Purpose of Jinn

While reading the articles about jinn, I started to think about the origins of jinn. The idea of jinn comes from the pre-Islamic world were these spirits were used to guide the communities everyday life. As I was reading the articles I notice that the belief in jinn could either explain things that are known or have a specific function in the community. To further explain this idea one may look at the interactions between jinn and humans.

In one way the jinn serve to explain the unexplained. In the El-Shamy reading he states, “until relatively recently, certain physical disorders were believed to be caused by jinn.” When something occurs that cannot be explained, in this case diseases, jinn are blamed. This reminded me how the ancient Romans and many other ancient societies explained the unknown through the belief that individual Gods controlled these unknown occurrences. For example the ancient Romans viewed lightening as the sign of Jupiter, since they could not explain the why lighten occurred they explained it by pointing to Jupiter as the one who caused it. In the Ameen article he articulates that, “Sometimes if a person develops a backache for which no medical explanation can be found, in the end he decides that it is because of the jinn taking revenge on him.” It is interesting that there have been so many medical advances since the beginnings of Islam and jinn are still used to explain unknown medical illnesses.

Jinn also have a functional purpose in these cultures. Some functions of the jinn are to keep people away from dangerous animals and places. Ashour says that, “they are frequently found in places where they can cause a lot of mischief and corruption, like markets.” Markets, in this context were probably, a place full of thieves, bargainer, and beggars. Here, jinn are used to keep people away from the market to keep them safe. In the readings there is also a lot about certain animals that are more likely to harbor jinn. The types of animals that jinn usually reside in are animals that are dangerous, like snakes. In this case the fear of bad jinn helps people stay away from snakes that could potentially harm them.

Jinn also create social behaviors. The use of jinn in this sense is to make people behave in certain ways that help them in the end. For example in this Islamic culture the children are taught to wash their hands and mouth after a meal so that the “she-sniffer” stays away from them. This jinn serves to make the children to clean themselves after a meal. This can also be seen in Western culture with the example of the boogey man. It is taught to young children that if they misbehave the boogey monster will come, therefore the kids behave because they are scared of the boogey monster. In most Western societies monsters like the boogey man are usually only believed in by children, but in these Muslim societies adults also believe in jinn. It is taught in this society that an unattended crying baby can attract jinn, therefore the parents always comfort the crying baby. These jinn are used to guide new parents in taking care of their child. There are many different kinds of jinn in this society it is amazing how the people go out of their way to tip toe around the bad jinn and in other cases embrace them.

Reflections on Khalell

In discussing the Khalell reading during class this week, I was struck by how closely the ideas of illness and spirit possession were connected. While I understood that the Jinn were capable of having good and bad relationships with human beings, I was unaware that it was the interactions between humans and Jinn which defined the type and intensity of these relationships. For example, even the severity of an illness can be seen through the lens of the interaction between the afflicted human and the Jinn responsible for the illness. If a human is having aches or pains, it is assumed that it was caused as a result of having disturbed the Jinn in some way, perhaps by brushing past the Jinn or bumping into the Jinn. If however, the human is undergoing severe mental anguish, or is thought to be mentally ill, it is understood that it is a result of having seriously angered or disrupted a Jinn. I find this quite fascinating because the implication is that many earthly problems affecting humans, such as illness, are intertwined with the lives of the Jinn. On the other hand, there can also be relationships with Jinn that are beneficial to humans. For example: “Many people also believe that it is possible to subjugate the Jinn and use them to meet their needs, by the use of talismans, spells and burning incense… So the superior Jinn may be used for good purposes, to create love and harmony among people…” (Khalell 35-6). These two separate types of interactions bring to the light the inexplicable bond between humans and Jinn, one marked by fear and suspicion on the part of humans, since they are constantly attempting to place Jinn into the framework of their world view.

