ordeal of fire

Bisha’a (‘trial by fire’) is a ritual practiced today by some Bedouin tribes for the purpose of lie detection. It is the best-known of various forms of trial by ordeal which are practiced by the Bedouin, but is increasingly uncommon, with more and more Bedouins preferring standard courts of law for enactment of justice. The basic ritual consists of the accused being asked to lick a hot metal object thrice. He is provided with water for rinsing after the ceremony. He is then inspected by the official who presides over the ceremony, the Mubesha, and by the designated witnesses of the ritual.

If the person undergoing the ritual is found to have a scarred or burnt tongue, it is concluded that he was lying. Declining to perform the ritual or running away results in an automatic finding of guilt. The quasiscientific explanation of the ordeal is that stress would cause the mouth of liar to dry up, hence increasing the possibility of a burn. However, the stress of the ordeal could just as easily cause the same physical symptoms in an innocent person.

The Bisha’a is usually performed only to resolve the gravest of civil or criminal offences, and is a voluntary ritual in the sense that consent on the part of the ritual undergoer is required. Typically, Bisha’a is only performed for those cases where there are no witnesses regarding the disputed issue. The event is usually a public affair, with both parties arriving with fanfare. Tea is often served.

More than half the accused persons who set out to lick the spoon lose their nerve while the spoon is in the fire, and voluntarily confess to their guilt without blistering their tongues. A further twenty-five per cent probably blister their tongues, and twenty-five per cent are declared innocent. The legend behind the Bisha’a goes back to a famed tracker named Weymer abu Ayad. Weymer was robbed of a personal possession; he identified the criminal, but there were no witnesses. So he challenged the suspect to lick a red-hot branding iron three times which he would also lick three times, saying that the guilty would be shown. The suspect ran away.

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