By Adam Ali
Throughout the medieval world there was a strong belief in supernatural beings. If you lived in the Middle East, there were two important medieval texts you could consult to learn about creatures like the Ghul or the King of Thursday. Many had strange powers and nightmarish forms and would be called djinn, demons or devils. If you dare want to know more about these monsters, read on!
The key guide to Islamic supernatural beings was called Ajaib al-Makhluqat wa Gharaib al-Mawjudat, or Marvels of Things and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing. Its author was Zakariyya al-Qazwini (1203-1283), and his work was very popular in the medieval Middle East. This popularity is attested by the many manuscripts of this work from different eras that have survived both in the original Arabic and in Persian and Turkish translations. The book is divided into two main parts: dealing with the celestial/supra-terrestrial and terrestrial. In the first part the author discusses celestial phenomena such as the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars, and the inhabitants of Heaven (i.e. the angels).
In the second part al-Qazwini talks about the four elements, the Earth and its division into seven climes, and describes the seas, rivers, and mountains. He then discusses the three kingdoms of nature: mineral, plant, and animal. In his description of the animal kingdom, the author outlines the character and anatomy of man and at the end of this section there is a chapter on monsters, demons, djinn (also spelled jinn), and devils.
Many of the surviving manuscripts are also extensively illustrated with geometrical tables and miniatures representing plants, animals, and various monsters. The bulk of this column will be based on the information presented by al-Qazwini in his chapter on Djinn and monsters. I will discuss what djinn are, present some anecdotes from the chapter about djinn and the devil, and finally describe certain types of djinn, demons, and monsters.
In the last part of this article, I will also include some demons, monsters, and djinn mentioned in Kitab al-Bulhan (Book Wonders or Book of Surprises); a late 14th-century manuscript transcribed and compiled (and possibly illustrated) by Abd al-Hasan al-Isfahani. The book was probably bound together in Baghdad during the reign of the Jalayirid Sultan Ahmad (1382-1410). However, most of its content was written during the 8th century by Abu Maʿshar al-Balkhi (787-886 CE).
The original codex of Kitab al-Bulhan came apart and some of its pages were lost, and the others became mixed up and were bound together in a random and incoherent order. The manuscript is made up of texts dealing with the topics of astrology, astronomy, and geomancy. “The most interesting section…” of Kitab al-Bulhan, according to Stefano Carboni, is “…a series of extraordinary full-page illustrations that require interpretation because the only way to understand their subject – in addition of course to having enough familiarity with its iconography in order to decipher correctly the scene represented in the painting – is by reading its title placed in large letters at the top of the page. There is no text (and never was) associated to these works, which makes this section intriguing, fascinating, and unique in this period of development of Islamic book illustration.” The part of the book that Carboni is describing contains a series of illustrations depicting demons and djinn. Other than the title, there is no text and as Carboni states, one is left having to interpret these images.
What are the Djinn?
We have some familiarity with djinn, which are referred to as genies in western culture, through folklore stories from the 1001 Nights such as Aladdin. However, the idea of djinn and the belief in them in Islamic societies have much deeper roots that predate Islam. The pre-Islamic Arabs believed in djinn long before the coming of Islam. The djinn were the “nymphs and satyrs” of the desert. They represented nature and the wild, the domains still unsubdued by humanity and hostile to humans.
According to ancient Arabian belief, spirits haunted dark and desolate locales in the desert, and lay in wait for the unsuspecting traveler. People needed to protect themselves from these beings. On the eve of Islam some of the djinn had become elevated in status to vague impersonal gods who were related to the supreme deity. The Meccans of the early seventh century offered sacrifices to them and sought their guidance and help. Some scholars believe that the djinn were first conceptualized as malevolent demons, while others have argued that they were the early gods and goddesses (often associated with nature) of peoples such as the Sumerians and Akkadians that were supplanted by new deities and more sophisticated belief systems, but they were not fully discarded and continued to hold a position as lesser supernatural beings.
Although the origins of the djinn seem to be in the deserts of Arabia, the belief in them really took form in the villages and cities of the Middle East. In fact, the nomads who roamed the deserts feared the djinn much less than the sedentary peoples who dreaded the remote plains and deserts that represented both the unknown and danger to them. For example, Pazuzu was a primordial djinn, a wind demon whom the inhabitants of Sumerian cities feared 6,000 years ago. The wind was often associated with the djinn and ancient peoples of the Middle East believed that these creatures travelled on it. According to Assyrian and Babylonian mythology, Pazuzu was the son of Hanpa, who was the lord of all the demons, perhaps an “ancient Satan.” Some scholars state that Pazuzu, who was associated with the cold north-east wind, was one of the most malevolent elemental forces of the ancient world. He scavenged the deserts and carried diseases and brought desolation and starvation in his wake. Pazuzu, like the later djinn of the Muslim period, was depicted as a human-animal hybrid. He had the head of a lion or a dog, horns, a beard, bird wings, a scorpion’s tail, and an erect penis sometimes shaped like a serpent.
