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Monday, March 11, 2013

How do jinn fit in a framework of mental health?

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Jinn stories are widely popular with Muslims across the globe, yet besides their notorious reputation of freaking people out, jinn are also the infamous agents of problems that cannot be attributed to a bio-medical model of causation. Indeed, many brothers and sisters suffering from certain psychological distress often entertain the thought that perhaps a malicious jinn is at play. In light of how often the question of jinn arises in conjunction with mental illness, I thought it perhaps to be wise to address it. Thus, this article is but a meager attempt to investigate jinn-related illnesses from a health perspective, with the intention of enlightening common concerns of the Muslim community.

Before I begin, I’d like to share a story. Last summer, I fortunately had the opportunity to have dinner with a famous scholar in Berlin. We soon began discussing the interaction of psychological and religious issues and, eventually, the topic of jinn came up. To this, the scholar disclosed a very interesting detail; apparently, the scholar’s brother is one of the more famous exorcists of Morocco, who performs ruqya (broadly, the Islamic approach to exorcism) for a living. According to said brother, around 80% of individuals who request a ruqya actually suffer from a psychological issue. The statistic is anecdotal of course, but it does highlight the significance of how people perceive their distress, especially as a function of how diverse cultures characterize jinn differently. Indeed, this diversity underscores what psychiatrists now call “idioms of distress,” which denotes how diverse cultures have unique ways of presenting their concerns. For example, although someone experiencing a consecutive number of difficulties in life (e.g. losing one’s job, getting into an accident, etc.) may be described as having a ‘stroke of bad luck’ in some Western countries, other non-Western societies may attribute their misfortune to spirits/karma/etc. Reviewing the many idioms of distress with regards to jinn would require a dissertation alone, thus this article primarily intends to review the current literature on jinn from a theological perspective to bypass the culturally significant implications of jinn-related beliefs.

On a final note, the term ‘jinn-related illnesses’ will be applied instead of the widely utilized ‘jinn possession’. The former not only remains neutral with regards to the polemic amongst Muslim scholars if a jinn can actually ‘possess’ an individual or not (Maarouf, 2007), but also stresses how an illness may be ‘jinn-related’ as an idiom of distress rather than actually having anything to do with jinn.

A brief review of jinn

Jinn are referred to several times in the Quran; as such, it becomes obligatory upon Muslims to believe in their existence. In other words, to knowingly deny their existence is to deny parts of the Quran, which would render one's faith outside the folds of Islam. Furthermore, belief in the unseen world (al-ghayb), where the jinn exist, also constitutes a conviction as described in the Quran and Sunnah. Thus, a Muslim may not reduce jinn to mere folklore, despite the surplus of confusing, and often contradictory, jinn-myths across the world.

Ibn Manzur, a famous Arabic lexicographer of the 12th century, said the word ‘al-jinn’ (plural: al-jaan) in Arabic refers to something that is covered or concealed; in fact, the unborn fetus is called ‘al-Janeen’ because it is hidden within its mother’s womb (Lisan al-Arab, n.d.). Hence, the word ‘jinn’ itself implies the existence of something that cannot be seen.

In Islam, it is commonly known that the jinn share a very distinctive characteristic with human beings: free will. The Quran says “We (Allah) have not created the jinn or humans but to worship Us” (Quran 51:56). Consequently, jinn are accountable for their actions in the same way Muslims believe humans are accountable for theirs. By extension, this implies a certain degree of rationality amongst the jinn, as well as being subject to divine commands and prohibitions. Amongst the jinn, there are those who are obedient to God and others who are not - entirely analogous to humans (Quran 72:14-15).

In terms of their characteristics, the Quran (15:26-27) states that the jinn were created from smokeless fire prior to the creation of man (conversely, man was created from earth and angels were created from light). Much like human beings, the jinn must nourish their bodies with food and have the capacity to breed (Quran 18:50). Furthermore, and perhaps most significantly, the jinn are capable of seeing humans; we cannot see them (Quran 7:27). Nevertheless, the belief in jinn possessing any divine qualities (e.g. all-knowing, all-seeing, etc.) is categorically in opposition with Islamic creed (Philips, 2002). Furthermore, scholars agree that supplications to jinn (e.g. in the form of prayers, or carrying amulets) - or to anything or anybody else but Allah for that matter - is considered shirk (the worship of anything but Allah), the greatest sin in Islam if done intentionally.

