Quranic Reflection No 598. Āyāt 2:102 – Islam and Magic

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وَاتَّبَعُوا مَا تَتْلُو الشَّيَاطِينُ عَلَىٰ مُلْكِ سُلَيْمَانَ ۖ وَمَا كَفَرَ سُلَيْمَانُ وَلَٰكِنَّ الشَّيَاطِينَ كَفَرُوا يُعَلِّمُونَ النَّاسَ السِّحْرَ 

Wattabaʿū mā tatlū ash-shayātīnu ʿalā mulki sulaymān, wa mā kafara sulaymānu wa lākinna ash- shayātīna kafarū, yuʿallimūna an-nās as-sihr 

And they followed what the devils pursued during Solomon’s reign —and Solomon was not faithless, but it was the devils who were faithless—teaching the people magic.

(Sūrat al-Baqarah, No 2, Āyat 102)

This blessed verse comes within a context of about a hundred verses in Sūrat al-Baqarah that discuss the Banū Isrā’īl and their history. In this specific verse the account of how magic was prevalent during the time of Prophet Sulaymān ‘alayhis-salām and after his demise is mentioned, and how a group from the Banū Isrā’īl accused Sulaymān (a) of being a magician. They dismissed his Divine miracles as being magic, a claim tantamount to calling him a disbeliever! Hence Allah vindicates Sulaymān. In what follows below, a few points regarding Islam’s approach to magic and similar fields of study are mentioned.

Firstly, such verses clearly show that magic is a reality that cannot be denied. By magic what is intended is not just sleight of hand, or the skillful conjuring of a trick that others do not understand. For example, pulling out a specific card from a shuffled deck of cards without looking at them. That is a natural action that can be taught and learnt with a bit of practice. Rather, what is intended by magic is the ability to perform supernatural actions, apparently because of interacting with jinn. At times, such powers are obtained by someone who performs horrible sins. (You may refer to Greater Sins by Āyatullāh Dastghayb on how someone had to abstain from any worship and good deeds for forty days for his magic to work). Books of Islamic jurisprudence discuss the definition and impermissibility of magic under the Arabic name sihr. Moreover, this is discussed along with other similar subjects such as shaʿbadhah (sleight of hand), tanjīm (astronomy), qiyāfah (claiming people are related to one another based on external features such as their face), and kahānah (predicting the future using the power of jinn). Refer to the book of laws of your marjaʿ to see exactly how they have discussed this and their fatāwā.

Despite the real nature of magic, it is an undeniable fact that in cultures that accept and believe in magic, a lot of baseless traditions and strange superstitions may emerge. Without any research or logical reason, peoples’ states of mind and events may be attributed to magic. This is unadvisable and unhelpful. A Muslim must live their life and act based on the intellect and the sharī‘ah, not based on whims and imagination. As the disbelievers will say on the Day of Judgement:

لَوْ كُنَّا نَسْمَعُ أَوْ نَعْقِلُ مَا كُنَّا فِي أَصْحَابِ السَّعِيرِ

Had we listened or applied reason, we would not have been among inmates of the Blaze. (Q 67:10)

A second point to bear in mind is that Islam considers magic to be a greater sin, something that has been equated to disbelief. In sermon number 79 of Nahj al-Balāgha the Commander of the Faithful, Imam Ali ‘alayhis-salām warns people of predicting the future using astrology. He says: and an astrologer is a diviner, while the diviner is like the sorcerer, the sorcerer is like the unbeliever and the unbeliever would be in Hell.

Once again, for the details of this matter, one must refer to their marjaʿ. For example, some marājiʿ such as Āyatullāh Sistānī (may Allah protect him) do not consider shaʿbadhah (sleight of hand) in and of itself to be forbidden. However, others consider it to be a type of sihr that is always impermissible.

On a final note, one of the important aspects of Islam’s outlook to magic is that which is mentioned in the latter part of the above verse, wherein it says that the magic would have no adverse effect, “except with Allah’s leave.” Similarly, at the end of the same sermon 79 mentioned above, Imam Ali commands his army to ignore the prediction of the astronomer and go forth towards war, “in the name of Allah.” These all indicate the Islamic, monotheistic, perspective of how all affairs are in Allah’s hands at the end of the day. Even though magic is a reality, the main recommendation of Islam to protect ourselves against it is to strengthen our relationship with Allah by obeying Him, by being people of taqwā. Thereafter, performing recommended actions to avert evil such as giving charity, seeking His help through reciting supplications from the Holy Prophet (s) and his Ahl al-Bayt (a), reciting the powerful verse known as Āyatul Kursī, and so on are all actions that have been advised in Islam. 

On the blessed occasion of the birthday of the final Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him and his noble family) we ask Allah in the name of his dearest creation and the seal of all prophets to gives us success in learning the lofty teachings of Islam and following them in our life. We ask that He protect us from the evil effects of magic and from being unnecessarily caught up in our own imagination, so that we can live lives of servitude and obedience, in line with the intellect and the luminous sharī‘ah.

Resources: ‘Allāmah Muhammad Husayn Tabātabā’ī, Tafsīr al-Mīzān; Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh