While there were many interesting aspects in the Shamy article, one area that struck me and we did not really get a chance to talk about was the idea of harnessing the powers of the jinn for good or evil purposes, and the dichotomy therein of “white magic” and “black magic”. In some of their aspects, these two categories are linked to either holy or profane acts. However, this dichotomy seems to be only partially congruent with what forms of magic would be recognized as permissible in formal Islam.
“White Magic” or shihr rasmii seems to be command of the jinn and magical forces through the use of sacred means. The person who preforms it is called a mashayikh, not a sahir (sorcerer), and it is not referred to as sihr (sorcery). In this sense, this form of magic could be viewed as a practical application of formal religion and not something outside formal religion, and Shamy states that this form of magic is often derived from actual or perceived religious dogma. White magic appears to rely on the ilm al-haruf or “science of letters”, a belief in the power of writing, with the stipulation that this power is given with the permission of God. Shamy describes white magic as being in the form of written “works” prepared by a mashayikh that request the permission of God to command certain servants, either jinn or angels, to preform a charm, or predict the outcome of an event. Another ritual that Shamy addresses is the fath al-madal, an oracular ritual that seeks not to predict the future, but to actually discern information about past events by consultation with the jinn, usually through a young girl or boy using a focus such as a small cup of liquid. (jinn are said to have a greater understanding and insight into human events, and are more knowledgeable in general; although they can make good predictions about the future clairvoyance is not a power that they have explicitly). Shamy does mention that some of these rituals share aspects with Coptic christian belief, and therefore may have predated Islam.
Contrary to the divinely inspired power of white magic, sihr-sufli or “nether/black-magic” derives its power from a low power, either Satan himself or an infidel or evil jinn. These rituals are preformed by a sahir (sorcerer) who is viewed as having allied himself with these powers by comitting cardinal sins such as desecrating the Qur’an or engaging in fornication and adultery. Shamy recounts how de-frocked monks are reported to be some of the most popular (and predatory) sorcerors, who require their clients to have intercourse with them or allow themselves to be sexually violated in order to invoke their powers. Another ritual that Shamy desribes is the “milking of the stars” which allows a young woman to achieve an irrisitable hold over a targeted male. The ritual apparently involves the woman laying naked under the stars and washing with donkey’s milk in order to gain the power of the stars. Another ritual involves the hitting of the genitalia with a slipper, which is thought to be a sinful act that can grant power against against a man. Furthermore, Shamy lists a few rituals that, while not involving sinful acts, would be considered black magic because of there evil purpose, such as invoking a curse of impotency against a man.
There appears to be a sort of polar religious logic at work in these ideas of white and black magic. It seems to be that if you want some good fortune to happen, or want to gain some sort of insight into events, the logical way to do so is to seek God’s help in gaining power from good jinn or angels. These rituals, Shamy mentions, require the performer to be in a state of ritual purity as would be necessary for prayer, and involve invoking the Qur’an. However, if one wants to use magic for some evil purpose, one has to instead enlist the power of Satan, who is pleased not by purity or the Qur’an, but the exact opposite, and so these rituals are by design sinful and impure. This is almost a form of folk religious pseudoscience in that it defines the logical ways to gain the assistance of high and low powers. Additionally, eroticism seems to inextricably linked to black magic; sexuality – particularly female sexuality – appears to be very powerful, but it is a necessarily ungodly power.
The gendered nature of this black/white magic dichotomy is another aspect of it that cannot be avoided and I believe merits further inquiry. Why is it that while the white magic seems to be male-dominated or at least gender neutral, all of the black magic rituals that Shamy discusses involve women commiting sins in order to gain power? There are several ways we could interpret this. This gendering could be an artifact of gender relations as Islam imported pre-existing pagan rituals. While a man consulting with jinn in order to predict the future and a woman seeking to gain the power of the stars are both pagan rituals in their own way and probably existed before Islam, because of the superior position of men within the religious establishment, the men’s ritual became permissible and islamized while the women’s ritual was condemned as pagan and evil. The consciously sinful aspects of the ritual could then be interpreted as internalization by the performers of this outlook – if you’re going to perform a ritual you’ve been told is pagan anyway, you might as well do it in as illicit and ungodly way as possible in order to get the most from the evil powers. Conversely, the rituals could have arisen after the advent of Islam in light of gender relations. Shut out from the-male dominated rituals that are seen as good, women were forced to seek power from an alternate source, and in monotheist logic the only source of power besides God and his servants is Satan and his servants. This might explain why a man could cast a love charm on a woman by invoking the names of archangels, but the reverse could only be accomplished through a genitalia-abusing ritual that sought to please Satan and gain his power over men. Another explanation is that women are less involved in formal religion, and so more vulnerable to unscrupulous, predatory “magicians” such as the former coptic monks that Shamy describes. These explanations are not mutually exclusive and could certainly have acted in concert, though without more evidence it both are really only conjecture.
Another aspect of magic that I find interesting is its relationship with formal religion. While the logical correlation is that white magic is recognized by religion while black magic is condemned, this does not seem to be the case. In fact, Shamy relates that the to religious scholars the most important aspects of magic is whether or not the magician promulgates beliefs that would make him an unbeliever, not whether or not the magic is good or evil. Based on what I know about Islam, I would assume the the critical aspect is whether or not the magic and magician claims to derive powers from an entity other than god. In formal Islam, the tawheed or oneness of God is a central tenet; in this sense, Islam might be called the most uncompromising monotheistic religion – God is unique in his power, and all other powers flow originally from him. So, magic which sought to gain power from sources other than God could easily be seen as shirk or denying the oneness of God, which is a cardinal sin in Islam. This would predict that any ritual seeking the power of not only Satan or infidel jinn, but also good jinn or other sources, would be seen as unbelief. However, according to Shamy, this is not the case. He relates that there is a rationalization involved that God grants power to lesser beings, believing and unbelieving, for specific purposes. Magic that does not constitute explicit unbelief is not seen as inconsistent with formal religion, but seen as outside of or eccentric to formal religion. Magic is not normal, but not atypical, occupying a religious space that Shamy calls “normal abnormality” but might be more accurately called “acceptable eccentricity”.