I was also intrigued by the relationship between modern medicine, as practiced by doctors in the Middle East, and folk religion-based notions of medicine. This relationship is put into sharp perspective in the case of psychological illnesses. The author makes the point of identifying two distinct psychological afflictions which he states should have different methods of treatment; one that he believes can be treated clinically: “a physical problem in the brain, nerves or glands, or a deficiency of some vitamins…can be dealt with by doctors who are specialized in such matters,” and one which he believes is an issue of faith rather than medicine: “due to something outside the patient’s body, such as the loss of a loved one, or exposure to pressures and calamities which a person’s nerves cannot bear and for which he has no spiritual protection…may be treated fully only by means of the Book of Allah and the Sunnah of His Prophet…” (Khalell 25-6). The difference in these two methods of diagnosis is that great emphasis is placed on ensuring that the illness is not unduly treated in a clinical manner if what it required is in fact, faith. While I strongly believe in the efficacy of modern medicine, after the discussion this week, I have begun to understand the underlying benefit in integrating these two approaches to treatment. In many cases, it might be more effective to work religious practices into a treatment plan so as to allow the patient the benefit of a wholly physiological treatment, rather than a more narrow physical treatment.

Finally, while reading about the beliefs of the people of Tawheed concerning the Jinn and devils, I was surprised about the apparent universality of belief in the existence and power of the Jinn. While there are disagreements about the purpose of Jinn and how they came to be, and also conflicting ideas about the powers of Jinn and their manifestations among humans, there is an almost unquestionable acceptance of the existence of Jinn, according to Khalell: “From the information I gathered, I found that there was virtual consensus among both the common people and the educated ones among them that the Jinn exist,” (Khalell 34). While I knew that belief in the Jinn was common in Middle Eastern communities, I was under the impression that it was more a phenomenon occurring more among rural, uneducated populations. It appears however, that belief in Jinn is quite pervasive and widespread in educated communities as well. I would have to conclude, therefore, that this is a result of the centralization of Jinn belief in the defined tenets of Islam.

Jinn and Mental Illness

                After reading and discussing the El-Shamy article I found a deep connection between jinn and illness in this communty. I feel that in this society jinn are used to explain why people become ill. El-Shamy explained that there are two different levels of illness. The lower of the two levels is when a person comes into contact with a jinn. The illness that it causes is usually confined to a small area. The second type of illness is caused when a jinn “reside in the body of a person.” This type of illness is thought to cause the person to act abnormal. It is interesting even though there are both good and bad jinn most of the incidents with jinn are bad.
                I found it interesting that jinn are associated with people who have mental illnesses. El-Shamy states, “the very concept of mental or emotional disorder is clearly related to belief in jinn’s ability to ‘possess’ humans body and mind.” Although a mentally ill person is very different from a health person the idea that the a jinn is the reason for the illness seems to lessen the separation between the healthy and ill. The jinn “possessed” the individual because, “…the intruding spirit gave ‘beauty’ and or ‘purity’ of the afflicted person as the reason for choosing to enter the body and affect the mind.” To me this seems to show that the reason they were “possessed” is because they were particularly good to begin, making people feel some sort of sympathy for them.  
                One question that has been asked in this society is: since jinn are responsible for mental illness can a person be blamed for their actions? For example in one Egyptian court a judge answered, ‘’a person under the influence of al-quwa al-khafiyyah (invisible powers/ forces, i.e., jinn) is, legally, not responsible for his own actions.” In Western society the same question is asked but the actions of a person are not blamed on jinn but the mental capacity and state of the individual. This shows that jinn are not believed in by a smart group of people, but that jinn is believed in so widely that judges take jinn into account before ruling on the case.

