Detail of a relief showing a winged genie (jinn), from the palace of Assyrian king Sargon II, 722-705 B.C. Belief in genies has roots in Mesopotamian legends. (Image credit: Prisma/Newscom)
Genies (or jinn, as they are better known in the Arabic world) are supernatural beings with roots in ancient Mesopotamian legends. Jinn, however, are not the lamp-dwelling, wish-granting benevolent servants that Westerners know from popular culture.
The image that most Americans probably have of genies comes from the 1960s sitcom “I Dream of Jeannie” or the animated big blue Robin Williams-voiced wiseacre in Disney’s “Aladdin.” More recently, in the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 2001 novel “American Gods,” audiences have come to know a cab-driving jinn who switches identities with an Omani salesman named Salim. (Salim had recognized the jinn from a story told to him by his grandmother).
Gaiman’s magical, shape-shifting jinn is fictional, but belief in genies is widespread. In “Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar” (Counterpoint Books, 2011), researcher Robert Lebling noted that “Jinn are taken seriously and regarded as real, tangible beings by a large segment of the world’s population…. They often appear humanoid or even human but possess amazing powers we lack. They can change their shapes, can fly through the air, and even can render themselves invisible.” (Lebling is also the creator of a Facebook page titled The Jinn Group, where members share jinn stories and lore.)
Many ancient Mesopotamian demons and wind spirits were precursors to the jinn; Pazuzu is probably the most famous of them, thanks to its appearance in William Peter Blatty’s novel “The Exorcist” and the classic film of the same name. Though belief in jinn predates the creation of Islam, the creatures are referenced in the Quran, the Muslim holy book — not as metaphors but instead as real entities whose existence is taken for granted. The Quran states that Allah created three types of beings from three substances: humans (made of earth); angels (made of light); and jinn (made of smokeless fire). There are said to be five categories of jinn; two of the best known are shaitan and ifrit, both of which are said to be evil.
Considered wind and fire spirits by Muslims, jinn are invisible to humans in their pure form but can take any form they please to suit their needs. Jinn, just like people, can be good or evil; they are born, grow up, marry, have jobs, raise families, live in their own communities and die, just like us.
What Are Jinns Exactly?
Best known for inspiring Aladdin’s genie, jinn are shape-shifting spirits dating back to pre-Islamic Arabia. They are said to haunt the world to this day.
While the concept of jinn (or djinn) might seem unfamiliar at first, these legendary creatures have actually been introduced to the world at large through the genie in Disney’s Aladdin. But unlike the movie, these shape-shifting spirits aren’t traditionally seen as friendly.
Though the supernatural beings have been somewhat overlooked in the scientific world, they’ve also withstood the test of time in terms of folklore. The widespread belief in these ancient Arab spirits has survived centuries of generational changes, including the introduction of Islam.
It’s unclear exactly when the specific concept of jinn first emerged. But we do know that the spirits have served as a source of inspiration — and fear — in the Arab world long before the 7th-century introduction of Islam. And they obviously retain significant influence to this day.
While jinn are mentioned in the Qur’an and are thus part of Islam, these spirits are not worshipped in the faith. Thought to transcend the boundaries of the physical world, they are said to be made of “smokeless fire.”
Pre-Islamic Arabs believed that jinn could control the elements, and turn plots of land fertile. While this might sound unnerving, jinn have also inspired some of the most revered classical Arab poets across history.
“Poets in pre-Islamic Arabia often said they had a special jinni that was their companion,” said Suneela Mubayi, a researcher of Arabic literature. “Sometimes they would attribute their verses to the jinn.”
Some scholars are adamant that human beings can’t fully comprehend these spirits. But it is generally agreed among believers that jinn can interact in their own realm as well as our realm. As such, they can fall in love — and even have sexual encounters — with human beings.
“As spiritual entities, the jinn are considered dual dimensional,” wrote Amira El-Zein, author of Islam, Arabs, and the Intelligent World of the Jinn, “with the ability to live and operate in both manifest and invisible domains.”
To her point, jinn are thought to be amorphous, and capable of shape-shifting into human or animal form. “Jinn eat, drink, sleep, procreate, and die,” said El-Zein. This provides them with an eerie advantage in our world — as their intentions are often malleable.
It’s no surprise that they haven’t always been portrayed to be as pleasant as the wish-granting genie in the Disney film.
Alleged Sightings And Encounters
Seventh-century Islamic Prophet Muhammad famously acknowledged the existence of jinn in the Qur’an — as non-material beings who have free will like humans. While El-Zein believes “one can’t be Muslim if he/she doesn’t have faith in jinn existence,” it’s nearly impossible to confirm that all 1.6 billion Muslims in the world share that view.
For many of those who do, however, jinn are considered part of the unseen, or al-ghaib. Faith in their power is so strong that it’s not unheard of for people to seek out exorcisms to get rid of them. These rituals often involve reciting the Qur’an over a person, but they have varied widely over the years.
“The Arabs of pre-Islam invented a whole set of exorcism procedures to protect themselves from the evil actions of the jinn on their bodies and minds, such as the use of beads, incense, bones, salt, and charms written in Arabic, Hebrew, and Syriac, or the hanging around their necks of a dead animal’s teeth such as a fox or a cat to frighten the jinn, and keep them away,” El-Zein said.
While these spirits aren’t entirely good or bad, jinn are lower in rank than angels — and are oftentimes believed to be capable of human possession.
A 2014 study found that “the attribution of psychiatric symptoms to jinn is common in some Muslim populations.” Jinn have also reportedly appeared in some truly creepy firsthand encounters.
