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About the Story of the Holy Prophet Getting Bewitched

By

Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(August, 2004)


 

A brother wrote:

As-salam alaykum!

 

Al-hamd li Allah, a brilliant site. May Allah increase you in knowledge and wisdom and increase your good deeds on the day of judgment.

 

I think I have a difficult question to ask for which I was unable to find an intelligent answer:

 

Allah promises us that if we follow Allah's guidance and put full trust in him, then Satan will not have any power over us. If so, then why did Allah allow his true Prophet (salla allah ‘alay hi wa sallam) to be bewitched by a Jew to the point that he thought he was having relations with his wives, when actually he was not? Why did not Allah protect him from such magic since he was a Prophet of God?

 

Was-salam.

Answer by Ahmad Shafaat

Wa alaykum as-salam!

Jazak Allah! for your email and your kind words and prayers.

To do justice to your question, we need to examine the story of bewitchment by a Jew of the Holy Prophet from two different but related points of view: 

a)      Is the story historical, that is, did the reported bewitchment actually take place?

b)      Is the story problematic from a religious point of view?

Is the story historical?

There are indications that the story is in fact a product of the imagination of some of those early “Muslim” story-tellers who have given us so many other fascinating but fundamentally false stories about the Holy Prophet (may God honor and bless him evermore).

First, the story does not have the sort of multiplicity of chains of transmission that inspire a great deal of confidence in its historicity. If we do a search of the nine books of Hadith in the CD entitled The Hadith Encyclopedia[1], which has tens of thousands of hadith narrations, we find that the chains of transmission of this story can be divided into two categories:

A) Hisham – his father ‘Urwah – ‘Aishah

From Hisham several people (Yahya, ‘Isa, Abu Usamah, Ibn Numayr etc) narrate the story, so we can take it back to him with considerable confidence. But we have no way to verify that Hisham heard the story from ‘Urwah, since he is the only one to attribute it to him. And if we do accept that Hisham did relate it from ‘Urwah we cannot be sure that ‘Urwah heard it from ‘Aishah, since he is the only one to attribute it to her.

Hisham was a resident of Madinah, although he later moved to Iraq and died there. Imam Malik, also from Madinah quotes many traditions from him but he does not quote this one. One explanation of this fact is that when he was residing in Madinah in early part of his life Hisham either did not know this story or he did not give credence to it.

It is reported by scholars that Hisham became very feeble-minded in his later years. Thus ‘Uqayli says: qad kharifa fi akhir ‘umr hi (he mentally degenerated in the last part of his life). It may be that Hisham heard the story from some unreliable narrators in his earlier years and in his later years his feeble-mindedness led him to attribute it to ‘Urwah. This would explain why no other narrator transmits the story from ‘Urwah or from ‘Aishah. .

B) The second category of chains of transmission in the Hadith Encyclopedia has:

Abu Mu‘awiyah – al-A‘mash – Yazid bin Hayyan – Zayd bin Arqam

These chains are even more problematic than those from ‘Aishah. They are found only in two of the nine collections of Hadith: Nasa`i (4012) and Ahmad (18467) and allow us to take the hadith back with some confidence only to Abu Mu‘awiyah who died in 195. We have only his word that al-A‘mash (d. 147) narrated the story and the same is true about two earlier narrators: Yazid bin Hayyan and Zayd bin Arqam.

Second, there are many contradictions in the various narrations of the story. Some say that the Prophet imagined he was doing a thing but he was not doing it. Others say that he thought he had done a thing but actually he had not done; or he intended to do something but would forget doing it. In some narrations the objects used in magic (the Prophet’s comb with his hair sticking to it) are taken out of the well in which they were placed while in others they are not taken out. In some narrations ‘Aishah asks why did the Prophet not show the objects to the people while in others her question is about why did he not expose Labid ibn al-A‘sam, the Jewish magician who allegedly cast the spell on the Prophet. These contradictions are found in those narrations that come from Hisham and are acceptable to Bukhari and Muslim. If we include other narrations the contradictions increase. Some say that Jibra`il came and revealed the details of magic. Others say that it were two angels (often not identified by names, but sometimes named as Jibra`il and Mika`il) who made the revelation. Some say that Labid did the magic while others say that his sisters performed the evil deed. Some say that the Prophet himself went to take out the objects used in the act of magic. Others say that he sent some of his Companions for the task. Some say that the Prophet forgave the Jewish magician while one narration says that he was executed. Some narrations talk only of the effect of magic on the sexual relations but others talk of loss of appetite and still others talk of blindness. In many narrations the cure happens when the object used in magic were found, while in others the cure happens when Surahs 113 and 114 were revealed and recited by the Prophet. The objects used in magic are also subject to change. In some narrations instead of the comb and hair the object is a thread with knots. In some narrations the Jewish magician is forgiven but in some he is killed.