It is important to note that spirits, as in the ghosts or phantoms of the deceased, have no basis in Islam. When someone passes away, his soul is taken from his body and kept in the barzakh (an intermediary state until the Day of Judgement); therefore, it is theologically impossible for a soul’s spirit to return to our world after death. Still, many stories prevalent in Muslim-majority countries report sightings of ancient scholars (saints) and close relatives. Based upon Ashqar’s (1998) analysis, this can be nothing else but jinn who have taken the form of these individuals, in either dreams or real life. In fact, renowned scholar ibn Taimīya (2004) narrates an account of a man who was able to reveal a jinn that was meticulously imitating his father because, as his son, he was able to recognize several characteristics of his father better than the jinn ever could.

Finally, there is no difference of opinion with regards to those individuals who collaborate with the jinn for personal gain. Such associations include, but are not limited to: beseeching the jinn for their powers; requesting jinn to haunt another individual; and using them as means of divination (Ashqar, 1998). Such people are considered servants of the jinn, and it is said that only those who disbelieve (or are sinful) can communicate with the jinn in such a manner. However, if a person happens to stumble upon a jinn, and that person beseeches the jinn to do virtuous deeds and behave in a good manner, then that is considered a very honourable act in Islam (exactly in the same vain if done with other human beings). Thus, the general scholarly advice is to avoid making contact with jinn, and seek treatment if contact was inevitable.

Treatment of jinn in Islam

Ibn Al-Qayyim (2004), a well-known and highly revered scholar from the 15th century, said that once a person abandons the Quran, they abandon all means of healing the sick through it as well. His simple warning succinctly highlights the most important measure required to treat jinn in a theological context: the Quran. Contrary to the many, diverse folk treatments available across the world, there appears to be no literature within Islamic theology that supports any jinn-related treatments without the Quran; in fact, most articles and books of theology admonish treatments that do not wholly rely on it.

Having reviewed the Quran and Prophetic traditions, Ameen (2005) lists the various types of illnesses a jinn may inflict upon an individual: intense fear, psychological disorders (i.e. depression, anxiety, etc.), physical sickness, hallucinations, creating animosity between individuals (couples, friends, etc.), sexual problems and causing damage to material possessions (with fire, for example). Ashqar (1998) adds that any problem of which there is no obvious source may also be jinn-related.

Before elaborating on the treatment method, Ameen (2005) provides a set of requirements Muslim practitioners should respect: sincerity in the intentions of helping the sick; knowledge of both spiritual and worldly matters; and knowledge of mental illnesses. The sincerity of helping others for the sake of Allah is to avoid abusing your status as a practitioner for wealth or fame. The knowledge of both spiritual and worldly matters ensures the practitioners understand the limits of their Islamic knowledge, and appreciates the social context in which their clients live. The knowledge of mental illnesses is required in case the illness is not jinn-related at all, and the practitioners may need to forward a client to a specialist, or (if properly trained) provide therapy themselves.

The treatment then takes place: the practitioner recites verses from the Quran upon the ill. This process is called ruqya, and is essentially the closest equivalent to exorcism in Islam. Thereupon, there are three possible outcomes:
  1. Patient will experience seizure and the jinn will speak through the client.
  2. No seizure occurs, but signs indicate that jinn caused the problem and is now gone.
  3. Nothing happens, in which case the problem was physiological or psychological.

If option (1) occurs, then Islamic practitioners are instructed to reason with the jinn (Ameen, 2005); one must tell the jinn their actions are wrong, and present sufficient reason and proof from the Quran as well as the ill person’s life. If, for example, the jinn is acting out of vengeance, then explain how the person did not realize he hurt the jinn, and did not do so deliberately. Then, persist in rationalizing with the jinn by ‘enjoining the good and forbidding the evil’; a universal heuristic that defines the benchmark of how a Muslim should act with others (be it human or jinn; Quran 17:15). The object of this method is to avoid hurting the jinn (reading the Quran upon an intrusive jinn hurts it tremendously), as it is absolutely forbidden to kill a jinn unlawfully. If the jinn agrees and departs then the treatment is finished. If not, however, then Quran will continuously be recited upon the individual, leaving the jinn no other choice but to acquiesce. If option (2) occurs after reciting Quran, a physical sign will appear (e.g. numbness in hands or feet, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, etc.); subsequently, the jinn-related illness should disappear. If the result is option (3), then the patient requires medical or psychological attention. Besides the treatment itself, Ameen provides a list of supplements a patient should observe besides the ruqya. First of all, the patient should learn and exercise patience, knowing that whatever happened, happened because God allowed it. Second of all, the patient is expected to know that the true healer is Allah, and not the practitioner who recites the ruqya; within Islam, practitioners are only considered a means by which the ill are healed. Finally, the patient is instructed to continuously make supplications and prayer to Allah.

