Jnun in the social order

In early Arabia stories of the jnun were used to explain just about everything that humans could not at the time. The stories of the jnun were in fact used to create a social order and ensure that the society followed the same set of rules. Looking back to the first week of classes we had two definitions of religion, one by Clifford Geertz and one by Bruce Lincoln. While the content of both definitions varies slightly there is one trait that both share that adequately describes the cultural use of jnun.

Geertz said that religion, A) formulates concepts of a general order of existence, and B) clothing these concepts in an aura of factuality that makes these moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. Lincolns definition has a more specific aim for religion, “A set of practices that aim to produce a proper world and proper human subjects”. The jnun became the guidance for a proper world and proper human subjects as well as explaining the general order of existence in a manner that made sense in an earlier time.

The stories of the jnun warn children of everything from making sure their clothes are folded and covering your mouth when you yawn to not talking back to your father and praying before dinner, if the children do not do these things it will be possible for a djinn to possess them. This is essentially enforcing hygiene and manners in children as well as devoutness and responsibilities. The stories of the jnun also warn of places jnun live, such as caves, deserts, hollowed trees and the ocean. All of these areas are dangerous for children alone, particularly at night when jnun are more active. Caves and dunes can be treacherous, scorpions, spiders and snakes can live in hollowed out trees and children should not play in the ocean alone, these are all basic things that simple stories of djinn warn children of.

Jnun are also credited with causing illnesses, particularly sudden and violent ones or epidemics. Salt is supposed to repel evil spirits so the Arabs used this to protect themselves, they put it on everything because it worked. In reality all they were doing was using a preservative on their food, which meant they did not get sick because it did not spoil, meaning the jnun did not bring them sickness that year. All these stories of the jnun and the terrible things they could do were used to explain the unexplained, but also to establish a social order of life, the stories advocated preserving food, basic hygiene, manners, and keep their children and society safe. According to both definitions of religion the stories of the jnun are definitely used for control, but in a manner that establishes the essentials of a successful society and individual.

What are saints?

Sainthood has been a concept I never understood.  I knew it was this thing that the Catholic Church could declare a person had, but I did not know what the requirements were.  I also know some Protestants will call on various saints if they really wanted extra help with something in their life, but the veneration of the Virgin Mary, the saints, and their relics always felt rather polytheistic to me, but also distinctly Christian.  And now this course is challenging my point of view, yet again, as we learn about the saints of Islam and Judaism.  Nevertheless, I’m still not completely certain what qualifies someone or a spirit as a saint, and I think that the veneration of them most definitely “smacks of the way of the Amorite” (Astren 185).

However, from our recent readings, I have been able to gather much more knowledge about saints and their purpose in both Islam and Judaism.  Saints possess the holy force that is known in both religions as Baraka, and they fall into different categories according t to how much Baraka they have.  They can use this power to make protective charms and to perform miracles.  Saints have shrines dedicated to them, and people of many religions would come to bargain with the saints.  A shrine would be the house for the spirit of one saint, perhaps a Jewish holy man, but Muslims would likely also come to worship the either Islamasized version of the same saint or the Jewish saint because holy people and places were holy for both faiths.  These “Jewish and Muslim shrines represented the closest contact among devotees of all faiths” (Meri 250).

This overlap of believers and practices at saints’ shrines was due in large part to the agrarian culture of the communities that worshiped at them.  The people would go to the saints, whichever was closest or whoever they preferred and would make sacrifices and vows in order to help with rains and harvests, to heal the sick in their family, to aid in fertility.  They would go to the saints for these more day to day requests because they could have more of a direct interaction at a shrine than just praying to God.  They worshiped these saints because they were familiar, intimate beings with whom Jews and Muslims could have transactional relationships to improve their lives.

The Craftiness of Jinn

When first talking about the jinn many weeks back, I found the idea mystifying since I myself don’t believe in jinn. But to see the society of jinn being so vast and distinctly different but crystal clear as humans, it almost seems likely. Though then again, were these tricks made up to protect the society from getting into trouble? I have a theory, as most psychologists do, that there were people who took the “scary jinn” to a functional/safe living level and those who were deathly afraid of the jinn.

