The worst and the lowest of human effort is the effort of those who seek out fellow-human beings in desperate need – it may be grave sickness, dire poverty or ignorance – and exploit that need to extort money from them and enjoy dominance over them. Moreover, many who do this do it with the pretence that they are helping those whom no one else will help. If they believe this pretence, if they believe that they are good and intend good, then they are deluded. A clear, common example of this is the practice of loan-sharks who lend desperate people money at cruelly high rates of interest and claim to be providing a valuable social service. Even among Muslims there are people who do this though they well know that God has condemned lending in this manner: it is against the law of God to charge rent for the use of money, as if it were just a simple commodity like land or buildings or tools or other property of the kind that can be lawfully rented out. Nevertheless, the loan-sharks claim to be doing normal business, seeking an honest profit by renting out their property and carrying a business risk. This is a lie. If they really do believe this lie, it is as God has said (Surat al-Baqarah, 2:274): they have been so disoriented by the touch of Satan that evil appears to them as good, and goodness appears to them as foolishness: ‘Those who live on usury shall be raised before God like men whom Satan has maddened by his touch.’
Satan and the evil jinn who obey him have no power to dispossess human beings of their will, but they do have power to course through their veins, to whisper suggestions into their hearts and minds. Thus the jinn can tempt and torment human beings but they cannot compel them. If a Muslim intends a good deed, the jinn cannot erect a physical barrier to his carrying out that intention, still less take possession of his will and make him commit an evil deed instead, or postpone or not do the good deed. What the jinn can do is, by their whispering, distract the Muslim from what he intends so that he does something else, or make him doubt his capacity to do the good he intends, or make him suspect his sincerity in what he intends. All that I have just said of what the jinn can do by way of ambushing human beings and urging them to deviate from doing the good they intend, human beings can also do – they too can do the work of the evil jinn. And yet, no one has ever claimed that one human being can ‘possess’ another human being, that is, control them from within so that they are no longer themselves.
In the Qur’an and Sunnah there is strong emphasis on Muslims encouraging one another in good deeds, and on preferring the company and the lifestyle of believers whose behaviour is consistent with their belief, who steadfastly preserve their religion through both teaching and practice. It hardly needs saying that when sickness of body or mind, or some disaster or grief, causes someone to lose their self-command, the duty of those around them is to offer comfort and kindness, to stand by and help them, to act for them until they regain their dignity and self-command as human beings. Through the whole of the way of life of Islam, private, individual acts of kindness or worship have a counterpart in public, collective acts of kindness or worship. The latter are mandatory, the former voluntary, and the pairing is mutually supportive – zakah and sadaqah, to give just one example. As Muslims we are not answerable only for our private thoughts, intentions and actions, but also for the culture and ethos in which our thoughts, intentions and actions have some influence. What we think and do informs what others think or do. If a person takes intoxicants (which is forbidden to Muslims) but never to the point of becoming intoxicated himself, he nevertheless contributes to the tolerance of intoxication in the culture around him, and is party to the consequences of intoxication in the lives of others.
It is fundamental to a sound conception of God to know that He is essentially and always good. It follows necessarily that His creation of life, especially human life, is also essentially and always good, even when that life is subjected to severe trial, and indeed every life is subject to its unique burden of trial and proof. It does not follow that trials and sufferings are in themselves desirable. They cannot be. But they are eventually good in that they bring out the best in human qualities of endurance, co-operative effort, ingenuity, and adaptiveness. God has endowed human beings collectively with quite extraordinary capacities and powers, enough to colonise every kind of environment on this planet, which indeed He created in such a way that it is hospitable to the exercise and development of those human capacities and powers. We are the only species that can survive well in extreme climates like arid deserts and ice-bound lands where vegetation disappears for most of the year. This versatility is made possible by the gift of language by which God distinguished properly and fully human beings from any others like them before.
