My fascination with the macabre and paranormal began when I was around 5 years old. I was laying in bed, looking out the open door into the living room, when a shadow in the shape of a hunched over man passed down the hallway and in front of my door. It seemed to pass in front of the opening to the living room, meaning it was not flat against the wall like a normal shadow. It was like a shadow had peeled itself off the wall and was walking around. At the time I didn’t know what to think of it. I could see my parents in the living room and they didn’t seem to notice, so I thought nothing of it.
Years later, in my teens, I was watching a show about ghosts and it said that ghosts can appear as shadowy figures. Right then I remembered back to my incident, even though I hadn’t thought of it for years, and realized I had a brush with the paranormal.
For most of my life, the idea of ghosts and cryptids fascinated me. Of course, sometimes that fascination got the better of me, leaving me afraid of the dark for a while. But what I realize, looking back, is that it never seemed outside the realm of possibility to me. Sometimes it seemed far-fetched (like one story I heard about a hiker in Drumheller who heard sounds coming from the ghosts of dinosaurs), but I never really outright dismissed it. Not everything in the world, after all, has a perfectly rational explanation.
Theories about ghosts and the like are abundant. Many cultures have the notion of “lost spirits”, or restless souls that haven’t found peace in death, or outright evil entities. One theory I found interesting is that ghosts are echoes in the flow of time that somehow are crossing the streams from their time into our current one. Scientifically there’s no way to prove empirically whether or not ghosts are real, and so such things are written off as hallucinations, hoaxes or hysteria.
So imagine my surprise when I learned that Islam has a very practical and rational explanation for the existence of ghosts:
I’ve had several strange things happen to me in my life. Footsteps the attic. Whispers outside my bedroom door. Shadowy shapes in the corner of my eye. I once saw what I can only describe as a shapeless orb of light floating in the hallway, which then floated into one of the bedrooms. In a house I was renting, at the exact same time two nights in a row I heard what sounded like a fingernail being dragged along the inside of the living room wall.
I’ve heard many other stories far creepier than mine. I’ve watched more creepy ‘ghost’ videos on YouTube than I care to admit. And yet all of them I come across (the ones that either aren’t obviously fake or seem legit) can be explained by jinn.
So, what are jinn?
You’re probably more familiar with them than you think. If you’ve ever watched Aladdin, you’re familiar with Robin Williams’ (or Will Smith’s) blue Genie. The word “Genie” comes from the word “jinn”. However, wish-granting genies that live in lamps are more folklore than Islam.
In a nutshell, jinn are another creation of God with freewill. Their name comes from the Arabic root jann, which means “something that is hidden”. In the Quran, they are described as being created from “a mixture of fire” (marijin min nar) and “a smokeless fire” (samoom). They live in a world parallel to ours, and they can see us but we can’t see them (in fact, there might be one behind you right now). Most are harmless but some are mischievous. According to scholars, they have the mentality of children, but are physically more powerful than us. They can choose to do good or evil, and typically go about their lives without interfering with ours.
So what does this have to do with ghouls and ghosts?
When ghosts become jinns
In his lecture, “The Reality of the Jinn“, Dr. Yasir Qadhi puts forth a compelling and, in light of our scientific times, rational understanding of what the jinn are based on the Quran and Sunnah, and not the piles of folklore that have built up regarding the jinn over the centuries.
The two descriptions of what the jinn are created from seem to indicate a type of energy. One of the first Quran commentators, Ibn Abbas, describes the “mixture of fire” as the fire at the edge of the flame, where the fire mixes into different colors, and the “smokeless fire” as the same thing as lightning. And what is fire and lightning but energy?
As it stands the idea of beings made of energy living in a parallel world is at the very least plausible in the realm of modern science. We now know that there are more than 3 dimensions, and since we can only experience those 3, then it’s possible that there are beings that can experience more.
If we look at the story of Prophet Solomon in the Quran, we see more evidence to this theory:
“Solomon asked, “O chiefs! Which of you can bring me her throne before they come to me in ˹full˺ submission?”
One mighty jinn responded, “I can bring it to you before you rise from this council of yours. And I am quite strong and trustworthy for this ˹task˺.”
But the one who had knowledge of the Scripture said, “I can bring it to you in the blink of an eye.” So when Solomon saw it placed before him, he exclaimed, “This is by the grace of my Lord to test me whether I am grateful or ungrateful. And whoever is grateful, it is only for their own good. But whoever is ungrateful, surely my Lord is Self-Sufficient, Most Generous.”” (Quran, 27:38-40)
What this verse tells us about the jinn is that they are very strong and very fast. Solomon’s temple is in Jerusalem, and Sheba is in Yemen—a distance of well over 2,000 kilometres. Yet the jinn mentioned can not only go back and forth between the two cities in the blink of an eye. This seems to suggest light speed. Not only that, but he was also able to bring with him the throne of Sheba. It’s not like the throne went flying through the air, so it’s possible that matter was somehow transferred into energy, then rematerialized. This is pretty much the definition of teleportation (or a transporter, if you watch Star Trek).
