Earlier this month, reports emerged of a street performer who was beheaded in a public square in the city of Raqqa, Syria, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State.
The illusionist, who went by the moniker "Sorcerer," was known for entertaining locals with innocuous magic tricks like making coins and cell phones disappear. According to UK tabloid The Daily Mirror, he was charged with "creating illusions and falsehood" deemed offensive to Islam and was sentenced to death by beheading. An activist who recently fled Raqqa and was familiar with Sorcerer told the Mirror that the magician was a popular performer who simply entertained locals: "He was just called 'Sorcerer' by people and children loved him. He was doing nothing anti-Islamic but he paid for it with his life."
ISIS has been cracking down on all forms of magic. The video below was released in July by the organization's media arm and shows a man from Aleppo moments before he is beheaded for sorcery. Another propaganda video shows militants scouring a so-called "sorcerer's nest" for books about magic and declaring that the appropriate penalty is to be struck by a sword.
Clearly, ISIS does not take the threat of supernatural forces lightly. We wanted to understand why seemingly harmless street magicians are being lumped in with supposed satanic, spell-casting sorcerers.
VICE spoke to Adam Silverstein, professor of Abrahamic religions at Bar Ilan University and author of Islamic History: A Very Short Introduction. He is also a magician and member of the Magic Circle, a UK-based organization dedicated to "promoting and advancing the art of magic."
According to Silverstein, the root of this problem is largely semantic. "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 explained. "That can lead to unfortunate confusions that can, very occasionally, have serious consequences for magicians in the Muslim world.
"Chapter 2, verse 102 [of the Qur'an] specifically states that it is 'the Satans' who teach magic," he said. "Seeing as how Sihr is associated with 'the Satans,' it would not surprise me at all if some in the Muslim world associate Sihr—even of the entertainment sort—with threatening forces."
Mamdouh Marzouki agrees. He's a well-known magician from Saudi Arabia who goes by the stage name "Mumdo," and he says his craft is frequently misunderstood.
"Black magic is a sin in the Qur'an," Marzouki said. "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 what I do.
"What I do, with all due respect to magicians, it's not real magic," he added. "It's just trickery and misdirection but a lot of people in this part of the world believe that what I do is real and I do my best to tell them that it's not by educating them. Sometimes I go even further and break the Magician's Code and reveal some tricks just to prove that what I do is illusion."
During his studies, Silverstein performed magic to small groups in Jordan, Egypt, the West Bank, and Arab villages in Israel. He said "the reception was generally positive but audience members would often react with fear rather than enjoyment," a fear that Silverstein chalks up to crowds "interpreting what they see through their own cultural perspective, which was often coloured by belief in demons and the like."
"I recall one performance in which a group of slightly older men observed a standard trick and responded by abruptly leaving while muttering under their breath about the powers of the Jinn."
Jinn are supernatural beings or demons often associated with black magic. It's also the root of the English word genie.
Anecdotal evidence aside, belief in supernatural forces is widespread in the Muslim world, according to a Pew Research report surveying over 38,000 muslims in 39 countries. In the Middle East specifically, well over half of the population is reported to believe in Jinn and sorcery is almost universally considered "not permissible" within Islam.
Mumdo's stage act is heavily influenced by glitzy American-style magic shows; he makes female stagehands disappear and helicopters appear out of thin air.
"Siegfried and Roy, David Copperfield, Jeff McBride all are magicians that have influenced me and I still look up to them," Marzouki said. Yet he says that he still gets criticized and accused of "witchcraft" because many Muslims do not make the distinction between satanic black magic and the extravagant but benign trickery that he performs for a living.
And it's not only non-state actors like ISIS that seem unable or unwilling to make the distinction between black magic and entertainment. Saudi Arabia, a country with no criminal code where judges interpret holy texts to deliver rulings, also beheads alleged sorcerers in public. The country's religious police force has set up an anti-witchcraft squad that gets dispatched to investigate cases of black magic and sorcery. Even the Harry Potter books are forbidden in the Kingdom, according to The Jerusalem Post.
In 2008, popular Lebanese psychic hotline show host Ali Hussain Sibat was arrested following an "undercover sting operation." He was charged with "manipulating spirits, predicting the future, concocting potions and conjuring spells," the New York Times reported.
Sibat was sentenced to death by beheading for being a sorcerer, though the Saudi Supreme Court eventually reversed the sentence after an international outcry.
Not surprisingly, Mumdo, a Saudi native, has also had problems with the authorities. "My performance permit was once rejected and I had to cancel a few shows before because of the confusion between what I do—illusion—and real magic," the illusionist said, adding that it is not uncommon for him to turn down performances if he feels that he will "get bullied by the religious police." Nor is this uncommon for other magicians in the Middle East. "Some of my fellow magicians have also cancelled and stopped their shows because of religious concerns."
Still, magic may be a complex and controversial issue in the Muslim world, but why the death penalty?
Capital punishment for magic, or Sihr, is actually firmly planted in Islamic history and law. Ahmed Fekry Ibrahim is a professor of Islamic Law at McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies. When asked about the Raqqa magician who was beheaded, he told VICE that "ISIS must have been at least partly influenced in its decision to implement this punishment by normative, pre-modern [before the 19th century] juristic discourse."
"The majoritarian position among pre-modern Muslim jurists is that Muslims who exercise magic should be put to death," Ibrahim said. According to him, this reasoning is the basis of the beheading in the ISIS propaganda video above, and it is "the dominant position in normative discourse in the four Sunni schools of law."
But he emphasizes that "the frequent persecution of magicians is indeed a recent phenomenon. 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, despite the jurists' harsh punishments."
Both Silverstein and Marzouki say that the general attitude toward "entertainment magic" is definitely warming, and both cite hugely popular TV talent show Arabs Got Talent as crucial to the growing acceptance of entertainment magicians.
"The public is much more aware of what I do and it's a little safer now," said Marzouki.
Still, he says he is hardly surprised by the execution of the street magician in Raqqa. "I expect anything from Islamic State. These are radicals who kill innocent women and children, so I am not surprised. I feel sorry for the street magician and my heart goes out to his family. This is tragic and shouldn't have happened. Street performers are entertainers and this guy was trying to bring smiles and joy to the people in a very difficult time."