correspondent travels to Somalia and Afghanistan in search of jinn
THERE is a cleft in a stone hill outside Qardho, in northern
Somalia, which even the hardest gunmen and frankincense merchants
avoid. In the cool dark, out of the bleached sunshine, there is a
pit, a kind of Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole, which is said to
swirl down into the world of jinn. Locals say jinn—genies, that
is—fade in and out above the pit. Sometimes they shift into forms of
ostriches and run out over the desert scrub.
The Bible holds that God created angels and then made man in his own
image. The Koran states that Allah fashioned angels from light and
then made jinn from smokeless fire. Man was formed later, out of
clay. Jinn disappointed Allah, not least by climbing to the highest
vaults of the sky and eavesdropping on the angels. Yet Allah did not
annihilate them. No flood closed over their heads. Jinn were willed
into existence, like man, to worship Allah and were preserved on
earth for that purpose, living in a parallel world, set at such an
angle that jinn can see men, but men cannot see jinn.
Less educated Muslims remain fearful of jinn. Hardly a week passes
in the Muslim world without a strange story concerning them. Often
the tales are foolish and melancholy. In August, for instance,
Muslims in the Kikandwa district of central Uganda grew feverish
over reports of jinn haunting and raping women in the district. So
when a young woman stumbled out of the forest one day, unkempt and
deranged, she was denounced as a jinn. Villagers beat her almost to
death. Police finished the job with six bullets at close range. The
young woman called out for her children in her last moments. An
investigation revealed her to be from a neighbouring district. She
had spent days without food or water, searching for her missing
husband. Editorials in Ugandan newspapers called on the government
formally to deny the existence of jinn.
That would be divisive. Although a few Islamic scholars have over
the ages denied the existence of jinn, the consensus is that good
Muslims should believe in them. Some Islamic jurists consider
marriage between jinn and humans to be lawful. There is a similar
provision for the inheritance of jinn property. Sex during
menstruation is an invitation to jinn and can result in a woman
bearing a jinn child. According to the Koran, the Prophet Muhammad
preached to bands of jinn. Some converted to Islam. This is how jinn
describe their condition in the Koran:
And among us [jinn] there are righteous folk and among us there are
those far from that. We are sects, having different rules. And we
know that we cannot escape from Allah in the earth, nor can we
escape by flight. And when we heard the guidance [of the Koran], we
believed therein, and who so believeth in his Lord, he feareth
neither loss nor oppression. And there are among us some who have
surrendered to Allah and there are among us some who are unjust.
In Somalia and Afghanistan clerics matter-of-factly described to
your correspondent the range of jinn they had encountered, from the
saintly to the demonic; those that can fly, those that crawl,
plodding jinn, invisible jinn, gul with vampiric tendencies (from
which the English word ghoul is taken), and shape-shifters
recognisable in human form because their feet are turned backwards.
Occasionally the clerics fell into a trance. Afterwards they claimed
their apparently bare rooms had filled with jinn seeking favours or
release from amulet charms.
A parallel universe
Although Somalia and Afghanistan have different religious traditions
(Somalia being more relaxed), jinn belief is strong in both
countries. War-ravaged, with similarly rudimentary education
systems, both have a tradition of shrines venerating local saints
where women can pray. Women are supposed to be more open to jinn,
particularly illiterate rural women: by some accounts education is a
noise, a roaring of thought, which jinn cannot bear. Sometimes women
turn supposed jinn possession to their own advantage and become
fortune-tellers. Among the most popular questions asked of such
women is: “Will my husband take a second wife?” The shrines are
often little more than a carved niche in a rock, with colourful
prayer flags tied to nearby trees. Jinn are said to be attracted to
the ancient geography of shrines, many of which predate Islam; as
some have it, the shrines were attracted to the jinn.
Islam teaches that jinn resemble men in many ways: they have free
will, are mortal, face judgment and fill hell together. Jinn and men
marry, have children, eat, play, sleep and husband their own
animals. Islamic scholars are in disagreement over whether jinn are
physical or insubstantial in their bodies. Some clerics have
described jinn as bestial, giant, hideous, hairy, ursine. Supposed
yeti sightings in Pakistan's Chitral are believed by locals to be of
jinn. These kinds of jinn can be killed with date or plum stones
fired from a sling.
Hardly a week passes in the Muslim world without a strange story
concerning them. Often the tales are foolish and melancholy
But to more scholarly clerics jinn are little more than an energy, a
pulse form of quantum physics perhaps, alive at the margins of sleep
or madness, and more often in the whispering of a single unwelcome
thought. An extension of this electric description of jinn is that
they are not beings at all but thoughts that were in the world
before the existence of man. Jinn reflect the sensibilities of those
imagining them, just as in Assyrian times they were taken to be the
spirits responsible for manias, who melted into the light at dawn.
