Reality of Magic in Islam



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.[1] In Arabic the term sihr (magic) is defined as whatever is caused by hidden or subtle forces.[2] For example, the Prophet (ﷺ) was reported to have said,

“Verily, some forms of speech are magic (sihr).”[3]

The speeches of an eloquent, charismatic speaker who makes right seem wrong and vice-versa, fall into this category. Thus, the Prophet (ﷺ) referred to some aspects of speech as being magical.[4] The pre-dawn meal taken before fasting is called sahoor or suhoor[5] 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.[6] A magician is termed mu‘azzim, and a spell is called ‘azeemah.[7]

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.”[8] 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.”[9]


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.[10] Al Qaraafee[11] 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[12] held that there was no reality to magic.”[13]

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:

“…[B]ut 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.” Qur’aan, 2:102

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.” Qur’aan, 113:4

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.[14]

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.[15] 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.”[16]

Support for the reality of magic is also found in the hadeeths describing the time when the Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) was bewitched. In various authentic narrations it is related that a Jew, Labeeb ibn A’sam, cast a spell upon the Prophet.[17] 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.[18]

In addition, the following Qur’ânic verses indicate that magic is real:

“They bewitched the people’s eyes…” Qur’aan, 7:116

“Their magic caused it to appear to him that they were crawling.” Qur’aan, 20:66

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.?[19]

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.”[20] 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.”[21]

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.[22] 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.”[23] Ibn Hazm[24] 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,[25] 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.”[26] Among the more recent Muslim scholars, Sayyid Qutb[27] 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.”[28]

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.’[29] 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.’[30] He informed us that that which they thought was crawling was actually not. It was only an illusion.”[31]

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].[32]

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.[33] 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.”[34] Belief in them [is belief in] those whom Allaah has declared liars, and [He has] informed [us] that their claims are false.”[35]

Many of those who denied the reality of magic claimed that the traditions about Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) 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).”[36] Others held that the assertion of a spell being placed upon the Prophet (ﷺ) contradicted the Qur’aan. Fakhruddeen ar-Raazee quoted the argument, the disbelievers would not deserve the rebuke in the Almighty’s statement:[37] ‘And the wrongdoers say, “You are only following a bewitched man.” ’ [38] Yet others declared the traditions false on the basis that they all had chains of narration with individual reports (khabar aahaad)[39] which they (i.e., those who denied the reality of magic) argued cannot be used as a basis for establishing articles of faith.[40]

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.

Refutation of the Evidence Against the Reality of Magic

The two Qur’ânic verses (7:116 and 20:66) address illusionary magic, and this form of magic is not denied by anyone. However, the Qur’aan’s description of some magic as being trickery does not exclude possible existence of real magic, as indicated by another verse (2:102).[41] Furthermore, the discussion previously presented by Ibn al-Qayyim regarding these two verses supports the possibility of real magic. It could also be said that even real magic is illusionary from a particular point of view, for whatever magicians produce of real magic is not from their power but from the help of the jinn.[42]

In respect to the powers of magicians, the logical argument assumes that they must be able to do all they claim in order for them to able to do any. However, their abilities are very limited, so they resort to trickery to capture customers, concentrating on the easily deceived, ignorant masses. Since magic is usually illusion and most magicians are tricksters, the majority of them will be impoverished and dependent upon people. However, there have been many instances in human history when magicians have held very high and powerful positions in society.

The other logical argument proposes that if magic is in fact real, miracles will become indistinguishable from it. This is not sufficient to deny the reality of some magic, because established Islâmic principles clearly distinguish between miracles and magic. The following are four such principles:

  • Miracles are divine gifts and not skills which may be learned by anyone who studies them, as in the case of magic.[43]
  • Miracles are events which go against the natural laws, while acts of magic stay within the abilities of humans and jinn.[44]
  • Miracles are only performed by those close to Allaah, whereas magic is performed by the friends of the devil.[45]
  • Magic may be counteracted by prayers, recitations or magic, but miracles cannot be counteracted.[46]

The claim that the narrations of the Prophet’s bewitchment are fabricated is incorrect, because they were reported by both al-Bukhaaree and Muslim (muttafaqun ‘alayh), which Muslim scholars unanimously agree to be the most authentic category of hadeeth.

The assertion that these hadeeths contradict the Qur’aan is false, and these hadeeths do not support the pagans’ ideas that Prophet Muhammad (ﷺ) was bewitched. The pagans claimed that whatever the Prophet (ﷺ) taught and recited from the Qur’aan was a result of madness or bewitchment and not revelation from Allaah. The fact that on one occasion he was bewitched in a way which did not affect his prophethood does not confirm the pagans’ claim. It should also be noted that Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) was bewitched along with the other people present and saw the rods and staffs of the magicians moving like snakes.[47] Therefore, it is clear that anyone can be affected by magic.

