Jordan and the Occult: Understanding magic beliefs in the Middle East

Beliefs in magic, the evil eye, jinn and other occult practices are common-place in Jordan and throughout Islamic societies. The complex nature of magic beliefs positions them in the intersection of religion, superstition and the human desire to define and overcome the unknown. In this article Maggie Nazer takes on the challenge to tell a multifaceted story about the intriguing and controversial subject of magic beliefs in the Middle East.

A shortened version of this article was published in Global Voices. Read it here, though, it’s better.

With gratitude to Asia Nazer for her inspiration and help with research

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It was a late August evening and just outside of Amman, in the village of Na’ur, my cousin Asia and I were getting ready to go to bed and telling each other stories. “Someone from the Al-Ramtha region, near Irbid, was in love with a girl”- she began in Arabic, as I sat closer to her, eager to hear the love story.

“The two wanted to marry, but the girl’s family requested a very high dowry which the man’s father refused to pay because he felt he was being cheated. Two years passed before, madly in love, Saed decided he couldn’t wait any longer. He had to marry the girl of his dreams right on that day. His mother begged him to wait for his father’s return from abroad, but Saed was restless and unstoppable: he looked like he was possessed by demons. He began punching walls, overturned the table, broke the TV… He was finally found lying on the floor, half-dead…”

The dramatic story had me hooked and I impatiently asked what had happened to the man once he was found in what seemed to me as a definitive mental breakdown: what did people do? “Well,”- my cousin continued- “they called a sheikh to come over and read the Quran to him. At first, Saed refused to listen. His body shook as the Quranic verses reached his ears. But then he suddenly got better! He couldn’t explain what had happened, but he had returned to his senses. The people around him concluded that his unbelievable behavior could only be explained with magic: his lover must have gotten impatient and cast a spell on him to get him hooked on her and marry sooner!”

“But how would she do that?”- I asked distrustfully, shocked by the unexpected twist in the story. “People speak of different ways this could be accomplished: she may have put some of her menstrual blood inside his food or drink to hijack his ability to resist her, or she could have sent a jinn after him.”

The demonological conception of Islam regards the jinn as a servant of Allah, similarly to the human. What makes the subject of magic practices and beliefs in Jordan- and more generally, in the MENA region- all the more fascinating is precisely the conflicting relationship of simultaneous opposition and tolerance between religion and the Occult. Indeed, Islam does not reject the existence of Magic, quite the contrary: over 66 Quranic verses refer to magic-doing, if only to condemn the practice.

When asked whether they believed in Magic, a number of Jordanians told me that as Amman-based taxi driver, Ibrahim Othman, put it: “Every Muslim should believe in magic because of the story of Prophet Musa in the Quran”. According to the Chapter of al-A‘raf, upon arrival in front of the Pharaoh, Moses had a confrontation with the Pharaoh’s sorcerers who used black magic to turn their rods into snakes. With God’s approval, Moses turned his rod into a serpent, forcing the sorcerers to kneel before him and accept his prophecies, stunned by the miracle observed.   This episode illuminates the Quranic distinction between magic and miracle, whereby in the words of Ibn Khaldun, one of the most prominent Muslim historians: “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”[1].

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In Jordan, the acceptance of jinn’s existence and ability to possess people is one of many common-place magic beliefs such as the greedy “evil eye”, amulets and Al-matuom ( the practice of using menstrual blood to ensure one’s love towards you). The Imam of Masjed Al-Edlbe in Na’ur, Hashem Abu Tareq (not his real name), summarized religion’s attitude towards magic, saying that “Magic is the deed of the Sheitan (Devil) and teaching, learning, and practicing magic is haram (sin)”. However, although magic is strictly forbidden, in his concurrent role as the mosque’s sheikh, Abu Tareq gets called to dispel magic at least twice a week on average.

The last case Sheikh Abu Tareq recounted when I spoke with him involved a 22-year old woman of exceptional beauty. Over forty men had asked for her hand, and yet each engagement had broken off right before becoming official. Her desperate family invited Abu Tareq to their house to read to her Quranic verses, in order to dispel the magic cast on her. Once he stood beside the girl, the sheikh began conversing with the jinn who possessed the woman. He learned that the magical creature had fallen in love with her. Thus, whenever someone came to offer her marriage, it would cause her face to temporarily deform. Upon the unpleasant sight of her suddenly “monstrous” face, all candidates would run away with no intention to come back. Yet, once the sheikh had completed his reading of the Quran, the jinn left the woman’s body and soon after she got married.

