Magic and Superstition: An Islamic perspective
There are two domains of human experiences of the observed phenomena: one is based on explainable cause-effect relationship of events and the other purports to phenomena that escape the notice of the human eye as well as defy human intelligence. While the first category of experiences is the province of Science and is subjected to continuous study and appraisal, the second category is unclear because there is normally no way of intelligently grasping and, at times, confirming the veracity of it. Magic and superstition belong to the latter category.
True Islamic understanding would encourage scientific enquiry and put no restrictions on its pursuit, except the ones that are either immoral or faith-challenging. In both cases, Islam would expect its intelligent followers to put across its case to show that the apparent scientific enquiry is either immoral or illogical. However, Islamic guidance would urge its followers to be very careful while dealing with experiences that have to do with magic and superstition since they derive their conclusions from the unseen world.
There are two different questions that arise about magic: Is it a reality? Are Muslims allowed to indulge in it?
The first question is not primarily religious in nature. It is a matter of human experience whether magic actually exists or not. However, it seems from the mention in some passages of the Quran that magic is a reality. That doesn’t necessarily mean that every claim of magic is true. Many people believe that magic was the cause of an event, even though their claim might be unfounded. However, some claims of the phenomenon of unseen forces causing certain things to happen in a way that defies common human experience and logic can be true. The fact that Musa, AH, (Moses) confronted a bunch of magicians who caused ropes to appear like snakes is a case in point (Quran; 7:116). The Quran also mentions the fact that some people wrongly accused Sulaiman, AH, (Solomon) of having indulged in magic (Quran; 2:102). Instead, it is the disbelievers, it clarifies, who indulged in it. Thus the book mentions the fact that magic is an evil reality that causes the one doing it to be described as someone disbelieving.
There is another relevant clarification the Quran makes. This is that there are some extraordinary happenings in our surroundings the occurrence of which human logic cannot grasp and yet these do not fall in the category of magic and are therefore not evil. A man during Solomon’s time, according to the Quran, for instance, was able to cause the throne of Queen Sheba (Bilqis) to be removed from its place of origin to another one in no time (Quran; Surah Al-Naml). Thus supernatural happenings, other than the miracles caused directly by God, can be both evil and non-evil.
How do magic and magic-like phenomena come about? It seems that apart from the extraordinary feats of modern-day Science, which can be understood through a logic based on cause-effect relationship, there is another world of potential outstanding feats which is based on a similar relationship which as yet has not been properly studied and understood. One way of achieving those feats is evil, often referred to as black magic, which is declared as disbelief by the Quran while another is morally neutral.
Another point which verse 102 of Surah al-Baqarah, the second chapter of the Quran, clarifies is the fact that while black magic is forbidden, the antidote of it is allowed even though the latter carries the possibility of misuse (Quran; 2:102).
Superstition is primarily a faith-like understanding that a certain event happens because of another seemingly unrelated one. The cause-effect relationship is based on neither scientific nor religiously valid justification. It is in effect another faith which is based on neither textual nor logical religious grounds. Considering a black cat crossing one’s path as a bad omen is one of the many examples of superstitious beliefs. A degenerated religious society abounds in superstition. While Islamic faith is based on sound reasoning as is evident from the verses of the Quran, superstition is completely devoid of reasoning except a vague reference to the experiences of some individuals.
A superstitious individual can never be confident in taking decisions nor can he ever have a clear faith in the fact that it is only one God who alone is running the affairs of this world. It is a part of the belief of a superstitious individual that many different, unrelated forces cause events to happen in this world. Superstition thus leads to polytheism which is an understanding that there are many gods who are simultaneously responsible for running this world. Monotheism, the cornerstone of Islamic faith, is based on the principle that this world was created, and is run, by one God alone.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 25th, 2011.