The jinns are very mystifying, as I said before, but not just because they live in the jinn world, but because how they interact with human kind. There’s many different kinds of jinn, even jinn that don’t go terrorizing people, that exist in the jinn world that almost reflect human type customs. There’s are jinn that live in the sky, or live underground, and certain ones that live in water (Westermarck, 264). However, what makes them very distinct is how they look. Jinn come in all shapes and sizes and even variations in colors (depending on the religion one views the jinn). Westermarck describes them as beings with no physical bodies or are barely more than a floating head that wanders the deserts, oceans, and caves. Even so, some jinn are known to take the forms of animals when encountering humans or take over animals to exist further in the human realm (Westermarck, 278). Even with the misleading disguises, a person may tell if an animal is actually being possessed or a jinn in disguise is by the “animal’s actions.” People who have encountered jinn in the form of animals say that some ask questions in a very human voice or there was one case when a goat was clapping his hooves together, which is uncommon to see.

Even if there are cases when the jinn don’t interfere with human life or cause mayhem in society, there are many ways that the society still views them as dangerous beings. If a person was to confront a jinn accidentally, like an example given in class if someone was to bump into a jinn on the street the next day their elbow might be swollen from the contact. There have even been cases when an army of jinn will appear to take vengeance on a civilization if disturbed and spread practically incurable diseases for the time period like cholera and the measles (Westermarck, 289). Through these examples, many rules or warnings have been put into place in some societies to warn people about committing certain acts to lead to further exposure to jinn or risk of being hurt by jinn.

From a psychological aspect, these warnings have very logical reasoning behind them but instead of making them rules, the use of fear was seen as more effective to get people to act with caution. For example, a person shouldn’t go wander at night down a road as they would most likely encounter a jinn. From this warning a person learns they shouldn’t go anywhere alone (and that stands true for today) as the risk of encountering jinn raises exponentially. There were also warnings of jinn coming in contact with someone if they were being rude to their elders or went swimming alone at any hour of the day (Westermarck, 293).

So though I see the methods of keeping people safe from harm’s way to be very important, I do believe that the jinn were a type of “scapegoat” to place blame upon so that the blame of bad luck or misfortune wouldn’t be placed upon a higher being like God or Allah.

Similarity and difference between Saint veneration and protection from Jnun

Saint veneration and protection from jnun are similar in their cosmology but different in their purposes of explaining what one doesn’t understand. Protection against jnun arose because if their are going to be saints who protect the people then there must be something to be fearful of that one needs protection. The saints are the ones who performs miracles and provides the needs of the people. Saints offer guidance for those who seeks assistance. In order to become a Saint, one must have an exceptional amount of baraka which is inherited by being a descendant of Muhammad or Sultans or gained by being in close proximity of a Saint. Saints are believed to possess powers such as healing, fertility, all knowing, and defy the laws of nature. Saints possess a glow. Saints represent the explanatory model of the mysteries of the unknown that are positive.

These unknowns can cause fears of it and so these fears are attached to jnun. Jnun is described as being able to defy the laws of nature, become invisible and being able to take the form of a human or animal. Jnun is active at night and one can protect themselves from them would be by making strong loud sounds, having salt, using charms, having a light and stones. Jnun provide an explanation of the situations of suffering such as infertility and sickness. A woman is deemed infertile when she continuously have children that die at infancy. Westermarck said that the sick can see jnun that are invisible to others. If a jinn is invisible then there is more likely to come into contact with them so it is best to have protection.

I want to explore whether a saint can turn into a jinn because both a saint and jinn can change their shape. I wonder if there are examples of saints mating with a human since saints have the ability to change into one. However, I can be wrong because saints are supposed to represent purity and if they give into temptations then they wouldn’t be as holy. Hence, jinn would have to represent temptations since men are more likely to mate with a jinn so men are weakened by their temptations of sexual relations.

Presence of Jinn

What I found interesting is the accepted belief of the Jinn across Muslim and Judaic folk cultures. We discussed this in class and examined the presence of Jinn in the works of both the Grehan and Westermarck readings. However, what is significant about this shared belief of Jinn is that it not only shows a correlation among cultures in differeing geographic locations and periods, but the presence of Jinn serves as a human model of explanation for potential dangers.

In Grehan’s Chapter 5, he goes into depth discussing the presence of the belief of Jinn in the Ottoman Syria and Palestine in 18th century. He discusses that the jinn are responsible for both good and bad events that occurred; for example, “making mills grind faster” and “pranks… deliberate acts of malice and destruction” (Grehan, 143). He also discusses that within this culture people are warned against going outside dwellings because Jinn in “empty lands, uninhabited by humans… had their most extensive domains” (Grehan, 144).

Westermarck also discusses jinn, in relation to Morocco during the 20th century. He discusses the belief Moroccan’s have that mention Jinn being most active at night (this characteristic of Jinn is also mentioned in Grehan’s work). Additionally, he discusses that Jinn are present in caves and oceans and should be avoided.

