Genies (or jinn, as they are better known in the world) are supernatural beings with origins in early Mesopotamian legends. Jinn, nevertheless, aren't the lamp-dwelling, wish-granting benevolent servants who Westerners know from popular culture.
The picture that many Americans likely have of genies comes in the 1960s sitcom"I Dream of Jeannie" and also the big blue Robin Williams-voiced wiseacre in Disney's"Aladdin." More recently, in the television adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 2001 book"American Gods," audiences have come to know a cab-driving jinn who switches identities with an Omani salesman called Salim. (Salim had recognized the jinn from a story told to him by his grandma ).
Gaiman's magical, shape-shifting jinn is fictional, however belief in genies is widespread. In "Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar" (Counterpoint Novels, 2011), researcher Robert Lebling noted that"Jinn are taken seriously and regarded as real, tangible beings by a large segment of the world's population.... They often appear humanoid or even human but possess amazing powers we lack. They can change their shapes, can fly through the air, and even can render themselves invisible." (Lebling is also the founder of a Facebook page titled The Jinn Group, in which members discuss jinn tales and lore.)
Many ancient Mesopotamian demons and wind spirits were precursors to the jinn; Pazuzu is most likely the most well-known of these, as a result of its appearance in William Peter Blatty's novel"The Exorcist" and the classic film of the same title. Even though belief in jinn predates the creation of Islam, the creatures are referenced in the Quran, the Muslim holy book -- maybe not as metaphors but rather as real entities whose existence is taken for granted. The Quran claims that Allah made three kinds of beings from three materials: humans (made of earth); angels (made of light); and jinn (made of smokeless fire). There are believed to be five sorts of jinn; two of the best known are shaitan and ifrit, each of which are said to be evil.
Considered fire and wind spirits by Muslims, jinn are invisible to individuals in their pure form but can take any form they please to match their demands. Jinn, like people, may be good or bad; they're born, grow up, marry, have jobs, raise families, reside in their own communities and perish, just like people.
In contrast to Western versions of jinn, in the Arab world they're not famous for their"Aladdin"-like wish-granting -- they may be commanded to do tasks by wizards, for example, or somebody who wears the magic Ring of Solomon.
Jinn are sometimes blamed for unexplained minor health scares, disputes and accidents. For example, in 2000, teachers in an all-girls school at the Saudi Arabian city of Jeddah started having mysterious fits and seizures. Though physicians attributed that episode to mass hysteria (a mild and harmless kind of social contagion and psychological suggestion), many considered that jinn haunted the faculty and were to blame for the assault. In May 2015, nine elementary and middle school students in a girls' school in southern Madinah, Saudi Arabia, claimed that jinns had made them feel unwell, causing episodes of fainting and spasms. Nearly 200 of their classmates refused to attend the school for two days while medical authorities searched for an explanation.
Belief in the fire spirits is also common among elected officials in the Middle East. In 2011, nearly two dozen associates of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were accused of summoning jinn to attack political enemies. One man, Abbas Ghaffari, was reportedly accused of summoning a genie who caused a heart attack in one of Ghaffari's rivals.
Jinn share many traits with angels, fairies, ghosts and other supernatural creatures. Many Muslims believe in the literal existence of jinn, just as many Christians believe in the literal existence of angels. Just as Christian theologians have long debated the nature of angels, Muslim theologians have long debated the nature of jinn: whether they have physical bodies, where they live, how they interact with us and so on.
Like spirits and demons, jinn are said to be able to possess humans (with similar symptoms, including seizures, violence and speaking unknown tongues) and can be exorcised from the human body through rituals. Just as in Catholic exorcism rituals where Bible passages are read to the possessed person to drive the spirit from the human body, Islamic rituals often involve having sections of the Quran recited to the afflicted person to rid him or her of jinn.
Jinn are believed, like ghosts, to sometimes haunt buildings, homes and other locations, including sewers and drain pipes. Jinn are said to be repelled by salt and iron -- a characteristic they share with vampires. As with many magical creatures around the world, stories of jinn are often told in the form of a boogeyman story. Children are warned to obey their parents and not to stray from the beaten path. Some jinn live in remote, wild places, and are said to lure children and unwary travelers to their doom -- a trait shared with fairies of the British Isles, the Hispanic ghost-witch La Llorona and others.
In some places jinn are so feared that merely calling them by their name risks retribution, so euphemisms are used instead. This also has parallels to fairy folklore, in which the capricious creatures are often called "the fine folk" or "wee folk" to avoid offense. Whether jinn exist or not is less significant than the simple fact that a lot of men and women think they do. Legends of these fire spirits, such as those of angels, fairies and ghosts, will probably always be with us.