Middle East Studies

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Bedouin Bisha'h Justice

Ordeal by Fire

Joseph Ginat, a cultural-political anthropologist, was Vice President of International Relations and Research at Netanya Academic College. He was the author of Blood Revenge: Family Honor, Mediation, and Outcasting, and editor of Sussex Studies in Peace Politics in the Middle East, as well as numerous contributions to social anthropology in the field of Mormon studies, and Arab culture.

Trials by ordeal, a judicial practice in which the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined by subjecting them to a painful task, have taken place from ancient Mesopotamia until the present day. This volume focuses on a special type of ordeal by fire called the bisha’h ceremony, which originated in Bedouin societies and continues to be practiced in Egypt today. In Bedouin and Arab rural societies, when somebody suspects another person of theft, property damage, murder, manslaughter, illicit sexual relations, rape, or witchcraft, and there are no witnesses to the crime, this individual can request the suspect or suspects to accompany him to the mubasha’, a Bedouin notable who conducts the ordeal by fire.

The bishah ceremony was previously performed in Jordan and in Saudi Arabia as well as in Egypt. In Jordan, the late King Hussein banned the ordeal by fire in 1976. In Saudi Arabia, the mubasha’ died in the late 1980s, without leaving a successor.

Today, in Egypt, near Ismaliyya, a mubasha’ continues to practice the ceremonial ordeal in which the suspect licks a ladle that is heated to between 600–900 degrees Celsius. If the suspect’s tongue blisters, he or she are deemed guilty. If the tongue is clear, they are declared innocent. The author observed 169 of such ordeals, many of which are documented and illustrated in this volume. People who take part in the bisha’h ceremony come not only come from various regions in Egypt, but also from other North African countries, and from several Middle Eastern countries, including the Gulf States. Most of the cases involve rural peasants rather than Bedouin, but in some cases city dwellers take part in the ordeal.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-269-3
Hardback Price: £65.00 / $99.95
Release Date: November 2008
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-565-6
Paperback Price: £25.00 / $37.95
Release Date: October 2012
Page Extent / Format: 200 pp. / 229 x 152 mm
Illustrated: Yes


Foreword by Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein
Map of the Settlement of the ‘Ayaidah Tribe

Chapter One
Introducing the Bisha’h Ceremony
Salim Al-Afinish – A Converted Believer in the Bisha’h
My First Meeting with the Mubasha
The Origins of the Bisha’h
A General Description of the Bisha’h Ceremony
A Physiological Explanation of the Bisha’h
Accusations of Corruption to Explain the Bisha’h
Belief in Barakah
Appealing the Verdict of a Bisha’h
Defining the Profession of the Mubasha
Theoretical Approaches to the Bisha’h
Description of the Research Methodology
The Relationship between the Researcher and the Mubasha

Chapter Two
The Mubasha’s Family, Khams (Co-Liable Group),
and Family Traditions
Appointing a New Mubasha
Competing Mubashas
The Property and Buildings of the Mubasha’s Family
Marriage Patterns in the Mubasha’s Family
Perpetuating Cohesiveness in the Mubasha’s Family

Chapter Three
A Review of Trials by Ordeal throughout History
Code of the Hammurabi
The Code of Ur-Nammu
A Hymn to Nungal
Ordeals in the Five Books of Moses
Ordeals in Medieval Europe
Ordeals in Other Countries / Cultures
Bedouin and Arab Ordeals

Chapter Four
Introduction to the Case Histories

Chapter Five
Theft, Drugs and Property Damage Cases
Case 1: A Surprise Female Accuser
Case 2: The Bedouin and the Copt
Case 3: The Female Students from Al-Azhar University
Case 4: Theft of a Water Pump
Case 5: Theft from the Sai’d Region
Case 6: Theft of a Pistol
Case 7: Theft of Handgun and Rifle
Case 8: An Attempt to Bribe the Mubasha
Case 9: The Sheep that ran after the Young Man
Case 10: A Man who Denied Stealing a Cow
Case 11: Theft within the Family
Case 12: Employees Desire to Clear their Names
Case 13: Confession of Guilt due to Fear of Exposure
Case 14: The Mubasha’s Requirement for Accurate Information
Case 15: The Theft of a Foreskin
Case 16: A Foreskin that was not Transferred
Colour Plates
Case 17: A Drug Case where the Mubasha Refused to Give a Verdict
Case 18: Suspecting the Power of the Bisha’h
Case 19: A Case that Called into Question the Mubasha’s Credibility