Between both works the reader can find a correlation between the potential danger and the presence of Jinn. This presence of Jinn in the folk culture Ottoman Syria, Palestine, and Morocco serve as a way to explain dangers of certain activities and a way to prohibit these dangerous activities. It is important to note that the official doctrine of Islam and Judaism tries to suppress the concept of Jinn, but the fact that they have been present in folk culture for so long shows how much this explanatory model has integrated into the culture of these people.

Jinn and Saints

Throughout popular religion, there has always been a sense of hierarchy. When studying popular religion, we discussed many aspects of shared rituals, places of prayer, and shared ideas of holiness. In particular, we studied the Jinn and its presence within society. Jinn can either be evil spirits or good spirits. They are usually considered the “demon” in some cultures. It is a way to blame something for problems that do not ordinarily have any explanation. Jinn are believed by each religion to take the form of humans as well as animals. They can also be invisible. Their presence can go unnoticed but they hold a certain amount of power over human beings. Jinn can influence human lives by possessing them. When possessing a human, they can create physical and mental illnesses, as well as harm them physically. Jinn eat like humans but avoid water as well as salt. There are certain precautionary measures that protect people from the appearance of Jinn. These include salt, prayer, and light. Jinn only come out at night and during high holy days.


Another common presence in these religions is spirits. One can become a saint by being related to someone who is a saint, as well as when a ruling class passes “Baraka” down to other generations. Unlike Jinn, spirits can be human without possessing another body. Spirits are cherished and held to a level of Baraka unlike other human beings. Baraka is a level of holiness that one has, it is a force of security and hope. Baraka is a blessing or power that is used for good or bad. There are many different categories of saints. Levels of hierarchy distinguish the saints. The utmost respected saints are the descendents of Muhammad, those who belong to the royal family, and people containing the highest level of Baraka. The next level of saints is the in-between saint. The bottom level of sainthood includes the Mujaduh. Each level of saints is highly respected. These saints have powers unlike human ability, including: healing powers, the ability to make it rain, controlling fertility, cursing people, and light phenomena.


This aspect of a religion creates a system where those who believe also fear. It allows people to have a system of hope and explanations for things that are unexplained. It creates rules for people to follow. It also creates a sense of community when people who believe in the same thing come together to pray.

The power and baraka of saints

Growing up, venerating and worshiping saints in Islam seemed to be a normal part of my religion, and my mother was very adamant on exercising that practice. However, in reading Meri, Grehan and Westermarck it has become clear that in fact the worship of saints can in fact be seen in popular religion as a form of pagan rituals and a contrast to monotheism. The baraka and the power given to the saints, firstly seem strange in the way which they can freely use their gifts, but it is also puzzling as to how these saints obtained their power miraculously. If these monotheistic religions speak of an all powerful God who should be the only one praised and worshiped, then why would this same God give powers to saints for them to be revered instead of Him?

The Prophet Muhammad never considered himself a saint, had no extreme or radical powers, and spoke of only the worship of God, however his ancestors and the sultan’s ancestors were venerated as saints. Not only were the people high up the social order saints, but the poor, slaves and even heretics who were believed to possess baraka and power were honored as saints. All three authors speak of the powers these saints held, but it seems to be a mystery as to why they had powers or if they even did, where did they obtain them from. These saints were worshiped, sacrifices being made to them and offerings given to them, similar to polytheism, therefore it does not seem plausible that God would give them these powers for them to be venerated.

As saints were either good, bad or crazy, it could be the case that saints were in fact jinun taking the form of a human or humans possessed by jinn. Since jinun are very similar to humans and have abilities which humans do not hold. This of course is a likely conspiracy theory, however, it could make sense as to how these saints obtained power and the bizarre rituals in transferring baraka to a new saint, such as spitting in one’s mouth. If God would not be willing to give these saints abilities, taking away from the concept of monotheism, maybe the power of these saints can be accrued to the jinn which, according to Westermarck can interact with humans in many forms.


The Jnun as the Others

The complexity and prevalence of jnun folklore and ritual in the Middle East and North Africa presents an interesting perspective into the assimilation of ancient belief into modern culture.  One characteristic of djinn I found especially striking was the popularity of animal extremities attached to human forms that accompanied the legends of jnun.