Other ancient djinn/demons included Rabisu and Labaratu. The former concealed itself in remote places and ambushed unsuspecting travellers (as we will see this is how one of the djinn of the Islamic Middle East, the ghul, operated) and the latter, the daughter of the sky god Anu, lived in swamps or mountains and killed children. Other ancient Mesopotamian demons engaged in sexual intercourse with humans. All these ancient beings served as the prototypes of the djinn of Arabia and later the Muslim world. In the Hijaz, the region of Western Arabia where Islam was born, one function of the djinn was to inspire poets and soothsayers to produce beautiful and potent poetic verses and to foretell the future. Both poets and soothsayers held a special status in pre-Islamic Arabia and exerted a significant amount of influence on their societies. Those who were “mad” or “crazy” were afforded special protected status as they were thought to be majnun, which means “possessed by a djinn.”
According to Muslim tradition, the djinn are one of the three intelligent beings created by God, the other two being angels and humans. They are mentioned both in the Quran and in the prophetic traditions. Al-Qazwini places the djinn in Muslim cosmology early in the creation process and says that God created the angels from light, humans from clay, and the djinn from the flames of fire. He also created shayatin (s. shaytan – meaning devils/fiends/demons) from the smoke of the fire. There are several categories of djinn including ifrit, Shaitan, marid, and djinn; these terms often overlap, and the categories are not clear cut. Like humans, they have free will and could be good or evil, however the shayatin are always associated with Iblis, the devil.
There is an ancient mosque in Mecca called Masjid al-djinn or the Mosque of the Djinn and according to Islamic tradition, it is dedicated to those djinn that accepted the prophet Muhammad’s message when he preached to them. God is often referred to in the Quran as Rab al-Alamin, which means the Lord of the Worlds, encompassing all possible worlds and universes that could exist, including that of humans and the djinn. The Quran also often mentions humans and djinn together as the two types of creation that could receive divine revelations and either accept or reject them.
Al-Qazwini states that the djinn are imperceptible to the human senses. However, they can “thicken” their constitutions and take on corporeal forms and have the ability to shapeshift. He also mentions that the djinn were created long before Adam and the humans and that they inhabited the Earth before the fall of Adam. They had kings, prophets, religions, and laws, much like humans would eventually. However, many of them strayed and filled the land with corruption.
In response to these transgressions, al-Qazwini says that God sent his heavenly armies of angels to punish them. After fierce battles between the angels and the djinn the latter were driven from their homes to the far corners of the world, while many others were taken prisoner. Among these prisoners was a young djinn named Azazel (a clear parallel here to one of the leaders of the fallen angels in the apocryphal Book of Enoch). Azazel was raised among the angels and he attained their knowledge, counselled them, and lived among them for a long time until he became one of their chieftains.
This situation continued until the creation of Adam. When God commanded all the angels to prostrate themselves before his new creation, Azazel refused out of arrogance and it is after this point that his name changed to Iblis (one of the names designating Satan in Islamic tradition) and he became the enemy of man and cursed by God. The implication in the text is that he also became the leader of all the renegade djinn and demons and the personification of evil, strife, and disobedience. Al-Qazwini mentions that Iblis had five sons: Birah, the lord of catastrophes; al-A‘war, the lord of adultery, lust, and seduction; Masut the lord of lies; Dasem, the lord of strife (especially between married couples); and Zalnabur, the lord of markets and cheating in trade.
Types of Djinn
Both al-Qazwini and al-Isfahani have sections in their works in which they list various types of djinn, demons, and monsters. In a section of his chapter on djinn, Al-Qazwini provides descriptions of some of these creatures. On the other hand, Kitab al-Bulhan only has a series of illustrations of the djinn accompanied by titles. Stefano Carboni provides some good interpretations of these images in his article, “The ‘Book of Surprises’ (Kitab al-bulhan) of the Bodleian Library.” I will use Carboni’s article to round out the descriptions and characteristics of some of the demons presented by Kitab al-Bulhan.
Al-Qazwini states that al-ghul (the ghoul) is one of the most famous and common among the djinn. The ghul has been described in various ways. Al-Qazwini describes it as having an unnatural and terrifying appearance. He says it has a humanoid form merged with that of a beast and describes it as vile creature with deformities and an unnatural appearance. E.W. Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon (essentially a compilation based on medieval Arab dictionaries) states that the ghul “is a ‘kind of goblin, demon, devil” and that it is “terrible in appearance, having tusks or fangs.” Other accounts from the Arabian Peninsula describe the ghul as a combination of man, bird and camel. According to this description it has a human head with a Cyclops eye in the middle. Instead of a mouth it has a beak; its body is that of a camel or an ostrich with chicken wings and it has the talons of an ostrich or the hooves of a mule instead of feet. The ghul is also a shapeshifter and can take on the form of men, cats, horses, asses, camels, bulls, owls and that of a multi-colored dog (on of its most frequently mentioned forms).