Language is the vehicle for our thoughts in response to experience or separately from experience, and for the storing, shaping, and sharing of thought between people and across generations. While we can conceive of thought that is not uttered, or not communicated, we cannot conceive of thought without some vehicle for it. There is no thinking without some language of some kind. Now whatever kind of language it is – speech and writing, the language of words, is only the most common kind – it has to be, to a considerable degree, separable from an individual thinking his or her thoughts. Language is collective, not individual: it is hard to see how thoughts could arise in the individual heart or mind if they could not be somehow spoken and then, if spoken, understood by (at very least) one other individual. However internal language seems, it is always necessarily an opening up to the external: if I can think and speak, it is because I know (or wish) that you can too; we could not have thoughts if we could not give them to each other. Everything to which we give the name ‘culture’ or ‘civilisation’ is a product of language. Like language, culture is not just prompted by experience; it functions separately from experience and it is itself something that we experience. Language and culture are constitutive of the human world through which we experience all that is outside of us, human or non-human. Language makes human beings capable and useful to each other; it also makes them vulnerable to each other. In particular, it makes them suggestible. If it were not so, words and images could not make us weep or laugh, could not inform our beliefs, desires and motivations, could not make us part with our money and our effort.
The satans among jinn and humankind know this suggestibility well. They exploit it by whispering in our hearts and minds, so that we are tempted to desire and do what we know we should not, and tempted not to desire and do what we know we should. But, it is most important to remember, the doing or not doing remain our responsibility – we are answerable for our failures and, while there is strong hope, there is no certainty of forgiveness hereafter. When God wills a matter, He says to it Be! and it is. This is a power exclusive to Himself. There is no boundary to what we human beings may will or desire, but having words for it will not make it be. Rather, there are processes and procedures that we must work through, in the right order and in the right place at the right time, with the right tools and with the right help from others, so that we achieve our desire or we come to realise that it is not achievable at all, or achievable by means unavailable to us at present. Because we can have words for a thing, it does not follow that this thing can be real. The persistent discrepancy between how intensely we desire or need something and our inability to make it happen leads often to wishfulness. Fantasies of power afflict people most severely when they are most aware of their incapacity. It is absurd that people are impressed by claims that a man is able to walk on the air or to walk on water, but they are impressed and flock to attend demonstrations of such feats. There is no point in them. Why would anyone with superhuman powers waste them on feats, the demonstrations of which can be duplicated by illusionists and charlatans? How much more useful than walking on water it is that people learn to build a bridge or a boat!
The condition of unsatisfied needs and desires is the fuel of modern advertising. It is a vicious craft, now performed with such skill that people are induced to spend their (actual or borrowed) wealth on images with which the sale-objects are associated, are disappointed but then repeat the purchase when the same objects are re-packaged with a variant image. It is absurd – false eyelashes can express ‘the real you’ – but it must be effective since advertising expenditure is now a major component in the production cost of most mass-produced goods. This habituation of the great majority of people to wishfulness intensifies their frustration and their sense of incapacity to achieve what they believe they desire or need. It makes them less self-aware, less self-reliant, less active, less willing to improve themselves, less able to make common cause with other human beings to do good things together, and less aware of the world around them and how it works. In sum, the success of modern advertising makes people less aware of the reality of their lives; it renders them much more exploitable than people ever were in the past, and much easier to manipulate. Because people do not have the confidence to face reality, reality does not face them and does not prompt them to think for themselves. They let others think and imagine for them; they put their trust in experts who do not have their interests at heart. Although we have no need to use this idiom, we would be right to describe the success of advertising as a victory for the evil jinn, a sort of ‘possession’, since people are not themselves when they respond to advertising by spending their time and money while claiming that they know it is not true. They are right that it is not true; but if it is not true, why do they act on it?
Among the most vicious and evil exploitations of human beings is exploitation of those who have physical or psychological health problems. Such people deserve our care, sympathy and love. For the drugs companies these people are a business opportunity and their aim is to addict them to their products, and they are succeeding in producing more difficult sicknesses among more people in more parts of the world, and by weakening people physically and psychologically, they make them more vulnerable to sicknesses, which increases their market. How much more vile than these highly organised, centralised, rationalised and bureaucratised predators are those dispersed Muslim preachers and scholars who fabricate lies, accuse the sick of being ‘possessed’ by the jinn, and claim expertise in releasing them from ‘possession’. Then, instead of offering to treat them free for the love of God, they charge exorbitant fees, beat them cruelly and, in many cases as reported to me, sexually abuse them. If anyone is possessed by demons, surely it is these vile predators on human suffering.
