Over the course of the last decade, a previously obscure ritual known as mubahala and best described as self-cursing or imprecation has proliferated in the Muslim world. In August 2010, two Saudi scholars, the Shi'i 'All Al Muhsin and the Sunni Muhammad b. Sulayman al-Barrak, engaged in a mubahala recorded and subsequently made available on the internet. The video shows these two men, along with a small group of their followers, heading to a desert space outside the King Fahd airport in Dammam. After efforts on the part of their entourage to dissuade the two men from performing the ritual, the two affirm their commitment to their respective creeds and pronounce the curse. (1) This incident came upon the heels of another recorded mubahala between the Egyptian Shi'i cleric Hasan Shihata and the Kuwaiti Sunni cleric Bumishari over the former's insults of 'A'isha, Prophet Muhammad's wife, which surfaced on YouTube. In these two instances, and others that followed, (2) the ritual invocation of reciprocal self-cursing was generated by Sunni-Shi'i polemics; however, the phenomenon of resorting to mubahala seems to have spread significantly beyond purely sectarian disagreements. (3) The fallout between the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the founder of the "Civil Islam" movement Fethullah Gulen resulted in the latter's challenging the former to a mubShala on December 23, 2013. (4) Similarly, the Moroccan Salafi scholar 'Umar al-Haddushi shirked a mubahala challenge from a fellow Moroccan Salafi poetess who claimed he had falsely accused her of fornication (qadhf). (5) More recently, in March 2014, Abu Muhammad al-'Adnani, a commander in the self-styled Islamic State, challenged to a mubahala his foe, a leader in the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra front known as Abu 'Abd Allah al-Shami, in response to the latter's branding members of the Islamic State as Kharijis. The latter's eventual death was interpreted as God's intervention on behalf of the Islamic State. (6)
This article examines the historical development of summoning God's curse on oneself in hope of affirming a creedal point; the focus here is the emergence of mubahala among Sunni practitioners. (7) The examination of the purported historical precedents shows that modern polemicists employing it and claiming to revive an established practice are refashioning this past to suit their own contemporary needs.
The ritual of mubahala is reputedly derived from a prophetic example enshrined in the verse known as ayat al-mubahala (Q 3:61). (8) In a mubahala, two individuals seek to demonstrate the correctness of their claim via an appeal to God for intervention. The parties invoke the "curse of God" (la'nat Allah), a conditional fatal self-curse, with the anticipated outcome being the death and eternal damnation of the liar. As illustrated by its alternative name mula'ana, mubahala is a species of imprecation (la'n), (9) It also operates as an oath; indeed, conditional curses share much with oaths, as they involve the resolution of a dispute. The mubahala formula is exceptionally illustrative since it usually consists of an oath along the lines of "I swear that x" followed by the self-curse "God curse me if y." (10)
THE POTENCY OF CURSES AND IMPRECATIONS
Muslim scholars define cursing (la'n) as the act of excluding someone from God's mercy. (11) By uttering the curse, a person unleashes God's judgment and potentially brings about the eternal damnation of its recipient. Imprecations in the Muslim tradition are, as the philosopher of language J. L. Austin stated, words that "do things." (12) A curse is an illocution that performs an act rather than merely describes it. Previous studies of medieval European and ancient Near Eastern curses have focused on the applicability of speech act theory to the study of curses. (13) With regard to the Muslim world, there is a paucity of scholarship on curses and imprecations, and nothing has been written on self-cursing.
