Djinn in Muslim Culture: Truth or Superstition?

Djinn are believed to be powerful, invisible beings, capable of possessing people and even inflicting suffering on them. Stories of human encounters with djinn are very common across cultures and history.
Djinn in Muslim Culture Truth or Superstition

The belief in supernatural creatures exists in almost all cultures and has persisted throughout history. Tales of horror, exorcism, sorcery, haunted houses, and encounters between humans and ghostly beings have been a primary component of Hollywood cinema. Many books have been written about paranormal and supernatural phenomena where reality and imagination, religion and superstition, and science and myth intersect. However, the nuances of the belief in ghosts, specters, and spirits vary from one culture to another.

In the broader Muslim world, people strongly believe in the existence of supernatural beings called djinn because the Quran explicitly confirms their existence and considers them an independent nation. There is a whole chapter in the Qur’an named “the Chapter of Djinn,’” where detailed information about these beings is revealed. In the first verse of this chapter, God states:

“It has been revealed to me that a group of the djinn listened and said, ‘Indeed, we have heard an amazing Qur’an . . . and among us are the righteous, and among us are [others] not so; we were [of] divided ways.”

“It has been revealed to me that a group of the djinn listened and said, ‘Indeed, we have heard an amazing Qur’an . . . and among us are the righteous, and among us are [others] not so; we were [of] divided ways.”

Like human beings, some of the djinn, thus, may be righteous and benevolent, but others are sinners and evildoers. We learn from the Qur’an that djinn also marry, procreate, live, and die. However, Muslims all over the world believe that God created djinn and humans for the purpose of inhabiting the Earth and worshipping Him.

In chapter 51, verse 56, the Qur’an says:

“I created the djinn and humankind only that they might worship Me.”

The word djinn is, in fact, reiterated on many occasions in the Quran in association with humans, attesting to the Islamic belief that djinn belong to another nation that exists parallel to humans in another dimension. Muslims believe that these transparent and invisible beings have tremendous powers and are not predetermined by the laws of physics such as matter, weight, time, and place. Unlike humans, they straddle the invisible and the manifest worlds and move across dimensional boundaries. They can also travel anywhere in the blink of an eye and metamorphose into the shape of other beings such as cats, dogs, birds, serpents, or even humans.

According to Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim, considered to be the two most authoritative texts after the Qur’an, Satan, who is believed to be a djinni, can take the form of a man to “deceive the hearts” of people. It is written in the Prophet’s biography that during the Battle of Badr in the Hejaz on 13 March 624 CE, between Muslims and their Quraishi opponents, Satan came in the guise of Surakah Bin Malik, chief of Bani Kinana tribe in the Hejaz, and tried to convince the disbelievers that they were going to win against the Muslims.

Despite their powers, djinn can be called upon to serve human beings because, according to Islamic belief, humans are superior to djinn. Djinn were created from smokeless fire, while humans were created from water and earth. The Qur’an says:  

“And  indeed we created  man from dried clay  of altered mud and djinn  we created aforetime from the smokeless flame of fire (Qur’an 15.26-27).”

The narrative of King Solomon in the Judaic, Christian, and Islamic cultures is an example of human enslavement of djinns. Islam tells the story of how God bestowed on Solomon the might and wisdom to command and employ not only djinn and demons, but also wind, birds, and many other creatures. The Qur’an says in this regard in chapter 27, verse 17:

“And before Solomon were marshaled his hosts, of djinns and men and birds, and they were all kept in order and ranks.”

From the Quranic story of King Solomon, we learn of some of the strengths that djinn have like speed and movement. When King Solomon commanded his men to bring him the queen of Sheba’s throne, a stalwart of the djinn said:

“I will bring it to you before you could rise from your council: indeed I have full strength for the purpose, and may be trusted (Qur’an 27.39).”

The djinni (singular of djinn) in the verse above offered to bring the queen of Sheba’s throne from modern-day Yemen to Jerusalem before the king could rise from his seat.

The belief in djinn, demons, and ghosts in modern folk culture in the Muslim world is as firm as it was in the past. Muslims believe that djinn are capable of possessing humans and inflicting suffering on them based on the Quranic verse that states:

“Those who swallow usury cannot rise up [on the Day of Judgement] save as he arises whom the devil has prostrated by his touch (Qur’an 2.275).”

The Prophet Muhammed (PBUH) had commanded his followers to perform many rituals and recite many duaas (prayers) to protect themselves from the evil of djinn who permanently lurk around to harm people. Places like toilets, baths, garbage dumps, forests, abandoned houses, cemeteries, caves, mountains, and wherever there is uncleanliness are the djinn’s favorite abodes and believed to be dangerous to human beings.

There has been much anthropological and ethnographic participant-observation research done in the Arab world on the belief in djinn and the rituals accompanying this belief among different cultural and ethnic communities. Robert Lebling’s “Legends of the Fire’s Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar” explores the world of djinns across the Islamic world and how geographic and regional specificities have shaped them within local cultures. The book provides an extraordinary account of how religion and folk tales have shaped Muslims’ perceptions of the realm of djinn.

American ethnographer Vincent Crapanzano also wrote a seminal account on Moroccan ethnopsychiatry entitled, “The Hamadsha: A Study in the Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry.” The Hamadsha group that Crapanzano studied lives in the region of Meknes and Moulay Idriss, and they believe in music-induced spiritual possession. The practices of this ethnic tradition are based on the belief that djinn can occupy the body of a possessed individual. To be freed, the possessed must enter a state of trance induced by the Hamadsha chants and melodies.

The ethnographic account abounds with tales of djinn, saints and their baraka (supernatural power), telepathic communication, instantaneous travel, cross-dimensional travel, and other paranormal phenomena. Building on phenomenology, psychoanalysis, and symbolism, Crapanzano delves into the rare rituals and beliefs of the Hamadsha group to explore the concepts of reality, truth, superstition, and psychology, in a thrilling ethnographic study. The belief in djinn, though it may seem hallucinatory or delusive to modern-day skeptics, is nurtured by religion and core religious texts such as the Qur’an and the hadith.

Rejecting the existence of djinn in Islam is “haram”(forbidden) according to Muslim scholars and jurists because it is considered apostasy. Those who deny the existence of djinn also deny the Quranic verses that confirm their existence. Whether the belief in djinn is truth or superstition, the recognized existence of inexplicable paranormal phenomena throughout the world attests to the fact that there are indeed many things that are still beyond human understanding despite the tremendous scientific leaps in the last two centuries.