Q. As you may know, in the Caribbean and other parts of the third world, people are into the obeah stuff, old hag (blood sucker), jumbi, etc. How much of this is myth and how much is reality? Is it really possible for someone to "obeah" somebody? Can people really become possessed due to spirits, jumbi, or whatever?

A. Regarding obeah -- as far as the Qur'an tells us from surah al-Falaq, and that which we know from science, a few things emerge, all of them making the area very fuzzy. We know for a fact that Sulayman was the only one given superiority over the jinns -- not even the Prophet Muhammad was -- and so all this talk about who works with and who controls it is baseless. Is it possible that the jinns can work with someone, with the jinn in a controlling position? The Qur'an tells us that they can have no control except over those who wish it to be so (14:22, 15:42, 16:99, 34:21). This means that a jinn has to be in the extremely unlikely position of wanting to control, and be in the area where a human wants to be controlled, etc. This would then seem to make it an almost impossible thing to happen.

Yet we have the case reported in the Bible of Jesus and the jinn (the story of Legion), of people speaking in tongues, of the "kali-mai puja" syndrome that happens. So all this tells us that another set of beings does exist, and that this set of beings, because of their invisibility to our eyes, can see us and make mischief. For a Muslim then, s/he recites the Qur'an and does not accept the belief that they can have control over him/her, and this mental state is enough to ward off any evil. For children, obviously they are vulnerable, but this is where the parents' prayers and conditioning come into play. As for obeah, part of the power of obeah and jinn comes through suggestion. This means that the victim has to know that something is being done to him/her. In all the cultures where similar beliefs exist, we find a common modus operandi -- the victim being made aware of something being hatched against him/her. This effectively seeks out the people who have a hypersensitivity/credulity for this thing, and the belief of that person is what gets to him/her.

It is like hypnosis -- all of us cannot be hypnotized because there are some of us who, out of cynicism or whatever, reject the concept. One has to have a special type of personality/outlook to be hypnotized. As far as stuff being put in the food goes, this is the most dangerous. Many of the dealers in this stuff are quite knowledgeable in the narcotic effects of some plants, animal glands, secretions, etc., which may either on their own, or in fusion with some other material, cause the victim to hallucinate, become weak, uncontrollable, inert, etc. In this case, it is a simple case of nutrition skill rather than the occult at work. In this weakened state, however, with the brain often being hyper-receptive, suggestions and hallucinations can have a long-term effect, or make the victim susceptible to control by the perpetrator. And even if the materials ingested are not in themselves potent, but rather the bases of "old-wives" tales, the ingested material can range from the benign to the toxic, as in the case of menstrual blood, an almost culturally ubiquitous tale, for control of the woman over the man.

While there is no scientific proof -- to the best of my knowledge -- or any credible report on the efficacy of menstrual effluent, the fact is that menstrual blood in large amounts may cause a range of sicknesses. The jurists were of varied opinions on the matter. Abu Hanifa, probably rendering the most modern judgement of all, claimed that what we see and call magic is actually a scientific action, but since we are unaware of the processes involved, attribute it to magic. The other jurists, for the most part relying on the Qur'an, claim that there is the reference to "sihr mubin". However, this is not a phrase used by the godly. In fact, in all the cases where it occurs in the Qur'an, it is on the lips of the kufar, who are unable to rationally explain certain things based on their limited knowledge. Allah talks about those who "did magic on the eyes" of the people (Q7:116), and this is clear that nothing purely "magical" had occurred.

This was the case of Pharoah's magicians' snakes and Moses' staff. They knew that they were doing what we may call mass hypnotism on a gullible audience. They themselves could not be hypnotized, and so when they saw Moses' staff actually become a snake -- they knew that this was no mere sleight of hand, or mass hypnotism, but a divine act. It would seem then that our best protection is healthy skepticism that is brought about by reading the Qur'an, and strengthening the children and ourselves too by reciting surah al-Falaq. Apart from its divine strength, this also provides us with a mental fortification since we believe that it protects, and we must stay away from those who we know deal with such matters as obeah, etc., all of which fall under the rubric of magic.

My personal advice, based on my understanding of human nature, is that in cases where there is suspicion, one does not act afraid but trusts in Allah most strongly, and makes a clear show of reciting certain surahs, such as al-Fatiha and al-Falaq over the food, especially when one is in the presence of the suspected perpetrator. For then, apart from the spiritual power of the surahs, the mind-game is now reversed, especially if one asks in clear, loud language that if there be any magic involved, that God protect the intended victim, and cause the evil intended to seek out the perpetrator. And Allah knows best.

Posted November 1, 2000