As described in the hadith corpus, a curse is active and predatory; the mere utterance of a curse formula brings about action, a change in the world. When uttered, a curse has to take effect on something or someone. We are told in a hadith, conveyed by Abu l-Darda' (d. ca. 32/653), that the moment a curse is uttered, it ascends to paradise and, thus, the doors of paradise are irreparably shuttered. Thereupon, the curse returns to earth and if it does not find someone deserving, it alights on the utterer--a number of reports are recounted of animals dying as a result of someone's curse. One report has a dog dying immediately after a man cursed him for passing in front of him during prayer. (14) Another tradition confirms this reification of the curse--that is, once uttered, it must alight on someone or something. The story relates that a man was perturbed by the wind blowing his cloak, so he cursed the garment. The Prophet then ordered him not to curse it because "whoever curses something undeserving of it, his curse will revert to him." (15) An incident between two Companions of Muhammad, 'Abd Allah Ibn Mas'ud (d. 32/653) and Abu 'Ubayd al-Thaqafi (d. 13/634), is illustrative of the belief in the potency and contagion of curses. We are told that while Ibn Mas'ud was visiting with Abu 'Ubayd, the latter's wife cursed her tardy servant girl who was asked to fetch them drinks. Ibn Mas'ud stood up and left the house, ruminating while seated outside: "I fear that if the servant girl had an excuse, the curse would revert and I would be in its path (fa-akun bi-sabiliha)." (16)
Partially as a result of this view of the predatory and contagious character of curses, numerous reports in the hadith and legal corpora exhibit a deep discomfort toward cursing. It is notable that prior to the utterance of the mubahala invocation in the aforementioned recorded performance of mubahala between Al Muhsin and al-Barrak, two men from al-Barrak's entourage attempted to dissuade them from proceeding. One specifically declared that he intended "to fill [the two disputants] with the fear of God" and, accordingly, to remind them of God's retribution. (17) Such attempts are informed by a number of prophetic reports indicative of a dislike, if not prohibition, of cursing, such as one in the most revered canonical books of Sunni hadith, the Sahihs of al-Bukhari (d. 256/870) and Muslim (d. 261/875), that equates cursing a fellow Muslim with murder. (18) Moreover, the hadith scholar Abu Dawud (d. 275/889) reports: "The Prophet said: Do not curse each other with God's curse, nor his wrath, nor hellfire." (19) Similarly, the Prophet is reported to have said that those who curse (la"anun) will not attain the status of intercessors (shufa'a') or witnesses (shuhada') on judgment day. (20)
This disavowal of cursing stands in apparent contrast to the example of the Quran, the Prophet, and his Companions. On two occasions at least, Muhammad is said to have resorted to imprecations. In the first case, the Prophet cursed others while supplicating (qunut). (21) There is disagreement among religious scholars on whether the intended recipients of said curse were those involved in the persecution of Muslims in Mecca during Muhammad's residence there, or a man from the tribe of Qurasyh who exposed his buttocks to him, or the murderers of his envoys at Bi'r Ma'una in 4/625, among others. (22) In another case, Muhammad invoked the wrath of God against the tribe of Mudar under unknown circumstances. Both of these narratives are connected ultimately with Q 3:128, (23) which most exegetes interpret as an injunction urging the Prophet to desist from cursing specific individuals. Additionally, to harmonize the two narratives on curses, many scholars argued that the prohibition is against cursing specific individuals, not a categorical prohibition. It is permissible to curse categories of sinners, including "the unjust," "alcohol imbibers," or the like, (24) but one should not curse individuals by name, including non-Muslims. At the heart of this stance is no doubt the fraught historical example of 'A1I, Mu'awiya, and their followers cursing each other during and in the aftermath of the first Civil War (35-40/656-661), the Umayyad practice of cursing 'A1I from the pulpits, and the emergence of the practice of sabb or la'n of the Companions. (25) This stance is also partially the result of belief in the possibility of salvation by means of divine grace. A curse has the potential to preclude a sinner from the opportunity to repent and obtain forgiveness. (26)
THE PROPHETIC PRECEDENT FOR MUBAHALA
In contrast to the above-mentioned examples of cursing initiated by Muhammad and abrogated by revelation, his performance of the mubahala was understood to be rooted in the injunction revealed in Q 3:61. (27) The mubahala curse, which has received some scholarly attention, is connected to an event--a challenge between the Prophet and Christians from the South Arabian town of Najran that took place in Medina in the year 10/632f. (28) Both Sunni and Shi'i scholars agree that this original mubahala pertained to a debate over the status of Jesus. When Muhammad's disagreement with the Najran delegation reached an impasse, he received the Quranic injunction cited above for the two groups to pray humbly (nabtahil) in order to bring the curse of God (la'nat Allah) on the liars among them. After a respite, the Muslim and Christian delegations met at the Baql' cemetery in Medina, where the Prophet was accompanied by his son-in-law 'Ali, his daughter Fatima, and his grandsons al-Hasan and al-Husayn. (29) Afraid of the consequences of the challenge, the Christian delegation refused to participate in the ritual. Instead, it proposed to pay an annual tribute of suits of clothes and coats of armor. Had they risen to the Prophet's mubahala challenge, we are told, the Christians would have died and taken their seats in hell, and had they left without paying tribute...