The smell in the house was quite acrid. I had gone to visit the family of one of my friends and colleagues from the prestigious educational institution where I was working in South Asia. ‘We are burning chillies’ she said. I realised that this was not something gone wrong with the cooking.
My friend’s sister had just had a daughter, and I, like many had come to greet the family for the birth of their first grandchild. As I talked with Mahnoor, she explained that the baby had been restless the previous night after a lot of visitors and so they were burning the chillies to ward off the evil eye. Too much praise and jealousy created vulnerability to the power of the evil eye.
The baby had large circles of black kohl around here eyes, also a part of the efforts to protect her from this evil.
I told this story as part of a paper at a writers’ group of local and international workers in this Muslim majority country, and one of the local believing ladies from a Christian background said, yes, I do it too. Fear of the power of evil is real in the every day lives of many people. As a Christian from the West this approach to evil was new to me.
The idea of the evil eye is associated with the ideas of envy, jealousy and even extreme adoration, and may be intentional or unintentional. Know as ayn-al-hasad in Arabic or buri nazar in Urdu, it refers to a gaze from a person that may cause affliction or bad-luck to the other.
This widespread belief was brought home to me in a conversation with another well-educated family. They related to me the story of one of their cars that had been in an accident. It was a relatively new car when someone visited and asked to buy the car. They said no, they did not want to sell. On the next occasion that they drove the car it was involved in a serious accident that saw it written off. While grateful that no one had been seriously injured, they said that the people who wanted to buy it must have put a curse on it, put the evil eye onto it.
Many Muslims are afraid of the evil eye, and it has a particular impact on women who are negotiating the realities of their every day with its struggles and challenges. Illness, infertility, relationship difficulties and material loss are just some of those things that intersect with faith as lived experience.
Vivienne Stacey noted: ‘Miracle and supernatural are part of the cosmologies of both Christianity and Islam’. We may be tempted to view the fear of the evil eye as unfounded superstition, for which the cure is more education and bible teaching. Western science and rationalism has left many of us with a legacy that rejects the supernatural.
What does Islam say? Wahabi Islam defines the use of amulets, charms and talisman to ward off the evil eye as graver than other major sins. Mark Caudill describes how many in Saudi Arabia perform a range of practices to ward off the evil eye, even though this contravenes Wahabi teaching. Others have sought to show that the Qur’an recognises the evil eye. ‘And verily, those who disbelieve would almost make you slip with their eyes … (Surah 68:1). They further seek to confirm this by referring to hadith: Abu Hurairah narrated that Allah’s Messenger (PBUH) said, the evil eye is real. (Hadith No 3879, Book of Medicines, Sunan Abu Dawud, Vol 4).
There is no agreement on the cure for the evil eye in Islam. Some state that recitation of the particular verses from the Qur’an will break the affliction of the curse. Another has suggested that the one who inflicted the curse should pour water from behind over the afflicted person.
Other more common forms of protection are used: wearing amulets, blue beads, the image of an eye, a hand with the palm facing out, a cloth that has been taken to a shrine and is then hung on a vehicle, are among those practices.
In her book, Daughter of the East, Benazir Bhutto describes how her mother sought protection for her as she left Pakistan in 1969: I stood in the carved wooden doorway … while my mother passed my new Holy Qur’an over my head. I kissed it. And together we left for the airport ….
Vivienne Stacey reminds us that those who do not find deliverance from the fear of evil and death in Jesus Christ, find it in other ways.
Hebrews 2:14 – 15 says: Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil— and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. It is the Lord Jesus who delivers from fear and evil.
Psalm 32: 8 reminds us that God guides us with his eye: I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.
Teaching about the power of God is one way to interact with our Muslim friends about the evil eye. Observing their efforts to protect themselves from the curse of the evil eye also provides opportunity to share steps on the faith journey. Again, Vivienne Stacey shares: ‘I sometimes ask someone wearing a charm around the neck what is in it, and on hearing that it is a verse, ask whether the wearer thinks God prefers his word around our neck or in our hearts. I then offer to teach a word of God to put in the heart, eg Romans 5:8.
Is the evil eye real? Or is it simply superstition? For many of our Muslim women friends it is a part of their every day lives that shapes their interactions with the world. The Bible makes clear that the power of evil is real. The forms by which evil manifests itself and the power of those fears and evil to bind up in chains of darkness means that we cannot dismiss the evil eye as powerless superstition. At the same time, our focus should not be on the evil eye and its power, but on the living Christ and his great work in defeating evil in all of its power. That is the journey of release and faith we long for our friends to share.
 Stacey, Vivienne, Power encounter with the spirit world: the supernatural in Islam and Christianity. (2005) p1
 Caudill, Mark, Twilight in the Kingdom: Understanding the Saudis, Praeger Security International, Westport, 2006. p. 78
 Bhutto, Benazir, Daughter of the East, Mandarin, London, 1988. p. 45
 Stacey, Vivienne, Christ Supreme over Satan, MIK, Lahore, n.d., p. 41
 Stacey, Vivienne, The Supernatural in Islam and Christianity, 1990 (Unpublished paper)
CH spent nearly three decades in South Asia and the Middle East working in education, community development and the Church, and was part of Interserve’s International Leadership for nine years. Her research has included women’s activism and social change in South Asia, violence against women and missiology. She is currently focussed on developing new streams of ministry among women who live under Islam and enabling women academics and practitioners to shape missiology and mission practice. She holds a PhD in Gender Studies (Australian National University).