University of Exeter’s Professor Rob Gleaves in a presentation to the Department of Classics & Religion UCalgary
“Magic (and occult practice more widely) has held a debated position in Islamic law and theology. For some Muslim thinkers, the practice of magic is unequivocally condemned as unislamic, or heretical, or a sign of the magician’s unbelief. For others, there is a recognition of “good” and “bad” magic: the former becomes part of the accepted operations of community life, and the latter is to be controlled and ultimately punished. Aside from this ethico-legal evaluation, there is a more practical discussion – does magic actually work, or is it simply fakery? The two principal discussions – the ethico-legal and the practical – do not easily map onto one another. There were, for instance, those who considered magic bad but dangerous (because it is actually works), and those who considered magic bad because it is ultimately a charade aimed at deceiving the people. The discussion around magic intersected with politics since Muslim rulers (from the medieval period to the present day) have often enthusiastically employed occult practitioners (astrologers, soothsayers and others) in their court circles. In this paper, I introduce the general contours of the debate within Islamic legal thought around magical practice, and explore their implications through a case study of controversial scholar magician – Mirza Muhammad Nisaburi (d.1818). Mirza Muhammad came from India to study in the Shiite seminaries of Iraq and Iran, made many enemies amongst the scholars (ulama) by insulting nearly everybody, and tried to ingratiate himself with the authorities by performing magic in exchange for political influence. His colourful life exemplifies how law, politics and magic are intertwined in the Islamic intellectual tradition.
Rob Gleave is Professor of Arabic Studies and director of two research centres at the University of Exeter, UK: the Centre for the Study of Islam (CSI), and the International Institute for Cultural Enquiry (IICE). He is Principal Investigator on the Law, Authority and Learning in Imami Shi’ite Islam, a 5-year Advanced Award from the European Research Council. His research interests include Islamic legal theory, particularly legal hermeneutics, and the history of Shi’ite legal thought and institutions. Click here to see his principal publications. Amongst his most recent publications are the three-volume series on Violence in Islamic Thought published by Edinburgh University Press.”