Notes on the 'Infernalization of the Jinn,' Terrestrial Underpinnings, and (hopefully) a Breath of Fresh Air

Photograph by Jan Bulhak

I cannot be certain of the words that I am about to write.
Not because I cannot feel them. By them I am referring to the physical sensation induced by the thought of a word; by extension a sentence. Certainty be damned these words are very much about the feeling which I cannot seem to separate from my physical body and which I cannot separate from the intellectual cacophony in which I find myself once again (I know this because it literally pains me).

There is no certainty because I cannot stand far enough back to let that particular word through the door.
My door, or, my vantage point at least. Take my word on this matter, which will certainly be ambiguous, that when it comes to the jinn one cannot place them definitively, absolutely, here, there, or anywhere.

Like my words they are both a discreet thing and not. The word is written. The word is spoken. My mouth makes a shape and air comes out. Ink blackens the paper. The word is alive.. and once more for the folks in the back: it's alive! Until it isn't. Certainty be damned.

From the 'Temptation of St Anthony' by Jacques Callot

'Saint Livier' by Jacques Callot

My impetus found itself in Simon O'Meara's essay From Space to Place: The Quranic Infernalization of the Jinn. An easy comparison may be found in the ever changing locale of the dead, let's say in a European context, wherein we may see them in the air, the earth, and god knows all sorts of other elements, holidays, parties and the like. Suffice it to say that 'locating the jinn' is a similarly frustrating endeavor.

O'Meara's primary objective is to show a transition in the spaciotemporal/elemental nature of the jinn, occuring largely during the time of the Quran's reception, from one that is considered above ground to one that is below. His objective is further complicated by the not so minor caveat that the Quran itself will entertain both of these possibilities. Adding another wrench for the hell of it, the vast majority of sources on the jahiliya, or 'time of ignorance' before Islam, are very much Islamic authors themselves. The very name for this period of time highlights the obvious bias. One encounters similar troubles in discussing the historical Judeo-Christian 'Gnostics,' as much of the information we have about their beliefs come directly from polemics against them by the early Church Fathers. Already you might smell a tricksy phenomena? Or maybe you stepped in it?

Dog shit can be ever so imminently a smell, a whiff from the air, and a really bad day for one's new sneakers.. all at the same time. As it is for most things they may exist in a multitude of dimensions, places, and parties. So here is my gripe. Why do we spend so much time doing this with spirits (or whatever you want to call them)? Or the jinn? Damn it, why do we do it with humans for that matter?

Is this a rant about the academic treatment of spiritual beings and how they often act like said beings have no actual existence? Probably. Okay, I admit that is the cynical take. Classification can be useful for everyone, and I don't think the Quran, academics, regular folks, or magicians are necessarily at fault for doing it. The larger gripe, or better yet, the question being begged: how may we grow in our practices and understanding by indulging these sorts of speculations regarding classification of all things invisible, or of al ghayb? I personally believe that an academic treatment of this sort is inherently limited in its capacity for explanation. At best we may find a broad view of what many have said over the centuries regarding their various speculations. I do not wish to belittle this methodology inherently. Rather, I find myself consistently nagged by the notion of purpose. Riding alongside this persistent itch is the absolute horror of infinite complexity. To what end may we bypass thoroughgoing descriptions to actually act? Once more, I hope I haven't given you the idea that I am certain about any of this, right? Nevertheless, if you found yourself wanting to learn more about this particular subject, or god forbid wanting to get in contact with these sorts of forces, it might be worthwhile to entertain some guidelines for your probably perilous pursuit; you know, so everybody can play fair?

'Sophia, Wisdom of the Almighty' Nicholas Roerich

Fire is as good a place to start as any, as many of us have heard that the jinn are supposedly made of it. Quran 55:15 "And He created the Jinn from smokeless fire" as it is often translated. O'Meara cites French scholar Jacqueline Chabbi and her translation of this particular brand of fire as specifically solar, or "the burning air of the solar day." O'Meara summarizes it thusly:

"The details of Chabbi's argument are too many to summarize here but they are founded upon her initial distinction between nocturnal and diurnal fire. In tribal Arabian society, she explains, the light and heat of the former were valued positively; whereas the light and, above all, the heat of diurnal fire, principally the sun, were valued negatively. From the burning sunlit air, desert mirages would arise, for example, and they were to be trusted no more than the jinn, another category of shape-shifting entities that could swiftly appear and disappear."

'Illustration for Alladin' Errol le Cain

Already there is a conflation of hot air with fire, or better yet, an intermixing of the two which creates a new substance entirely; one that is looked upon in the tribal Arabian context as wholly malefic and never worthy of trust or comfort. This interpretation, although far from universally shared, begins to shed light (hopefully not too hot) on the sheer variety of perspectives regarding the nature of the jinn from just a single line of text. Arabic to alternative language translations aside, Islamic scholars still debate the nature of the jinn with views that reflect this same level of variability that one may find in the academy or elsewhere. 