Third, quite apart from the Muslim belief in the prophethood of Muhammad (salla allah ‘alay hi wa sallam), it is a fact accepted by even many non-Muslims that the Prophet was a man of exceptional strength. Thus even an atheist like Maxime Rodinson recognizes what he calls a “power” in Muhammad, “which, with help of circumstances [made] him one of the rare men who have turned the world upside down.”[2] It is not plausible that a man of such strength would be affected by magic and after being affected would need to search for a comb and hair to free himself, instead of using his tremendous God-given inner strength or direct help of God.

It should also be noted that the story has not received unanimous acceptance from scholars. Some scholars from relatively early times have rejected the story. Thus Imam Abu Bakr al-Jassas (305-370 AH), one of the greatest hanafi scholars of the fourth century writes in his Ahkam al-Qur`an:

This type of ahadith has been created by heretics who give importance to low-level people [by allowing the possibility that likes of Labid could cast a spell on the Prophet]. They are fabricated to falsify the miracles of the prophets and to create doubts in them and to show that there is no difference between miracles of the prophets and tricks of the magicians, all being of the same nature.

It is probable that Darimi, Tirmidhi and Abu Da`ud also did not accept the story, since they do not mention it in their collections. It is unlikely that this is because they did not know the story, since the story was well known by the time of these scholars.

In addition to the above-mentioned scholars, who are well respected among Muslims, the story, as noted by al-Suhayli, was also rejected by “the Mu‘tazilah and some ahl al-bida‘ ”. (Ibn Hisham, p. 362, n. 3)

We can easily understand why the story, once created, would become popular. Magical concepts and practices were very common in the ancient world just as they still are in many parts of the world. Many people needed them to explain happenings in their lives. Many others also made money using peoples’ emotional needs and fears, either casting spells on others or curing people of such spells. The story may be an attempt by some of these people in Iraq to keep their clients’ faith in magic in the face of Islamic rejection of it. By telling the Muslims that even their Prophet was influenced by magic and needed to undo its effects, not by the direct help from God but by magical practices, the story is encouraging them to keep faith in magic and its practices. This purpose is reflected in the tolerance that the story shows to magical practices. Contrary to what is expected, the Prophet does not issue a strong condemnation of magic after discovering his condition and being cured. He almost ignores that Labid engaged in a sin and an act of great hostility towards the Prophet and hence against Islam. Many narrations in fact explicitly state that the Prophet forgave the magician. This is said to be an act of charity for a personal enemy. But many narrations of the story make it clear that Labid’s action was not motivated by any personal vendetta against the Prophet but was rather a part of the Jewish fight against the Prophet’s mission, similar to many of their other actions.

Contrast the tolerance towards magic in the story with the Qur`an, which condemns magic as Satanic and ultimately without real power (2:102, 20:69). Also, note that in the Qur`anic story of Moses and the Egyptian magicians, magic is defeated by a miraculous act of God and not by the use of suitable magical practices. In our story, on the contrary, the cure requires working within the system of magic. In this way magical practices are given much greater respect than is the case in the Qur`an.  

Is the story problematic from a religious point of view?

If despite the above considerations some Muslims and non-Muslims decide to regard the bewitchment of the Prophet as substantially historical, the question arises whether it is problematic from a religious point view. In particular, does the story call into question the Islamic claim that Muhammad (salla allah ‘alay hi wa sallam) was a messenger of God, as some Christian missionaries suggest[3]?

