When someone behaves in a way that shows that they are not in control of their will, that they cannot sense what is harmful or dangerous to themselves, the Arabic word used will probably be majnun. Literally, the word means jinn-possessed. In ordinary usage it means mad. It is only if this condition persists, if the person never comes out of it, that one would say majnun with the meaning jinn-possessed.
This condition in human beings, of not knowing or not caring who they are, not knowing or not caring what is hurting them, can be deliberately produced. It can be produced by prolonged sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, and solitary confinement. That description will remind you of what we have all heard about the way certain prisoners have been treated in recent times by their captors. This treatment is designed to break the will, to disorient the prisoner completely so that he does not know even if he is hungry or not, cold or not; he only knows he is suffering terribly. The aim is to make the prisoner give up all hope of relief or escape so that he does not care if he lives or dies. At just this point, the captor will ease the conditions, reduce the suffering, by very small amounts, in order to make the prisoner wholly dependent for relief on the captor. It is a remarkable thing that many human beings subjected to such horrific treatment survive it, and the torture programme fails to break their will. We have also heard that health care professionals, doctors of body and mind, take part in these programmes – they are consulted in their design and close by in their execution.
But what if a person suffers or thinks she is suffering these conditions and there is no individual or regime deliberately causing this suffering. I can tell you, from many enquiries I get about so-called jinn-possession, that it is often women who suffer in this way. They feel trapped in the lives they are leading, unable to escape conditions of confinement, terrible loneliness, emotional and even physical abuse. The conditions of their lives are such that they have no hope of joy or happiness. They feel utterly powerless to change their circumstances, and so they do not want the life that they have. After a time they find themselves, in extreme cases, unable to sleep, unable to eat, unable to move, unable to act or think normally: the effects of sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation and black solitude are imposed upon them by themselves. It is at this point that people around them, sometimes with the best of intentions, may say things like “She is not herself. She is possessed.”
Before that point, it often happens that the people who should be helping often find it easier to insult and punish. They may say things like, “she is just pretending to be ill” or “she is a bad person, a bad Muslim” for refusing to accept the kind of life that her parents or in-laws or husband want her to accept. After such abuse and punishments make matters worse, as is bound to happen, then the people may declare her “possessed” and seek remedies for that.
It is a grave failure on the part of human beings, a grave (even sinful) refusal of all the possibilities that God has made available to human beings, that they resort to remedies they do not understand for conditions they have not tried to understand. Nowhere in the Qur’an has God condemned the use of reason; rather, He has urged us to think, to look and study and find out how things are arranged in the world, for the most part greatly and specifically for our benefit. By contrast, God has condemned false gods and the false religion built around them, which is indeed not religion but superstition. Superstition is the expectation that certain means have an effective power to bring about certain results, when there is no reasonable ground for that expectation and when, more often than not, those results can be achieved with reasonable confidence by taking the well-known, normal steps in the well-known order and doing so at the right time.
Superstition is an enemy of religion and must be resisted. The fight against superstition needs also to be fought by people without religion or outside of formal religious contexts. Just as an example, consider how many people there are who know perfectly well that they are only overweight because they eat too much at the same time as they do too little physical exercise. But, instead, of addressing the underlying problem of weakness of will combined with cultural encouragements to self- indulgence(rather than self-discipline), they will spend money on drugs in order to reduce their appetite and join weight-watchingclubs in order to change their cultural environment. The more money and time they spend on these treatments, the more hope they invest in them. It is false hope, and expensive too. For, very soon after the chemical and social crutches are removed, they go back to their previous habits and, of course, their previous overweight. Naturally, the drugs companies and the companies running the slimming clubs are content with this outcome – as would be window-replacement companies if their new windows quickly shatter and need replacing again.
I do not mean to make light of the problems that overweight people face. I merely want to make the point that there are normal ways to understand, describe and diagnose such conditions, and there are normal means to deal with them. In this instance, Muslims would be advised to strengthen their will and resolve through better focused prayer, and strengthen their body by exercise and by doing without the foods or drinks that, either in quantity or in kind, make them overweight. This method requires more mental and physical effort, but it has the advantage that it works, provided the person really wants it to. At very least, the person soon learns, by the effort of nafl prayers and fasting,how serious their desire to lose weight is.
In the same way, for acute cases of depression and the behaviours attendant on that – some of these can be aggressive and violent, some the opposite – it is not wise to resort to the diagnosis of jinn-possession and not wise to turn to people who make their living by claiming to be able to expel jinn. People who depend on this activity for their livelihood have a vested interest in suspecting jinn-possession where there may not be any, and in blaming any failure in their treatment on the tenacity of the jinn. Since the jinn are by definition unseen and cannot be interrogated in the normal ways, there is no way at all of knowing if the treatment has any relevance for the condition it is claiming to cure. In the meantime, the bills for the treatment will continue to be presented. Another reason for extreme caution in resorting to the diagnosis of jinn-possession and the professional practitioners of jinn-expulsion is that the treatment does not always involve only invocations and supplications; rather, it involves strenuous physical beating, which is supposed not to harm the possessed person, only the possessing jinn, but in fact can cause serious injury to the patient. Indeed, instances of death from this treatment are not unknown.