Because the hadeeth of the Prophet’s bewitchment was a single report (khabar aahaad), it was rejected as a means of establishing a doctrine of faith. However, the vast majority of Muslim scholars and the companions of the Prophet (ﷺ) were known to have promulgated both doctrines of faith and religious rituals based upon single reports.

Relationship Between Magic and Possession

Real magic is the product of satanic intervention. Both the acts of the magic and the effects of spells on humans involve the agency of the jinn. Al-Aaloosee addressed this issue, saying, “What is meant by magic is an act which resembles a miracle but is not, because it (i.e., magic) is learned. And in order to perform it, the help of the devil is sought by pleasing him with abominable acts. [These acts may be in the form of] statements, like incantations containing phrases of shirk and praises of Satan; acts, like planet worship and an adherence to crime and licentiousness; and beliefs, like the preference and love of whatever is necessary to please [the devil].”[48] Al-Ghazzaalee was quoted as defining magic as follows, “Magic is something which is derived from knowledge of the special characteristics of elements (jawaahir) and mathematical calculations related to the time of the rising of celestial bodies. From these special characteristics a form is made resembling the bewitched person, and a particular time of the rising of celestial bodies is awaited. When the time arrives, words of disbelief and obscenity, which contravene divine law, are uttered to obtain access to devil’s assistance. The combination of these factors results in – according to normal procedure – strange conditions within the bewitched person.”[49] During his discussion on the type of sihr in which the devil’s help is employed, ar-Raaghib[50] said, “The second [type] is that in which the devil’s help is attracted by acts which will gain favor, as in the Almighty’s statement: ‘Shall I inform you about those upon whom the devils descend? They descend on every lying sinner.’ ”[51]

Dr. ‘Umar al-Ashqar explicitly stated, “Real magic is that in which the magician relies upon the devil. Our Lord, whose knowledge encompasses all things, has informed us that it was the devils who taught mankind magic: ‘…Sulaymaan did not commit disbelief, but it was the devils who disbelieved and taught mankind magic.’ [52]

A good example of the relationship of magic to possession can also be seen in the incident in which ‘Abdullaah ibn Mas‘ood found his wife wearing a knotted cord necklace and asked about its purpose. She informed him that it was given to her by a Jewish magician and that a spell had been placed on it to stop her eye from discharging, which it did. Ibn Mas‘ood snatched it from her neck, told her it was an act of shirk and informed her that the discharge was caused by a jinnee, who desisted when the spell was placed on her.”[53]


[1] See Reader’s Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary, p. 813.

[2] Arabic-English Lexicon, vol. 1, pp. 1316-1317.

[3] Collected by al-Bukhaaree (Sahih Al-Bukhari, vol. 7, pp. 445, no. 662), Muslim, Aboo Daawood (Sunan Abu Dawud, vol. 3, p. 1393, no. 4989) and at-Tirmidhee.

[4] ‘Aalam as-Sihr wa ash-Sha‘wadhah, p. 69.

[5] Arabic-English Lexicon, vol. 1, p. 1317. Apparently, the connection in meaning is that the dark of night in the preferred time to perform magic.

[6] Fat-h al-Baaree, vol. 10, p. 228. See also an-Nihaayah, vol. 3, p. 110.

[7] Arabic-English Lexicon, vol. 2, p. 2038.

[8] Al-Mughnee, vol. 12, p. 229.

[9] Kashf Istilaahaat al-Funoon, p. 152.

[10] Al-Jaami‘ li Ahkaam al-Qur’aan, vol. 2, p. 46.

[11] Ahmad ibn Idrees al-Qaraafee (d. 1275 CE), of Moroccan-Berber origin, was born and raised in Egypt. He was one of the leading scholars of the Maalikee school of jurisprudence. Among his many books on canon law are Anwaar al-Burooq fee Anwaa‘ al-Furooq, a 4 volume work; al-Ihkaam fee Tamyeez al-Fataawaa and Sharh Tanqeeh al-Fusool. (Al-A‘laam, vol. 1, pp. 94-95.)

[12] Qadarees (Ar. Qadariyyah), a name used regularly as descriptive surname for Mu‘tazilees. (Shorter Encychopedia of Islam, p. 200).

[13] Al-Burooq fee Anwaa‘ al-Furooq, vol. 4, p. 149. See also al-Mughnee, vol. 12, p. 299.

[14] Al-Mughnee, vol. 12, p. 299. See also ‘Aalam as-Sihr wa ash-Sha‘wadhah, p. 91.

[15] Al-Furooq, vol. 4, p. 150.

[16] At-Tafseer al-Qayyim, p. 571.

[17] See, for example, Sahih al-Bukhari, vol. 7, pp. 443-444, no. 660 and Sahih Muslim, vol. 3, pp. 1192-1193, no. 5428.

[18] Al-Jaami‘ li Ahkaam al-Qur’aan, vol. 1, p. 41.

[19] At-Tafseer al-Qayyim, p. 571.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Al-Mughnee, vol. 12, p. 300.