In addition, and this is probably most relevant to the topic of ghosts, jinn also have the ability to appear in a physical form, typically of a person or animal. There are numerous mentions of this within both the Quran and Sunnah. For example, when the leaders of the Quraishi tribes of Mecca plotted to assassinate the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), a jinn took the form of an elder tribe leader and gave them the idea to send men from each of their tribe to attack the Prophet; this way no single tribe could take the blame. Not only that, the person they take the form of can be living or dead.
Now, if you look at cultures from around the world, they all have their own ghosts and demons. The Yo-Kai of Japan, the Wendigos of Native American folklore, the Dokkaebi of Korea, and more. Every culture has its ghosts. There are countless YouTube videos that claim to show supernatural entities across the world. And in the face of the unexplained, Islam offers a simple and rational explanation for all of them. The creatures of legends and folktales are merely jinn that have taken a form that they know is ingrained in a people’s cultural psyche. They terrorize, cause mischief, maybe move some things around, but rarely more than that. Ultimately, they are mostly a childish nuisance.
In Islam, we believe possession is real. A jinn will possess a person for a variety of reasons. I’ve met people possessed, and have spoken with others who have dealt with them. Even if modern science finds the existence of jinn, as described above, to be plausible, it will draw the line at possession. Here our understanding of jinn has to rely on sheer faith, rather than speculative science. There is no rational way to explain possession; some may see it as a form of psychosis or mental break, but there are consistent patterns of behavior when it comes to possessed people.
I remember when I was first told about the existence of jinn. Sure a part of me was a little freaked out, particularly at the part where they can see us and we can’t see them. But moreso, I was fascinated and excited that Islam had an answer for something that all my life I could not explain, and was occasionally very afraid of. It was a much more coherent and logically sound explanation than just “spirits of the dead”. Muslims believe that once the soul is gone, it does not return to this life. In a way that’s reassuring, since that means no one has to wander around after death because they had unfinished business (or they didn’t know they were dead, ala The Sixth Sense). But it also really brings the point home that you only get one shot at this life.
The devil you know…
Jinn play a central role in Islamic theology. In fact, Iblis, Satan, the Devil, whatever you call him, is a jinn. The image of a red horned creature with goat legs and a pitchfork is not present in Islam, and neither is the idea of him being a fallen angel. Muslims believe angels have no free will and, therefore, cannot disobey or challenge God. In fact, when they were informed that God would be creating Adam, they asked:
“Will You place in it someone who will spread corruption there and shed blood while we glorify Your praises and proclaim Your holiness?” (Quran, 2:30).
This sounds like a challenge, doesn’t it?
Yet God responded, “I know what you do not know.”
We learn two things from this verse:
It is ok to ask questions in order to try and make sense of something. The angels weren’t openly defying or questioning God’s will, but rather they wanted to understand the wisdom behind God’s actions.
The angels had seen this kind of behaviour before with the jinn
Among the jinn was Iblis, and he was such a strong believer and worshipper that he was elevated to the ranks of angels. Yet when God created Adam, Iblis became jealous, and openly defied God, and was cursed. He became known as Shaytan (in English, Satan), an Arabic word which literally means “one who is far away” (i.e. far away from all that is good).
It’s scary to think that no one knew God more than the devil. Yet when he was overcome with jealousy and anger, he lost everything.
The story of Iblis’ downfall is a warning. It’s sometimes said that Iblis was the first racist, as he thought he was better than Adam merely because of the way he was created:
“Allah asked, “What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you?” He replied, “I am better than he is: You created me from fire and him from clay.”” (Quran, 7:12)
The evils of pride, jealousy, anger, racism and more are present in humans, too. And when taken to their extreme, are far scarier than any mischievous jinn or “poltergeist” video on YouTube. It’s almost a cliched trope that “the real monster is man”, but in contrast to the ghost stories and folklore you hear, the evil that some people are capable of is far worse. With all the killing and bloodshed, it’s almost as if the angels were right when they asked God why he would create something that would disobey Him and shed blood and cause corruption. Yet God’s response is simple but profound: “I know what you do not know.”
One interpretation of that response is that God knows the potential that human beings have. They may fall into sin and bloodshed, but they may also be able to rise above the evil around them–and within themselves.
A lot of folklore exist around the jinn. Ask any Muslim and they probably have some story about how their relatives knew someone who walked in on a party of jinn who had bird-like legs and were dancing together (I’ve heard that one). The stereotype of a genie living in a bottle granting wishes is also just a fable that Disney cashed in on. Yet both the Quran and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) are fairly light on the details of what their world is like. The reason is that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. The ways that jinn go about their daily life are inconsequential to our own. And in the rare moments our lives intersect with the lives of the jinn, it may be a bump in the night, a whisper in the dark, an object appearing to move on its own. But at least you can rest easy knowing it’s not a ghost.
Ghosts and demons used to terrify me, but when I became Muslim and learned about the jinn, I was exhilarated. This great big unknown in my life suddenly had an explanation. Knowledge is the cure for fear, and the more you know about what scares you, the less frightening it becomes.