In the past I was known as something of an intrepid traveler, and during my ten years living in Asia I was quite surprised to learn how widespread was the practice of magic in strongly Islamic nations. I had supposed that witchcraft and magic were prohibited by Islam so I had to investigate this further.
The Maldives often boasts that they are a 100% Islamic country but when I was living there I found quite a large number of people who talked about ‘Fanditha’, the local brand of magic which included everything from charms, medicine and even some rather gruesome black magic spells. Islam came to the Maldives sometime in the 13th century and the former Buddhists seemed to have accepted this new religion with gusto. But as with the uptake of any new religion the old ways did not immediately die out. Rather than being forced out by the new religion Fanditha seems to have adapted to fit the new religion.
To illustrate this point I shall give the example of a friend, who just for fun, decided to see a Fanditha man. He was told by the gnarly old man that someone had put a curse on him and to break it he had to collect water from 7 different mosques and after there was to be a ritual involving reading verses from the Quran and the curse would be lifted. It seems from this example that Fanditha nowadays operates under the guise of Islam. In other words Fanditha is only accepted because it attempts to work alongside Islam – even though Islam itself frowns upon witchcraft and magic.
To a certain extent all new religions absorb something of the native cultures – in many old churches in the UK it is possible to see stone carvings of the Green Man which was most likely a pagan deity that survived when Christianity took over. Of course Christianity does not allow worship of other gods but in order not to alienate the former pagans these old gods were incorporated into the new religion; sometimes they became saints, sometimes demons. So I suppose that Fanditha is a product of the same process, of the old merging with the new.
But Islamic magic is not confined to the Maldives. During my time in Indonesia I observed that some people used to go to the Dukun, something like a shaman. In one case some friends were wondering what such an ugly girl (their words not mine) was doing with a handsome, rich, young man and it was rumoured that she had visited a Dukun and performed a love spell on the man. Although, as a skeptic, I very much doubt the effectiveness of magical spells there was no doubt that this was considered by my Indonesian friends as a valid explanation for this odd couple being together.
Both the Maldives and Indonesia are Islamic countries, but both had examples of traditional magic that was not merely surviving but actually flourishing. Although most educated people prefer to keep their distance from magic, there is nevertheless a strong prevalent view among the lower sections of society in both countries that magic actually works. Additionally they believe magic can be used in everyday matters.
When new religions take over, the old ones do not die. And this observation leads me to conclude that religion is contrived and man made.