Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Concept of Nazar (Evil Eye) in Islam

Turkish Evil Eye talisman
Ibn 'Abbas reported Allah's Messenger (may peace be upon him) as saying: The influence of an evil eye is a fact; if anything would precede the destiny it would be the influence of an evil eye, and when you are asked to take bath (as a cure) from the influence of an evil eye, you should take bath. Sahih Muslim Book 26, Hadith Number 5427.
The concept of "evil eye" has existed for several thousand years, and can be found in ancient Greek myths and Jewish folk stories. It is based on the idea that if someone is envious of another's good fortune, their envy can cause that good fortune to end. Many Muslim cultures express this belief using the concept of nazar (evil eye). The Quranic roots of nazar come from two verses in the Quran:


He (Jacob) said, ‘My sons, do not enter all by one gate—use different gates. But I cannot help you against the will of God: all power is in God’s hands. I trust in Him; let everyone put their trust in Him,' and, when they entered as their father had told them, it did not help them against the will of God, it merely satisfied a wish of Jacob’s. He knew well what We had taught him, though most people do not. Quran 12:67-68
This verse comes from the story of Joseph (Yusuf), when Jacob (Yaqub) tells his sons to gather grain from Joseph via separate gates. Belief in nazar was a highly contentious issue as Mutazila scholars (scholars who believed that the Quran was created by Allah) did not believe in nazar, while Ashari scholars did.  The 14th century Hanafi scholar Nasafi linked this verse to nazar, thus discrediting Mutazila scholars, by saying:
The majority of the scholars are of the view that Ya’qub feared upon his sons the evil eye (nazar) due to them being very handsome…thus we believe in the evil eye. The reality of Nazar is that when one looks at something beautiful and is envious, Allah Almighty creates some sort of harm in that particular thing. The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him & give him peace) used to seek refuge with Allah for Hasan and Husain (Allah be pleased with them both) and say: “I seek refuge for you both with Allah’s Perfect words from every poisonous pest and from every evil and envious eye.” However, Abu Ali al-Juba’i (leader of the Mu’tazila sect) denied the effect of the evil eye, but his opinion is rejected and refuted because of what we have narrated.”Tafseer an-Nasafee, Madaarik at-Tanzeel wa Haqaa’iq at-Ta’weel 2/123-124 (1302 CE)
Nasafi's analysis is extremely weak. While verse 12:67 shows that Jacob thought entering via separate gates might ward off evil, its a big stretch to link that advice to the concept of nazar. Even if Jacob did believe in nazar, the very next verse, 12:68, indicates that Jacob's advice was useless against the will of God. Unfortunately, Nasafi appears to be using his tafsir to score some cheap anti-Mutazila points. The last verse of Surah 113 (Falaq) is also held as an affirmation of nazar:
Say [Prophet], ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of daybreak against the harm in what He has created, the harm in the night when darkness gathers, the harm in witches when they blow on knots, the harm in the envier when he envies. Quran 113
The hadith and tafsirs written about this verse are especially confusing and probably fabricated. al-Wahidi relates in Asbab al-Nuzul a long winded story of an unhappy Jewish servant who was also a witch-doctor and used a string of hair and a broken comb from the Prophet to create cursed knots to make him feel ill. Ali then magically drained a well and found the cursed string at the bottom. The fantastic story ends with the Angel Gabriel descending to earth and blessing the Prophet away from nazar:
When the last knot was untied, the Prophet, Allah bless him and give him peace, got up as if he was released from a cord to which he was tied up. Gabriel, peace be upon him, kept saying: 'In the name of Allah I cast this incantation on you to protect you from anything that might harm you and that Allah heals you from the resentful envier and the evil eye'. Asbab al-Nuzul
Putting the fantastic story of witch-doctors and Ali's super-powers aside, my personal reading of Quran:113 and 12:67-68 is the supremacy of God's power over superstition. Ashari and Shiite scholars over-emphasized the references to superstition in the above verses because of their fight with the Mutazila; thus missing the extremely obvious point that Allah is claiming superiority over all of these things. Whether the 'harm of the envier' exists or not is moot, because Allah's will overwhelms all.

Modern scholars still cling to the witch doctor story, marrying it to an unrelated hadith. The hadith they use has Aisha talking about how the Prophet would recite Surah Falaq (Quran 113) and Nas (Quran 114) every time he fell ill:
It is related from 'A'isha said, "When the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, was ill, he would recite the Refuge suras over himself and then blow without spit. When his pain was intense, I used to recite it over him and rub his hand, seeking its blessing." Sahih Bukhari 4728 and Muslim 5679
The Aisha hadith only re-affirms my view, as it shows that when the Prophet was in discomfort he would recite chapters from the Quran that assert that Allah is above the supernatural and Satan as explained in 114:
Say, ‘I seek refuge with the Lord of people, the Controller of people, the God of people, against the harm of the slinking whisperer— who whispers into the hearts of people— whether they be jinn or people.' Quran 114
Once again re-affirming the supremacy of Allah over all things.