Gender in the Jinn

The intricacies of gender in the jinn fascinate me. First, female jinn may aid or harm a person, but they are very rarely called upon in magical rituals. This seems to me to reflect the gender division of labor in society—namely, that men do work outside the home; only male jinn do the work that humans request. I have no knowledge of the Middle Eastern economy of this time period, so I do not know whether or not this idea is supported.
Additionally, the jinn counter-spirits and foster siblings have a complicated gender system. Many groups believed that every individual has a counter-spirit of the same gender who accompanies him through life. Some groups believed that individuals could have counter-spirits of the opposite gender; relationships with these spirits were characterized as similar to sibling relationships and/or marriages. A girl’s spirit-brother was considered favorably, while a girl’s spirit-sister was characterized as envious and deleterious. A man’s spirit-sister was often characterized as jealous of and antagonistic to that man’s human wife.
From these various perspectives, I gather that there was a sense in many Muslim societies that women were catty and prone to envy each other. From the ambiguous nature of the spirit-sister-wife relationship, I gather that gender was an especially important and confusing concept in these societies.

The Belief in Jinn

After Monday’s discussion about jinn in the Muslim religion, I was particularly interested in how the idea of jinn falls into both categories of folk and traditional religion. The idea of the jinn world appears in both Jewish and Muslim religion and can be understood as an invisible world that is parallel to our own. In the Jewish faith, jinn interact with human beings in the form of possession, meaning if a human were to come into contact with a jinn and in someway anger the spirit it would then possess that human. In the Muslim religion, human interactions with jinn are a bit different. In Islam, jinn are used to explain human illnesses and other unexplainable phenomenon. The jinn in Islam are part of the formal structure of the religion as they are written into the Qur’an, however, they are more a part of folk religion in Judaism.

In The Jinn and Human Sickness, Dr. Abu’l-Mundhir Khaleel ibn Ibraaheem Ameen, discuss the level of credit that should be given to Islamic stories that describe human interactions with jinn. In the Qur’an, Allah states that he created the jinn from “smokeless fire” making the belief in jinn an essential aspect of the Islamic faith. In class we discussed jinn as a functionalist belief, meaning that the rules constructed that predicate how humans should interact with jinn have a base in societal code. So in other words, jinn may be the cause of river pollution that would prevent believers from drinking contaminated water. Viewing jinn in terms of the Evil Eye, the idea of jinn becomes a method to explain human experience. According to The Jinn and Human Sickness, belief in the jinn, “stem from primitive beliefs that grew from people’s fear of natural forces,” while other beliefs in jinn come from “teachings of Islam, or distortions there of,” making the line between what is considered a traditional and what is considered a folk practice blurred and complicated.

Viewing the idea of jinn as a functionalist belief different conceptions of how jinn interact with humans could be defined as an aspect of folk or traditional religion. While there is a strict set of explanations presented in Khaleel’s piece about how the jinn are understood in Islam, it seems that the distinctions between folk and tradition are not mutually exclusive. After reading this piece I wondered how religious leaders within Islam could effectively decide what interactions with jinn can be considered part of conventional Islam as compared to folk practices. As Islam emerged as an established religion it was necessary to centralize practices to gain legitimacy. By nature jinn exist in a world that is unseen to humans, making the rules dictating how they interact with humans and which stories can be considered creditable difficult to establish.

Spirit Possessions

Both the reading and discussion involving the differences in possession fascinated me. Possession has come in different forms and places dating back to the 16th century. It was interesting to discuss in class some of the possible reasons for the existence of the jinn. Someone or something acting strangely could be seen as being possessed by a jinn or unwholesome places, such as deserts, bathrooms, and markets, where people are not advised to visit can be labeled as places that jinn live to deter people from going. The “Dybbuk, Aslai, Zar” reading and the chapters from “The Jinn in the Qu’ran and the Sunna” examined some of the differences between Jewish and Muslin possession.

In Jewish possession, the three types spirits are dybbuk, aslai, and zar. All three were generally male spirits possessing females, though on very rare occasions, female spirits were the cause of the possession as well. This could come from the fact that, for the most part, males were the leaders of the time and so to be possessed by a female spirit would be considered emasculate. On the other hand, according to Bilu, the spirits, particularly the dybbuk, possessed people as retribution for various transgressions of their past lives. Since the vast majority of the possessions were done by male spirits, this could indicate that the women were more pure than men and did not need to be redeemed for their past lives.

