There are numerous opinions regarding the question of 'what is magic' and 'when did it come into existence'? Nevertheless, it is evident that magic has been prevalent amongst people since ancient times, but the exact date of its origin is unknown; in addition, it is also not known as to who was the first person to have brought it into existence.
However, with respect to its meaning and essence, it can be said that magic is a kind of supernatural act which has an impact on men; at times it is a kind of jugglery and sleight of hand, while on other occasions it is just psychological and imaginary.
According to the dictionary, magic has two meanings:
Deception, guile, sleight of hand and legerdemain; and according to the book Qamus al-Lughah, magic means 'to deceive'.
کُلُّ ماَ لَطُفَ وَ دَقَّ.
“All such things, the causes of which are invisible and mysterious.”
In Raghib's book al-Mufradat, which is devoted to analysing words appearing in the Qur’an, three meanings have been mentioned for it:
a. Deception and imaginations, which are devoid of reality - like sleight of hand.
b. Attracting the Satans by special means and seeking assistance from them.
And there is another meaning that some have been given to imagine and that is: It is possible to transform the essence and form of people or entities by certain means; for example, transforming man by means of it, into an animal. However, this kind is nothing more than mere fancy, and without an iota of reality.1
Studying the 51 instances of the usage of the word سحر (magic) and its derivatives in the chapters of the Noble Qur’an, such as Taha, Shu'ara, Yunus, A'raf, etc., in connection with the stories of the prophets Musa (a.s.), 'Isa (a.s.) and the Noble Prophet (S), we conclude that magic, according to the Qur’an, can be classified into two categories:
Those instances wherein the objective is deception, jugglery, sleight of hand and legerdemain and possesses no reality, as we read:
فَإِذَا حِبَالُهُمْ وَعِصِيُّهُمْ يُخَيَّلُ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ سِحْرِهِمْ أَنَّهَا تَسْعَىٰ
“Then lo! Their cords and their rods– it was imaged to him on account of their magic as if they were running.” (20:66).
Another verse says:
فَلَمَّا أَلْقَوْا سَحَرُوا أَعْيُنَ النَّاسِ وَاسْتَرْهَبُوهُمْ وَجَاءُوا بِسِحْرٍ عَظِيمٍ
“So when they cast, they deceived the people's eyes and frightened them, and they produced a mighty enchantment.” (7:116).
From these verses it can be ascertained that magic does not possess any reality such that it could exert control over things, and leave an impact and influence upon them. Rather, it is jugglery of the magicians that gives the impression of magic.
From some of the verses of the Qur’an it can be inferred that certain kinds of magic do yield an influence, such as this verse, which says:
فَيَتَعَلَّمُونَ مِنْهُمَا مَا يُفَرِّقُونَ بِهِ بَيْنَ الْمَرْءِ وَزَوْجِهِ
“Even then men learned from these two, magic by which they might cause a separation between a man and his wife.” (2:102).
Another verse of the Qur’an says that they learned things that were detrimental to them and not at all beneficial.
وَيَتَعَلَّمُونَ مَا يَضُرُّهُمْ وَلَا يَنْفَعُهُمْ
“And they learned what harmed them and did not profit them.” (2:102).
But, are the effects of magic purely psychological or can it possess a physical impact too? The above verses possess no allusion to this, and hence some are of the opinion that the effects of magic are purely psychological in nature.
At this juncture it is essential to mention another point: It appears that a considerable portion of magic was enacted by making use of certain physical and chemical properties, and performed with the intention of defrauding simple-minded people.
For example, we read in history that the magicians of the time of Musa (a.s.) used to place some special chemical substances within their cords and staffs (possibly mercury or some like substance) which, as a result of sunshine or under the influence of a heating apparatus that they had devised under them, would come out in motion and the spectators would be given to imagine that they had come to life. Such kinds of sorcery, even in our times, are not rare.
In this regard, all the Islamic jurists have declared the learning and practicing of magic to be prohibited.
Furthermore, we present some traditions that have been narrated from the Imams (a.s.) and which have been reported in authentic books.
Imam 'Ali (a.s.) says:
مَنْ تَعَلَّمَ شَيئاً مِنَ السِّحْرِ قَليلاً أَو کَثِيراً فَقَدْ کَفَرَ وَ کاَنَ آخِرُ عَهْدِهِ بِرَبِّهِ.
“One who learns magic, less or more, has become an infidel and his association with Allah (s.w.t.) s completely severed.”2
However, as we have mentioned, if it is for the purpose of nullifying the sorcery of the sorcerers, then there is no harm in it. Rather, at times, on the basis of general obligation (wajib kifa’i) some individuals must necessarily learn it so that they can nullify the sorcery of a false claimant (to prophethood), should he desire to mislead the people by means of sorcery, and thus lay bare his lies and false claims.
And testifying to this is a tradition of Imam as-Sadiq (a.s.), which states that one of the magicians, who used to take money for performing his magic, approached the Imam (a.s.) and said: Sorcery had been my profession; I would take money for it and in this manner managed to meet the expenses of my life. I even performed the Hajj by means of this income, however now I have abandoned it and have repented. Is there a way for me to achieve deliverance? The Imam (a.s.) replied: Open the knots of magic but do not tie the knots of sorcery.3
From this tradition it can be inferred that it is permissible to learn and practice magic if it is for the purpose of nullifying the (evil) effects of magic.4