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  • (Review) Esma Hind Tengour - L'Arabie des djinns. Fragments d'un imaginaire

    Arabie.jpgEsma Hind Tengour, L’Arabie des djinns. Fragments d’un imaginaire, 2013, Bruxelles, E.M.E.


    This is a historical and anthropological study of the jinn and their socio-cultural milieu of existence in 7th-century Arabia. It focuses on the Quran, one of the oldest lengthy piece of writing that has reached us from late antique Arabia (we should mention the Sana’a manuscripts and the Birmingham manuscripts of the Quran dating back to that time, aside from the current numerous findings in epigraphy in the diverse old arabic and non-arabic languages). This allows the author to draw all of her arguments about researching the origins of this important piece of the ancient Arabian imaginary from a tangible source, the closest to this period. The other source that would have appeared as interesting at first, the pre-islamic poems, have been written down much later than the quranic text and as such the author does not refer to them, nor does she use the later religious writings on the jinn and interpretations from the later islamic empire whose capitals lay far outside of ancient Arabia… Nonetheless the quranic text proves to be a rich source on the jinn and what they meant in the remote Western Arabia, as well as the evolution of their status from pre-islamic times to the end of the quranic revelation.

    Basing her research on the works of Jacqueline Chabbi, she shows that the jinn were such an important part of the life and supernatural world of the Arabs at the time that the Quran had to deal with them and include them in its worldview, albeit by progressively modifying their position in the supernatural and spiritual worlds and diminishing some of their powers.

    First she gathers what can be known from the religious and cultural system of ancient Arabs prior to the appearance of Islam (of which many elements don’t make sense when taken outside of its nascent context), a lost mythology and belief system of which the jinn were an important part. She tries to describe a topology of the supernatural, before delving into the quranic text proper and review all mentions of jinn according to their chronological order of appearance in the text, in order to show the evolution of their status.

    The jinn occupied a hidden world (the ghayb), above and around the human world, from where jinn inspired priests, sorcerers and poets with knowledge inaccessible to humans. This is a role that they will lose progressively in the quranic text, this mediation being God’s alone from now on, although it will strongly affirm their existence alongside humans.

    In this time when Arabia was inhabited by warring tribes who had barely known a unified rule, and contacts with the rest of the world existed but were rather limited, the jinn were also protectors of specific places, most often deserted places characterised by their non-humanness (such as deserts, ruins, caves). For example bedouins would have to invoke the protection of the Lord or Lady of a camping place they wanted to settle in before doing so, and this Lord and Lady invoked would be a jinn.

    Described as beings of “smokeless fire”, they are mentioned in the Quran from the very beginning, before angels make their appearance with the “biblical” turn of the references made by the quranic text. Although some of them were regarded as beneficent, their relationship with fire, in a land of scorching sun and winds (like the samûm), makes them ambivalent or dangerous creatures, most of the time to be feared (the quranic Satan is a powerful jinn, not an angel).

    The word jinn is formed from the Arabic root JNN (GNN in hebrew) whose basic meaning is linked to the capacity of concealment, of hiding from human eyes. The word “janna” (paradise) also derives from this root, as well as junûn (foolishness), a majnûn or crazy person being someone “possessed by the jinn”. They can take many shapes, including human shapes, and have physical interactions with humans (even intercourse). It could have been interesting to have included a longer discussion of the relation of this word and concept to other equivalents in other languages and cultures (such as the latin genii, the persian devs or the canaanite shedîm briefly mentioned).

    Akin to the daemons of the Greeks, the jinn were also well known to be inspirators of the poets, whose status in the Arabian tribes was very important, conveying the glory and history of their tribes in a world dominated by the power of the eloquent word. Thus the Quran has to refute the accusations that its Prophet is jinn-inspired, the only acceptable and sensible explanation in that time for his utterances and eloquence. However this view was also putting him on a par with any other poet or kâhin (priest) while the quranic text strives to be seen as above poetry and mere jinn inspirations (in a way, the Quran could still be unorthodoxly seen as a “super-poem” that ended up winning the contest).

    The idea of an Arabian myth has long been dismissed (Stetkevych, 1996), thus maintaining a false presumption on the dearth of any cultural importance to Arabia prior to Islam … But as in other parts of the world, the lack of written evidence from that time should not deter the search for Arabian myth which can be gleaned here and there throughout the massive output of written work after the emergence of Islam, starting with the Quran itself.

    The jinn are very well known in popular literature (from books like the Thousand and One Nights and all its orientalist derivatives both in the Arab world and Europe and America) and nowadays they are still dealt with as a serious cause for troubles in daily life, but academic works focusing solely on them are not many (worth mentioning are the works of Ernst Zbinden, 1953 and Amira El Zein, 2009) . As such this present work is a welcome contribution to the studies on the jinn, this fundamental part of a partly lost Arabian mythology.


    Louise Gallorini

    American University of Beirut


    Works mentioned :

    Chabbi, Jacqueline, 1997 : Le Seigneur des tribus, l’islam de Mahomet, Paris, Noesis, Paris.

    Chabbi, Jacqueline, 2008 : Le Coran décrypté : figures bibliques en arabie, Paris, Fayard.

    Chabbi, Jacqueline, 2003 : « Jinn », Encyclopaedia of the Qur'an, vol. 3, p. 43-50.

    El-Zein, Amira, 2009 : Islam, Arabs, and the Intelligent World of the Jinn, Syracuse, N.Y, Syracuse University Press.

    Stetkevych, Jaroslav, 1996 : Muhammad and the Golden Bough: Reconstructing Arabian Myth, Bloomington, IN, Indiana University Press.

    Zbinden, Ernst, 1953 : Die Djinn Des Islam Und Der Altorientalische Geisterglaube, Bern, Haupt.