To the extent that the story seems to show some tolerance for the magical practices, it is in some of its details, as I said earlier, problematic. But, as I now show, the story in its earliest forms is not problematic to the extent that it calls the prophethood of Muhammad (salla allah ‘alay hi wa sallam) into question, and this is true both within the Islamic thought and the Christian thought.

To begin with let us observe that true prophets of God are engaged in a battle with the forces of evil, both visible and invisible. In this battle they can suffer temporary setbacks. As is well known, they can be persecuted, stoned, wounded, or even killed. The promise of Allah to the prophets and the rest of the righteous people is that despite these setbacks, they will win the battle, even if it is after their death.

In principle therefore there seems to be no problem in accepting that one of the temporary setback a true prophet of God can suffer is an effect of magic. The Qur`an and the Bible provide examples.

In the Qur`an when the magicians called by Pharaoh to contest Moses’ claim of being a messenger of God gather in the court of the king they throw their ropes and sticks:

Then behold! Their ropes and sticks, through their magic, appeared to him as though they moved fast. So Moses conceived fear in him. But We said, “Fear not! Surely, you will have upper hand. And throw what is in your right hand. It will swallow what they have fabricated. What they have fabricated is only a magician’s trick, and magician never succeeds no matter where his reach (20:66-69). 

This passage shows that the Prophet Moses (may peace be upon him) was temporarily affected by magic in that, like other people in the court of Pharaoh, he saw the ropes and sticks moving fast and was gripped by fear.

In the New Testament the devil tempts the Prophet Jesus for forty days. He has so much power over Jesus’ body that “he took him to Jerusalem and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple” (Luke 4:9 = Matt 4:5).

One may try to make a distinction between magic harming a prophet and people injuring/ killing him. But there is no real difference between the two. People trying to injure/kill a prophet and a magician trying to harm him are acting as instruments of the same devil. This can also be supported both from the Qur`an and the New Testament. Thus the Qur`an describes those people who fight God and his Messenger as the “party of Satan” (hizb al-Shaytan) and promises that God and his Messengers will win (58:19:21; see also 6:112). In the New Testament, Jesus describes his Jewish enemies as children of the devil and his instruments (John 8:42-44). 

After the above general comments, let us now look more closely at the story of magical spell on the Holy Prophet. There are three relevant questions: What was the effect of the magic on the Holy Prophet? How long it lasted? How was it removed?

The effect is described variously as follows:

1)      The Prophet imagined that he was doing a thing while he was not doing it (yukhayyalu ilayhi anna hu yaf‘alu al-shay`a wa ma yaf‘aluhu). (Muslim 4059)[4]

2)      The Prophet imagined that he had done a thing while he had not done it (yukhayyalu ilayhi anna hu kana  yaf ‘alu al-shay`a wa ma fa‘alahu) (Bukhari 5321)

3)      The Prophet used to think that he had been to his wives when in fact he had not been. (Bukhari 5323, Ibn Hisham[5], p. 362: (Labid) huwa alladhi akhkhadha rasul allah ‘an nisa` hi). A tradition in Ibn Sa‘d[6] (Vol. 2, p. 248-252) adds loss of appetite.

4)      Loss or weakening of eyesight. (Ibn Sa‘d, Vol. 2, p. 248-252)

If the effect was limited to 3) and/or 4), that is, to the Prophet’s marital relationship and/or loss of appetite and/or loss of eyesight the story is not problematic from a religious point of view. The Prophet could have functioned normally in his duties as a prophet of God despite these alleged physical problems.

The story could be problematic if the magical spell affected the mental faculties of the Prophet, as in 1) and 2), for in this case the question could arise whether the Prophet forgot to deliver some revelations he had received or whether he imagined receiving revelations that he actually did not. But it is not certain that an effect on the mental faculties of the Holy Prophet was a part of the earliest story. Moreover, it should be noted that even if we assume an effect on the mental faculties of the Prophet, the story would not be problematic if the effect lasted for only a short time, say a few days. For in that case, the story could be regarded as similar to the story about the Prophet Moses mentioned above. Just as the Prophet Moses was temporarily mentally affected by magic and then put by God in complete control of his mission, so also the Prophet Muhammad could be mentally affected for a short period with God subsequently giving him the upper hand on the forces of evil.

