By Firas A. Nakshabandi, M.D.
Most people are familiar with the story of the Genie of the Lamp: a supernatural being that when summoned will grant three wishes, made famous by a tale not originally present but later added by Antoine Galland to the book One Thousand and One Nights, also known as The Arabian Nights. The origin of this particular story is from Arabian Folklore, and is likely how the word “Genie” became popularized in the West.
The word “Genie” is an anglicized form of the Arabic word “Jinni” (جنّي), which is the singular form of the plural “Jinn” (جنّ). This word dates back to pre-Islamic times and in its broadest sense refers to unseen spirits or demons. The root word (جنن) from which the word Jinn derives means “that which is concealed”. Interestingly, a derivative of the same root is used to form the word “Majnoon” (مجنون), which is Arabic for “Insane” or, “he who’s mind is concealed or enshrouded”. (Incidentally, the Arabic words for Heaven (جنّة) and Embryo (جنين) also share the same root word, implying concealment).
Since the publication of The Arabian Nights even the word Jinn (or Djinn) has made its way into the English vocabulary, primarily in the realm of Fantasy, along with other Arabic categories of Jinn including the Marid (مارد) and the Ifreet (عفريت) (or Ifrit). Even the popular Japanese video game series Final Fantasy has a recurring summoned fire-spirit known as Ifrit.
The depiction of the Jinn in Western fantasy as fire spirits likely has its roots in the Islamic tradition explaining the origin of Jinn as sentient beings created from fire, in contrast to humans who were created from clay and angels who were created from light. According to Islamic tradition, in contrast to angels, who do not possess free will, both humans and Jinn possess free will and can be good or evil, and just like humans can belong to any religion.
As the origin of the word suggests, these beings are “concealed” and are often thought of as existing in a parallel but unseen realm where they cannot typically be detected by humans, however, they can interact with them and cause them harm.
Muslims are expected to believe in the existence of Jinn just as they are expected to believe in the existence of God and angels, as they are mentioned frequently in the Quran. What is not universally agreed upon, however, is where the lines between folklore and Islamic teachings tend to blur, especially with regards to Jinn possession of humans, black magic and psychiatric illnesses.
The linguistic relationship between the words “Jinn” and “Majnoon” (i.e. insane) are particularly interesting because of the prevalence of the belief among Muslims that the origins of some illnesses, particularly mental illnesses, can be attributed to Jinn in one way or another.
Jinn are viewed as agents of black magic (Sihir, سحر), as they carry out maleficent deeds either independently or on behalf of a witch or sorcerer (Sahir, ساحر). They may also be implicated in the Evil Eye (Hasad, حسد), which according to Islamic tradition is caused by envy and “a malevolent wish for the evanescence of blessings from others” (original translation of تمني زوال النعمة من الآخرين).
This understanding is particularly important for practicing psychiatrists seeing Muslim patients, as in many Muslim majority countries, families are much more likely to seek treatment, particularly for mental illnesses and epilepsy, from faith healers than they are from medical professionals. Less informed or less experienced psychiatrists can easily find themselves in a position at odds with a patient’s beliefs or treatments prescribed by a faith healer, even when the treating psychiatrist is also Muslim. Much of the initial work will focus on psychoeducation, collaboration with the family and alignment with existing healing practices that are not viewed as harmful.
Specific problems can arise, however, when addressing certain practices such as exorcisms involving beating and cutting patients, and even outright instructions by faith healers not to take prescribed psychiatric medications so as not to “weaken the spirit” of the possessed battling his literal demons. There is already a great deal of stigma associated with mental illness within Muslim communities, where it may be viewed as a weakness or punishment for a lack of faith. Psychiatrists are often mistrusted, as are their medications, which are commonly thought of as being either harmful or addictive.
It is of course worth noting the cross-cultural and cross-religious similarities that arise when comparing Jinn possession & witchcraft with their counterparts in Christianity and other religions. And as one might expect, while psychiatric illnesses are prevalent worldwide, the manifestation of specific illnesses will draw from the patient’s own cultural background. For a Muslim, auditory hallucinations may be attributed to the voices of Jinn, and OCD commonly manifests as an incapacitating repetition of ablutions or prayers.
It is also worth remarking that while it may seem intuitive to attribute a higher level of “susceptibility” to paranormal and supernatural explanations of events to a higher degree of religiousness, this relationship is far more complex and nuanced, and can be affected by multiple factors including personality type, thinking style and type of education in addition to cultural norms.
In summary, an empathic, culturally informed and non-judgmental approach rooted in a desire to actively learn about a patient’s background is the key to effective psychiatric treatment regardless of religion, and a more nuanced understanding of the perception of the role of Jinn in psychiatric illnesses can be particularly helpful for the effective treatment of Muslim patients.