Chapter Six
Murder and Manslaughter Cases
Case 20: The Fallaµ and the Bedouin
Case 21: A Murder Accusation from the Sai’d Region
Case 22: A Murder Case in which Diyyah (Blood Money) was Refused
Case 23: A Manslaughter Verdict Called into Doubt

Chapter Seven
Illicit Sexual Relations and Rape Cases
Case 24: The Woman Accused of Illicit Sexual Relations
Case 25: The Pregnant Girl
Case 26: A Rape Accusation
Case 27: The Scales of Justice and Mercy
Case 28: The Man Accused of Stalking a Woman
Case 29: A Proxy who caused an Inaccurate Result

Chapter Eight
Marbut – Inability of the Groom to Perform on his Wedding Night
Case 30: The Marbut who Broke off an Engagement
Case 31: The Marbut who Accused Nine Women

Chapter Nine
Charms, Witchcraft, and Healing Ceremonies
Case 32: Poisoning through Menstrual Blood
Case 33: The Belief that the Bisha’h works only on Men
Case 34: Psoriasis as a Result of the Bisha’h Ceremony
Case 35: A Case of Witchcraft

Chapter Ten
Concluding Remarks

Appendix I: Bisha’h Ceremony Reports
Appendix II: Notes Distributed During Bisha’h Ceremonies
Appendix III: Police and Court Letters to the Mubasha
Requesting Performance of the Bisha’h
Appendix IV: Newspaper References
Appendix V: Summary Table of Bisha’h Ceremonies


Using compelling case studies of the contemporary use of ordeal by fire, Bedouin Bisha'h Justice is ethnography at its finest. Murder, sex, theft, sorcery, drugs, and healing figure in Ginat’s skillful narrative – a must read for anyone interested in the modern Middle East.
Dr. Dale F. Eickelman, author of The Middle East and Central Asia: An Anthropological Approach

Joseph Ginat has written a tremendously stimulating and detailed volume about the contemporary practice of an ordeal by fire as a unique method for solving disputes and discovering the truth behind accusations. Ginat’s sincere and friendly relationship with Arabs significantly contributed to the study of the bisha'h. This volume will be of immeasurable value to scholars in the fields of anthropology, law, and humanities.
Professor Aref Abu-Rabia'h, Department of Middle East Studies, Ben-Gurion University

Cultural-political and anthropologist Ginat describes the ceremony for detecting guilt and innocence among ‘Ayaidah, who live in eastern Egypt and western Sinai, the office of the person who conducts the ceremony, and trials by ordeal throughout history. Then he presents several case histories each in the areas of theft, drugs and property damage; murder and manslaughter; sexual relations and rape; the inability of the groom to perform on his wedding night; and charms, witchcraft, and healing ceremonies.
Reference & Research Book News

Ordeal by Fire is a thoughtful and utterly invaluable contribution to anthropology and Middle Eastern Studies shelves.
The Midwest Book Review

This volume focuses on a special type of ordeal by fire called bishah, in which a person is made to lick a heated piece of metal (usually a ladle) to prove his innocence. Based on extensive ethnographic field research, Joseph Ginat has written a tremendously stimulating and detailed monograph in the field of folk religion and customary law in present-day Egypt. Bishah is a peculiar ceremony that is conducted in order to ascertain the truth. When somebody suspects another person of theft, property damage, manslaughter, murder, illicit sexual relations, rape, or sorcery, the suspect and the accuser have the possibility to visit the mubasha, a respected ‘middle man’ who conducts the ordeal by fire.
... Ordeals by fire will remain a highly exciting topic in present-day Egypt as well as in social anthropology. In further investigations it may well be fruitful to focus on epistemological questions that are connected with legal pluralism and the revitalisation of bishah.
Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale

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