The story would be problematic from a religious point of view only if we assume that magic affected the Prophet mentally and it lasted for a long period. This brings us to the second of the questions raised above: How long the alleged effect lasted?

In most of the narrations there is no mention of the duration of the effect. Panipati[7] in his tafsir of Surah 113 says that “in one tradition it is mentioned that [the Prophet] remained in this condition for six months”. He gives no source or isnad. Conflicting with the tradition mentioned by Panipati, al-Suhayli says: “I did not find in the well-known books how long the Messenger of God stayed under the influence of this magic before being cured. Then I came across the statement in Jami‘ of Ma‘mar bin Rashid[8]. Ma‘mar related from al-Zuhri who said: The Messenger of God was cast a magical spell for a year when he imagined that he was doing a thing when he was not.” (Ibn Hisham, p. 362, n. 3). Again we do not find a complete isnad: two links are missing between al-Zuhri and the Prophet.

Thus by looking at the transmission (al-naql) of the story we can see that mention of a long duration of the Prophet’s condition is not a part of the earliest story but is a secondary speculation. The same conclusion can be reached from a rational point of view (al-‘aql). For, had the Prophet’s alleged condition lasted for a long time and affected the Prophet generally, it would have been noticed not only by ‘Aishah but also by the Prophet’s other wives and even by many Companions. Non-Muslims would also have not only noticed it but exploited it to discredit the Prophet, just as many Christian missionaries are doing even today. We should expect the Qur`an to address the matter. At the very least we should expect it to be found in narrations from many different Companions. But with complete isnad the story comes mostly from ‘Aishah, and sometimes from Zayd bin Arqam and ‘Abd Allah bin ‘Abbas.

Finally, let us consider our third question: How was the effect of magic removed? In most narrations the Prophet is cured when he is informed by God through angels about the objects used in the magical spell and when those objects are uncovered. This does appear to give too much respect to magical practices, but one can easily argue as follows: The true prophets like other human beings are often subject to the laws that God has established in the universe. This is why sometimes they fall into difficulties. On occasions God helps them out of difficulties by his direct intervention alone. But often to get out of difficulties they have to work, completely or in part, within the laws of nature. The unseen world, to which magic belongs, has its own laws and in principle there is no problem to think that, in order to get out of a temporary difficulty caused by invisible forces of evil, the prophets may sometimes have to work, completely or in part, within the laws operating in the unseen world.  

Thus the story of the bewitchment of the Prophet in its earlier forms is not a problem for the prophethood of Muhammad (salla allah ‘alay hi wa sallam). This is, of course, all the more true, if, as I believe, the story is a fabrication to begin with[9].



[1] Version 2.1, Harf Information Technology, 2000

[2] Maxime Rodinson, Mohammed, Penguin, 1961, p. xiii.

[3] See, for example, the website, answering-islam.org. The writers of this missionary site search the Islamic literature with their minds closed and their hearts full of hate and prejudice. They isolate statements that they think discredit Islam and focus on them with a tunnel vision. It is about such as these that the Old and New Testaments and the Qur`an say that their hearts have been sealed.

[4] The numbering of ahadith is in accordance with the CD entitled, The Hadith Encyclopedia, Version 2.1, (Harf Information Technology, 2000).

[5] Ibn Hisham, al-Sirah al-Nabawiyyah, Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, Bayrut, 2001

[6] Tabaqat Ibn Sa‘d published by Nafis Academy, Karachi, 1982.

[7] Muhammad Thana Allah Panipati, Tafsir Mazhari, H. M. Sa‘id Company, Karachi, 1979

[8] Ma‘mar bin Rashid (96-153) is one of the earliest compilers of ahadith. Manuscripts of his Jami‘ are found in Istanbul and Ankara.

[9] Usually, fabricated stories are gross distortions and fictional elaborations of some actual events, the distortions and elaborations resulting from the use of imagination and/or serious misunderstanding of the events. The story of the bewitchment of the Holy Prophet might have started as follows: The Jews had shown great enmity to the Prophet. It is entirely believable that some of them attempted to use magic to kill or otherwise make him ineffective. Later, this attempt was assumed to be successful in affecting the Prophet, which in turn led to an elaborate account of his cure.

 


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