Dybbuks were originally from eastern Europe and were the spirits of the dead, who usually possessed someone in order to complete enough good deeds to be admitted into Paradise. Aslai on the other hand were considered demons and extremely dangerous. Interestingly enough, everyone supposedly has a mirror aslai that parallels them throughout their life. Since jinn are invisible to humans, they are sometimes injured accidentally, which is usually the cause of the possession. Zar are the odd ones in the world of spirit possession since the objective was not to expel them, but rather appease them enough that they would become an ally. Unlike the dybbuk and aslai, the zar possession almost always had a sexual association.

The jinn in Muslim possession have different names, such as Shaytan, however according to Ashour, there are still three types. Ashour’s reading discussed the formation of jinn being created out of “smokeless fire”. This I found interesting since fire can be seen in a few different ways. Does the fact that the jinn are created from fire shape them? Fire can be both good and bad. It can create warmth and light, yet at the same time, it can destroy towns are forests. However, with this destruction, it can also bring good as it enriches the soil again and allows new life to replace the old. The jinn are usually made out to be bad beings that a person wants to expel, however, in the case of the zar the objective is to make it an ally. This speaks to the idea that though the jinn no longer burn at touch, they’re essence is still one of fire.


The assigned reading of the Yoram Bilu article “Dybbuk, Aslai, Zar: The Cultural Distinctiveness and Historical Situatedness of Possession Illnesses in Three Jewish Milieus” was the probably the most compelling reading for me thus far in the course. It discusses the anthropological view of possessions most intentionally, but what really jumped out at me was the conflict between the various manifestations of possession. It was clearly demonstrated (in my opinion) that these incredibly serious issues within a religion were highly susceptible to change based on the dynamic of the Jewish culture’s relationship to the surrounding culture. I’m not saying there’s no way of understanding the differences without turning to cultural influence, but that is the way which makes the most sense to me.

It had been outlined in the article that the varieties of possession, in terms of Jewish distinctiveness, range from Dybbuk at the most distinctive, to Aslai, to Zar, being the least distinctively Jewish. Most interesting to me, though, were not the details of the “possession illnesses” themselves, but the details set in opposition to the surrounding cultures notions of the supernatural. Bilu points out the stark nature of the contrast between Dybbuk and the other dominant possession ideology located in that particular cultures vicinity- Christian possession. He states, of Dybbuk , “The possessing agents were always spirits of the dead, doomed to pay for sins committed in their lifetime…” and, “In contrast, episodes of possession among Christians in Europe were as a rule attributed to the devil and its demonic allies” (354). Again, I wasn’t essentially interested in this contrast by itself, as much as I was by the following: “Far removed from the dybbuk in terms of cultural distinctiveness, zar possession appears to be devoid of any uniquely Jewish characteristics,” which is truly remarkable, because “ …in Ethiopian society the boundaries between different ethnic and religious groups were quite sharply delineated” (355).

My fundamental question- and intrigue- after reading this specific section naturally came from this paradox. Bilu seems to describe this difference by claiming that “… zar possession clearly transcended [religious and ethnic] boundaries” (355). At this point, it is only a point of curiosity for me. I can’t argue against the fact that zar did indeed transcend whatever boundaries kept these cultural differences so strictly defined, but it shocks me to imagine that occurrence. I could easily imagine, where differences were so obvious to note, something seeming as supernatural as zar-based rituals would strike a religious group as being the territory of their personal religious doctrine. Under those circumstances, why wouldn’t Jewish groups abstain from zar rituals as a point of religious obligation?


