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Islam and the Paranormal

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Myth or reality?

Paranormal TV shows and general interest in the occult is as popular today as ever. Everywhere in the world, some people have interest in the practice of magic, astrology, divination, manipulating spirits, and so on. Many people make a living at either pretending or, some believe, actually having and using these skills and powers. What does Islam say about dabbling in the paranormal?

Many Islamic sources discount most methods of magic, divination, etc., as false. "What magic you have brought is deception, certainly God will negate it." (10:81) Reason and evidence show that the majority of popularly-consumed horoscopes, palmistry readings, divinations, magic spells, etc., are not accessing any special power or any knowledge of the unseen, but are merely lies and deceptions.

Some interpretations of Qur'an and Islamic sources do not deny the possibility that some of these practices may occasionally have a basis in reality. One famous example is one that led a sorcerer Christian to become Muslim in the time of Mulla Mohsin Faiz Kashani. It is narrated in Greater Sins by Ayatollah Dastaghaib Shirazi as follows:

"In the book Qasasul Ulama, there is an anecdote of the period of Abbas the Safawid. A Christian king sent a messenger to Abbas with the message that he may be given a chance to debate with Muslim scholars, and if he defeats the Muslim scholars, they must all accept Christianity. Now, the person sent by the Christian king had some powers by which he was able to guess accurately what others held in their fists. The scholars were invited to debate with him, and they included Mulla Mohsin Faiz. When the debate began, Mulla Mohsin remarked that the Christian king has sent an ordinary man instead of a religious scholar for debate. The envoy brushed the remark aside and told him to hide something in his fist so that he can prove his miraculous powers.

"Mulla Mohsin kept the tasbih made of dust from Imam Hussain's (peace be upon him) grave in his fist and challenged him to guess. The man thought for some time but kept quiet. When Mulla urged him to speak up, he said, 'According to my knowledge, there is a piece of Paradise soil in your hand, but I am astonished as to where it was and how it came into your hands.'

"Mulla Mohsin said, 'You are correct! It is the dust from the grave of Imam Hussain, who was the grandson of our Prophet (peace be upon him and his progeny). Your statement itself proves that the Imam of Muslims was on the right. Hence, you must accept Islam.'

"The Christian followed his conscience and became a Muslim."

This and many other anecdotes show that the paranormal is not entirely discounted in Islam. However, the "reality" behind much magic is more of a psychological nature than anything supernatural. That is, even if some of these skills or methods are sometimes successful, their success is not necessarily due to "unnatural" means most of the time. Certain forms of black magic are considered by scholars to be of this category – their power is most likely only psychological; if someone is superstitious and prone to believing its effect, then they may feel its results.

According to Ayatollah Dastaghaib Shirazi, the practice of sorcery has been mentioned as one of the greater sins which preclude someone from paradise, on the basis of Sura Baqarah, verse 102, which relays the story of Harut and Marut. It is related that Jews in the time of the Prophet had believed in and practiced sorcery and magic for some time, attributing it to Prophet Solomon (peace be upon him). But whatever Prophet Solomon did was never a misuse of power or any prohibited act, but was only due to his piety and turning to Allah.

He quotes another tradition of Imam Ridha (peace be upon him), which states that Harut and Marut taught people how to counter harmful magic, but people themselves misused the skill to try to harm others and thus became sinners.

Imam Ali (peace be upon him) also spoke strongly in several instances against the practice of magic: "If one learns magic, whether a little bit or more, he has become an infidel. And his end result is that he does not receive Divine Mercy. His punishment is that he be killed except if he repents."

Similarly, several traditions prohibit a believer from turning to a diviner or magician for aid or advice. The Holy Prophet says, "If a person goes to a magician, a diviner, or a liar and testifies to the truth of whatever he says, he becomes an infidel according to all the books revealed by Allah." Another narration from Imam Sadiq (peace be upon him) records a conversation in which a person reports to him that he has made his living in magic. The Imam instructs him that it is forbidden to use it and its earnings unlawful, except to help others by undoing the magic others have done to harm. "Untie but do not tie," he said.