When a donkey brays
The English word genie, from an unrelated French root, is now too
soft and gooey with Disney's Aladdin to catch the acid qualities
attributed to jinn. Sepideh Azarbaijani-Moghaddam, a specialist on
Afghanistan who has undertaken anthropological research on jinn
belief, reckons she may once have been in the presence of jinn. She
was riding with others in the Afghan province of Badakhshan. It was
towards dusk. They came down into a valley forested at the bottom.
The horses tensed. “Suddenly from out of the trees I felt myself
being watched by non-human entities.” A cold fear overcame her, “the
fear of losing the faculty of reason”. A Kabul cleric describes this
sort of feeling as a shock at the existence of otherness. Animals
sense it also: when a donkey brays, it is said to be seeing a jinn.
Unbelieving jinn, those who resisted the Koran, are shaytan, demons,
“firewood for hell”. Many Muslims see the devil as a jinn. Some
reckon the snake in the Garden of Eden was a shape-shifting jinn.
All this may yet play a part in the war on terrorism. Factions in
Somalia and Afghanistan have accused their enemies of being backed
not only by the CIA but by malevolent jinn. One theory in
Afghanistan holds that the mujahideen, “two-legged wolves”, scared
the jinn out into the world, causing disharmony. It is jinn, they
say, who whisper into the ears of suicide-bombers.
Sheikh Mubarak Ali Gilani, a Pakistani cleric connected with a
jihadist group, Jamaat al-Fuqra, has given warning to America that
its missiles will be misdirected by jinn. It was all very different
in the days of King Solomon, who was said to have had control over
jinn and used them as masons in building the temple in Jerusalem.
The Jewish influence over jinn is strong. It is probably no
coincidence that the inscription on Aladdin's lamp, which bound the
jinn, was engraved with Hebraic characters. Believers in abduction
by aliens like to think jinn are aliens; some of the more
confrontational Muslim clerics dismiss claimed apparations of the
Virgin Mary as the work of jinn.
The jinn demanded a cigarette, then another, and then it became
impatient and swallowed lighted cigarettes whole
The story of Ahmed Shah Masoud, the commander of Afghanistan's
Northern Alliance, clearly shows up the link between jinn and
myth-making. Masoud resisted the Soviet Union and the Taliban from
his base in the Panjshir valley until he was assassinated by
al-Qaeda operatives on September 9th 2001. According to local
legend, Muslim jinn were on his side. One of his fighters was said
to have slain a dragon in a mountain lake during the Soviet
occupation and to have brought the dragon's jewel to Masoud, with
the help of Muslim jinn. In murdering Masoud, some Panjshiris say,
Osama bin Laden declared war on Muslim jinn also. This is obvious,
they say, from Mr bin Laden's insistence on division and violence.
Your correspondent spent a night with Masoud's former bodyguards in
the Panjshir. The men were employed to look after Masoud's tomb. His
office was locked. The bodyguards sat cross-legged on the floor of a
room opposite. A kerosene lantern flickered. Machineguns were
propped against the bed-rolls. A few men went outside. The first
winter snow was falling on the jagged peaks that towered up on all
sides. It was fiercely cold. A dog limped below, ears flat, tail
between its legs. It whimpered. The men looked at the dog. “The jinn
is still here,” one said. “Bismillah,” responded the others. They
pointed out jinn settlements just below the snow-line on the
mountain slopes. Inside, over plates of mutton and grey rice, tea,
snuff and Korean cigarettes, they told the story of how the cook had
been possessed by a jinn the week before. He was a devout man, they
said, a non-smoker and illiterate. “He fell ill. When he recovered,
he found he could speak and write in many languages. The jinn that
was in him was well-travelled but also pushy. It demanded a
cigarette, then another, and then it became impatient and swallowed
lighted cigarettes whole.”
In Somalia, the port of Bossaso is famous for its sorcerers. Some of
its ruling class claim to have intermarried with jinn long ago. On a
recent visit your correspondent was taken to a metal shed at the
edge of a slum where jinn were supposed to be banished from taking
human form. The air inside the shed was thick with frankincense.
There was a man cloaked in red cloth kneeling on the ground. A jinn
was in him, a sorceress running the ceremony said, and indeed the
man wore an eerie expression, as though a part of him was obscured.
Young men jumped up and down around him, chanting and beating drums.
The gunmen accompanying your correspondent were too scared to step
into the shed. Later, walking away from the shed in hot sunshine,
one of the gunmen insisted that he could see a jinn scavenging for
bones in the dirt. There did not appear to be anything there.