Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What are jinn?

One evening, after making tea with my roommate from Indonesia in our old Dutch apartment, I was surprised when she tried to stop me from pouring leftover hot water down the sink.

I asked her why, because I thought it was good for clearing out grease and smells from the pipes.

She said that her mother taught her not to do this, so as not to hurt any jinn.

I tried to not let my jaw drop -- it was the first time I had ever heard such a thing, even though we came from similar socio-religious backgrounds (Sunni/Shafii/Malay archipelago).

This little incident came to mind because today I came across across this article, containing a collection of quotes by Muslim exorcists from Egypt and Saudi Arabia about jinn, taken from the book ‘The Exorcist Tradition in Islam' by Dr. Bilaal Phillips.
“...She attended one of my lectures and after I recited the verses, we heard her scream. She was known to pray regularly and had memorized much of the Qur’aan, so I asked her what was wrong with her, and she replied in a man’s voice, “I am ‘Alee.” I asked him, “Are you a Muslim?” and he replied, “Yes.” I asked, “How did you enter her?” He said, “She poured hot water outside and hurt me.” I told him, “Get out!” and he left her.
“...Another unconscious woman was brought to me, and after I recited over her and grasped her throat, the jinnee began to speak, because it suffered from this. The jinnee spoke, saying, “My name is Saalih.” Then I said, “Saalih is a Muslim name,” and he replied, “I am a Muslim,” I scolded him, saying, “Since you are a Muslim, why are you hurting this Muslim woman?” He said, “She hurt me. Why did she hurt me?” I asked how she hurt him and he replied, “She poured hot water on me in the toilet and wounded me. She did not even warn me.”
Apparently this is some kind of Islamic taboo that I was not familiar with. (Thanks Mum and Dad!) But I grew up with many superstitions and folk ghosts and phantoms, and I remember having many nightmares as a child after the religious teachers in Sunday Islamic school would tell us about jinn, and other culture-specific phantoms like toyol.

Sociologically, the hot water taboo has sensible justifications. It's dangerous to pour water outside your house without looking outside first because you could injure someone seriously! And maybe in the days of poor sanitation, pouring hot water down the toilet might increase bad smells (even though it would be arguably better for killing germs?). And after personally experiencing how bomoh or witch doctors could not spot schizophrenia or genetic diseases, I think they serve a psychological purpose for the people around the sick person, more than anything else.


I used to work at a mosque-museum, giving tours about Islam to Muslim and non-Muslim visitors. My favourite part of the tour was always the free question-and-answer session at the end. Once, an adult Chinese man asked me if it was true that Muslims could bring back toyol from Mecca. His friend, a Muslim, told him about this.

I was utterly amazed to hear this (and again, utterly grateful for my parents for not stuffing my head with this!) He went on to explain that apparently his friend told him that this was possible -- you could buy some kind of powerful spirit in a bottle somewhere in Mecca (must be the polytheistic influence, haha) to bring back and make it do all kinds of nasty deeds like steal money, or put spells on people.

In summary, I grew up with a great fear of the unseen thanks to all these stories by religious teachers. But as young as 14, I made the decision that as far as jinn and other phantoms were concerned, these did not exist for me until the day I actually experienced or saw one face-to-face. I didn't meet anyone religious who thought the way I did -- a friend once wrote about how he got rid of his guitar, normally kept under his bed, because he believed that jinn gravitated towards such dark and unholy places (because music is haraam!).

When I moved to France by myself at the age of 19, I was struck by how unfearful everything seeemed, even late at night (maybe only a drunk man here and there, but lacking the motor skills to actually hurt you). In Singapore, thick trees and the humid air coupled with folk stories of all kinds of phantoms and jinn created an atmosphere where anything could happen. Maybe this one night would be the night I would actually see a penanggal sitting in the tree above me.