Ayatollah Dastaghaib further states that while supernatural occurrences do sometimes seem to occur, such as "giving information of the unseen, and particularly foretelling future events; the charms for love and hate, the harmful or beneficial spells affecting man's virility, hypnotism, mesmerism, spiritualism, telekinesis and so on...," that usually their power is from the human mind, not an outside source. That is, human will can manipulate the imagination to conjure otherwise improbable or impossible events. People with particularly strong will and skill can use their own wills to manipulate the wills of others into believing certain things. Since these do not rely on the will of Allah, but instead lead many people to be deceived by their own illusions of power, they are a cause of separation between man and His Lord.

It is this basis that is behind the prohibition of most paranormal practices. If someone believes an event occurs of its own power, such as being determined by the stars' positions (which is a relic of old polytheistic religions), or by his own force of will alone, then he becomes a disbeliever. Miracles, divinations, and the like, performed by Prophets and Imams, are not of this type, because they rely on the power of Allah solely and consider no power to be independent of Allah.

Ayatollah Dastaghaib also says, "All the jurists are unanimous in their opinion that Kahanat or soothsaying is Haram." One should not resort to such means for trying to find missing property, missing persons, or making decisions about the future. Instead, there are numerous Halal means, such as physically seeking, Du'a, and Istikhara.

One of the main problems with astrology, palmistry, and other divination methods is that they are not Divine decrees and do not alter Divine decrees. Even if there is some natural basis by which positions of stars and planets or lines in the hand might influence human events, which is unproven, nothing that can be determined by use of such methods is absolute. Therefore, it is of little use. If a forecast ordains a disaster, Allah may allay the disaster due to someone's good deeds, repentance, His Mercy, or other factors that cannot be taken into account by the diviner.

As with most paranormal disciplines, modern astrology has not held up to the scrutiny of science. The elements of fire, air, water, and earth have no scientific basis; the positions of the sun in the Zodiac do not even align with the dates of the signs of people's births anymore, as relative positions and dates have shifted over the centuries, while the traditional zodiac sign dates have not. Further, the designation of the beginning of one sign in the sky and the end of another is an arbitrary designation, and there is actually a 13th Zodiac constellation that one might be born under that is ignored entirely: Ophiuchus. If astrology or any of the other divination and paranormal skills is truly successful, then it is at such a small rate as to be, to date, indistinguishable from random sample variation at any meaningful power of hypothesis testing in controlled experiments.

Other kinds of magic that are mentioned as prohibited include creating illusions to deceive people, and attempting to influence Jinns, animals, or other creatures in order to obtain benefit, information, power, etc. It is suggested in some sources that this manipulating of other creatures may be harmful to them, akin to subjugation or slavery.

Some things often considered as paranormal or metaphysical are not inherently prohibited. For example, dream interpretation is mentioned in Qur'an and by scholars as a legitimate activity. However, many people may interpret incorrectly. Likewise, the power of certain stones or substances for healing or protection is also well-noted in the Islamic sources, but may also be misunderstood by many. Pious people have been mentioned in sources as occasionally communicating with the dead or the Shuhada, or receiving messages from holy people. Not all such accounts may be factual, but the possibility of such occurrences is acknowledged in Islam. In all cases, successful access to any of these "powers" is obtained by permission of Allah and through legitimate means only; anyone claiming these abilities or knowledge but lacking in piety would naturally be suspect.

In conclusion, Islam has a very practical stance on paranormal matters. Belief in angels, Jinns, miracles, and so on are part of Islamic belief, but use of deception or paranormal means for harm, divination, and entertainment are generally considered Haram, or at least questionable, acts. Rulings from particular scholars vary slightly, but the general import is the same. The majority of these practices cut a believer off from Allah, and from the means to approach Him and rely upon Him, and are generally of very limited effect anyway. If a believer is interested in the mystical, there are many doors open to him that are positive and much more effective – the reciting of Qur'an, Du'a, Ziyarat, Dhikr, and the permitted Irfani disciplines.

Author of this article: Masooma Beatty
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