WARNING: This article contains imagery that some readers may find distressing; discretion is therefore advised.
The Ayaidah tribe might not be as well-known as other Egyptian tribes, yet it is definitely one of the most intriguing. This is mainly attributed to the fact that its members are the only ones that still hold on to a practice known as the world’s most ancient lie detecting system, the “bisha’h.”
While Bedouin tribes both inside and outside Egypt are known for maintaining their own judicial system, in which they resolve disputes and penalize criminals through a bunch of customary laws, the “bisha’h” in particular is known to have died almost everywhere except in the Ayaidah tribe, based in the governorate of Ismailia in north-eastern Egypt.
“Bisha’h,” or trial by ordeal, is generally believed to date back to ancient Mesopotamia although several historical accounts assert it is originally Egyptian. It is used as a means of determining whether a suspect in a crime is innocent or guilty. The ritual involves heating a metal spoon, ladle, or rod and making the suspect lick it in the presence of tribal representatives. If the suspect’s tongue blisters, he is guilty and the suitable verdict is issued and if it is left unscathed, he is innocent and set free.
This kind of trial is used for a wide range of offences such as theft, vandalism, murder, and illicit sexual relations and at times witchcraft and proof of parentage. The tribe particularly resorts to “bisha’h” when evidence is lacking and neither the defendant nor the plaintiff can provide witnesses. The ritual is always conducted by a tribe dignitary labelled the “mubasha’” or the “executor of the bisha’h.”
The practice is based on the assumption that a guilty person would be extremely nervous, hence would have a dry tongue while an innocent person’s saliva will prevent the tongue from burning. It is also said to have originated among Bedouins in particular since common punishments like incarceration were not possible in nomadic communities.
Expert in tribal heritage Jihad Abu Ghoraba said that both the defendant and the plaintiff have the right to bring two witnesses to the “bisha’h” to make sure the process is done properly. “If the defendant does not show up, he is automatically considered guilty,” he said. Abu Ghoraba added that the result of the “bisha’h” is final and cannot be appealed.
“This means that the defendant if proven guilty has to accept the verdict and the plaintiff cannot take any further measures against the defendant.” According to Ghoraba, the ritual is now used as a last resort in case the two parties failed to resolve the dispute in a peaceful way. “So in cases of manslaughter or murder, if the family of the deceased accepts a compensation at the start of the gathering, the ritual is not carried out.”
According to Yehia al-Ghoul, a customary judge in the city of Arish in the Sinai Peninsula, the “bisha’h” is now used more for deterrence than as an actual means of determining whether a suspect if guilty. “In the past, it was always hard to prove how a crime was committed or who committed it, but now the situation is different and more tools are available,” he said. “Trial by fire is now used to intimidate suspects into confession if they are guilty.”
There is no law that criminalizes “bisha’h” in Egypt, which might be among the reasons why it is still practiced there. The ritual was officially banned in Jordan in 1976 through a decree by the late King Hussein. In Saudi Arabia, the “bisha’h” was strongly condemned by religious scholars in as superstitious and anti-Islamic and Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Wahab managed to ban the practice among members of the Mutayr tribe, one of the largest in the country and the Arabian Peninsula.
It is also reported that the practice totally died out in Saudi Arabia in the 1980s after the last “mubasha’” passed away without leaving a successor. In Egypt, former Grand Mufti Sheikh Ali Gomaa said the “bisha’a” is prohibited since it involves physical harm to the defendant as well as the condemnation of innocent people. “There are times when people are injured, which is normal when the tongue touches fire, and this injury leads to condemning them while they are in fact innocent,” he said. “It is double damage then.”
The same view was adopted by current Grand Mufti Sheikh Sahwki Allam. “This ritual has nothing to do with the rules set by Islam to resolve disputes and which are basically founded upon going to court or reconciliation.” The practice is also illegal in Israel, where it was quite common among Arab tribes.
In Egypt, numbers of Ayaidah chiefs specialized in performing the “bisha’h” are posted on the internet. These numbers are usually accompanied by videos that show how the process is conducted. Some videos stress that the ritual performed is the “original” one, without specifying what that means. Those numbers are for members of other tribes who do not have a tribal chief authorized to perform the ritual.
Practicing the “bisha’h” has, in fact, made a village in Ismailia Governorate called Serabioum the most famous in the region for the implementation of customary laws. This is mainly due to the fact that while the job of the “mubasha’” is dying out all over Bedouin communities, it is still flourishing in this village. According to Sheikh Fadl al-Ayaidy, one of the most prominent “mubasha’s,” the tribe of Ayaidah is currently the only one where this job survives. “Some people may pretend to be ‘mubasha’s’ in order to deceive people and get money, but we always track them down,” he said. “We investigate until we know which tribe they come from then we report the issue to the tribe’s chiefs who order them to stop immediately.” Ayaidy added that defendants are never forced to be subjected to the ritual. “We actually start by the defendant declaring that he came willingly and that he agrees to the ritual as a means of judgment.”
Joseph Ginat’s book Bedouin Bisha’h Justice: Ordeal by fire, released in 2008, is one of the most comprehensive studies of the practice. In addition to Egypt, the book also traces scattered cases across the region where few tribal communities resort to the ritual, particularly in North Africa and the Gulf region. Those are, however, done more sporadically and not under an organized system like the one established by the Ayaidah.