Jinn are basically the bogeymen of the Muslim world, haunting the Middle East, Asia, and parts of Africa today just as they have done for centuries. The term actually derives from an Arabic root meaning “to conceal,” since these are beings that for the most part are said to elude human perception. It may also be related to the Avestic/Old Iranian jaini (a wicked female spirit), but it entered English as “genie,” which—in line with the Latin word genus—refers to a guardian spirit.
Jinn are at various times both; they can be good or bad, angelic or demonic. And they’re especially interesting among supernatural or mythological entities for a number of different reasons—many of which have a good chunk of the planet scared witless.
Here are 10 of the best.
10. They Hijack Human Bodies
Marked by seizures and incomprehensible speech, as well as the loss of one’s own volition, possession by jinn is all too familiar in many parts of the world.
But sometimes it can be kind of a double-edged sword. One Afghanistani man, for example, an illiterate non-smoker, found he could read and write in many different languages once allegedly possessed by a jinn—although his appetite for smoking increased to the point of swallowing lit cigarettes whole.
Faith healers typically seek to expel these spirits by reading from the Quran and calling on God to assist. They also blow into the victims’ mouths, curse the jinn, or verbally command them to leave. Some go so far as to actually hit the victim in the belief that it’s the jinn, and not the possessed human, who ultimately feels the pain.
In many cases, however, victims of so-called jinn possession are suffering from a genuine medical disorder, such as epilepsy or schizophrenia. In one especially severe case, a 35-year-old woman given the traditional faith healing treatment was later diagnosed with cerebral malaria—a deadly serious disease for which, fortunately, she was treated in time to survive.
But not all are so lucky. Some leave it far too long to seek medical attention, while others, like 21-year-old Naila Mumtaz in 2012, are killed by their closest relatives.
9. They Dwell in Deserted Places
Deep within Iran’s central Dasht-e Kavir desert is a vast and desolate region known as the Rig-e Jenn, or the Dune of the Jinn. With its howling winds and harsh aridity, it has long been associated with evil—and for centuries was avoided by travelers and trade caravans who feared the appearance of jinn in sandstorms. But even in the 20th century, Western explorers were known to avoid it. In fact, it wasn’t until 2005 that anyone made it across.
Jinn apparently thrive in such places, with some other notable examples including the mountainous Chitral District in Pakistan (where yeti sightings are blamed on the jinn) and a sinkhole in the wastes outside Qardho, Somalia (which is thought to lead down into the realm of the jinn and is frequently linked to apparitions).
Other typical jinn haunts include ruins, caves, crossroads, and garbage dumps, as well as large bodies of water and even the upper atmosphere. Graveyards are another particular favorite—especially among the ghul, the corpse-eating female jinn. According to the medieval mystic Ibn al-’Arabi, jinn were created to feed on the air inside bones, which they “eat” by inhalation.
8. They Can Shapeshift
Most of the time, by a “rapid extension or rarefaction of the particles which compose them,” jinn remain invisible to human eyes. Whenever they want to be seen, though, they’re said to appear as black dogs, wild asses, or serpents like in the Garden of Eden. And, if their feet are turned backwards, they can also appear as humans—including humans you know.
In one especially chilling account from Saudi Arabia, a wife recalls laying in bed with her husband and sensing that something was off. Sure enough, when she left the bedroom for the living room, she found her real husband watching TV. And when they went back to the bedroom together, the jinn laughed in their faces and left.
While such feats may be limited to the more powerful jinn races—the evil ifrit and marid, for example—tales of shapeshifting abound.
An old Persian folk story provides another example: A lady enters a public bathhouse and looks down at the feet of the only other person inside, horrified to find hooves there instead. She rushes outside and frantically tells the attendant about it, insisting that one of her customers has hooves. In response, the attendant simply looks at her, lifts up her skirt, and says “What, like these?”
7. They’re Mortal
Although faster and stronger, with supernatural abilities, jinn are essentially mortal, subject to some of the same physical and cosmological laws as humans. They need to eat and drink, they procreate and die, and they’re sent to Heaven or Hell depending on their deeds in life.
They may even be subject to the same social laws. Within their own realm, for instance, they live in societies not too dissimilar to our own, practicing various religions and establishing sects, or (more often) rejecting God entirely. Like their human counterparts, observant Muslim jinn are said to pray, give alms, fast during Ramadan, and even make pilgrimage to Mecca—albeit without being seen. There are sometimes even legal provisions for humans to inherit their stuff.
Of course, mortal needs can be terrifying in themselves. Evil jinn, for instance, are said to kidnap beautiful women to keep as unwilling wives or concubines. And if they’re unlucky enough to get pregnant, the hybrid offspring are banished to an island near China and left to their own devices—which usually means eating people.
6. They’re Made of Fire
Before Islam came along with its emphasis on monotheism, jinn were worshipped as gods. But their place in the heavenly hierarchy has since been revised. Specifically, the Quran states that Allah made jinn out of “smokeless fire” after angels were made out of light and (according to some interpretations) 60,000 years before Adam was made out of clay.
It’s this unique composition—which also includes air (just as clay contains water and dust)—that allows jinn to shapeshift and become invisible. The fire also makes them proud and dominating, as well as desirous and stupid—but it carries far greater risks than that.
Since fire is said to course through their veins like blood, it’s released in the same way from wounds. So rather than bleeding out when dealt a mortal blow, jinn are said to explode into flames that consume everything in their path.
In other words, brute force probably isn’t the wisest strategy for getting one out of your house.