People face difficulties and problems of all kinds in their lives. Some deficiencies that people perceive in themselves and wish to change cannot be changed in fact, they can only be managed, accepted and lived with, with the help of family, friends and neighbours and, most especially, with faith and trust in God. But people in dire trouble are vulnerable to the suggestion that their trouble is the work of dark forces which, for the right sum of money, self-styled healers offer to correct by means of skills special to themselves. In reality almost all difficulties and illnesses are the effect of causes in plain sight, which can be put right in the normal ways without resort to (horribly expensive) magical procedures. Also, as I have acknowledged, there are some illnesses for which the causes are not (yet) known or not so well understood that intervention to cure them is feasible. In these cases, we show patience and kindness, and we admit our ignorance, and we resort to prayer. In better times, those of our true scholars who believed in jinn possession and in procedures to alleviate it, did not resort to violently thrashing the sufferers or abusing them sexually. They intended good, not harm; kindness, not exploitation; they did not adopt haram means to achieve halal ends. They prayed intently, recited the Qur’an, counselled patience to the sufferer and their family. Because there was a firm, justified belief in the devoutness and sincerity of such healers, it was not unreasonable to hope for some degree of relief from the exercise of their authority and care. Having said that, I would remind people that charlatans have always existed in all communities, even among the Muslims of old – some of the anecdotes recounted by Jahiz would suffice to illustrate the general human weakness.
It is our duty to study the realities around us and solve the problems that we face in light of those realities. We should prefer to rely on the faculties of observation, experience and reason that God has given in such abundance to humankind, and for which we do not thank Him abundantly enough when we have resort to charlatans to cure our ills. No doubt we must also pray for God’s help, while making every effort to ensure that all the open, public and known means of solving a problem are being conscientiously engaged. We direct prayer only and exclusively to God. What we are explicitly forbidden to do is to believe that other human beings have acquired special, supernatural powers, or that they have special privileged access to God. If we believe that, we will produce in our communities frauds and charlatans who will exploit us, take our time and money, and sometimes dishonour our women, while giving us nothing in return except increase of misery. The special responsibility and special authority of prophethood ended with the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace, because what God revealed by him is sufficient for humankind for the rest of time. His life-experience, which is authoritative for all believing and practising Muslims, included illness, his own and those of his Companions: his resort was to prayer and patience and the medical knowledge of his time, which Muslim scholars after him greatly expanded. Should that not suffice for those Muslims who, as the Qur’an commands, think, reflect and ponder, and put their trust in God?
People do suffer psychological and emotional problems which lead them to behave in strange ways, as if they were no longer in command of themselves. Most of the time the strange behaviours express profound depression and disorientation brought on by sustained neglect and mistreatment by the person’s near family, or the result of chemical imbalances in the body or some malfunction or undetected injury in the brain. Trained doctors can usually prescribe drugs that will calm the person down so that the other processes necessary to healing can begin. It is utterly stupid, cruel and useless to beat a person senseless and claim that a demon is being driven out. The person is only being beaten and hurt even more, nothing else. Even worse is when some of the charlatans claim that sexually abusing the person will drive out the demon. This is disgusting, immoral and irreligious in the extreme. No one should submit to this. On the contrary it is a crime of assault and rape that should be reported to the authorities and appropriately punished. As with most illnesses any treatment should be motivated by kindness, not by greed, sexual lust and the pleasure of dominance. The treatment should be invited by the care and concern of the family of the person who is ill, and they should never entrust treatment to anyone who seeks exorbitant fees and offers violence and worse suffering as a cure. Of just such a person it is permissible to say, figuratively, that he is the one who is demon-possessed.