Buried under the reports of Osama Bin Laden’s death (a subject for another occasion), the arrests in Iran of some prominent political figures associated with the President may seem rather minor news.  Those named have been accused of sorcery and unleashing metaphysical forces.  It may, or may not, be a real story; it probably tells us more about internal Iranian power politics than any surge in superstitious practices.  What it does reveal, however, is the potency of the accusation within a Shi’i Muslim context.  Shi’i jurists in both the past and present have generally agreed that the practice, teaching and study of magic are forbidden.  Anyone practising magic, or declaring it permitted, is to be put to death.  Reports from Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq (p.366 in this link) stipulate beheading as the appropriate means of execution.

The sorcerer’s offence is equated with apostasy.  He or she has disobeyed a direct stipulation of God and attempted to release supernatural powers.  The sorcerer and sorceress cease to be believers since they claim to have harnessed a power reserved for God.  The execution of the sorcerer is, concomitantly, a punishment prescribed by God – it is one of the hudud.  And as with all the hudud, some jurists clearly wish to avoid its implementation.  They introduce caveats:  the accused has to be asked to “describe” his magic – perhaps he does not know what magic really is; he has to be given the chance to repent so we can forgo the death penalty.  In this, Shi’i jurists (like their Sunni counterparts) refuse to rush into the hudud; there is ample scope for avoidance.  I do not expect to see such reticence to come to a judgement in the Iranian cases; though the hadd is unlikely to be enforced. 

Magic itself is considered mere trickery by most Shi’i jurists.  A man may claim to have killed another through magic – and he will be put to death for such a claim.  But the relatives of the victim will have no power of redress.  Magic is theologically rather than supernaturally dangerous (“it has no basis in reality” - la haqiqa lahu is the phrase often used).  At least this is what most Shi’i jurists have held; and in this they agree with some Sunnis (the Hanafis), and disagree with others (the Shafi’is).  In the reporting of the Iranian cases, however, the accused appear to be charged with actually operating metaphysical powers. Unusual in this area of jurisprudence is the contemporary Iraqi marji', Ayatallah Muhammad Ishaq Fayyad.  He is alone, as far as far I can ascertain, in arguing that the execution verdict probably only applies to a professional sorcerer – if you dabble in magic once or twice, you may not be subject to the death penalty.  Repeated and continuous sorcery is problematic; being a dilettante magician is forgivable for Fayyad.  For other scholars, a single proven instance of practising magic appears sufficient to justify the punishment: for them, sorcery is like adultery – do it once and you are a sorcerer. Ayatallah Fayyad does envisage circumstances in which the sorcerer will be liable for retaliation (qisas) from the victim’s relatives (as do other scholars, including Ayatallah Khu’i): if a man casts a spell on another, making him think, for example, that a lion attacking him, and the victim dies of fright, then the sorcerer is responsible for the death and is subject to qisas (before, of course, being subject to hudud).  Even here, though, magic is not really effective – it merely provides the cover for the murderer’s rather elaborate MO.  Otherwise there is no qisas for death by incantation in Shi’i fiqh.

The opponents of the Iranian regime will see in these arrests another instance of the irrationality in Iranian power politics.  But it is not, in truth, irrationality: the reported arrests of high profile “sorcerers” in Iran point to the concoction of religious orthodoxy and the clerical vision of right government which characterises one of the numerous visions of the Islamic Republic.  The accusations, then, are an amalgam, of heresy and treason.