5. They’re Everywhere
The vast majority of Muslims, even in the West, are essentially forced to believe in the jinn. Those who haven’t seen them personally usually know of someone who has, whether it’s an elderly relative or just a friend of a friend. And anyway, if the prophets say they’re real that pretty much ends the discussion.
While modernist interpretations seek to reframe the jinn as microorganisms or, at a stretch, some kind of quantum fluke, the general consensus seems to be that good Muslims should believe in them somehow.
Hence, throughout the Muslim world, all manner of things are blamed on the jinn—not merely disease, but also sleep paralysis, fires, missing persons, infertility, political unrest, personal shortcomings, and homosexuality, among many other complaints.
Needless to say, deferring to the supernatural in this way can have devastating results. In August 2006, a series of rapes in Kikandwa, Uganda persuaded villagers that a jinn was afoot. Increasingly hysterical with anger and fear, they became extremely suspicious of strangers. And when a disheveled young woman they didn’t recognize emerged from the forest one day, she was immediately sprung upon as a jinn, severely beaten by the villagers, and finished off by the police. As it turned out, she was only looking for her husband.
4. They’ve Been Witnessed By Non-Muslims Too
Surprisingly, jinn have also been reported by a number of US troops stationed in the Middle East, many of whom aren’t even Muslim.
Encounters include eerie footsteps, objectless shadows, violently shaking beds and, in the extreme, actual, visible shapeshifting. In 2005, for instance, an Army security guard stationed in Pakistan claims to have seen a rabbit transform into a cat while hopping toward him, and then gradually take on the shape of a woman. Panicking, the guard managed to scale a 6-foot wall to escape—but he was never the same again.
Similarly, in Iraq, a US Army soldier crouched to pet a black and white cat he’d come across, only for it to morph into a hunched-over, dog-like animal staring right back at him with the wide open eyes of a human. As the terrified soldier backed away, the creature simply vanished.
And in Afghanistan, a small unit sent to survey a village for a high-ranking Taliban operative found themselves hounded by a figure in white robes. Manipulating sound and light around them, the figure slowly approached from a distance, “[melting] over and around the rocks” with bright and fiery eyes. Despite it being pitch black, one of the night vision-equipped soldiers said the figure was looking right at them. The next day, they found the village completely deserted except for some torn-up corpses and a great deal of blood.
Sleep-deprived delirium or not, these strangely prevalent encounters dovetail with local beliefs. And jinn are often associated with war. In Afghanistan, there’s a theory that blames the Mujahideen for scaring the jinn out of hiding.
3. They Do Grant Wishes… at a Price
The popular image of the jinn as the genie can be traced to the Arabian Nights, that classic repository of Middle Eastern (-esque) folk tales. In Aladdin, The City of Brass, and The Fisherman and the Jinni, for example, they’re basically portrayed as amoral wish-granting spirits trapped in bottles, lamps, or magical rings.
And despite there being little scriptural basis to believe in the three wishes of legend, jinn have long been associated with sorcery. According to the medieval scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, jinn can be summoned by writing certain Quranic verses backwards or in an impure substance like blood. This, he said, would please the infidel jinn and allow a sorcerer to attain favors from them—such as rapid transportation through the air, untold wealth, and knowledge of things yet to come.
Of course, practices like these have always been sacrilegious and sorcerers pay the ultimate price, that is, losing their “share in the hereafter.”
In other words, forget fairytale endings; Aladdin went straight to Hell.
2. They Get People Executed
There may be another, more immediate price as well. In Saudi Arabia, a special branch of the religious police is tasked specifically with rooting out witchcraft. Founded as recently as 2009 (despite a promise to liberalize laws), the Anti-Witchcraft Unit makes hundreds of arrests every year. And those accused of consorting with jinn are typically sentenced to death.
Convictions tend to be frivolous, often based on little more than anonymous tip-offs and officials’ gut feelings. But in some cases suspects don’t even try to deny the charges. In 2013, for instance, an Egyptian man living in Mecca threatened to unleash a horde of jinn against the police that came to arrest him.
And things are just as bad in Iran—even for the ruling elite. Between late April and early June 2011, dozens of President Ahmadinejad’s inner circle were arrested for consulting with jinn. Even Ahmadinejad himself is said to have met twice with the country’s most notorious sorcerer, Seyed Sadigh—a man who claims to be in regular contact with the jinn of the CIA, Israeli Mossad, and various Arab Gulf states.
Although the president denied the allegations, and at one point even laughed them off, the “ring leader” Abbas Ghaffari was imprisoned for summoning a jinn and giving his interrogator a heart attack.
1. There’s One for Every One of Us
Disconcertingly, every human being is thought to be assigned a special type of jinn called a qareen (or jinn comrade), whose sole aim it is to corrupt and kill us in order to be free. For some, this explains away the actions of suicide bombers, and could also explain the nature of ghosts—that is, as the liberated qareen left behind.
Even Muhammad had a jinn comrade, it is said, although his converted to Islam and was only interested in good.
But for the rest of humanity qareen are assumed to pose not only the threat of corruption (or death), but a second, more indirect threat of disclosure. Having lived with their human since birth, they are said to know absolutely everything about them; and that means anyone able to communicate with the jinn—an unscrupulous faith healer, say—could access those secrets as well. As far as the belief in jinn goes, it’s almost as if everyone has their own built-in magical truth serum.
There is some hope, though. To silence a qareen’s whisperings and “blow out his flame” for good, one is advised to continually recite specific verses from the Quran, most of which proclaim the sovereignty of Allah.