Ibn al-Qayyim (rahimahullaah) clarifies the reality of the magic of the magicians of Pharoah in the course of his explanation of the mu'awwadhatayn (last two Surahs of the Qur'an) in his most excellent work "Badaa'i al-Fawaa'id" and so he says, (Dar Aalam al-Fawaa'id, tahqeeq, Ali bin Muhammad Imraan, p. 747 onwards):
And He the Exalted had said about the magicians of Pharoah that "They bewitched the eyes of the people, and struck terror into them, and they displayed a great magic." (7:116). So He, the Sublime, explained that their eyes had been bewitched and this occurs either by a) an alteration of what is observed which (in this case) was ropes and sticks, such that the magicians sought aid by way of (unseen) spirits that caused them to move and they are the devils, and they (the people) thought that they moved by themselves, and this is like when someone who you do not observe, drags a mat or a rug, and you see the mat being dragged by itself, and you do not see the one dragging it despite him being the one who drags it. And such is the state of the ropes and sticks, the devils occupy them and turn them like the turning of a snake, and so the observer thinks that they turn (move) by themselves, yet the devils are the ones who turn them. Or b) the change occurs in the observer such that he sees the ropes and sticks moving although they are actually stationary in themselves.
And there is no doubt that the magician does both this and that (i.e. uses both ways). So one time he will engage with the observer himself and his perception until he begins to see something upon other than what it really is and another time he will engage with [the entity] being observed by seeking aid from devilish spirits until he is able to effect (his magic) therein.
As for what the deniers (i.e. the Mu'tazilah) say in that they (the magicians) did that with the ropes and sticks what necessitated their movement and motion, such as using mercury and other (such things) until they expanded (and appeared to move), then this is falsehood from many different angles. For if it had been like that, this would not have then been imagination (of movement) (khiyaal), rather it would have been an actual true and real movement, and hence, this would not then have been bewitching the eyes of the people, and that is not called magic (sihr), rather merely an art (skill) from the shared arts, and the Exalted had said, "Then behold, their ropes and their sticks, by their magic, appeared to him as though they moved fast" (20:66), and if they had moved by way of a type of (illusory) trickery - as the deniers say - then this would not have been magic at all, and the likes of this (observation) is not hidden at all. And also, if it had been by way of trickery - as those (the deniers) say - then the way to nullify that (trickery) would have been to take out the mercury that was placed within (the ropes, sticks) and thereby explain how that (seemingly) impossible thing took place, and he (Moosaa) would not have been in need of throwing down his staff in order to swallow (the magician's ropes and sticks). And also, the likes of this trickery is not in need of seeking aid from the magicians (to achieve it), rather it is sufficient to use skilled engineers (craftsmen), and in this, the Pharoah's veneration of the magicians and submitting to them (being in need of them) and (his) promising them nearness and reward is not needed therefore. And also, it would not be said (in such a situation) [by Pharoah], "Verily! He [Moosaa] is your chief who taught you magic." (20:71), for the learning and teaching of the arts are (matters) in which the people share with each other. In essence, the refutation of this is so manifestly clear that does away with one burdening oneself to refute it, so let us then return back to our intent (in our topic)...
There are some great benefits in this clarification by Ibn al-Qayyim and there are a number of points that can be made here:
First: The true and real nature of the magic of the magicians of Pharoah was that they used magic in order bewitch the eyes of the people, and this is when their faculties of perception and imaginations are played with by the devils so that they see something what is not really there. So here this is real, actual magic involving the agency of the devils. This is a different category altogether from the use of tricks and sleights of hand and calculated forms of deception and the use of special artefacts to perform magic (that does not involve the devils).
Second: Those who deny the reality of magic (such as the Mu'tazilah) hold that all magic is not real and can be explained purely through natural means - these are your James Randis. And they tried to explain the magic of the magicians of Pharoah by saying that they filled their ropes and sticks with mercury and then placed them on the court of the Pharoah beneath which fire was kindled (unseen by the people). When the marble floor heated up and the mercury in turn heated up causing it to expand, it brought about motion. This is their explanation.
Third: Shaykh Salih al-Fawzan has mentioned this particular interpretation (the use of mercury by those magicians) in a couple of his works and this is a weak opinion and Ibn al-Qayyim has refuted it and shown it cannot be sustained.
Fourth: This passage from Ibn al-Qayyim helps to clarify the confusion about what is referred to as "al-sihr al-takhyeeliyy" (illusionary magic). When this term is used, "illusionary magic", then to an English speaking audience, two things can be intended: The first of them: The actual perceptive faculties and imaginations of people being affected through magic involving devils. So they imagine they are seeing something which is not really there. This is similar to when a husband believes his wife to be ugly, or that she is black instead of white, or that he perceives a horrible smell every time he comes close to her. In all of these cases, the perceptive and imaginative faculties (minds) are being manipulated and played with by the devils, hence it is called "takhyeeliyy" (imaginary, illusory). The second of them: The use of trickery, sleight of hand, and specially crafted artefacts to give the impression of magic but which is not really magic, rather it is simply an art and craft involving ways and means that are known to a special circle of people which they do not reveal to others and through which they do "illusions" and "tricks." This does not involve the agency of the devils and whilst it is not kufr which expels from Islaam, it is prohibited severely, and in practical experience, many of those who are involved in this type of "illusory" magic, it is not far off to say that most of them are also involved in the magic that involves service to the devils.
Fifth: A quick note about what is mentioned in Kitab al-Tawhid of the Sahabah killing magicians and the mention of the incident of Jundub (radiallaahu anhu). Ibn Baz (rahimahullaah) says in his commentary on that chapter in Kitab al-Tawhid the following (Dar al-Diyaa, 1422H, p. 129):
Some of the people, from them al-Shafi'ee said: If the magic of the magician is through known things which harm but which do not alter the minds, rather they harm and cause illness and in which there is no claim of knowledge of the unseen, and it was not from one who seeks the service of the devils and aid from them, and does not perform that which Allaah has prohibited of shirk and other than it, then he is not killed. Because this is not from magic, rather, it is from causing harm and oppression. Hence, he is merely beaten and disciplined [as opposed to being killed], because the intent behind killing the magicians in the view of the Sahaabah is (to eliminate) those who employ the Jinn, worship them and claim knowledge of the unseen, since this is what is found overwhelmingly amongst the magicians, so such a one is killed, and this is what is correct.
- Shaykh Saalih Aal al-Shaykh on the Nature of the Magic Which Expels from Islaam - (see here)
- Shaykh Ibn Baz on the Tafseel (Detailed Clarification) Regarding Magic Which Constitutes Kufr - (see here)
- Shaykh Ibn al-Uthaymeen on the Magic that Expels from Islam and the Magic Which Does Not - (see here)
- Shaykh Sulayman bin Abdullaah bin Abdul-Wahhaab on What Constitutes the Magic Which Expels from Islaam - (see here)
- Imaam al-Shanqeetee's Clarification and Verification on the Magic that Expels From the Religion - (see here)
- Shaykh Ibn Baz; That Which Makes Magic to Be Kufr is Worship of the Jinn and Seeking their Assistance - (see here)