Several years ago, my aunt pointed out something I had never noticed: the great frequency with which articles about – and editorials against – magic and sorcery appear in Gulf newspapers. I thought of her observation when I read earlier this month that Ali Sibat had been sentenced to death for his work as a television psychic. Sibat is Lebanese and lived worked in Lebanon, but was arrested in Saudi Arabia while there on a religious pilgrimage last year.
Here’s an excerpt from the latest Associated Press article on the story:
Saudi Arabia should overturn a death sentence imposed on a Lebanese national convicted of practicing witchcraft during a visit to the conservative kingdom, an international human rights group said in a report late Tuesday.
Human Rights Watch also called on the Saudi government to halt “its increasing use of charges of ‘witchcraft,’ crimes that are vaguely defined and arbitrarily used.”
The report highlights the ongoing complaints over the Saudi justice system, which, while based on Islamic law, leaves a wide leeway to individual judges and can often result in dramatically inconsistent sentences.
Ali Sibat, a Lebanese psychic who made predictions on a satellite TV channel from his home in Beirut, was arrested by religious police in the holy city of Medina during a pilgrimage there in May 2008 and then sentenced to death Nov. 9.
Sibat is one of scores of people reported arrested every year in the kingdom by local papers for practicing sorcery, witchcraft, black magic and fortune-telling. These practices are considered polytheism by the government of this deeply religious Muslim country.
Sibat seems to have been arrested somewhat by chance: he was recognized while in Medina, and those who recognized him informed the local authorities.
Here’s a September article from Arab News, the English-language Saudi newspaper, that addresses the issue of magic (or sorcery, as it is often called in the Gulf papers). It incorporates several common themes: the sinfulness of magic and its historic omnipresence; the connection between sorcerers/magicians and 1) Africans or dark-skinned people, 2) avarice, 3) women; and the real presence of evil in this world, which religion can address but magic cannot.
JEDDAH: Hardly a day passes without a local newspaper reporting the arrest of a sorcerer in the Kingdom, something that is indicative of the widespread meddling in sorcery. It is, however, not just sorcerers who make money — those who treat (or claim to treat) magic and the evil eye are also rolling in dollars. While there is mystery surrounding how magic is done, some weak-hearted people end up resorting to sorcerers to mend troubled marriages, ensure husbands remain faithful or cause harm to adversaries.
At the same time, magic is an old human practice, which has existed in many countries and religions, including Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism.
Sara Mohammed, a single 28-year-old woman, said a sorcerer once told her she was unmarried because someone had cast a spell on her. “I have been facing problems all my life and I was looking for something to change my fortune for the better. A relative told me that she knew a man who could help me because I may be under some kind of spell,” Sara said.
The man who her relative introduced her turned out to be an African sorcerer who had been residing in the Kingdom for some time. Sara visited him at his home, which she described as a “rotten place with a terrible stench.”
Afraid to go alone, she took her cousin along. “I went in and his wife offered us tea. We refused to drink anything there. My cousin was laughing and giggling as she felt the entire setup was just a big joke. The man then began asking me about my situation and held up a small cup filled with olive oil,” she added. Sara laughs for a few seconds and then explains that the sorcerer then began acting strange by whispering into the cup. “He then said my ex-fiancé had cast a spell on me and that he could undo it for SR1,800. I told him that he was asking for far too much money. He held the cup up once again and started talking and haggling with this supposed jinn inside,” she said, laughing.
“That was four years ago. I now only seek Allah’s help,” she said.
People underestimate how serious a sin magic actually is. Some people pay large amounts of money to sorcerers, believing they will eventually give them happiness. Abeer Saleh said some members of her family are so infatuated with magic that they act strange and perform nonsensical rituals.
“Two elderly members of my family who are sisters met a sorceress who told them that their sister-in-law had cast a spell on them. They believed everything that she told them,” said Saleh. She added that the two sisters were experiencing some domestic problems and in the course of their fascination with magic even claimed to have seen the ground split open and their sister-in-law appear and cast a spell on them. “They then began selling their personal belongings and even furniture to pay the sorceress to break the spell,” said Saleh, adding that other members of the family even tried to explain to them that magic was forbidden in Islam, but to no avail. “They’re still, even to this day, engrossed in weird rituals. They burned coriander and black pepper at my sister’s wedding to protect her wedding dress from harm,” she said, adding that her relatives are educated women and not ignorant.
Reports surfaced in July that divers searching for the body of a young woman who drowned off Jeddah’s Corniche discovered 22 bottles containing papers with names scrawled on them, as well as pieces of jewelry and locks of hair. It is thought these items were spells cast into the sea as part of some magic ritual. Some sheikhs cure those afflicted with magic by reciting verses of the Qur’an over Zamzam water, olive oil or honey which they then administer to those affected.
Some of these people have even developed reputations of being very proficient in what they do and are known to charge around SR100 or more per visit. One sheikh who helps fight black magic and the effects of the evil eye said that magic is everywhere. The sheikh, who asked not to be named, charges SR100 per visit. He even has an office where he receives clients.
“Black magic is widely practiced nowadays. It’s all over the Internet and even in toy stores,” he said giving the example of Ouija boards, which are sold in stores.
A woman told Arab News that she went to this sheikh after her son decided to break off his engagement. “I just felt my son was behaving strangely. It was out of character. The girl he was engaged to was suitable for him,” she said. “The sheikh treated my son with verses of the Qur’an and Zamzam water. He then abandoned his intention and then married that girl. They are very happy,” she added.
I’m personally not a great fan of astrologists, psychics, etc. But this story is rather horrifying: a man goes to the holiest cities of Islam to perform an act of piety, and is arrested and sentenced to death for breaking the law – a violation that occurred in another country, under a different set of laws. Talk about a guardian state …