The wonderful and imaginative world of popular stories is not complete without magic. Whether it is the conventional western fairy tale Cinderella or the Arabian nights classic Alâ’ al-Dîn, magic lends an elusive touch that transforms the situation and makes dreams come true .In most popular fairytales magical creatures either cast spells on characters or run around transforming their lives. This is true in both western and Arabian mythical tales. Magic often construed as the ability to understand and manipulate the hidden forces of nature, runs rife in the thousand and one stories that form a part of the Arabian nights collection
The tales cover the whole gamut of magical interaction from casting spells to intervention from supernatural beings, reading in the sand, talismans, and transformations of people into animals. In these stories supernatural beings known as jinns ( also known as demons in popular culture) make frequent connections with central characters and have a large role to play in the appeal and content of the story. Several Arabian night stories feature magic in their central themes. One such story is that of Hasan of Basra. This story deals with magical knowledge and how a secret network of wise old men study theories of magic to fight black magic and satanic forces. Here magical practices include casting spells reading in the sand while the emphasis is on using these magical powers not to transform dreams into reality but fighting evil influences . In other stories where magic features as an important theme the main protagonist is either under a spell, is send out to break a spell or is confronted with a magical being Stories such as Abû Muhammad Hight Lazybones; The First Qalandar’s Tale; TheSecond Qalandar’s Tale; The Third Qalandar’s Tale; The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad; Jûdar and His Brethren and The Queen of the Serpents all revolve in this particular realm. Other stories feature magical objects like rings, lamps and jars which often house supernatural beings who appear and change the protagonists life. These stories include Hasan of Basra; ‘Alâ’ al-Dîn Abu ’l-Shâmât; Abû Qîr and Abû Sîr; Yet other stories feature magical creatures of great speed which transport their rider through the air and transport them to distant lands. In the ebony horse one such creature made of ebony wood is presented to a Persian king and its owner claims that it can fly and transport its owner anywhere (Irwin, 2003)
Many stories in Arabian nights describe magical powers possessed by supernatural beings known as Jin. In these stories the Jinns have the magical abilities to transform themselves into other beings such as animals, monsters , dragons and serpents . In The Story of Prince Sayf al-
Mulûk the Jinn uses his powers to transform himself into a lion, bull, elephant, and dog. In the stories Qamar al-Zamân and Budûr the Jinn has the capability to fly long distances in a short time. The Jinn in Ala al-Din uses his magical powers to perform huge tasks overnight. In some of these tales command over the Jinn rests in an animate object and he who possesses the object rules over the Jinn. In the story Ma‘rûf the Cobbler the control of the supernatural being is vested in a ring, in Hassan of Basra the Jinn is controlled by the possession of the rod and in Ala al-Din it is the lamp which controls the Jinn. In Sayf-al-amuluk the Jinn’s soul is a living object and is hidden through complex arrangements. To kill the Jinn one must find the creature or object that houses their soul. (Marzolph, Leeuwen, and Wassouf, 2004)
The use of magic in all the stories depicts the pursuit of self gain through deception and trickery. In the story the ebony horse the Indian prince uses the horse to gain the hand of the beautiful princess in Marriage. In Ala al-din the street urchin uses the magic lamp to gain riches and the love of a princess. Magic in most of these stories is used in a unfair manner to gain an elusive objective through corrupt means. Because magic involves the use of an elusive power that the other person does not posses it instantly puts the person who does not have access to magic in a inferior position and that is not fair. Using magic makes the equation unfair and that is why magic as a whole is condemned in Islam the dominant religion against the backdrop of which the stories are set.
Perhaps the fact that the magical practices depicted in these stories are condemned by the dominant religion is what makes them popular. Condemned and restricted literature often attracts more curiosity and wonder These fascinating stories of magical objects and supernatural beings performing amazing deeds of magic have gained as much popularity in the West as they have in the lands they originated from. Although most names and characters in these tales denote, Arab heritage the stories have their origins in Indian, Persian Turkish and Arab cultures. The dominant religion that features in most of these stories is Islam. However not all practices depicted in the stories is condoned by Islam including the use of magic. (Irwin 2003)
The Holy Quran and Hadith (practices of Prophet Muhammad) openly condemn magic and discourage its use .The attitude towards magic is summed up in a Quran verse as below
"Suleiman (Solomon) did not disbelieve, but the devils disbelieved teaching men magic" (2:102)
In a Hadith , the Prophet Muhammad is reputed to have said “ Whoever goes to a fortune teller (a soothe sayer) or a diviner and believes him, has, in fact, disbelieved in what has been revealed to Muhammad”. (Islamic Awareness, 2012)
In condemning magic Islam opposes all practices which involve forecasting the future. This includes fortune telling reading and determining horoscopes or palm reading. Though now these kind of practices have become more of a science and a tradition they do classify as magical thinking in Islamic thought and that is against Islamic thought which holds that no one knows the future or the unseen except God almighty. A verse from the Quran states that even Muhammad does not know the unseen.:
"If I had the knowledge of the unseen, I should have secured abundance for myself, and no evil would have touched me" (7:188).