This year I spent living on my own was also a time when I started reading more about the Islam I grew up with, trying to understand it for myself. It was a period when I stopped believing that Chapter 36 had some kind of magical Quranic protective properties when read on Thursday nights, or that I would be hung upside down in hell and have melted metal poured on my head if I didn't cover my hair with a headscarf. Here I truly understood the meaning of ascribing jinn as the partners of God (6:100), because nothing non-human can hurt you without the permission of God.

I would say it was the start of a long period of questioning which lasted seven years, and is still going on now (but at a slower rate!). There are many, many other issues that I have had to think harder about (especially since after meeting the Dutchman). I once read an article about an adoptive mother with children of her own who said that at some point we all have to 'adopt' our own children. Similarly, at some point, we all have to 'convert', to truly understand what it is that we were raised as.

I have always had reservations about this compulsory 'belief' in jinn. Even though some people hold it up like an extra pillar of faith (like they do for the headscarf) and make the belief in jinn akin to belief in God (since both are unseen), I find this argument an absurd insult to God. For all intents and purposes, jinn have become some kind of Islamic boogeymen for us. We use them to scare children and women into doing what we want them to do. Here are a few more gems of quotes from the same article to illustrate what I mean:

“The percentage of possession among women is greater than it is among men – about 70 percent.” 
“The jinnee in her manifested itself and spoke to me. I realized that it was a male jinnee. It said that it came to her when she cried in the dark because her husband had traveled.” 
“Some (cases of possession) are imaginary. Women often imagine that someone has bewitched them or that the change of their husband’s treatment is due to a magic spell put upon their husbands.” 
“The greater majority are women, about 95 percent, because they like to adorn themselves, display their beauty, and are disobedient. I have only encountered one possessed woman who was pious.” 
“When I asked a female jinnee why she possessed a man I was treating, she replied, “Because he does not pray.”
“Sometimes they (jinns) appear as humans, sometimes as a black dog or a camel. In human form it may even greet a person, and when he extends his hand to shake hands, it disappears. This creates great fear in one’s heart, and the jinn usually possess humans who are in a weakened state due to extreme fear.”

To summarise, you have a higher chance of possession if you are a woman (gee, don't we also have higher chances of going to hell too?), don't wear hijab, wear make-up or jewellery, disobedient (to men of course),  cry because your husband is not around (is that also something discouraged, wtf?), jealous, don't pray or feel fear.

Jinn appear in the Quran 32 times. It comes from the root j-n-n meaning something unseen, like how jannah is a Paradise garden hidden among foliage, or jinnah is a fetus hidden in the womb (53:32). Janna is to cover something out of sight (6:76) or to use a false oath as an excuse for not believing (58:16, 63:2). Jinnatin is madness (a hidden condition, not easily seen until you talk to someone) and majnun is a madman -- a name that Prophet Muhammad has been called in his time (7:184, 15:6, 26:27, 44:14)

According to this interpretation, jinn can refer to nomads or wild tribes (27:39, 34:12, 34:14, 46:29, 72:1)-- the opposite of insi which can refer to urban people (naas is used to refer to mankind in general, and rijaal to specifically men). Jinn and insi often appear together in the same verse to show that while people of all backgrounds may work together, your wealth or nationality doesn't matter as you will be subject to the same laws (6:128, 6:130, 7:38, 7:179, 11:119, 17:88, 27:17, 32:13, 41:25, 41:29. 46:18, 49:29, 51:56, 55:33, 55:39, 72:5, 72:6).

Jinn can also refer to hidden or selfish desires that together with temptations from other people, we sometimes worship instead of God (6:100, 6:112, 34:41, 55:56, 55:74, 114:6), unseen forces of nature which some mistake for God (37:158) or having a fiery temper (6:101, 15:27, 18:50, 37:158, 55:15).

Needless to say, I am immensely relieved to find an alternative interpretation of jinn! So now there is nothing to fear when it's dark at night, except maybe mice. :)

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