Citing the theories of William Albright and their support by Joseph Henninger, O'Meara also makes a case for a terrestrial understanding of the jinn using theological sources as diverse as the writhing serpent-staff of Moses in his battle against the sorceries of Pharaoh (because jinn and their associations with snakes are extremely common) to the notion that Syriac Christian, Judaic, and polytheistic understandings of their demons were largely of the subterranean variety (and would go on to be picked up later by the new religion of Islam and its adherents from the same region). Quoting Henninger: "Among the sedentary population in Palestine and Syria the habitat of the jinn is thought to be the earth, the underworld. They are frequently described in analogous terms e.g. ahl al-ard, "people of the earth," etc. This is a reason why they are found mainly where there is a connection with the underworld. These are above all springs, wells, cisterns, and indeed all places linked to underground water." Again, not only do we see the conflation of two distinct elements but also the introduction of a new one, water. The primary distinction remains 'above and below' rather than elemental, and yet, one cannot help but feel like the forces being discussed are prone to blending as opposed to anything we might call stasis or remaining in one place. Perhaps the linear and historical argument that O'Meara is attempting to make speaks less to the way things have changed over time and more to the multi-faceted views that have always been held about this iteration of the invisible world.

Yet somehow I continuously return to the air. The root of the Arabic word 'jinn' evokes things that are by their very nature hidden in much the same way the word 'occult' evokes something which has been or is obscured. Those words cannot be loaded, of course. Certainty of words, remember? Out of the four major elements, air seems to be the most obscure in terms of visibility. We see its effects as it passes through the leaves, as it touches our cheek, as it blows atop the waters, but you cannot see it in the concrete way that one stands on concrete, or lights a fire, or pours a glass of water. Many of the visible manifestations of air come from the stirring of other elements. The tornado picks up dust and debris. The water binds into a cloud.

Sudanese Zar

Susan Kenyon's ethnography Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan: The Red Wind of Sennar is a fascinating survey of the beliefs and rituals of Zar spirit possession practitioners, mostly women, in historical and contemporary Sudan. To the extent that Sudan has dealt with the encroachment of radical Islamism, one can say confidently that these practices are firmly situated in Islamic culture. To paraphrase much of the book, Zar practitioners consider the possessing spirits to be a kind of jinn, a ruh, or a wind. Ruh can also be thought of as the breath or spirit. The title of the book speaks to the importance of the spirits' likeness to wind or air. Wind described as red is thought to be more benefic than wind described as black, wherein the spirits tend toward aggression as well being of a more terrestrial nature. That practitioners can describe these beings as simultaneously airy and earthy speaks to a level of intimacy rarely held by onlookers or academics. In comparison to other academic disciplines, anthropology may give us insights from those who are currently and directly involved with the practices being studied; regardless of the skepticism on the part of the institution or researcher undertaking the endeavor. Once more, the community involved with Zar do not take the presence of the spirits for granted. Their descriptions come more from a place of necessity and less from a place of historical or cultural speculation.

Echoing Henninger, many of the Sudanese Zar are considered to live both underground and in the water; with the nearby Nile river attending to an entire class of river and serpentine spirits unto themselves. Another common place to find the zar is in the lavatory, or in pits of waste, which speak once more to a presence below the buzzing upper world of human activity. Like the Quran, those who encounter the zar have no problem with entertaining superficially paradoxical descriptions of these entities; a healthy reminder of the self sabotage we engender through persistent classification schemes lacking in direct experience. When the Quran describes jinn as being made of smokeless fire, or of being likened to a writhing serpent, or many of the other descriptions we might encounter, it is essentially a memo for the masses to better understand their neighbors: dangerous, tempestuous, scorching, venomous, unreliable, deceptive, but also many who are like them with similar motivating drives of greed, love, romance, hunger, many having converted to Islam, pious beings accepting of the Prophet Muhammad's word and the religious message therein.

'Five Poems of Nizami: Mahan in the Wilderness
of Ghouls' Iran (1505)

Those physical sensations ascribed to various words are currently causing trouble in not-to-be-disclosed parts of my body. At the danger of slipping into frivolity I become increasingly self aware of my own relationship to these ever elusive forces. I return, if I may, to the practical approach when it comes to describing the matters at hand. To what end do we classify the invisible? Well, perhaps when you have no other choice. For the sake of survival one must be able to at least identify the poisonous elements strewn about the landscape in which they live. Indulging in the oh so original sin of cleaving apart sky and earth will only hinder our exploration as we lose ourselves in myopic gazing upward, downward, up and down, so on and so on. And like the words we use the jinn remain elusive, and still, ever so alive..