The Quran on several occasions is described in the Quran as the knower of the unseen and the manifest (6:73) and as the holder of the keys of the unseen (6:59).
In another hadith, Prophet Muhammad says: "Avoid the seven deadly acts which are: ascribing partners to God, magic, killing the human self which Allah prohibited except with right, eating usury, devouring the orphan's wealth, defecting from the battle-field (without a justified reason) and slandering chaste, unwary believing women. (Islamic Awareness, 2012)
The Quran’s position on magic is made abundantly clear in the following verses
"And when there came to them a Messenger from Allah confirming what was with them, a party of those who were given the scripture threw away the book of Allah behind their backs as if they did not know. And they followed what the devils gave out falsely of magic of the reign of Solomon; for Solomon did not disbelieve but the devils disbelieved, teaching men magic and such things that came down at Babylon to the two angels Harut and Marut, but neither of these two (angles) taught anyone (such things) until they had said: we are only for trial, so don't disbelieve. And from them (magicians) people learn that through which they would cause separation between a person and his spouse, but they could not thus harm anyone except by Allah's leave; and they learn that which harms them rather than profits them. And indeed they knew that its practitioner would have no share in the Hereafter. And how bad indeed was that for which they sold their own selves if they but knew" (2:101-2). (Islamic Awareness, 2012)
According to the above verse the concept of magic was communicated to humans by two angels Hârût and Mârût, who were expelled from heaven for their rebellious nature and chained to a
well in the ancient city of Babylon. However they would not teach anyone magic without warning them about becoming a disbeliever. It is rumored that magic passed from Babylon to ancient Egypt and the Ancient Egyptians used this magic to build their civilization. The knowledge of magic was passed to the Arab word in the reign of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mûn from the Greeks . It was during this period that with the availability of magical knowledge there was a shift in thinking and a clear distinction was created between white and black magic in Islamic thought
In Islamic thought “white” or licit magic, uses forces permitted by God, whereas “black” or illicit magic solicits help from the devil. Black magic usually involves some form of deception and manipulation of the senses and is therefore harmful to the human being in the long run.
The great Islamic intellectual Ibn Khaldûn segregated magic in Islamic thought in three categories. The first kind was magic with the help of the will where the person participated in the act out of their own free will and freedom. The second kind of magic occurs with the help of celestial bodies, numbers, letters etc. The third kind of magic occurs through the manipulation of the senses and includes casting spells and enhancements
During consequent eras other prominent Islamic scholars like Abû Ma‘shar ,Kindî
al-Ghazzâlî and al-Râzî worked on the theory and practice of magic. Contrary to the very strict attitude presented in the Quran these Islamic scholars adopted a very tolerant attitude towards magic. Their thoughts integrated magic with science creating a whole new realm of healing which used white magic in healing all kinds of ailments. This scientific approach to magic flourished in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. This new realm of magical thinking focused on divination geomancy, invoking the properties of
If we contemplate why Islam bans magic we find that the primary reason is that magic is deceptive in its very nature because it paints an illusion of what is not real. By making its audience believe in a perceived reality that is an illusion, magic does because more harm than good. This is what Islam wants to protect its believers from the harm that accompanies deception. Miracles on the other hand are considered divine and useful as opposed to acts of magic.
Though the Quran and hadith condemns magic it does acknowledge the existence of jinn. Because of this most Muslims do believe in Jinn sightings and that there are two kinds of jinn in the world good Jinn and Bad Jinns. Thus the stories of Jinns in the Arabian Nights are on a large extent based on Islamic beliefs in these supernatural beings. These stories depicting the power of Jinns are acceptable and plausible to a Muslim audience though they may seem exotic and farfetched to people from different faiths.
Arabian Nights depict Islamic culture to a western audience. However they are mythical tales which originate in medieval times and represent Egyptian Turkish, Persian and Indian cultures. Though the current names used in these tales are Muslim there is a possibility that the stories do represent a pre Islamic time in these cultures where magic was rampantly endorsed. Later on as the stories passed down from one generation to the other the names changed to accommodate the rampant religion. It is also possible that after the Muslim conquests of these regions popular cultural stories were adopted into Muslim versions and all the characters in these stories assumed Muslim identities. It is inaccurate however to assume that the culture depicted in stories set in Medieval times still depicts modern Islamic life. Some similarities are still there for example the names and the cultural components but don’t expect to go to Persia (modern day Iran) and find a magical flying horse. These representations of magic in Islamic thought have found their way in the literature known as Arabian nights . The stories feature King Solomen who the Quran speaks of in relation to magic and that reflects Islamic thought. They speak of Jinns which do exsist according to Islamic belief. There are other components which are not endorsed in Islam such as magical animals, objects, sorcerers, fortune tellers etc but perhaps their addition was essential to create the fascination that such concepts accompany.
Irwin, Robert The Arabian Nights: A Companion, Tauris Parke Palang-faacks. 2003
Ulrich Marzolph, Richard van Leeuwen, Hassan Wassouf The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia, ABC-CLIO, 2004 pp. 2–4,
Ulrich Marzolph (ed.) The Arabian Nights Reader (Wayne State University Press, 2006
Islamic Awareness (2012) Islam and Magic Retrieved online from the website