Many Arabs that I know, especially women, believe in the power of magic spells, envy and the evil eye. Being a realist all my life, I've never believed in any of them. I have always understood the reference to them in the Quran as being actual acts that cause harm—not supernatural phenomena.
An example of the envy that was mentioned in the Quran, based on my understanding, would be a woman who is jealous of another woman, and out of her jealousy causes actual harm to her by spreading negative rumors about her, secretly sabotaging her property, or disrupting her livelihood.
An example of the magic spells that was mentioned in the Quran, based on my understanding, would be a man who hates another man, and out of his hatred, utilizes clever techniques that cause him harm, such as remotely setting his house on fire, hacking into his computer, or disabling his car.
But after reading about topics such as guided imagery, visualization and the powers of placebo effects and nocebo effects (negative placebo response), I began to wonder whether envy and magic can be understood from this perspective.
The power of emotions and belief is well documented, and people have harnessed it throughout history for good and evil.
The power of positive thinking has been known to cause spontaneous healing, while the power of negative thinking has been known to cause psychological disturbances, physical illnesses, and in extreme cases, death (voodoo death) which is brought about by a strong emotional shock, such as fear.
Walter Cannon who first coined the term voodoo death in 1942 cited examples of extraordinary deaths in aboriginal societies. He posited the idea that fear of supernatural consequences caused the deaths witnessed in the natives, where an individual receives some sort of shock—often the breaking of some social/religious taboo—that he interprets as a pridiction that something bad will happen; his physical condition then deteriorates and he eventually dies.
Cannon explains this phenomenon by noting that the shock causes a reduction of the volume of circulating blood, preventing a proper flow of blood within the body and causing a drop in blood pressure.
Since 1942, scientists have discovered many more of the processes involved in the effect of stress upon the body.
Similar responses can occur on smaller levels causing illness or psychological disturbances.
Based on this, a woman who believes that she or her child might be envied by someone is likely to have something negative happen to her or her child because of her belief or fear that it will (nocebo effect.)
Yet the potential of superstition rests entirely on degrees of belief. So, if you don't believe that something is dangerous or harmful it won't affect you.
Perhaps that is why envy and magic happens to be effective in primitive societies and less effective in modern societies. Primitive societies actually believe that it is effective.
The Quran's antidote
The Quran addressed this phenomenon by asserting that there are people out there that can harness the power of thought and belief to cause you harm. But you can protect yourself from this harm through belief itself by clinging to your faith and asking for Allah's protection, by saying, "I seek refuge in the Lord of the Dawn" and "I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind," (the last two surahs in the Quran).
Thus, an example of envy would be a woman who is jealous of another woman, and out of her jealousy says something to her that causes her to lose confidence in herself or sets a psychological feeling that something negative is going to happen. This feeling if powerful enough in the envier can be transferred to the believer and become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Why is belief in envy and magic more common in cultures that are less educated or less developed?
Perhaps because these cultures are less reliant on sophisticated methods. Long ago before the advancement of science and medicine, people had nothing else to rely on but the placebo. With the adoption of the scientific method, the placebo effect with its 35-40 percent efficacy was tossed out.
People in developed countries are so absorbed by modern science, technology and medicine for problem solving that they have lost interest in the power of belief to effect life.
Recently, psychology and medicine have become interested in these subtle responses to address problems that modern medicine is not yet able to treat effectively. The placebo effect has also gained increased respectability today, because unlike allopathic medicine, the placebo effect gets better over time. The more you believe, the better it works.