- Islam, Arabs, and the Intelligent World of the Jinn
jinn, Islam, pre-Islam, Sufism, angels, magic, poetic inspiration
The actions of the shape-shifting jinn found in Arabic and Persian literature (most famously, perhaps, in The Thousand and One Nights), and the methods by which their malevolent influences could be curtailed or their beneficent energies channeled, have been the topic of considerable medieval and modern speculation. Yet surprisingly few monographs are devoted to this [End Page 124] complex topic. The present volume surveys both the historical and the modern role of jinn in the Muslim (and to a large extent Sufi) view of the universe, in which there is constant renewal of the universe by the Creator and a fusion of the mental and physical realms. In this context, the jinn are the bridge between the seen and unseen worlds, constantly reminding humans that physical reality is not the only reality.
To understand this world of the jinn, one must understand the traditional Islamic hierarchical view of the cosmos, in which the universe is composed of three realms: the celestial realm, the intermediate or imaginal realm, and the terrestrial or material realm of human existence. The jinn occupy the intermediate or sublunary realm, and while they cannot trespass into the celestial realm above them (the realm of angels), they can operate in the terrestrial realm. Jinn are usually invisible, but can be invested with a physical corporeality, often taking the forms of animals or even humans. There could in fact be love affairs between humans and jinn, and the author devotes an entire chapter to this fascinating topic. Presenting a range of stories to illustrate this jinn activity, for the most part taken from The Nights, El-Zein characterizes the actions of the jinn as a "game of shape shifting" (p. 109) in which the swift metamorphosis of the jinn bewilders the human partner.
The jinn, who were created before humans, were forbidden to bear news from heaven to Earth, for that role was left to the angels. Considerable space is devoted to the relationships and similarities between jinn and angels. Both are of the invisible realm, but angels are made of light and jinn of fire. Both are disembodied spirits. Both are "shape-shifters," but angels appear only in beautiful forms while jinn can take any possible form, even ugly ones. Angels are immortal, while the jinn can die.
Before considering the effect of the advent of Islam on attitudes toward jinn, El-Zein discusses angels, gods, and jinn in the pre-Islamic period. She argues convincingly (p. 35) against Toufic Fahd, who had asserted that pre-Islamic Arabs were entirely ignorant of the concept of angels.1 This reviewer would have liked for her to address the ideas and attitudes of Joseph Henninger's study of pre-Islamic and early Islamic belief in spirits and jinn2—a [End Page 125] study that seems to have completely escaped the author's attention, although an English translation has been published in a book cited elsewhere in this volume.
With the advent of Islam, the jinn (or at least some of them) were made subservient to the One God. In the Qur'ān it is twice said that jinn listened to the Prophet Muhammad, heard the Qur'ān, and accepted the revelation. The jinn were described as mere shapes, wrapped in blackness. These passages generated controversy as to whether the Prophet actually saw the jinn, or only heard them, but they were generally interpreted as asserting the submission of jinn (or some of them) to God.
It was the jinn who had not converted to Islam that were dreaded by humans, for they could be malevolent spirits. Because the jinn could exist in both the invisible and visible realms, they could intervene and interfere in the daily lives of Muslims at any time and at any place. They could enter houses, roam the streets, even get into food and drink. People turned to magical techniques to provide protection. El-Zein reviews some...