unite spirits, demons, and stars by magical means.

The talisman

According to ājjī Khalīfah, the art of talismanry is intended

to combine the active celestial forces with the passive earthly forces at moments favorable to the desired action and influence, with the help of vapors [able] to strengthen and attract the spirit of the talisman, with the intent of producing unusual manifestations in the world of generation and decay. In comparison with magic, this science is more accessible, for both its principles and its causes are known. Its usefulness is obvious, but mastery comes only after a great deal of effort. (ājjī Khalīfah, op. cit., pp. 165ff.)

In fact, skill in talismanry can be acquired only by one who understands its principles, which spring from the branches of knowledge making up natural philosophy, in particular mathematics, physics, and metaphysics.

A great many elements come into play in the creation of a talisman. In addition to ease and efficiency, sympathy and antipathy, time and place, there is relativity, a basic principle of the talismanic art, the relationship between the planet and the object of the talisman as well as the similarities and parallels among its various components. To be effective, these connections should be located on the straight line crossing the talisman's field of influence.

Time plays a fundamental role in talismanry. Indeed, the proper moment is a condition sine qua non for the success of the undertaking. In order to seize it, one must observe the planet until it arrives at its operative position, the most favorable point in its influence, its conjunction with the other planets and its position with respect to them, the exact instant when the talisman must be set in place, and so forth. Position plays an equally important part, in particular the observer's vantage point, the spot where the talisman is made and set up, and the place of origin of the materials used to fabricate it. Numbers, as the measure of time and moment, are, like speech, necessary for the expression of quantity.

Quality, meanwhile, is equivalent in talismanry to causality. The object on which the talisman acts must bear a perfect resemblance to the quality transferred to it, so that its sphere of activity can spread. This is the basis of the connection between the higher and lower natures. Quality here is none other than inherent nature, the source of causality. Its role is therefore essential, not only in the discovery of the limited properties and influences of the planets but also in the diffusion of these same properties and influences. This leads to an increase in the quality of the material of which the talisman is made, by causing equivalent qualities to act upon it (al-Majrīī, op. cit., pp. 99100).

The properties

In the words of Paul Kraus, the properties of beings are

the virtues proper to minerals, plants, and animals, their sympathies and antipathies, as well as the use of these virtues in the various arts and in medicine. The miraculous occupies an important place here, and affinities with magic are undeniable. Men, animals, and plants are no longer considered objects of reasoned inquiry, but are endowed with occult powers, able to heal any malady and to procure happiness and miraculous power of man. (Kraus, 19421943, vol. 2, p. 61)

Among the physical properties, those of stones hold pride of place in talismanic practice, and knowledge of them is one of the essential conditions for a talisman's success, likewise for the properties of animal bodies, where magic comes to the aid of medicine; the latter are considered healthful even for incurable diseases. Plants possess many properties used in the rich magical repertoire of fumigations. A large number of these are found in the geographical compilation known as Nabatean Agriculture, and Pseudo-Majrīī also collected many of them. Among the plants used in magical operations are laurel, marshmallow, mandrake, elm, pennyroyal, myrtle, olive, horseradish, darnel, rice, beans, chickpeas, watermelon, and chicory.

The magical powers of plants are commonly connected with the natures of the planets. These natures impart their virtues to whatever responds to them. The fact that a plant sprouts in one soil and not in another comes not from the particular nature of the soil but from the marriage of a fixed disposition with given conditions of air and water. "The prime cause of this lies on the line crossing the horizon of this piece of ground and marking the zone of influence of certain planets on certain countries; thus the existence of plants and specific features in a given country to the exlusion of others" (al-Majrīī, op. cit., pp. 385ff.).

This learned theurgy, which systematically and "rationally" exploits the virtues of animal, vegetable, and mineral kingdoms, is marked by its Hellenistic origins and by the rich syncretism from which it emanates. Popular magic in Islam has preserved this spirit, while opening it to new influences in the various Islamized countries, hence the existence of magical practices peculiar to each of the major Muslim regions.

There are innumerable survivals of ancient theurgy in Muslim tradition, where many instances are ascribed to the Prophet himself, and in the abundant magical literature that spread out throughout the Muslim world. A saying attributed to the Prophet reflects an important principle of ancient magic, namely the magical power of the spoken word: "There is," he is supposed to have said, "a kind of utterance that is none other than magic" (quoted in al-Majrīī, op. cit., p. 9). By virtue of this principle, onomatomancy became widespread in Muslim lands, and the ninety-nine "most beautiful names" of God, like the most ancient sūrahs of the Qurʾān, played a very great role in spells, amulets, and potions. Muslim magic was based in large part on the knowledge of the letters that made up the supreme name of God. At the base of these speculations, we find the theory asserting that the letters of the alphabet, being at the root of creation, represent the "materialization" of the divine word.

However, according to Ibn Khaldūn, there is

a real difference between persons who practice talismanry and those who work with the secret virtues of names, regarding the manner in which the soul is made to act on living beings). This soul has inherently the ability to encompass nature and control it, but its effect, among those who operate by means of talismans, is limited to drawing down from above the spirits of the spheres and tying them to certain figures or numerical supports. It is otherwise with those who, to give their souls the ability to act, make use of the secret properties of names; they must be illuminated by the celestial light and sustained by divine help. (Ibn Khaldun, op. cit., pp. 175ff.)

These latter avoid giving the name of magic to practices consisting of the use of secret properties of letters, numbers, and names. Nonetheless, in practice, "they fall under the idea of sorcery" (ibid., p. 181), although they tend to locate their activities in the legitimate realm of natural magic.

