Magic or Sihr is mentioned in the Qur-aan and therefore we know that it is without doubt an existent reality. We should discuss it because it is one of the things which Allah Subhaana wa Ta’aala saw fit to mention in His Immense Book. Magic is one of the hidden forces of existence and we should see what the Creator of the universe has told us about it.
The Arabic word for magic, “sihr”, is derived from the word “sahar” سحر which is from the root s-h-r س-ح-ر. Sahar is the time between the end of the night and the beginning of the day. It contains some of the shades of the darkness of night and some of the rays of the light of day. You cannot say that it is day, meaning daytime and light, nor say that it is night, meaning absolute darkness. So it has a double nature and not just one. One type of magic gives the appearance that something is happening when in reality it is not actually happening at all.
Shaykh Muhammad Sha’rawi explains thus- The effect of this type of magic is on the eye and it is the eye that is bewitched. It sees things which do not take place or happen. That is why Allah Almighty says about the magicians of Pharaoh: “They cast a spell over the people’s eyes and caused them to fear them. They produced a powerful magic.” (Surah 7 / al-A’raaf, v:116) The sight is deceived but the actual substance has not changed.
If we investigate magic in it’s most basic forms we find that there is one type which man performs by his own abilities and another in which he seeks the assistance of superhuman forces, that of the shaytaans (evil jinn). The magicians who perform simple forms of magic basically rely on deceiving the eyes or what is known as sleight of hand. Those are the ones who present what they call magic tricks in gatherings. Their skill lies in the fact that they are trained to move their hands so quickly that the eye does not see what has happened. This is why the spectator thinks that what has happened before him is that the nature of things has changed. When, for instance, a magician makes a glass of water disappear and then brings it back again, or stretches his hand up into the before, or makes things disappear and other things appear, all that is what is called sleight of the hand.
In reality, what happens is that the eyesight is deceived. Sight can be deceived by many things. For instance, the eye supposes a mirage to be water and it is not. And sometimes a point of light can be made to appear like a solid form. It’s swift movement is simply not able to be perceived by the eye. We also see this effect when we turn on an electric fan and look at it. We cannot see its real shape. It appears to us from the speed of the movement as one solid shape. When we turn it off and the fan is still, you can see it in it’s real shape and see all its blades and the gaps between them and other details. You could not see these while it was going, because of the speed of the movement. So the eye is deceived by swift movement. This is what conjurors rely on in sleight of hand manoeuvres and other magic tricks which they perform. They rely on the speed of the movement of the hand to deceive the eye and it appears as if they produce a sort of magic.
The Magic of the Eyes
However, there is another type of magic and it is that which we are really interested in discussing here. When we gave the simple example above we did so in order to make the matter easier for the reader to grasp, using a phenomenon which is seen and observed every day to allow us to understand the meaning of the deception of sight or the magic of the eye.
There is a higher form of it involving genuine illusion and bewitching of the eye which has no basis in ordinary experience. Allah wanted to make us understand that magic is a type of effect on the eye making it see things which do not actually take place or exist at all.
To understand this in more depth we must discuss the encounter of Moosa (‘Alayhis Salaam) with the magicians, and what Allah Almighty says about it: “They said, ‘Moosa, will you throw or shall we be the first to throw?’ He said, ‘No, you throw!’ And suddenly their ropes and staffs appeared to him, by their magic, to be slithering about.” (Surah 20 / Ta-Ha, v:65-66) In this passage we should pay close attention to the words of Allah Almighty, “appeared to him.” In other words, what took place was a mere illusion and not reality at all. In the eyes of the magicians the ropes remained simply ropes but in the eyes of all who saw them they appeared as terrible serpents which they saw as real serpents slithering on the ground. This is known as hallucinatory magic. The eye sees what is not really there and imagines things which are not really happening.
That being the case, what is the difference between this and what happened when Moosa (‘Alayhis Salaam) threw his staff?
The Magicians and the Miracle
The reason why the magicians prostrated and proclaimed their belief in the Lord of Moosa when Moosa’s (‘Alayhis Salaam) staff was thrown was that they saw the staff of Moosa (‘Alayhis Salaam) change into a real snake. Those magicians had made their magic bewitch the eyes of the people so that they began to imagine things which had no real existence. But the eyes of the magicians were not affected by the magic and they continued to see things as they actually were. As we have already said the ropes and staffs which the magicians threw remained ropes and staffs. When they saw the staff of Moosa (‘Alayhis Salaam) really turn into a terrible snake, they knew that this was NOT MAGIC, this was real. They recognised that this was not a mere deception of the eyes but was a real transformation of the nature of things. A staff cannot be transformed into a real snake except by Almighty Allah. Thus they recognised that what had taken place before them was a true miracle which only the Creator is capable of making happen. They therefore realised that Moosa (‘Alayhis Salaam) was a Messenger from Allah and not a magician.
Anyone who is skilled in a craft knows its secrets. He is the one who truly understands it in such a way that no one can deceive him regarding it. The magicians were absolutely certain by their knowledge of magic and its nature that what had happened infront of them was truly a miracle and not magic; and consequently they immediately accepted the fact that Moosa (‘Alayhis Salaam) really was the Messenger of Allah.
“The magicians threw themselves down in prostration. They said We believe in the Lord of Moses and Aaron'”. (Surah 20 / Ta-Ha, v:70)
Pharaoh was astonished at what happened. What could make great magicians whom he had brought, prostrate? He had presumed that they would discredit Moosa (‘Alayhis Salaam) and expose his magic to the people. How could they now prostrate to the God of Moosa (‘Alayhis Salaam)? He said to them, as the Noble Qur-aan relates to us…
“He said ‘Do you believe in him before I gave you permission? He is your chief, the one who taught you magic'”. (Surah 20 / Ta-Ha, v:71)
This could only happen because Pharaoh himself was not a magician and did not know anything about magic. He saw the ropes and staffs of the magicians as slithering snakes and also the staff of Moosa (‘Alayhis Salaam) as a huge slithering snake. He could not differentiate between magic and a true mu’jizah (miracle from Allah) because his eyes were bewitched. So he spoke in a way which was in accordance with his own false claim to divinity.
Hence, magic means making people imagine something to be real when no real change has taken place. It produces terror, fear and alarm in the heart of the person who has been bewitched and makes him submit to the magician and do anything he desires.
Black Magic is a little different in that it is more than mere illusion and trickery. Although the Arabic word “Sihr” meaning magic is interchangeable with black magic, black magic is an ancient dark art that is learnt from sorcerers to seriously harm people, not just trick them by sleight of the hand. Evidence in the Qur-aan supports the existence of black magic. Refer to the Definition of Sihr for more info on black magic.