Far better to resort to the gentlest wisest and most pious person in your neighbourhood, one known for forbearance, patience and good sense. As often as not, he or she will advise you that the patient needs lots of kindness and love from all those around her, a change of place and life conditions, help to understand what is troubling her, and steadfast reliance on God. It is sensible also to consult a competent doctor to determine whether there is not some simple but hidden physical condition, which, because undetected, led to a spiral of anxiety and thence to the illness.
All that said, I do not mean to imply that the jinn do not exist, or even that jinn possession does not exist. On the contrary, on the basis of what is explicit in the Qur’an and the traditions of God’s Messenger, salla l-lahu `alayhiwasallam, I affirm that the jinn exist and that it is possible they can do some harm to human beings.
If the jinn do exist, as we affirm, what do we make of them? Why are they mentioned in the Qur’an? What do we learn about their condition and their relation to human beings and to God? I will go into some detail as we do the tafsir of Surat al-Jinn, and as we recall a number of authentic hadiths about the Prophet’s handling of the jinn. Here, I just wish to make a few general observations.
(1) In this life, the jinn are not visible to human beings though we are visible to them. They can make themselves visible only by taking on a physical form, for example, that of a snake or other creature, or even of particular human beings. According to some authorities, in the next life, it is the other way around: the jinn are visible to us, but we are not visible to them.
(2) We do not know all the forms that God has created from the diverse constituents of earth and its waters, except that we see them. Similarly, we are informed that the jinn are created from smokeless fire or scorching wind, but in what variety of forms is not visible to us.
(3) Authentic hadiths make clear that the jinn have particular habitations: remote caverns and deserts, dark ravines, and, around human habitations, the waste grounds where people go to relieve themselves. For their food is leavings and excrement. You will already know, from my description of the treatment of Muslim prisoners by their enlightened modern captors, that such places are where humans are vulnerable — the absence of other people to give us a sense of location in time and space and the lack of stimulus from the physical world around us because it is dark or featureless – these are the conditions when you need to seek refuge in God from the satanic jinn.
(4) The surah tells us that the jinn are nations and sects as humans are; and that among them, some are believers, others not. Elsewhere we learn that some among them, like Iblis, become, by virtue of their opposition to God, satans. So the satanic is a function in the world, and some humans fulfil this function and so do some of the jinn.
(5) When we know from the Qur’an that the sentient creatures of the earth are nations like ourselves, who praise God, though we do not hear and understand their praise, we understand that we do not, unless we think and act satanically, have any right to eradicate any species from the earth. Rather, we have a right only to kill those vermin where they infest our homes or crops. There is a boundary, a limit, placed on the mastery in the earth that God has granted to humankind. Similarly, when we know that the jinn are nations and sects like ourselves, capable of willing good or evil, we affirm a boundary to what out will can do, and to what our reason can find out as sure knowledge.
(6) First, though I said above that we must search in the world and apply reason to what we find in it to understand how things are, all of our seeking, our arts and sciences and technology, will not and cannot give us absolute, unconditional mastery in the world. It is a dangerous delusion of a jinn-maddened modern person could say: “we make reality.” No, we do not make reality. Indeed, we may do our utmost to understand causes and effects and use our understanding for our purposes, within the limits of halal and haram, but if we surrender to the delusion of mastery, we will reduce the whole world to ruin and corruption. If you doubt this, just reflect on the last fifty years of technological advance in the world, all the new materials and means and gadgets invented, and ask yourself honestly if most people are working less hard, finding more happiness and ease, even at the simplest level of material comfort and good company, than they did fifty years ago.
(7) The outcomes of our intentions and actions are not perfectly in our control. There remain in the world causes or agencies that we do not understand. That does not mean we must accept our ignorance and make no effort to find out. It means we must acknowledge our ignorance and practise the humility that goes with it. The concept of the jinn, benevolent or malevolent, enables us to think about certain phenomena that otherwise we simply cannot make sense of. For example, if a good person known to have been truthful all his life tells you that he has seen and spoken to his Shaykh who died sometime before, it is right for you to accept that his report is not fabricated. But then you may remind him that, since we know that the dead do not return to this world until God commands that, it was not his Shaykh that he saw but rather a jinn who put on the Shaykh’s appearance and spoke to him in a likeness of his voice. In this way, you do not accuse the good man of hallucinating and deluding himself in his grief, as some irreligious psychologist may do, and you do also lead him away from an error in his religion.
(8) What I have just said could also be said in explanation of the reports from the Christians that the apostles — though they were not witnesses at what seemed to the people the death by crucifixion of their teacher and God’s messenger `Isa ibn Maryam, `alayhi s-salam, and though the womenfolk who were witnessed according to the present Gospels only witnessed the event from a distance — said that they saw and spoke to their master after his resurrection from death. These things are, as the Qur’an says, but people conjecturing their conjectures, they do not know.
(9) Similarly again, there are the claims by certain misguiding (and perhaps also misguided) Sufis who pretend, and whose disciples then affirm, that they can be in two places at once. Indeed they cannot. But there are in this world agents with the power to create that illusion for humans eager to believe it. Those agents are the jinn.
(10) In sum, it is of the utmost importance for the believers to affirm that such agents exist and have the power to harm our understanding and practice of the religion. Accordingly, we must seek refuge in God from such creatures, and we must seek refuge in God from the arrogance of those who claim a full and absolute autonomy for human will and human reason. We know the evil that people of such arrogance can do in the world while calling themselves champions of humanity; but they, in their earthly life, they will not know, nor will they feel, the depth and vast extent of the suffering they inflict upon others unless God relents and guides them.