While today movies about zombies and vampires seem to be the rage, in Saudi Arabia witchcraft remains a serious issue. So serious that if an individual is found guilty of witchcraft or practicing sorcery, the punishment is death by beheading.
Just last week, Saudi national Mareeh bin Ali bin Issa al-Asiri was found guilty of witchcraft. According to an official statement, he was found in possession of books and talismans from which he learned to harm God’s followers. There was no further information on what kinds of books or talismans or what kind of harm he intended to inflict (or had inflicted). But what we do know is that he was executed in Saudi’s Najran province.
In all seriousness though, how deeply does Saudi Arabia believe in witchcraft and sorcery? I’m sure to many this sounds so dark ages and something you expect from fairy tales. Well, let me assure you, the charge of witchcraft is taken so seriously that the religious police (aka Muttawa or Hai’a) even have an Anti Witchcraft Unit and sorcery hotline. The unit was established in 2009 and responsible for apprehending sorcerers and reversing the detrimental effects of their spells.
The Anti-Witchcraft Unit was created in order to educate the public about the danger of sorcerers and “combat manifestations of polytheism and reliance on other Gods,” the Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported.
The belief in sorcery is so widespread in Saudi Arabia, that it is even used as a defense in criminal court cases. In October 2010, a judge accused of receiving bribes in a real-estate project told a court in Madinah that he had been bewitched and is undergoing treatment by Quranic incantations, known as ruqiyah, a common remedy for the evil eye.
There is no legal definition for witchcraft (Saudi Arabia doesn’t have a penal code) or specific body of evidence that has probative value in witchcraft trials. Instead, judges have wide latitude in interpreting Sharia law and sentencing suspected criminals.
According to well known Saudi lawyer and human rights activist, Waleed Abu Al-Khair, “The punishment is always beheading for anyone found guilty of witchcraft.”
Foreigners in particular are often the targets of sorcery accusations because of their traditional practices or, occasionally, because Saudi men facing charges of sexual harassment by domestic workers want to discredit their accusers.
The most prominent witchcraft case came in 2008, when a Saudi court slapped a death sentence on Ali Sabat, a Lebanese television personality on a religious pilgrimage to Medina, for making psychic predictions on a Lebanon-based satellite channel. Sabat’s lawyer told NPR that the Saudi religious police arrested Sabat after recognizing him from television and pressured him to confess to violating Islam if he hoped to return to Lebanon (his confession landed him a beheading instead, though the Saudi Supreme Court eventually freed Sabat after ruling that his actions hadn’t harmed anyone).