Most people – if not all – will be familiar with the concept of jinn, or genies, as they are known in the West. Our knowledge of them comes predominantly from the colourful tales of the ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ (Alf Layla wa Layla in Arabic) or the larger-than-life portrayal by Robin Williams of the famous genie in the Disney movie “Aladdin”. However stories of genies – or jinn, to give the Arabic term – have been around for a lot longer than we might think and these haunting, enigmatic beings are still as feared by the inhabitants of modern-day Arabia as they were by the Arab tribes who lived hundreds of years ago.
The Qur’an itself mentions jinn on many occasions, even devoting a whole chapter (Surat al-Jinn) to this frightening creature, which the holy book cites as being composed of “the smokeless flame of fire”. The jinn of the Qur’an are similar to humans in that they have religions, marry and reproduce; they also have powers of intellect and reasoning and are conscious of right and wrong. Some of these jinn are evil (such as the powerful afreet and the shayatin, of which the Devil is one) some are good, and others merely benign. According to the Prophet Muhammed himself, they can manifest themselves as spirits which fly through the sky, as dogs or snakes, or as an earthly creature which resides in one locale or wanders from place to place. These jinn are said to inhabit the wild open spaces of the desert but also choose residences close to people, even inhabiting bathrooms, graveyards and dunghills. Believers should invoke the name of Allah before entering their home, so that the jinn will not follow them in, and evil eye amulets can be worn to protect against the hexing glare of this supernatural creature.
As I have already mentioned, there is still a healthy – and perhaps unsurprising – fear for the jinn among modern-day Arabs, even the young trendy adults of cosmopolitan cities like Dubai. An example of this apprehension springs to mind – an Emirati friend of mine took me ‘dune-bashing’ in the Arabian desert late one night. There were plenty of other young people there as this is a popular Dubai pastime; young dark-skinned men in jeans and t-shirts or crisp white kanduras were gunning their motors as their Hummers and Jeeps slid and slewed down the massive face of the dunes, and we laughed and pretended to scream as my friend’s little black Wrangler competed with their vehicles. After a while, however, we decided to drive away from the others, deeper into the desert to explore under the benevolent gaze of the moon. The Jeep bumped and skipped over the dunes, startling some camels which switched their tails in irritation as they lumbered away into the darkness.
Eventually we came to a stand-still in a picturesque little valley between some dunes and sat there quietly, gazing around us at the quiet beauty of the desert at night. It was absolutely silent and eerily lovely, and yet I didn’t feel at all afraid. But my Emirati companion – a brave and ebullient member of the UAE military – suddenly became restless and uneasy, muttering that he was frightened and we must leave. Before I could respond he was already gunning the engine and setting his sights on the massive dune where the other young people were still racing. I was surprised and confused at his sudden panic; only later did I realize what it was that he was so afraid of – the jinn, which are said to roam out there in the windswept expanses of the desert.
Several months later, remembering this incident, I asked my Syrian boyfriend to tell me more about the jinn. He described how he and his friends had been driving out in the desert one night when one of their cars broke down. They all jumped out to fix it, but saw a strange light approaching across the desert, like a will-o-the-wisp. Panicked, they all piled into the remaining car and drove away as fast as they could, abandoning the broken down vehicle by the side of the road.
My Syrian partner had another interesting tale to tell, this one even more disturbing. His aunt, so he said, was a well-known fortune teller and healer; she could use Turkish coffee grounds to tell your future, and knew all sorts of inscriptions and prayers for curing illnesses and even finding love. One of the reasons she could do all this was that, supposedly, she had a jinn helper, which sat on her shoulder and whispered predictions into her ear. While this might sound strange to us, in the Arab world it is not such an uncommon thing. Throughout Muslim history there have been instances of fortune-tellers using jinn to help them foresee events and make prophecies about people’s lives. Supposedly the jinni confers with the ‘qareen’, the jinn companion assigned to each individual, and whispers the information to the fortune-teller, who then relates it to the person consulting him. Besides this, the fortune-tellers’ jinn can travel great distances almost at once, recovering hidden artefacts, stories and scraps of information.
Islam condemns the use of jinn and the practise of fortune telling in general but it seems that modern-day Arab mystics and soothsayers still turn to these mystical creatures for help, although they do so at their own risk, as to associate with such creatures could mean accusations of being in league with the Devil himself. In the case of my partner’s aunt, however, there were no such accusations and people who know of her skills come to visit her, sometimes from many miles away, asking for help and predictions of the future.
This example demonstrates how inextricably jinn are woven into the fabric of Arab and Muslim life. While to most Westerners they remain mere figments of the imagination, garish genies that spring from tarnished old lamps and grant wishes, to the people who live in the vast arid loneliness of the Middle Eastern countryside jinn are still something to be whispered about with fear, and guarded against. There are many reports of jinn possession, even now, and sheikhs are called to the homes of the possessed to read from the Qur’an and expel the devilish spirit. Believing Muslims speak the name of Allah before they eat or drink, so that the jinn cannot partake from their table, and before they undress, so the jinn will not be able to witness their nakedness.
In short, jinn are much more than Disney sprites and monstrous entities from the Arabian Nights. So the next time you journey to the Middle East, think twice before venturing into the desert late at night, and purchase an evil eye amulet from one of the jewellery souks, because you never know how close you might be to one of the jinn, the creatures of “smokeless fire” which live among the dunes and in the dark or unclean areas of villages, towns and cities.