Although, religious leaders are unanimous that casting spells on others is an utmost sin, sheikh al-sihr (the Magic sorcerer) is a profitable occupation not without demand. A simple Google search lands pages of results, featuring advertisements of Amman-based sorcerers who profess to “break magic” and “cast magic”. When we got in touch with someone who offers wizardry, we found out that the price for casting black magic ranges from 200 to 100,000 Jordanian dinars. Financial well-being, marriage and maledictions against others are among the biggest motivators for people to seek sorcerers. Animal sacrifice, casting spells over objects belonging to the intended victim, and preparing “bags” with cryptic codes to be left at the cemetery are some of the tools Wizards use to practice their art.

Interestingly, in contrast to other Islamic countries, Jordan does not have an enforced legislation against the practice of Magic.  The governments of Saudi Arabia and Gaza follow strict laws against sorcery; their unprecedented campaigns against sorcery in the last decade have led to mass prosecution and killings of individuals accused of practicing witchcraft. These actions are particularly problematic because they almost entirely target women and immigrants from Africa and Asia. “While technically individuals could be fined for practicing sorcery in Jordan, such cases are rare, because if someone complains against Magic, he will himself get implicated”, said Sheikh Abu Tareq, speaking of cases when Magic-seekers have suffered significant financial frauds from wizards.

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While Magic beliefs are popular in Jordan, there are certainly many who disassociate themselves from such thinking. “People in the past tried to justify weird events by saying they were caused by magic, because they had no explanation for them. Magic suits my grandmother, while science suits me”- University of Jordan student, Lubna Mohammad told me. Others, like Jordanian Sammy Abdelrahim, said that they didn’t believe in magic because “their religion/faith/God will protect them.”

Controversial as they are, Magic beliefs hold great importance for the communities in Jordan. Belal Mustafa, Psychotherapist and Clinical Behavioral Analyst at Doctors Without Borders in Jordan warned that magical beliefs can have significant impact on one’s likelihood to seek psychological interventions when in need. “From the point of view of religion, as well as most people, these beliefs are true. Since psychological problems are so-to-say “unobservable,” they are considered as related to these spiritual beliefs”- he told me. According to him, explaining that religion and treatment are not in conflict could be challenging: “Many believe that mental health problems are related to faith defects in the person. The problem that psychologists confront is the tendency of people suffering from psychological disorders to attribute magical interpretations to psychological and behavioral problems and to refuse to be psychologically diagnosed or treated.”  To Dr. Mustafa the key is in awareness raising: “Our job as psychologists isn’t to change patients’ minds, but instead to help them live better. We have the responsibility to inform people about mental health- particularly, when the symptoms of magical beliefs resemble psychological disorders like psychosomatic disorders or panic attacks.”

So, how can we make sense of magic beliefs and their societal impact? The complex nature of magic beliefs positions them in the intersection of religion, superstition and the human desire to define and overcome the unknown. Tayseer Abu Odeh, PhD in Comparative Literature pushes us to rethink our assumptions about Magic: “The concept of magic in the Islamic world is a problematic issue, leading to ready-made cultural exclusion. Magic is easily portrayed as uncanny, exotic, inconceivable, and mysterious. One of the central problems that arises emanates from the deeply-rooted discrepancy between the imaginative history of the East, as stretched epistemologically and ontologically within the narrative of Orientalism, and the scientific paradigm of the West, as introduced in tandem with the superior image of the Eurocentric discourse of rationalism and modernism. In a nutshell, addressing magic through the lenses of such dogmatic and essentialist “style of thought” mystifies the microcosmic narrative of magic. It reduces it to a mere form of an Orientalist and Islamic fantasy, or a sentimental pattern of metaphysical interpretation”. Yet, can one escape Orientalism while analyzing the societal, cultural, and psychological interpretation of magic in the Middle East? According to Abu Odeh, treating magic as a cultural and anthropological phenomenon “demystifies and dismantles the fixed misinterpretations and semi-religious myths that have reduced magic to one category of cultural defeatism and atavism”.

In a similar vein, Muslim writer Michael Muhammad Knight argues that the exploration of Magic beliefs is critical to understanding the complexity of the Middle East: “Looking at what we might call magic today or throughout Muslim traditions, in many cases it seems to expand the possibilities of what is thinkably “Islamic.”[2] To him, this is a positive social consequence.

[1] 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).

[2] Quote from interview with Michael Muhammad Knight here: http://religionnews.com/2016/06/01/michael-muhammad-knight-reclaims-the-magic-from-islams-margins/

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