One girl claimed a bully at a boarding school nearly choked when her tongue swelled up after she broke another student’s necklace. The student in question then began speaking in a male voice — claiming to be a jinn who had traveled from afar. Only later did her parents reveal that they bought the jewelry from a shaman specifically to hold in the malevolent spirit.
Sightings are perhaps the most rampant in Bahla, Oman, a remote Arabian outpost. Residents claim to regularly experience jinn amidst the historic Islamic architecture.
Muhammed al-Hinai, a devout Muslim with post-graduate credentials, has reported seeing a pale woman in rags and hearing her cackle. Another local claimed his sibling displayed personality changes after encountering a spirit.
“I found my brother some nights muttering against a wall, muttering unintelligible words,” he said.
“They want to tear us apart,” said Harib al-Shukhaili, a local exorcist who’s claimed to have treated over 5,000 people. “Our minds, communities, with arguments, disbelief, everything. And all the time the jinn are still here, waiting. This is the burden of Bahla.”
Jinn In Popular Culture
Jinn operate in a somewhat grayer area than demons from Christianity, as they oscillate between good and evil and thus behave more comparably to humans.
While Aladdin did accurately convey that, the character’s charming nature clearly veered from the spookiness of traditional folklore. But Aladdin’s genie is far from the only well-known jinn character. One Thousand and One Nights, a collection of famous folk tales from the Islamic Golden Age, explored the ancient entity as well.
“The Fisherman and the Jinni” sees a fisherman discover a jinn trapped in a jar that he finds in the sea. Although the spirit is initially furious about being trapped inside for centuries, it eventually provides the man with exotic fish to give to a sultan.
More recently, Netflix’s first Arabic original series Jinn caused a furor in Jordan over its “immoral scenes.” Set in Petra, youths attempt to save the world from jinn, which seems like a simple enough premise. But the outrage in Jordan actually stemmed from a girl in the show kissing two different boys in separate scenes.
For centuries, many have believed that jinn wreak havoc on the world. If they’ve survived — at least in the minds of people — for this long, it’s unlikely they’ll disappear anytime soon.
In general, it is said that the Jinn are spirits of fire (and sometimes wind) and can take on any form they choose – animal or human – and can be of any size. it is said that some of their powers are the ability of manifestation and transformation. They have a human-like form and can take the shape of animals but only temporary unless it is as their tribe’s animal protector.
For the ancient Semites, Jinn were spirits of vanished ancient peoples who acted during the night and disappeared with the first light of dawn. They could make themselves invisible or change shape into animals at will. These spirits were commonly believed to be responsible for diseases and for the manias of some lunatics.
they can be both good and evil creatures; the evil ones are said to lead humans astray.
Most of them are hostile, or at least not all that friendly to humans, although some can be friendly, and helpful. It is possible for magicians or wise men and women to gain power over a Jinn and use it to perform amazing and magical tasks. Be wary, for even a friendly Jinn is unpredictable and certainly anyone who breaks an agreement with a Jinn will strongly regret it. Often Jinn take naughty pleasure in punishing people for wronging them, even unintentionally.
In contrast to Western versions of jinn, in the Arab world they are not known for their “Aladdin”-like wish-granting — though they can be commanded to perform tasks by wizards, for example, or someone who wears the magical Ring of Solomon.
Jinn are sometimes blamed for unexplained minor health scares, accidents and misfortune. For example, in 2000, teachers at an all-girls school in the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah began having mysterious fits and seizures. Though doctors attributed that incident to mass hysteria (a mild and harmless form of social contagion and psychological suggestion), many believed that jinn haunted the school and were to blame for the attack. In May 2015, nine elementary and middle school students at a girls’ school in southern Madinah, Saudi Arabia, claimed that jinns had made them feel unwell, causing episodes of fainting and spasms. Nearly 200 of their classmates refused to attend the school for two days while medical authorities searched for an explanation.
Belief in the fire spirits is also common among elected officials in the Middle East. In 2011, nearly two dozen associates of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were accused of summoning jinn to attack political enemies. One man, Abbas Ghaffari, was reportedly accused of summoning a genie who caused a heart attack in one of Ghaffari’s rivals.
Jinn share many traits with angels, fairies, ghosts and other supernatural creatures. Many Muslims believe in the literal existence of jinn, just as many Christians believe in the literal existence of angels. Just as Christian theologians have long debated the nature of angels, Muslim theologians have long debated the nature of jinn: whether they have physical bodies, where they live, how they interact with us and so on.
Like spirits and demons, jinn are said to be able to possess humans (with similar symptoms, including seizures, violence and speaking unknown tongues) and can be exorcised from the human body through rituals. Just as in Catholic exorcism rituals where Bible passages are read to the possessed person to drive the spirit from the human body, Islamic rituals often involve having sections of the Quran recited to the afflicted person to rid him or her of jinn.
Jinn are believed, like ghosts, to sometimes haunt buildings, homes and other locations, including sewers and drain pipes. Jinn are said to be repelled by salt and iron — a characteristic they share with vampires. As with many magical creatures around the world, stories of jinn are often told in the form of a boogeyman story. Children are warned to obey their parents and not to stray from the beaten path. Some jinn live in remote, wild places, and are said to lure children and unwary travelers to their doom — a trait shared with fairies of the British Isles, the Hispanic ghost-witch La Llorona and others.
In some places jinn are so feared that merely calling them by their name risks retribution, so euphemisms are used instead. This also has parallels to fairy folklore, in which the capricious creatures are often called “the fine folk” or “wee folk” to avoid offense. Whether jinn exist or not is less important than the fact that many people believe that they do. Legends of these fire spirits, like those of angels, fairies and ghosts, will always be with us.