What does the Islamic State consider 'sorcery'?

IS has decapitated two civilian women due to allegations of sorcery.

The self-declared Islamic State (IS) has beheaded two women and their husbands in eastern Syria, after accusing all four of sorcery, according to the BBC.

Activists say this is the first time the jihadist group has decapitated female civilians. However, IS has frequently killed women by stoning or firing squad, often on charges of adultery.

IS beheaded a male street performer in a public square in Syria in early January. The magician was known for entertaining locals with innocuous magic tricks like making coins and cell phones disappear, report said.

Sorcery is forbidden by Islam because it is said to reflect a disbelief in Allah (God) and reliance on satanic rituals, according to Al-Islam.org. The prohibition includes fortunetellers and magicians – although there is debate as to what constitutes a magician. 

Mamdouh Marzouki, who makes female stagehands disappear and helicopters appear out of thin air during his shows in Saudi Arabia, says he often gets accused of witchcraft.

“Black magic is a sin in the Qur’an," he explains. "It is considered evil and the work of the devil, and therefore it is forbidden. But to this day there is a great confusion between black magic and the work I do." He said that he often reassures his audience that he is doing harmless illusions, even going so far as to break the Magicians' Code to convince his fans that he is not practicing dark arts.

A Pew report that surveyed 38,000 Muslims in 39 countries found belief in supernatural forces is widespread among believers and the use of sorcery is almost universally regarded as falling outside of Islamic tradition.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia have also beheaded men and women on charges of sorcery, reports the BBC. Even Harry Potter books are forbidden in the country.

Adam Silverstein, amateur magician and professor of Abrahamic religions at Tel Aviv's Bar-Ilan University, told Vice that the root of the problem is linguistic confusion.

"The Arabic word for 'magic' is sihr—pronounced with a guttural H—and in the Qur'an it means 'magic' in the sense of 'black magic,' but in modern Arabic the same word is used for 'entertaining magic,' " Silverstein explains. "That can lead to unfortunate confusions that can, very occasionally, have serious consequences for magicians in the Muslim world."

But it hasn't always.

“The frequent persecution of magicians is indeed a recent phenomenon," said Ahmed Ferky Ibrahim, professor of Islamic law at McGill University. Capital punishment for magic is rooted in Islamic history, he says, but it was rarely enforced.

"When you read 16th- through 19th-century Ottoman court records, for instance, you realize there was no inquisition of magicians, no witch hunts, as was the case in Christian Europe.”

IS’s extreme interpretation of Islamic law has also seen gay men thrown off buildings and women stoned for adultery, notes the BBC. Last week, IS militants in Syria hanged two youths from a beam by their wrists after accusing them of not fasting during Ramadan.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that IS has executed more than 3,000 people in Syria in the year since it declared its Islamic “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. Nearly 1,800 of them were civilians, including 74 children. 

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