The Jinn of Doctrinal Islam Compared to the Spirts of Folk Judaism

When reading about the belief in spirits of folk Judaism and the belief in jinn of Islam, initially, there seem to be many similarities: one can be possessed by both spirits and jinn, spirits and jinn can be both good and bad, spirits and jinn are in a realm in between the Devine and humans, and both are, for the most part invisible living among us (Bilu and Ashur). However, due to one distinct difference, jinn and spirits are not as similar as they seem at first glance, namely that it is necessary to acknowledge the existence of jinn for all faithful Muslims as per the direct “evidence” for their existence in the texts of the Qur’aan and Sunnah saying “We created the Jinn afore from smokeless fire” (Ashur 42) whereas the belief in spirits in Judaism is purely folk. From this key difference spring many other notable differences that can only be understood through the difference of jinn being a part of the doctrinal religion of Islam and spirits being a part of the folk religion of Judaism.

One large distinction between the jinn of Islam and the spirits of folk Judaism is that there is a distinct origin and creation story for the jinn of Islam but no central creation or origin of the spirits of folk Judaism. This stems from the key difference that the jinn of Islam are a doctrinal belief while the spirits of folk Judaism are a folk belief. According to the Qur’aam amd Sunnah, the jinn were formed by Allah before man from smokeless fire (Ashur 42). There is even further information about the composition of the jinn given. Although they were made from smokeless fire, they did not maintain their “fiery nature” (Ashur 23). Like humans who were made from mud are now more than simply mud, the jinn too are more than just fire with identities and societies and interactions (Ashur 23). Spirits of folk Judaism have no distinct origin or composition. The origin of a spirit varies from group to group for example the Dybbuk spirit belief asserts that spirits originate from a deceased person who has committed and not been forgiven for his or her transgressions during his or her lifetime and is searching for redemption, while Aslai  spirit belief maintains that these spirits are demonic, and yet another different belief in spirits, Zar, as a “category of personified spirits that occupy a stratified universe of their own alongside humans…” (Bilu 350-354). Ultimately the differences in the origin and nature of jinn as compared to the varied identities and natures of folk Judaic spirits is a result of the doctrinal nature of jinn and the folk belief nature of folk Judaic spirits.

Another distinction between the jinn of Islam and the spirits of folk Judaism is the ways that they are dealt with when causing harm to humans. In Islam, there are prescribed methods for ridding one’s self or one’s possessions from the harm of the jinn. In Islam, it is thought that physical illness can be caused by the malevolence of jinn or other humans through the use of the Evil Eye and mental illness could be explained through jinn possession. All of these ailments should be treated through the use of the Qur’aan and those who do not treat illness through the use of the Qur’ann are ignorant and stubborn because they are not listening to the words of Muhammad the Prophet (Ashur 23). Additionally, there are specific Dhikrs and prayers prescribed by the prophet to treat illness and harm inflicted by jinn (Ashur 25, 27). Along with acceptable means of ridding one’s self from jinn and the illness caused by them, there are many unacceptable methods of ridding one’s self from illness and harm from jinn including, but not limited to amulets, wearing rings adorned with blue beads, hanging shells or animal skulls, and using incense to ward off evil (Ashur 277-278). In folk Judaism, it is safe to say that all methods by which to rid one’s self of spirits are considered reprehensible because the belief in spirits itself is not a part of doctrinal Judaism to begin with. There are however, different methods to be freed from spirit possession but these are widely varied and originate from a collection of works called the Cairo Geniza which is a collection of both religious and secular works collected prior to their disposal. Referring to such a varied source leads to varied methods of treatment for possession (Seidel). The differences between curing someone of possession or harm caused by jinn or spirits again reflects the key difference that jinn are a tenant of doctrinal Islam in contrast to spirits which are a folk belief of folk Judaism.

Although on the surface the belief in jinn in Islam and the belief in spirits in folk Judaism seem similar, upon further investigation it is clear that they differ substantially. The reason for such differences is due to the difference between doctrinal religion and folk religion. Whereas in Islam, jinn are a tenant of the doctrinal religion, spirits are a folk belief of folk Judaism. This key difference leads to other notable difference such as differences in origin, differences in nature, and differences in cures from the harm the jinn or spirits might inflict. This goes to show how differences between what is doctrine and what is folk belief can make two seemingly similar ideas in two different religions so different.

