Magical and inspired speech in Early Islam

By Pamela Klasova
Submitted to Session P4878 (The Occult in Islamicate Society: The Cases of Magic and Alchemy, 2017 Annual Meeting
Islamic World;
Islamic Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
“Indeed, some eloquence is magic,” the Prophet is reported to have said. The accompanying stories, however, make it clear that he meant magic in a metaphorical sense. The commentators of the hadith agree: Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani (15th century), in his commentary on al-Bukhari’s Sahih, recorded various earlier debates about this and related hadiths which show that while the reality of magic itself was a matter of controversy, there was a consensus in the case of speech. Eloquence is unanimously ranked under metaphorical magic, in particular, under “what resembles magic” due to its ability to “win the hearts of people.” Thus, rather than having any impact on reality, speech merely convinces and persuades. Medieval commentators of poetry held that the many stories of poets taking their inspiration from shaytans and jinns should also be understood metaphorically. Eloquence, according to these commentators, is innate to the Arabs rather than something acquired through inspiration. By the 9th century, writers like al-Jahiz saw magic as a mere deception and considered fools those who believed poetry to come from jinns. This paper explores the beliefs of those ‘fools’ and ‘deceived,’ and argues that their view of speech as something inspired and directly affecting reality was, in fact, widespread in the early Islamic period.

The paper starts with the exploration of hadith, fiqh, and adab to trace the development of this position. We can see, for example, that al-Bukhari himself included the above hadith in the section “On Medicine,” along with other medical and magical practices—thus providing us with an indication that the hadith spoke of a concrete, reality-affecting magic. This is followed by a literary analysis of narratives of encounters early Islamic and Umayyad poets with jinns and shaytans. Here, I will highlight the similarities between these accounts and Qur'anic revelation, thereby demonstrating that these poets, like Muhammad, claimed an actual inspiration. Furthermore, the various groups in this period who held beliefs in the actual power of the word, such as the mughiriya, will be discussed. Finally, the texts at hand will be situated in their broader context of magical and divinatory practices of the Late Antique Near East. In doing so, this paper shows that the conception of speech as inspired and reality affecting was the norm rather than the exception.