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The practice of witchcraft in the Middle East has a long history. In ancient Judaism, there existed a complex relationship with magic and witchcraft, with some forms of divination and mystical practices accepted, yet others viewed as forbidden or heretical. In the medieval Middle East, under Islamic and Christian influences, witchcraft's perception fluctuated between healing and heresy, revered by some and condemned by others. In the present day diverse witchcraft communities have emerged.

Ancient and Medieval Near East

The early stages of the development of witchcraft in Mesopotamia were "comparable to the archaic shamanistic stage of European witchcraft".[1] Witches were not considered evil,[2] but rather helped others using a combination of magical and medical knowledge.[1] They generally lived in rural areas and sometimes exhibited ecstatic behavior,[1] which was more usually associated with the ašipu (exorcist), whose main function at this stage of development was to battle non-human supernatural forces.[3]

By the time of the Code of Hammurabi (about 2000 BC), the use of magic to harm others without justification was subject to legal repercussions:

If a man has put a spell upon another man and it is not justified, he upon whom the spell is laid shall go to the holy river; into the holy river shall he plunge. If the holy river overcome him and he is drowned, the man who put the spell upon him shall take possession of his house. If the holy river declares him innocent and he remains unharmed the man who laid the spell shall be put to death. He that plunged into the river shall take possession of the house of him who laid the spell upon him.[4]

The ašipu, who were the predominantly male representatives of the official state religion, eventually came into conflict with the witchcraft tradition[5] and developed an Akkadian anti-witchcraft ritual, the Maqlû, probably composed in the early first millennium BC.[6]


See also: Witchcraft and divination in the Hebrew Bible

Rabbi Loew and Golem by Mikoláš Aleš, 1899

Jewish law views the practice of witchcraft as being laden with idolatry and/or necromancy; both being serious theological and practical offenses in Judaism. Although Maimonides vigorously denied the efficacy of all methods of witchcraft, and claimed that the Biblical prohibitions regarding it were precisely to wean the Israelites from practices related to idolatry. It is acknowledged that while magic exists, it is forbidden to practice it on the basis that it usually involves the worship of other gods. Rabbis of the Talmud also condemned magic when it produced something other than illusion, giving the example of two men who use magic to pick cucumbers.[7] The one who creates the illusion of picking cucumbers should not be condemned, only the one who actually picks the cucumbers through magic.

Saul and the Witch of Endor (1828) by William Sidney Mount

However, some of the rabbis practiced "magic" themselves or taught the subject. For instance, Rava (amora) created a golem and sent it to Rav Zeira, and Hanina and Hoshaiah studied every Friday together and created a small calf to eat on Shabbat.[8] In these cases, the "magic" was seen more as divine miracles (i.e., coming from God rather than "unclean" forces) than as witchcraft. Judaism's most famous reference to a medium is undoubtedly the Witch of Endor whom Saul consults, as recounted in 1 Samuel 28.

Hebrew Bible

According to the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia:

In the Holy Scripture references to sorcery are frequent, and the strong condemnations of such practices found there do not seem to be based so much upon the supposition of fraud as upon the abomination of the magic in itself.[9]

Verses such as Book of Deuteronomy 18:11-12 and Book of Exodus 22:18 "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" provided scriptural justification for Christian witch-hunters in the early modern period. The word "witch" is a translation of the Hebrew כָּשַׁף kashaf, "sorcerer". The Hebrew Bible provides some evidence that these commandments were enforced under the Hebrew kings:

And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit, and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee. And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?"[10]

The Hebrew verb הכרית, translated in the King James Version as "cut off", can also be translated as "kill wholesale" or "exterminate".

The King James Version uses the words witch, witchcraft, and witchcrafts to translate the Masoretic כָּשַׁףkāsháf (Hebrew pronunciation: [kɔˈʃaf]) and קֶסֶם‎ (qésem);[11] these same English terms are used to translate φαρμακεία pharmakeia in the Greek New Testament. Verses such as Deuteronomy 18:11–12[12] and Exodus 22:18 ("Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"[13]) thus provided scriptural justification for Christian witch hunters in the early modern period (see Christian views on magic).

