x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Magic casting its malign spell

Take our poll: Sceptics scoff at the very existence of 'black magic', but it has its believers, it is mentioned in the Quran and Islamic authorities fight a constant battle against 'sihir' and its elusive practitioners.

Jemaa El Fna Square in Marrakesh, Morocco, freely offer the services of snake charmers, tarot-card readers, healers and magicians.
Jemaa El Fna Square in Marrakesh, Morocco, freely offer the services of snake charmers, tarot-card readers, healers and magicians.

Well educated, tall and slender, with striking green eyes: Sarah, an Arab-American sociologist and health professional, is almost the last person you would expect to believe in the power of black magic.

And there was a time when you would have been right. But not any more.

Sarah, in her thirties and brought up in Dubai, describes the mysterious symptoms that suddenly began to afflict her last year. "I felt as if I was on fire, and I tried out medicines and remedies, but this heaviness I felt wouldn't go away.

"My family laughed at me when I mentioned the possibility of a spell being cast over me."

After struggling for more than a year with depression, hot flushes and nightmares, she finally sought the advice of Emirati friends.

They recommended a sheikh, a mutawa, a wise and pious man with a trusted reputation who practises as a Qare, one skilled in reading the Quran over those who believe their illness is a result of being cursed. Such people can be found only by word of mouth, their names and location never made public.

After some hesitation, Sarah, who asked that her real name not be published, finally went with an Emirati friend to a sheikh in Abu Dhabi.

Her journey ended in the back room of a small herb and traditional medicine shop, sparsely furnished with just a couch, a chair next to it and a rug on the floor.

Sarah was told to sit on the couch, while the sheikh sat near her on the chair and her friend watched them both from across the floor. "The sheikh asked me why I was here, and I started telling him all my symptoms, my bad luck and then he stopped me midway and said, khalas, just relax."

After the sheikh read a line from the Quran, Sarah recalls feeling dizzy and then blacking out. "I woke up crying and I breathed in heavily, like someone who was under water and came up to the surface to take in air. It was at that point that I felt like something was being pulled out of my chest, like a ball of air, I can't explain it."

During this 15-minute period, Sarah's friend watched her heave up and down to the point that she had to be pinned down. Sarah was told she was a victim of "sihir", or magic, with a spell cast on her of the type called "concentrated envy".

There was no charge for the reading, but Sarah paid Dh250 for olive oil to rub on her chest, water mixed with musk to splash from her neck to her legs and a packet of herbs and powder to be mixed with water, blessed by Quranic verses, for washing.

Sarah says she would recommend the sheikh's services. "There was a lot of good energy surrounding the sheikh and whatever he did, it worked," she says. A month later she was engaged to be married.

Black magic has many names and is as mysterious and elusive as those who perform it and those who break it. Some call it voodoo, alchemy, paranormal powers, negative energy: others blame it on the jinn and the devil. Sarah never found who put a spell on her, but she regularly recites verses from the Quran to protect her and wears amulets against the evil eye.

Last week a news item about black magic made her wonder: "Maybe it was the maid?"

The case involved an Asian housemaid accused of contaminating the food and drink of her Emirati employers with urine, to cast a spell.

Dubai police say that while such cases are not widespread, at least four incidents have been reported this year in which maids mixed everything from nails and urine to menstrual blood in an attempt to control the families they worked for.

Ahmad Al Khateri, a judge for more than 15 years and head of Ras Al Khaimah courts, has dealt with many cases of "black magic".

"Often it is a case of fraud, where someone claims to have black-magic powers and ends up scamming the victims by taking their money," says Mr Al Khateri, a former member of the Federal National Council.

UAE law treats witchcraft and sorcery as crimes of fraud, specified in Article 399 of the Federal Penal Code, with a maximum penalty of a year in prison and a fine related to the extent of the harm caused.

In Saudi Arabia, the punishment for using black magic is more severe. In December a Saudi women was beheaded for what the interior ministry called "witchcraft and sorcery".

The kingdom has a wide definition of witchcraft. A Lebanese TV fortune-teller was condemned to death in 2010 for witchcraft, and the sentence was commuted only after international pressure.

"If there is death as a consequence of a spell or whatever was used, then it will be dealt with in the same way as someone who shot someone dead with a pistol," says Mr Al Khateri. The judge can always fall back on Sharia, depending on the case, he explains.

But he admits that black-magic cases were difficult to prosecute. "How do you prove that someone cast a spell on you?" he asks.

In one case, in 1996, a woman noticed something odd in bottles of Vimto soft drink. It was found to be menstrual blood from her Sri Lankan maid, who was jailed for a year and then deported,

But the judge pointed out while sentencing her: "Often the monstrous and inhumane treatment of staff by employers leads to such desperate and strange measures by the maids. There is always a reason why something like this happens."

By general agreement, catching those responsible for casting spells is the biggest challenge. "They are in hiding, as they know they are breaking both Islamic law and the country's law," says Mr Al Khateri.

Sometimes called sorcerers or witches, such people are believed to have made a pact with the jinn that allows them to cast evil spells and even abuse the Quran.

"They do things like pray with their back to the Qiblah in Mecca, sacrifice animals in the name of the jinn or the devil and so many strange things that go against Allah and Islam," says Sheikh Mohammed Mostapha, a respected scholar and relationship counsellor who has published nine books on jinn and magic.

Others use the Quran for good, to break spells by reciting certain verses.

"Sihir, or magic, is real. It is mentioned in the Quran and by our Prophet Mohammed," says Sheikh Mustapha. "To use it or seek it is forbidden, haram."

Those seeking the services of a sorcerer often travel to Oman and Morocco. Many believe that Omani magic is the most powerful, referring to stories that link the Prophet Suliman or Solomon to the area, and say that he knew how to control jinn.

According to visitors to the Nizwa souq in Oman and Jemaa El Fna Square in Marrakesh, both places freely offer the services of snake charmers, tarot-card readers, healers and magicians, and sell everything from protective objects to spices and dried animal body parts, said to be the ingredients for love potions, fertility potions and curses.

To cast a spell, the name of the victim's mother or grandmother must be used, to pinpoint their identity, says Sheikh Mustapha. He cautions that anyone who visits a "supposed healer" and is asked for this information should "get out of there and call the police. This person is evil and a criminal in the eyes of Allah and the law".

Examples of spells include animal sacrifice and reversed or torn Quranic verses. Such items are often found in old homes in the UAE: a pair of dresses tied in knots was unearthed during recent excavations in the abandoned village of Khor Kalba on the east coast.

Sheikh Mustapha advises reciting the Quran verse Ayat Al Kursi to ward off those practising black magic. "You will see how they react badly and ask you to leave their premises," he says.

Most of the time, he says, cases of supposed witchcraft are nothing more than fears and anxiety.

He also observes that some people blame all their problems on magic and jinn: "People are obsessed with two things: with dreams and what they mean, and with jinn and the devil and their role in magic and beyond."

He often gets calls from worried Muslims who fear that a spell has been cast or that a jinn is causing mischief. "I tell them, go and read the Quran. Don't look for someone to read it for you or over you. There is nothing more powerful than seeking the help of Allah directly.

"There is a big difference between casting a spell and it actually working. For in reality, according to Islamic references, out of every 100 spells cast, only one works. So while magic may be common, it thankfully doesn't work most of the time."