One of the variations for djinn in arabic roughly translates to “the others,” meaning djinn are a separate category from human (Westermarck 263).  The name in and of itself suggests that djinn cannot be categorized as human that they somehow exist outside of the lineage of man.  Moreover, using the name “others” also lacks a certain identity as if jnun somehow defy clear definition.  The various forms in which djinn appear to wayward humans, especially as people with animal features, further emphasized this sense of otherness.

In his ethnography Westermarck outlined several instances of jnun appearing as humans with animal characteristics.  For example, Westermarck noted that “sometime the jnun appear as monsters with the body of a man and the legs of a donkey.(267)”  In a different instance the jenniya Gola was described as “a woman, although she has also been seen with her extremities looking like the feet of a goat” and covered in hair (Westermarck 396).  In both of these cases the animal feet and legs point out another interesting aspect of jnun mythology: the monstrous capability of a djinn.

In many ways, the attachment of hooves on a human body exists outside of the natural variations available for the human body.  Moreover, Westermarck’s use of “monsters” to describe the half man half beast appearance of the jnun should also contribute to the sense of other.  Jnun here appear not only as just another form of creation but as creatures that exist outside of natural laws.  Thus, by adding together the name variation and stories attached to jnun one can fully understand the power such a creature might yield over the imagination.  Essentially, by taking all this into account a person can comprehend the enduring use of jnun to explain misfortune despite religion and science.

The use of fear as a social constraint

In class today (Friday, the 27th) we discussed excerpts from Westermarck’s chapters on the jnun and the role these spirits play in the daily life of religious individuals. He goes more in depth about the implications the existence of these creatures in cultural lore during this time than previous readings, which simply explained what people would have asked the jnun for and their basic role in the hierarchy of religion. The jnun are a gateway for God to many worshippers, and by utilizing the jnun as a scapegoat for evil that befalls them prevents the blame from landing on God who must be infallible.

The jnun serve another purpose, which Westermarck delves into more specifically than previous readings. The fear that these spirits instill in people can be manipulated to keep society in order.  For example, actions such as leaving your home late at night is punishable by the potential possession by the jnun which are particularly active. This fear would keep people in their homes and safe from what ever potential threats existed. The jnun were also the explanation for women who acted out in ways such as “maltreating their husbands” which gave the men a foundation for leaving their wives who did not behave as society intended them to. This idea would have instilled fear in women and given them incentive to behave as expected.

The way that jnun are used to produce social control is quite similar to the way that children are threatened with terrifying results if they disobey their parents. It is through this control that these religious societies can explain any evil that befalls them, including the plague or divorce, without blaming their God. A question that emerges from studying this societal control is where is it emanating from? Are these ideas things that are specifically in the scripture (I’m sure that some of them are, but i doubt that things such as “if you don’t fold your laundry before bed you will attract a jnun” physically manifest themselves in religious works) or are these ideas coming from the people are the top of this society who are benefitted by having the ability to make suggestions of jnun possession if people disobey them?

The Role of Women in Popular Religion

In our last couple of reading I have developed an interest in the role women have in popular religion. It is obvious from the readings that these communities are strongly male dominated. Women are rarely mentioned and if they are it is only briefly. After reading our next essay topic I wanted to explore this interest more fully, specifically in the way that this patriarchal society has not changed over the span of time this these works were written.

In Meri little is mentioned of women. When speaking about saints he talks about all of the different types of saints and their abilities, but only mentions the possibility of women saints in passing. They clearly aren’t typical saints– this shows how women weren’t shown as leader or capable of having power. He goes on to talk about women more when talking about shines and how women would visit shrines and pray for fertility. Other than these two examples there isn’t much about women in Meri’s work.

Grehan continues Meri’s concept of women saints when he talks about “Magic Men” saying, “[Saints were] a cult of miracle-workers– of magic men (and occasionally women) who wielded their cosmic knowhow for the good of humanity…”. Woman saints are an afterthought. Grehan continues this, speaking about how much power and importance saints have in these societies. This gives the impression that the reason there aren’t many woman saints is because they are incapable of possessing such an important role.

This patriarchal thought process is continued in Westermarck’s writing about jnun. Here he talks about how woman have jnun within them (giving them to potential to be witches), while men don’t. This concept of women having an inherent evil allows for men to blame uncontrollable women on an outside force. This idea can easily be applied to marriages where a woman is not obedient to her husband so her husband blames her behavior on the jinn within her and therefore can leave her. In this example the jnun are used as a scapegoat that reinforces the patriarchal culture in which it is found.

All of these examples exhibit the role of woman in society and how this role hasn’t changed much over the 1000 years that these writings were written. I am excited to develop this idea of inequality of gender when it comes to popular religion in my second essay.