The precise meaning of the Hebrew כָּשַׁף‎, usually translated as witch or sorceress, is uncertain. In the Septuagint, it was translated as pharmakeía or pharmakous. In the 16th century, Reginald Scot, a prominent critic of the witch trials, translated כָּשַׁף‎, φαρμακεία, and the Vulgate's Latin equivalent veneficos as all meaning 'poisoner', and on this basis, claimed that witch was an incorrect translation and poisoners were intended.[14] His theory still holds some currency, but is not widely accepted, and in Daniel 2:2[15] כָּשַׁף‎ is listed alongside other magic practitioners who could interpret dreams: magicians, astrologers, and Chaldeans. Suggested derivations of כָּשַׁף‎ include 'mutterer' (from a single root) or herb user (as a compound word formed from the roots kash, meaning 'herb', and hapaleh, meaning 'using'). The Greek φαρμακεία literally means 'herbalist' or one who uses or administers drugs, but it was used virtually synonymously with mageia and goeteia as a term for a sorcerer.[16]

The Bible provides some evidence that these commandments against sorcery were enforced under the Hebrew kings:

And Saul disguised himself, and put on other raiment, and he went, and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night: and he said, I pray thee, divine unto me by the familiar spirit,[note 1] and bring me him up, whom I shall name unto thee. And the woman said unto him, Behold, thou knowest what Saul hath done, how he hath cut off those that have familiar spirits, and the wizards, out of the land: wherefore then layest thou a snare for my life, to cause me to die?[17]

In the Tanakh, references to witchcraft are frequent, and the strong condemnations of such practices which we read there do not seem to be based so much upon the supposition of fraud as upon the "abomination" of belief in the magic in itself. Judaism does make it clear that Jews shall not try to learn about the ways of witches[18] and that witches are to be put to death.[19]


See also: Christian views on magic

The New Testament condemns the practice as an abomination, just as the Old Testament had (Epistle to the Galatians 5:20, compared with the Book of Revelation 21:8; 22:15; and Acts of the Apostles 8:9; 13:6).

There is some debate, however, as to whether the word used in Galatians and Revelation, Koinē Greek: φαρμακεία pharmakeía, is properly translated as "sorcery", as the word was commonly used to describe the malicious use of drugs.


Divination and magic in Islam encompass a wide range of practices, including black magic, warding off the evil eye, the production of amulets and other magical equipment, evocation, casting lots, and astrology.[20]

Legitimacy of practising witchcraft is disputed. Most Islamic traditions distinguish between good magic and black magic. Miracles belong to licit magic and are considered gifts of God. Magical incantations for healing purposes generally received support as long as they do not contain polytheism.[21] al-Razi and Ibn Sina describe that magic is merely a tool and only the outcome determines whether or not the act of magic was legitimate or not.[22] Al-Ghazali, although admitting the reality of magic, regards learning all sorts of magic as forbidden.[22] Ibn al-Nadim argues that good supernatural powers are received from God after purifying the soul, while sorcerers please devils and commit acts of disobedience and sacrifices to demons.[23] Whether or not sorcery is accessed by acts of piety or disobedience is often seen as an indicator whether magic is licit or illicit.[24] Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, a disciple of Ibn Taimiyya, the major source for Wahhabism, disregards magic, including exorcisms, entirely as superstition.[25] Ibn Khaldun brands sorcery, talismans, and prestidigitation as forbidden and illegal.[26] Tabasi did not subscribe to the rationalized framework of magic of most Ash'arite theologians, and offered a wide range of rituals to perform sorcery. Yet he agrees that only magic in accordance with sharia is permissible.[22]

The reality of magic is confirmed by the Quran. The Quran itself is said to bestow magical blessings upon hearers and heal them, based on al-Isra.[27] Solomon had the power to speak with animals and jinn, and command devils, which is only given to him with God's permission.[Quran 27:19][28] Surah Al-Falaq is used as a prayer to God to ward off black magic and is, according to hadith-literature, revealed to Muhammad to protect him against Jann, the ancestor of the jinn.[29] The Quran also reports Muhammad being accused of being a magician by his opponents, and denounces these accusations as false.[Quran 10:2][30] The idea that devils teach magic is confirmed in Al-Baqara. A pair of fallen angels, Harut and Marut, are also mentioned to tempt people into learning sorcery.[Quran 2:102]

Scholars of religious history have linked several magical practises in Islam with pre-Islamic Turkish and East African customs. Most notable of these customs is the Zār.[31][32]