Nazar in the Hadith

The last bit I want to cover is the hadith I opened this entry on, in which Ibn Abbas is shown declaring that nazar is real and can be warded off with a bath. This hadith appears to be a truncated version of this story from Malik's Muwatta:
Yahya related to me from Malik that Muhammad ibn Abi Umama ibn Sahl ibn Hunayf heard his father say, "My father, Sahl ibn Hunayf did a ghusl at al-Kharrar.  He removed the jubbah he had on, while Amir ibn Rabia was watching, and Sahl was a man with beautiful white skin. Amir said to him, 'I have never seen anything like what I have seen today, not even the skin of a virgin.' Sahl fell ill on the spot, and his condition grew worse. Somebody went to the Messenger of Allah (saws), and told him that Sahl was ill, and could not go with him. The Messenger of Allah (saws), came to him, and Sahl told him what had happened with Amir. The Messenger of Allah (saws), said, 'Why does one of you kill his brother? Why did you not say, "May Allah bless you?" The evil eye is true.  Do wudu from it.' Amir did wudu from it, and Sahl went with the Messenger of Allah (saws), and there was nothing wrong with him." Malik's Muwatta 50-1
Stories like this are contrasted with equally strong hadith to the contrary:
Narrated Ruwayfi' ibn Thabit: Shayban al-Qatbani reported that Maslamah ibn Mukhallad made Ruwayfi' ibn Thabit the governor of the lower parts (of Egypt). He added: We travelled with him from Kum Sharik to Alqamah or from Alqamah to Kum Sharik (the narrator doubts) for Alqam. Ruwayfi' said: Any one of us would borrow a camel during the lifetime of the Prophet (peace_be_upon_him) from the other, on condition that he would give him half the booty, and the other half he would retain himself. Further, one of us received an arrowhead and a feather, and the other an arrow-shaft as a share from the booty. He then reported: The Apostle of Allah said: You may live for a long time after I am gone, Ruwayfi', so, tell people that if anyone ties his beard or wears round his neck a string to ward off the evil eye, or cleanses himself with animal dung or bone, Muhammad has nothing to do with him. Dawud 1-36
The hadith can be put in two groups. The first group relates stories of supernatural events being blamed on nazar, while the second group has the Prophet rejecting the usage of any talisman to ward off nazar. It is interesting to note that the story from Malik's Muwatta has Amir perform wudu, which is the first step of prayer. Indeed, all of the hadith from the first group have the Prophet ordering the companions to perform some kind of prayer to Allah after telling him about a supernatural event. Not doubting that the companions believed they were dealing with a supernatural event, it is interesting that the Prophet is ordering the companions to immediately recite prayers that proclaim Allah is above all of these things. Indeed Tirmidhi reports a hadith that indicates that after 113 and 114 were revealed the Prophet stopped believing in talismans to ward off the supernatural:
Narrated by Abu Sa'id al-Khudri, The Prophet used to seek protection against the Jinn and the evil eye till surahs al-Falaq (113) and an-Nas (114) were revealed.   After they were revealed he stuck to them,  and discarded everything beside them. Al-Tirmidhi Hadith 1019 
Closing Thoughts

I believe the Prophet was encountering a deeply held belief held by the companions that he couldn't get them to shake. Quran 113 and 114 clearly show that Allah's power is clearly dominant over any superstition, and 12:67-68 appears to be a mild rebuke of Jacob for still believing in superstition. Even the hadith that profess to prove the existence of nazar have the Prophet forcing the witnesses of the supernatural events to recite prayers to re-affirm that Allah is above all of these things. The Al-Tirmidhi hadith appears to be the smoking gun, showing that even though the Prophet may have originally believed in talismans to ward off nazar, he abandoned these beliefs after Allah directly weighed in on the matter. The mental image of the Prophet constantly reminding himself that Allah is in charge and not the supernatural when he was ill told by the Aisha hadith is hard to argue with.

Its extremely interesting that after the Prophet's death, the rationalist Muslims (Mutazila) rejected the belief in nazar while the conservative Ashari Muslims used belief in nazar as a litmus test. Today's dominant Sunni sects can trace their belief structure to the Asharis, which may explain why they tend to cling to the Medinan practices around inheritance and slavery, and a wide range of social issues that the Prophet tried to get the Medinans to abandon. Nazar trully appears to be another jahiliya (pre-Islamic) practice that Muslims can't seem to shake despite the Prophet's best efforts.