Djinns (female form: jinniyah) are a well-known type of spirit in countries with a strong Islamic presence. Outside the Islamic region most people do not believe in them and consider them only as fairy-tale characters, like the genie in the story of Aladdin, but they are referred to specifically in the Koran – one whole chapter (Sura 72, Al-Djinn) is all about them.
In English djinns are called genies, a name that came indirectly from the same ancient Semitic root “GNN” (meaning concealment or invisibility) as the Arabic word “djinn”. From this root the Romans got “genius”, referring to a guardian spirit of a person or place. In PreIslamic Arabia the djinns were often worshipped much as the Romans worshipped their “household” gods – they were considered to be the protective and helpful gods of a person, family, household or location – the “genius” of a person or place. From Latin the French got their word génie, which means any kind of spirit, and that word entered English around the sixteenth century. However, a genie or a djinn is not just “any kind of spirit” but a member of a quite specific race that was created before human beings. There are good ones and bad ones, just like humans, but since the word “djinn” still has the meaning of invisibility, in some places it refers to other types of spiritual beings too, such as angels and demons. The jinniyahs – female djinns – like most women, want to look nice (as vanity is generally viewed as a female weakness), and hence usually appear as beautiful women. Some tales of succubuses are based on encounters with such jinniyahs. The male djinns however, like male humans, are usually less interested in how they look (pride, on the other hand, is viewed as the dominant male weakness) and their appearance therefore tends to reflect their character – the more evil the djinn the uglier he looks.
Just as humans are said to be made out of clay, djinns are made out of fire – reflecting their respective material and spiritual natures. Otherwise, djinns are much like humans in many ways (but since they were created before humans, the djinns say that humans are very much like djinns).
Djinns live and die just as humans do but they live very much longer – some of them who are still alive and active in the world now are more than a thousand years old. They have bodily needs just as humans do, and they have families and children. There are civilized djinns and wild djinns – rather like human town-dwellers compared with neolithic hunter-gatherers. The civilized djinns wear clothes, live in villages and usually have a tribal social structure, though some of the villages are large enough that in human terms they would be considered to be towns or even small cities. Such communities have a leader and in major centers he (never she) may have the prerogatives of a king. They also have armies, with ranks and uniforms, just as humans do. The most important resemblance between djinns and humans is that they both have free will, so it is sometimes possible to negotiate with them.
Since they are spiritual beings (insubstantial, non-material) they are not limited by the rules of the material world and not usually restricted to a fixed size or shape. Hence a djinn can fit inside a bottle or a lamp, as in the story of Aladdin, or into much smaller spaces. If one sees a djinn in his natural state then his size is generally an indication of his power.
They can be in the air as in Goya’s painting, appear in flames, live under the earth or in inanimate objects such as rocks, and also inhabit living entities such as trees … or humans. They can enter the human body through any of the orifices, and many cases that were once classified as “demonic” possession were actually cases of possession by djinns (which made no difference to the results of course). No self-respecting djinn would want to do such a thing, since human beings tend to be looked down upon as small, ignorant and powerless upstarts, so such cases of possession usually involve lower class or evil djinns and can result in serious physical illnesses or insanity. Even relatively benign cases of possession can cause severe emotional stress for the person involved – and of course the difficulties are compounded by the fact that the victim usually is not aware of the causes of the problem and doesn’t understand the situation – and neither, of course, do the doctors.
There are several classes of spirits that are lumped into the general category of djinns. The most powerful and resourceful are called marids, and these are the real djinns. Ifrits are essentially what European tradition labels as evil spirits. Then there are the silas, which some traditions say are the most skilled shape-changers, and the ones that even the others don’t like much are the ghouls (Arabic: ghul) which are the nasty misshapen things that hang around graveyards.
Djinns that are well-disposed towards humans may occasionally grant favors and wishes, but there are always strings attached. The djinns have their own lives, and their own culture and society, in their own world, and if they sometimes help humans it is rarely a matter of altruism. There has to be some kind of give-and-take in the relationship. Djinns that are not so well disposed towards humans can drive a very hard bargain indeed. In the context of a Faustian contract humans may gain temporary control of a djinn for their own purposes, such as performing deeds of black magic, or generally being interfering and meddlesome, like making somebody ill, gaining wealth, or attracting a marriage partner. In such a contract a djinn is essentially enslaved, but sooner or later such service has to be paid for.