Modern Middle East

In the modern Middle East, a complex tapestry of diverse religious and social dynamics unfolds. In the 20th century, the practice of ceremonial trampling and burning the flags of enemy countries emerged, which has been likened to witchcraft as "an attempt to harm the enemy by a kind of sympathetic magic".[33] In June 2015, Yahoo reported: "The Islamic State group has beheaded two women in Syria on accusations of 'sorcery', the first such executions of female civilians in Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday."[34]

In Israel, Jewish neopaganism involves exploring forms of modern witchcraft and pagan practices while drawing on ancient Jewish mysticism (Kabbalah) or combining it with other influences.[35] There has been a resurgence of interest in Goddess worship,[36] and this intersects with modern witchcraft in certain cases.[37]

Saudi Arabia has continued to use the death penalty for sorcery and witchcraft.[38] In 2006 Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali was condemned to death for practicing witchcraft.[39] There is no legal definition of sorcery in Saudi, but in 2007 an Egyptian pharmacist working there was accused, convicted, and executed. Saudi authorities also pronounced the death penalty on a Lebanese television presenter, Ali Hussain Sibat, while he was performing the hajj (Islamic pilgrimage) in the country.[40] In 2009, the Saudi authorities set up the Anti-Witchcraft Unit of their Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice police.[41] In April 2009, a Saudi woman Amina Bint Abdulhalim Nassar was arrested and later sentenced to death for practicing witchcraft and sorcery. In December 2011, she was beheaded.[42] A Saudi man has been beheaded on charges of sorcery and witchcraft in June 2012.[43] A beheading for sorcery occurred in 2014.[44]

In Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country, there has been a mixture of traditional folk practices,[45][46] Sufi mysticism, and New Age spirituality. Some individuals have expressed interest in alternative spiritual practices and forms of witchcraft, often drawing from local folk traditions, herbalism, and mysticism. However, due to the conservative nature of the country and potential societal pressures, such practices might not be widely visible or openly discussed.[47]

See also



  1. ^ The Hebrew word אֹב (ob), rendered as familiar spirit in the translation, has a different meaning than the usual English sense of the phrase; namely, it refers to a spirit that the woman is familiar with, rather than to a spirit that physically manifests itself in the shape of an animal.