[22] Ahmad ibn ‘Alee ar-Raazee (917-980 CE), known as Aboo Bakr al-Jassaas, was born in Rayy and educated in Baghdaad. He became the leading Hanafee legal scholar of his time. His most noted published work is Ahkaam al-Qur’aan. (Al-A‘laam, vol. 1, p. 171.)

[23] Ahkaam al-Qur’aan, vol. 1, pp. 41-43.

[24] Al-Fisal, vol. 2, p. 2.

[25] At-Tafseer al-Kabeer, vol. 3, p. 205.

[26] Ibid., p. 213.

[27] Sayyid ibn Qutb ibn Ibraaheem (1906-1966 CE), a leading 20th century Islâmic thinker, was a graduate of Daar al-‘Uloom in Egypt. He wrote for several newspapers and Islâmic magazines, like ar-Risaalah, and was an Arabic school teacher for sometime. He joined the Ikhwaan Muslimoon. Later he was jailed and executed during the rule of Jamaal ‘Abdun-Naasir (1918-1970 CE). During his imprisonment, he wrote many Islâmic books. Among them are an-Naqd al-Adabeeal-‘Adaalah al-Ijtimaa‘iyyah fee al-IslaamMa‘aalim fee atTareeq and his exegesis of the Qur’aan, Fee Zilaal al-Qur’aan. (Al-A‘laam, vol. 3, pp. 147-148.)

[28] See Fee Zilaal al-Qur’aan, vol. 6, p. 4007.

[29] “He (i.e., Moses) said, ‘You throw [first].’ So when they threw, they bewitched the people’s eyes and struck terror into them, and they displayed great magic.” Qur’aan, 7:116.

[30] “[Moses] said, ‘No, you throw [first].’ And all of a sudden they magic caused their ropes and staffs to appear to him that they were crawling.” Qur’aan, 20:66.

[31] Ahkaam al-Qur’aan, vol. 1, pp. 41-43.

[32] Ibid., p. 48.

[33] Rooh al-Ma‘aanee, vol. 1, p. 339.

[34] This was stated by Allaah to reassure Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) that the miracle which he had been given would overcome the magician’s magic: “And throw what in your right hand. It will swallow up what they have made! What they made in only a magician’s trick, and the magician will never be successful, no matter what amount of skill he may attain.” Qur’aan, 20:69

[35] Ahkaam al-Qur’aan, vol. 1, p. 49.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Allaah quoted the argument of the disbelievers against Muhammad’s prophethood: “And they say, ‘Why does this messenger eat food and walk about in the markets [like ourselves]? Why is an angel not sent down as a warner along with him? Or why has treasure not been granted to him or a garden in Paradise from which he may eat? And the wrongdoers say, ‘You are only following a bewitched man.’ ” Qur’aan, 25:8.

[38] At-Tafseer al-Kabeer, vol. 3, p. 214. See also Ahkaam al-Qur’aan, vol. 1, p. 49.

[39] Khabar aahaad are traditions which were transmitted during the first three generations of Muslims by one to four transmitters only. (Hadith Literature, p. 194.)

[40] See at-Tafseer al-Kabeer, vol. 1, p. 214 and ‘Aalam as-Sihr wa ash-Sha‘wadhah, pp. 180-181.

[41] Fat-h al-Baaree, vol. 10, p. 225.

[42] ‘Aalam as-Sihr wa ash-Sha‘wadhah, p. 99.

[43] See Fat-h al-Baaree, vol. 10, p. 223 and Ibn Khaldoon’s al-Muqaddimah, p. 932.

[44] Al-Furooq, vol. 4, p. 168 and Ahkaam al-Qur’aan, vol. 1, p. 49.

[45] See Al-Furooq, vol. 4, p. 170; Fat-h al-Baaree, vol. 10, p. 223 and Majmoo‘ al-Fataawaa, vol. 11, p. 173.

[46] ‘Aalam as-Sihr wa ash-Sha‘wadhah, p. 78.

[47] See Qur’aan, 20:67.

[48] Rooh al-Ma‘aanee, vol. 1, p. 338.

[49] Quoted in Siddeeq Hasan Khaan’s ad-Deen al-Khaalis, vol. 2, p. 324.

[50] Aboo al-Qaasim al-Husayn ibn Muhammad, known as ar-Raaghib al-Isfahaanee, from Isfahaan in central Iran, was a major scholar and author of the fifth century AH. His most famous work is al-Mufradaat fee Ghareeb al-Qur’aan, a dictionary of the Qur’aan. Reports of his death vary as widely as 452 AH to 502 AH. See Siyar A‘laam an-Nubalaa’, vol. 18, p. 120.

[51] Al-Mufradaat fee Ghareeb al-Qur’aan, p. 226. The Qur’ânic quote is 26:221-222.

[52] ‘Aalam as-Sihr wa ash-Sha‘wadhah, p. 152. The Qur’ânic quote is 2:102.

[53] See Sunan Abu Dawud, vol. 3, p. 1089, no. 3874.


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