Ameen (2005) suggests two auxiliary pieces of advice vis-à-vis the individual and communal treatments of jinn. On the individual level, he proposes that Muslim medical practitioners should conduct ruqya upon Muslim patients regardless of the specificities of their psychological illness. He reasons that the procedure is entirely free, it requires very minimal effort and time, and has no harmful side effects (to his knowledge). Then, if this care does not produce any results, proceed to give other forms of either medical or psychological treatment. Essentially, viewing the Quran as an infinitely available medication, Ameen believes it supplements current medication appropriately, and can have positive effects upon treatments if implemented. Indeed, a recent study has found that religious therapy, in addition to traditional therapy, can be quite beneficial to the treatment (Hook et al., 2010).

At a communal level, Ameen (2005) believes that we must stop jinn myths from circulating within society. One of the obvious consequences of speaking of jinn, naturally, is that their stories spread very quickly; as such, there are many examples of how stories are told to spook weary listeners or to make a profit. Interestingly, it is narrated in the Sunnah that if one were to see a jinn (or ‘devil’ to be specific) in their dreams, then one should avoid divulging any details (ibn Taimīya, 2004). On that note, Ameen suggests it would be best if people would stop discussing jinn in general as an effective communal solution that reduces the incidence of false attributions. Of course, how to employ ruqya as a standard procedure in professional practice without significantly increasing the awareness of jinn and jinn-related illnesses is a whole different topic.

Perhaps the greatest misconception of jinn, from a theological perspective, is the fear people have of them. Essentially, the scholarly understanding of destiny dictates that nothing can affect an individual unless Allah decrees it to be; this tenet applies to both the evils of jinn and man. Scholars suggest that one of the main causes of widespread misinformation and the resulting fear of jinn is the lack of Islamic knowledge (Philips, 2002; Ameen, 2005). This underlines one of the foremost theological treatment methods of jinn: education. By educating an ill individual about the essential elements of creed, the person adopts a framework through which they may understand his jinn-related illness. This education entails several relevant principles of faith: all afflictions happen by the will of God; all diseases – be it physiological, psychological or metaphysical – can be cured by the will of God; and all difficulties happen for a divine reason. Two fundamental principles can be extracted from this framework. First of all, a jinn-related illness is theologically similar to any other illness. If the Islamic approach to illnesses is to discover the best possible treatment, then the ruqya just becomes another tool in a practitioner’s repertoire of treatments. Second of all, the Quran mentions that the concept of struggling in Islam (be it from a medical illness, poverty, etc.) is seen as a test from God to raise oneself in righteousness; an opportunity to demonstrate one’s faith in God in light of all hardship.

In Islam, all sicknesses can be explained within this entire framework; with proper education, one can provide a treatment mentality that is both practical (seek the best means that will aid you) and positive (the sickness has countless of spiritual benefits, if dealt with patience). Naturally, this applies to jinn-related sicknesses as well.

Note: This article is an adapted version of a lengthy paper I wrote, heavily modified for the blog. In light of its focus on jinn from a theological perspective - for which I have no formal training - references can be found below, for you consideration.


Ameen, A. (2005). The jinn and Human Sickness: Remedies in the Light of the Qurʼaan and Sunnah (N. Khattab, trans.). Riyadh: Darussalam.
Ashqar, U. (1998). The World of the jinn and Devils. Boulder: Al-Basheer.
Crapanzano, V. (1980). Tuhami, Portrait of a Moroccan. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980.
Dein, S., Alexander, M. & Napier, A.D. (2008). jinn, psychiatry and contested notions of misfortune among east London Bangladeshis. Transcultural Psychiatry, 45, 31-55.
Hook, J.N., Worthington, E.L., Davis, D.E., Jennings, D. J., Gartner, A.L. & Hook, J.P. (2010). Empirically supported religious and spiritual therapies. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 66(1), 46-72.
ibn al-Qayyim (2004). Al-Fawa’id: A collection of wise sayings. (Umm Al-Qura, trans.). Al-Mansura: Umm Al-Qura.
ibn Taimīya, A. (2004). Ibn Taymeeyah's Essay on the jinn (Bilal Philips, trans.). New Delhi: Islamic Book Service.
ibn Manzur, M. Lisan al-Arab. Retrieved June 10, 2011, from
Khan, N. (2006). Of Children and jinn: An Inquiry into an Unexpected Friendship during Uncertain Times. Cultural Anthropology, 21, 234–264.
Maarouf, M. (2007). jinn Eviction as a Discourse of Power a Multidisciplinary Approach to Moroccan Magical Beliefs and Practices. Leiden: Brill.
Philips, B. (2002). The Fundamentals of Tawheed: Islamic Monotheism. New Delhi: Islamic Book Service.
Saeed, K., Gater, R., Hussain, A. & Mubbashar, M. (2000). The prevalence, classification and treatment of mental disorders among attenders of native faith healers in rural Pakistan. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 35, 480-485. 

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