  1. ^ a b c Abusch (2002), p. 65.
  2. ^ Abusch (2002), p. 66.
  3. ^ Abusch (2002), pp. 65–6.
  4. ^ International Standard Bible Encyclopedia ], last accessed 31 March 2006. There is some discrepancy between translations; compare with that given in the Catholic Encyclopedia article on Witchcraft (accessed 31 March 2006), and the L. W. King translation Archived 16 September 2007 at the Wayback Machine (accessed 31 March 2006)
  5. ^ Abusch (2002).
  6. ^ Abusch, Tzvi (2015). The Witchcraft Series Maqlû. Writings from the Ancient World. Vol. 37. SBL Press. p. 5. ISBN 978-1628370829.
  7. ^ Sanhedrin 67a
  8. ^ Sanhedrin 67b
  9. ^ "Catholic Encyclopedia: Witchcraft". 1912-10-01. Archived from the original on 2021-02-11. Retrieved 2013-10-31.
  10. ^ I Samuel 28
  11. ^ Nahum 3:4; 1 Samuel 15:23; 2 Chronicles 33:6; 2 Kings 9:22; Deuteronomy 18:10; Exodus 22:18
  12. ^ Deuteronomy 18:11–12
  13. ^ Exodus 22:18
  14. ^ Scot, Reginald (c. 1580) The Discoverie of Witchcraft Booke VI Ch. 1.
  15. ^ Daniel 2:2
  16. ^ Dickie, Matthew (2003). Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World. Routledge. pp. 33–35. ISBN 978-0415249829.
  17. ^ I Samuel 28.
  18. ^ Book of Deuteronomy 18: 9–10
  19. ^ Exodus 22:17
  20. ^ Savage-Smith, Emilie (2004). Magic and Divination in Early Islam. Ashgate/Variorum. ISBN 978-0860787150. Archived from the original on 2021-07-18. Retrieved 2020-08-25.
  21. ^ Savage-Smith, Emilie, ed. Magic and divination in early Islam. Routledge, 2021. p. 87
  22. ^ a b c Travis Zadeh Commanding Demons and Jinn: The Sorcerer in Early Islamic Thought Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2014 p. 154
  23. ^ Amira El-Zein Islam, Arabs, and Intelligent World of the Jinn Syracuse University Press 2009 ISBN 978-0815650706 p. 77
  24. ^ Moiz Ansari Islam And the Paranormal: What Does Islam Says About the Supernatural in the Light of Qur'an, Sunnah And Hadith iUniverse 2006 ISBN 978-0595378852 p. 173
  25. ^ al-Jawziyya, Ibn Qayyim. Zad al-Ma'ad [Provisions of the Hereafter]. pp. 1/475.
  26. ^ Khaldûn, Ibn (2015). The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History (Abridged ed.). Princeton University Press. p. 578. ISBN 978-0691166285. Archived from the original on 2021-07-18. Retrieved 2021-05-04.
  27. ^ Sengers, G. (2003). "Chapter Five Koran Healing". In Women and Demons. Leiden, Niederlande: Brill. doi:10.1163/9789004475984_008 p. 124
  28. ^ Tafsir Ibn Kathir for surah 21, verse 19
  29. ^ Josef von Hammer-Purgstall Die Geisterlehre der Moslimen Staatsdruckerei, 1852 digit. 22. Juli 2010 p. 31 (German).
  30. ^ "Magic – Oxford Islamic Studies Online". Archived from the original on 2018-08-06. Retrieved 2018-08-05.
  31. ^ Geister, Magier und Muslime. Dämonenwelt und Geisteraustreibung im Islam. Kornelius Hentschel, Diederichs 1997, Germany.
  32. ^ Magic and Divination in Early Islam (The Formation of the Classical Islamic World) by Emilie Savage-Smith (Ed.), Ashgate Publishing 2004.
  33. ^ Lewis, B. (2011). The End of Modern History in the Middle East. Hoover Institution Press. p. 123. ISBN 978-0817912963.
  34. ^ "IS beheads two civilian women in Syria: monitor Archived 2015-07-04 at the Wayback Machine". Yahoo News. 30 June 2015.
  35. ^ Román, Rachel (30 October 2021). "Season of the Jewitch: The occultists reviving Jewish witchcraft and folklore". The Times of Israel. Retrieved 2023-08-22.
  36. ^ Kestenbaum, Sam (November 6, 2016). "Finding God — Who's a She — at the Kohenet Institute". The Forward. Retrieved 2023-08-22.
  37. ^ Idel, M. (2011). Saturn's Jews: On the Witches' Sabbat and Sabbateanism. Bloomsbury Publishing. ISBN 978-1441137319.
  38. ^ Miethe, Terance D.; Lu, Hong (2004). Punishment: a comparative historical perspective. Cambridge University Press. p. 63. ISBN 978-0521605168.
  39. ^ "Pleas for condemned Saudi 'witch'", 14 February 2008 BBC NEWS Archived 2008-03-14 at the Wayback Machine
  40. ^ Usher, Sebastian (2010-04-01). "Death 'looms for Saudi sorcerer'". BBC News. Archived from the original on 2020-04-20. Retrieved 2010-04-01.
  41. ^ "Saudi Arabia's 'Anti-Witchcraft Unit' breaks another spell". The Jerusalem Post | Archived from the original on 2015-09-07. Retrieved 2015-09-14.
  42. ^ "Saudi Authorities Behead Woman for 'Sorcery' – Middle East – News". Israel National News. 12 December 2011. Archived from the original on 2013-10-18. Retrieved 2013-06-29.
  43. ^ "Saudi man executed for 'witchcraft and sorcery' Archived 2018-07-18 at the Wayback Machine", BBC News, June 19, 2012
  44. ^ di Giovanni, Janine (14 October 2014). "When It Comes to Beheadings, ISIS Has Nothing Over Saudi Arabia". Newsweek. Archived from the original on 16 October 2014. Retrieved 17 October 2014.
  45. ^ Pop-Curşeu, I.; Pop-Curșeu, Ș. (2022). Witchcraft in Romania. Springer International. p. 100. ISBN 978-3031152221.
  46. ^ "Turkish Magic and Witchcraft". The New York Times. March 3, 1878.
  47. ^ Bogdan, Henrik; Djurdjevic, Gordan, eds. (2014). Occultism in a Global Perspective. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-1317544470.

Works cited

Further reading

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