The Presence of Jinn

I found the readings about the presence of the evil Jinn spirits to be very interesting. Unlike evil spirits or bad karma, the reading alluded to the fact that they are in-fact tangible beings. “The jinn possess a great power to take on forms and change shape. They can take on the form of snakes and scorpions…horses, cattle, camels and sheep… they have the power to appear in human form” (Ashour 9). The part to me that is most striking about this concept is that instead of feeling an evil presence like in the case with dealing with an evil spirit, with regards to Jinn, you are confronted with disguised evil in a direct and concrete form. I am slightly confused with whether or not they are always in a given form or if they can adopt said form should they chose to do so, like a host/inhabitant relationship?

The first Ashour reading describes how they have the ability to “…reproduce as the children of Adam reproduce. But there are more of them” (Ashour 22). They seem to border the realms of human, animal, and spirit, yet I am unsure with which group the best can be categorized. It is also confusing in the section talking about inter-marriage between Jinn and man. It suggests that they Jinn takes over the body of a human in order to do so, rather than being in its natural form.

While the initial description of them alludes to a ghost-esque appearance because their bodies are fine and are rarely seen by human eyes, the readings later describe their dietary habits suggesting that they may be closer to a living being than spirit. I feel that the discrepancies in what Jinn actually are supports the fact that the idea of them is used for functional purposes. If they can’t be fully defined, it is easier to manipulate where the boundaries lay between evil and good. Jinn could be anything, anyone, and anywhere. This universality and uncertainty suggests that one must behave accordingly to avoid evil all the time as not to take the chance at encountering Jinn.

Jewish and Islamic Spirits

As I was reading for tomorrow’s class, I was struck by the differences between what we had discussed regarding Jewish folk religion last week and the Islamic beliefs in similar spirits.  The largest difference, in my opinion, is that the belief in jinn seems to be a central tenet to Islam, as evidenced when Khalell mentions: “Muslim is required to believe in…the jinn, along with evidence from the Qur’aan” (Khalell 39).  The author then goes on to cite numerous passages in the Qur’aan that support the existence of jinn and what a Muslim should do to either avoid them or ward against these spirits.  A large part of this chapter is spent describing various folk practices concerning jinn, and Khalell makes numerous mentions to how widespread the belief in spirits is when he mentions that “people have various ideas in their minds about the jinn which vary according to their culture, individual nature and level of education” (Khalell 33).

This is starkly contrasted to how Jews view spirits, in that the belief of such things is often particular to specific areas of the Jewish world, and may vary by town.  In Thursday’s class, we discussed the differences between dybuuk, aslai, and zar.  Though belief in all three of these spirits was common in past times, the only one thats retains widespread credibility in the present era is the dybuuk.  I find it intriguing that, in Jewish folk religion, much of the spirit world is comprised of spirits of the dead.  These dead then possess people for various reasons, unlike Islam which has a long tradition of jinn, who are invisible creatures who occasionally harm the living if they feel slighted.  The Jewish spirit who has the most in common with jinn is the aslai; in the words of Yoram Bilu on aslai “each human being is believed to have a demonic double who accompanies him or her throughout the entire life cycle” (Bilu 352).

A common theme between both Jewish and Islamic spirits is the tendency for people of both religions to visit soothsayers, prophets, or others who they believe can commune with these types of spirits.  Not only do people seek to talk with these spirits, but many request favors of them, a practice that is forbidden in both religions.  In the video we watched on the first day of class, two women went to a soothsayer to get advice as to what was happening in the spirit realm.  It seems that people, even if they know they should not disturb the spirits, cannot help but do so.  Khalell makes explicit mention of witchcraft, and likens it to those who seek to commune with the spirits.  He writes: “witchcraft is based on hidden matters which may be learned; some of it is real and emanates from evil souls in cooperation with evil spirits, causing harm to people” (Khalell 178-9).  Many seek answers to their problems in the spirit realm, perhaps because they are not receiving what they require from the heavenly realm.  Is it false to say, then, that spirits are as essential to Judaism and Islam as God and the angels?