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  • Bedouin Bisha‘h Justice: Ordeal by Fireby Joseph Ginat
  • Issa J. Boullata (bio)
Bedouin Bisha‘h Justice: Ordeal by Fire, by Joseph Ginat. Brighton, Portland, Toronto: Sussex Academic Press, 2012. 248 pages. $99.95.

The Arabic word Bisha‘h in the title as well as throughout this book is wrongly transliterated and should read Bish‘ah. An inordinate number of other erroneously transliterated Arabic words are present in the text too and should have been avoided in this otherwise well-researched work on one particular judicial practice in Bedouin justice.

This practice, called al-bish‘ah (the ugly one), is an ordeal by fire in which the guilt or innocence of the accused is determined by subjecting him or her to a painful test consisting in licking a red-hot metal. Trials by ordeal of different kinds were practiced in the ancient Near East and there are Biblical references to them; and this one, al-bish‘ah, is still practiced in some Bedouin societies today. Trials by ordeal have been practiced by people in other parts of the world, including India, Kenya, and Sierra Leone; North American natives like the Cheyenne and Cherokee tribes; and by Europeans in the medieval period. Professor [End Page 141] Ginat has given brief historical instances of them, but his major contribution in this book is his study (between 1989 and 2006 in Egypt primarily) of al-bish‘ah, of which he observed 221 cases and received the reports on many earlier ones.

He explains in detail how the trial is conducted as well as the judicial principles and procedures it involves. The accuser and the suspect come before the traditionally accepted mubasha‘ in the presence of witnesses. The accuser initially pays the costs of the trial (LE 100 in 1994) but if the suspect is found guilty the costs are covered by the latter. The mubasha‘ explains the procedure to them after hearing the complaint of the accuser. He ascertains the healthy condition of the suspect’s tongue, supported by witnesses, and explains the manner of full licking of the red-hot ladle heated to between 600 and 900 degrees Celsius. If the suspect’s tongue does not blister after licking the red-hot ladle, he or she is declared innocent; otherwise, he or she is guilty. A report is written about the trial and kept by the mubasha‘. Professor Ginat says that, from the trials he attended and from reports on others since 1987, he found that the suspect was found innocent in 82% of the cases.

Most of the cases concern accusations of theft, but a few include murder, rape, and adultery, while some relate to conflicts over a piece of land or other property. Professor Ginat discusses examples of each at length and, in the appendices, provides reproductions of bish‘ah ceremony reports, police and court letters to the mubasha‘ to perform the bish‘ah, Arabic newspaper articles about the practice, and a table of bish‘ah ceremonies from 1977 to 1995 including the main features of each with dates, the charges, number of people accused, sex of the accused, the verdicts, and other remarks.

Still practiced in Egypt near Isma‘iliyya, the bish‘ah was banned in Jordan in 1976 by the late King Hussein. In Saudi Arabia, the practice ceased after the death of the mubasha‘ in the late 1980s without leaving a successor. It is believed that the practice will eventually come to an end as modern procedures of justice assert themselves, even among the Bedouin.

The first reference in the literature to the bish‘ah among the Bedouin is found in a 1922 article by Omar El-Barghouti in Journal of the Palestine Oriental Society. Palestinian author ‘Aref Al-‘Aref wrote on it in his well-known Al-Qada’ bayn al-Badu [Justice among the Bedouin] (Jerusalem, 1943) and others did later in Arabic, English, Hebrew, and other languages. One of the latest and most comprehensive, Professor Ginat’s book is a good contribution to cultural anthropology and ethnography on this topic, and it would have been better if it had a bibliography.

Issa J. Boullata

Issa J. Boullata, McGill University


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