White or Natural Magic

The branch of magic known in English as white magic, or natural magic, is denoted in Arabic by two terms: one, simiyāʾ, of Greek origin (sēmeia ), and the other, nīrinjāt, Persian (neyrang ). Both are applied generally to illusionism, prestidigitation, fakery, and leger-demain.

According to ājjī Khalīfah (op. cit., pp. 646647), natural magic involves imaginary phenomena, occurring in space and having no correspondence to anything palpable. Their production and causes remain a secret known only to the practitioners. Often it includes mixtures concocted by the magician out of natural essences, ointments, liquified materials, or even special words with suggestive powers. The range of such practices is very large: aerial illusions, atmospheric vapors, playing with fire, tricks with bottles, cups, and glasses, illusions with eggs, fruits produced out of season, wax figures, animal taming, discovery of hidden objects, preparation of magic ink, and so on.

In the Ghāyat al-akīm of Pseudo-Majrīī, the term nīrinjāt is applied to charms that have an extraordinary power over human beings and natural phenomena alike, such as a magic ring that transfixes anyone who looks at it, amulets that ward off bad weather or neutralize weapons held by enemies, and so on (al-Majrīī, op. cit., pp. 242ff.). The making of these nīrinjāt requires extreme precision and careful handling of the poisonous materials used in their composition. These are potions that act by mans of absorption or fumigations of various powders and oils. The anticipated effects of these potions vary, and their application depends upon astrological conditions, as in all magical activity, and on the simultaneous utterance of a formulaic spell containing incomprehensible names.

In the same class of magical activity belongs the rainmaker, who commands the stars and who alternates between a demanding, coercive, and occasionally even insulting tone toward the heavens and flattery toward God. The imprecations he pronounces have a clearly magical character: often they include the use of the divine names with the aim of bending the will of heaven. The author of the Theology of Aristotle, followed by Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna), affirms that "prayer influences the sun and the stars, by imparting a certain motion to them, because the parts of the world form a single whole, like a 'single animal'" (quoted in A. Goichon, Directives et remarques, Paris, 1951, p. 250). For greater effectiveness, the rainmaker stood inside a circle (mandil ) or a magic square.

In this same category is also included the evil eye. Ibn Sīnā explains it as "an admiring tendency of the soul that exercises, by this property, a weakening influence on the object of its admiration" (ibid., p. 523). For Ibn Khaldūn, the effect is

natural and innate. It cannot be left alone. It does not depend on the free choice of its possessor. It is not acquired by him. [It is] an influence exercised by the soul of the person who has the evil eye. A thing or situation appears pleasing to the eye of a person, and he likes it very much. This [circumstance] creates in him envy and the desire to take it away from its owner. Therefore he prefers to destroy him. (Ibn Khaldūn, op. cit., pp. 170171)

It may be concluded from the foregoing that Islam, the heir of ancient civilizations, has preserved for us, in its rich cultural and folkloric patrimony, remnants of Semitic and Hellenistic notions that were developed and intermingled in the wide expanse of the ancient and medieval Near East.

See Also



Primary Sources

Buni, Ahmad ibn ʿAlī al-. Shams al-maʿārif wa-laāʾif al-ʿawārif. 4 vols. Cairo, 1905. A most important source for practical and theoretical understanding of Islamic magic. There are three versions of this work: short, medium and long. It exists in several lithographs and numerous manuscripts.

ājjī Khalīfah. Kashf al-unūn. 8 vols. Edited by O. Flügel. London, 1955-1958. A large encyclopedia with material arranged in alphabetical order. See especially the articles on sir, simiyāʾ, alāsim, and the keywords given therein.

Ibn Khaldūn. Al-muqaddimah. Edited by M. Quatremère. Paris, 1858. Translated by Franz Rosenthal as The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, 2d ed., 3 vols. (Princeton, 1967). The emphasis in this work is on the theoretical aspect of magic.

Majrīī, Maslamah ibn Amad al-. Ghāyat al-akim. Edited by H. Ritter. Leipzig, 1933. Translated by H. Ritter and M. Plessner as "Picatrix": Das Ziel des Weisen Pseudo-Majrīī (London, 1962). A study of magic and theurgy from the double perspective of theory (ʿilmī ) and practice (ʿmalī ). Completed in ah 395/1004 ce, it is the most important work in this field. On the question of its attribution to Maslamah al-Majrīī ("of Madrid"), see H. Ritter's article in Vorträge der Bibliothek Warburg 1 (19211922): 95124.

Secondary Sources

Doutté, Edmond. Magie et religion dans l'Afrique du Nord. Algiers, 1909. An important study on magical practices in North Africa.

Fahd, Toufic. "Le monde du sorcier en Islam." In Le monde du sorcier, pp. 157204. Paris, 1966. Includes an extensive bibliography. The present article owes much to this study.

Kovalenko, Anatoly. Magie et Islam. Geneva, 1981. A 721-page volume containing a detailed description of magical procedures, with an exhaustive bibliography. This is an invaluable reference work.

Kraus, Paul. Jābir Ibn ayyān. 2 vols. Cairo, 19421943. A valuable tool for the study of the occult sciences in Islam and their relationship to Hellenism.

Mauchamps, Émile. La sorcellerie au Maroc. Paris, n.d. A posthumous work preceded by a study on the author and the work by Jules Bris. Mauchamps's investigation into magical practices in Morocco is an exemplary model; every Muslim region needs such an inquiry.

Toufic Fahd (1987)

Translated from French by David M. Weeks