Saudi Arabia’s War on Witchcraft

Ryan Jacobs, The Atlantic, August 19, 2013

The sorceress was naked.

The sight of her bare flesh startled the prudish officers of Saudi Arabia’s infamous religious police, the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV), which had barged into her room in what was supposed to be a routine raid of a magical hideout in the western desert city of Madinah’s Al-Seeh neighborhood. They paused in shock, and to let her dress.

The woman–still unclothed–managed to slip out of the window of her apartment and flee. According to the 2006 account of the Saudi Okaz newspaper, which has been described as the Arabic equivalent of the New York Post, she “flew like a bird.” A frantic pursuit ensued. The unit found their suspect after she had fallen through the unsturdy roof of an adjacent house and onto the ground next to a bed of dozing children.

They covered her body, arrested her, and claimed to uncover key evidence indicating that witchcraft had indeed been practiced, including incense, talismans, and videos about magic. In the Al Arabiya report, a senior Islamic cleric lamented that the incident had occurred in a city of such sacred history. The prophet Muhammad is buried there, and it is considered the second most holy location in Islam, second to Mecca. The cleric didn’t doubt the details of the incident. “Some magicians may ride a broom and fly in the air with the help of the jinn [supernatural beings],” he said.

The fate of this sorceress is not readily apparent, but her plight is common. Judging from the punishments of others accused of practicing witchcraft in Saudi Arabia before and since, the consequences were almost certainly severe.

In 2007, Egyptian pharmacist Mustafa Ibrahim was beheaded in Riyadh after his conviction on charges of “practicing magic and sorcery as well as adultery and desecration of the Holy Quran.” The charges of “magic and sorcery” are not euphemisms for some other kind of egregious crime he committed; they alone were enough to qualify him for a death sentence. He first came to the attention of the religious authorities when members of a mosque in the northern town of Arar voiced concerns over the placement of the holy book in the restroom. After being accused of disrupting a man’s marriage through spellwork, and the discovery of “books on black magic, a candle with an incantation ‘to summon devils,’ and ‘foul-smelling herbs,'” the case–and eventually his life–were swallowed by the black hole of the discretionary Saudi court system.

The campaign of persecution has shown no signs of fizzling. In May, two Asian maids were sentenced to 1,000 lashings and 10 years in prison after their bosses claimed that they had suffered from their magic. {snip}

According to Adam Coogle, a Jordan-based Middle East researcher for Human Rights Watch who monitors Saudi Arabia, the relentless witch hunts reveal the hollowness of the country’s long-standing promises about liberalizing its justice system.

In a country where public observance of any religion besides Islam is strictly forbidden, foreign domestic workers who bring unfamiliar traditional religious or folk customs from Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Africa, or elsewhere can make especially vulnerable and easy targets. “If they see these [folk practices or items] they immediately assume they’re some kind of sorcery or witchcraft,” he said.

The Saudi government’s obsession with the criminalization of the dark arts reached a new level in 2009, when it created and formalized a special “Anti-Witchcraft Unit” to educate the public about the evils of sorcery, investigate alleged witches, neutralize their cursed paraphernalia, and disarm their spells. Saudi citizens are also urged to use a hotline on the CPVPV website to report any magical misdeeds to local officials, according to the Jerusalem Post.

{snip} In 2009 alone, at least 118 people were charged with “practicing magic” or “using the book of Allah in a derogatory manner” in the province of Makkah, the country’s most populous region.


By 2011, the unit had created a total of nine witchcraft-fighting bureaus in cities across the country, according to Arab News, and had “achieved remarkable success” in processing 586 cases of magical crime, the majority of which were foreign domestic workers from Africa and Indonesia. Then, last year, the government announced that it was expanding its battle against magic further, scapegoating witches as the source of both religious and social instability in the country. The move would mean new training courses for its agents, a more powerful infrastructural backbone capable of passing intelligence across provinces, and more raids. The force booked 215 sorcerers in 2012.


But belief in the supernatural and magic is actually quite common in Muslim culture. According to the Quran, the jinn are demonic supernatural beings that were created out of fire at the same time as man. Some believe that jinn have the power to cause harm, and it is not uncommon for the possessed to visit faith healers or sorcerers tasked with ridding the evil.

According to the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project:

In most of the countries surveyed, roughly half or more Muslims affirm that jinn exist and that the evil eye is real. Belief in sorcery is somewhat less common: half or more Muslims in nine of the countries included in the study say they believe in witchcraft.

Accusations of jinn worship and witchcraft once even touched the administration of former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, when his advisers and aides were arrested on charges of black magic. Ahmadinejad denied the charges, but a sorcerer well-known among the ruling class claimed that he met with the President at least twice and gathered intelligence for him on “Jinn who work for Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, and for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency,” according to the Wall Street Journal.


The courts are controlled by judges–commonly religious clerics–who have unlimited latitude to interpret and define the content of witchcraft crime, the details of which are not articulated in a spare, barely existent penal code. They can also mete out capital punishments as they see fit. Saudi Arabia ranks third behind China and Iran for its number of executions. Evidence in these cases is limited to witness testimony and the presentation of the “magical” items discovered in the possession of the accused.


Belief in magic is so widespread that it is often invoked as a defense in Sharia courts. “If there’s an employer dispute–say the migrant domestic worker claims she wasn’t paid her wages or her conditions are unlivable–a lot of times what happens unfortunately is the defendant makes counterclaims against the domestic worker,” Coogle said. “And a lot of times they’ll make counterclaims of sorcery, witchcraft, and that sort of thing.”


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