The ghul is described as a maneater and it inhabits the deserts and wastelands and appears to solitary travellers passing through these remote areas, especially in the hours between twilight and dawn. It lays in ambush, awaiting the unsuspecting traveller, among the rocks, crags, and caves and pounces on him, drags him to its lair, and devours him. It can also take on an appearance resembling a human in order to lull it’s victims into a false sense of security and to lure them away from their path and into its trap. Female ghulas also sometimes are said to have lured travellers away, seduce them, and prostitute themselves to them.
Regarding their origin, al-Qazwini states that they were djinn who used to eavesdrop on Heaven (according to Islamic tradition this stolen knowledge from Heaven was the inspiration that the soothsayers received from these demons when they sought to see the future) and when they did this there were struck by meteorites or shooting stars and they burned up and were horribly disfigured and plummeted to the Earth to become ghuls.
Robert Lebling mentions in his book, Legends of the Fire Spirits, that despite its propensity toward evil and to eat human flesh and carrion and its evil nature, the ghul can be benevolent to humans. In the tales and legends, if the hero can successfully sneak up behind the ghula (female ghul) and suckle from her pendulous breast, often thrown over her should while she worked on her hand mill, he becomes her “bosom child” and she becomes his protector, even from other guls. There are strong parallels her to the pre-Islamic and Islamic traditions of “milk relationships,” i.e. two unrelated infants becoming siblings if they suckled from the same mother. A clever hero can also enlist the aid of a ghoul. According to Lebling these creatures respond to courtesy and “in exchange for a little grooming or a piece of mastic gum, they are often ready to carry the hero wherever he wishes to go.”
The si‘lah is a variant of the ghul. This djinn is often referred to in the feminine. She resides in jungles and thickets and lays in ambush for her victims. She is described as a wicked and sadistic djinn who tortures her prey, plays games with him, and makes him dance before consuming him.
The si’luwa is a variant of the s’ilah from Iraq. She is a water demon or water spirit that inhabits the rivers, streams, and canals of Mesopotamia. She has the shape of a woman and is covered in long hair, has pendulous breasts that hang down to her knees, and in some accounts, she is described as having a fishtail instead of legs. She both sets traps for and hunts humans to eat and also seeks human lovers. Local beliefs state that the si’luwa is the product of the intermingling of humans with reiver demons.
Al-Qazwini mentions that the wolf hunts the si’lah at night. When a si’lah is caught by a wolf, she cries out as it tears into her and begs to be saved offering a thousand dinars to her rescuer. The author states that the people ignore these pleas because they know it is the si’lah. In fact, Lebling states that wolves are the only animals that the djinn fear. He says that the djinn cannot escape the wolves by sinking into the ground, which allows the wolves to attack them with their teeth and claws. This seems to suggest that according to some legends, the wolf has some kind of a neutralizing effect on some of the djinn’s powers. Lebling explains that this aversion to wolves is one of the reasons that djinn never assume the wolf’s form when they shapeshift. It is for this reason that wolf teeth and other body parts have been (and sometimes still are) worn as protective talismans in parts of the Muslim world such as Iraq.
Al-Qazwini mentions this djinn briefly and states that its kind inhabits Yemen and the coastal regions of Egypt. It lures its victims to itself and then assaults them. The outcome of this assault could be mild or severe. Lebling states that this demon either tortures its victims viciously or just terrifies them. Al-Qazwini is more explicit, he says that this djinn is either satisfied by terrifying its victim into a state of shock. A more extreme outcome of an encounter with the ghaddar, according to al-Qazwini, is that this monster sexually assaults its victims and that there is seldom any hope for survivors of such an assault because the ghaddar has a phallus like a bull’s horn that can kill a human. This djinn must have a terrifying appearance, unfortunately as-Qazwini does not describe any of its physical characteristics other than its phalllus.
The author of ‘Ajaib al-Makhluqat states that this djinn lives on the islands of the seas. It has the form of a man mounted on an ostrich. It devours the flesh of shipwrecked men and sailors whom the sea casts on the shores of the islands that it inhabits. Al-Qazwini mentions one account in which the Delhab assaulted a ship. The sailors attempted to fight it off. However, the demon uttered a cry that caused them to drop their weapons and to fall upon their faces cowering in feat and it took them all.
This demon assumes a half human form (we can assume the other half is beastly or monstrous). Lebling says that this creature has a form of “half a human being (like a man divided longitudinally).” The shiqq also waylays travellers. There is a famous legend that tells the tale of an encounter between a shiqq and Alqamah ibn Safwan ibn Umayyah (of the Umayyad clan of the Quraysh tribe). Alqamah put up a fight when the demon assaulted him, the contest between the two ended when they both struck one another fatal blows.
The Djinn in Kitab al-Bulhan
Kitab al-Bulhan contains a series of full-page illustrations depicting various demons and djinn. These illustrations depict Iblis (Satan), the seven djinn/demon kings (each associated with a day of the week), and finally there are depictions of some djinns that are associated with illnesses and other forces of disruption in one’s life. In addition to being associated with a day of the week, Carboni states that every illustration of the seven djinn kings is also connected to an angel, a planet and a metal. He states that the kings are shown with their supporters or cohorts and the talismanic symbols one requires to exorcise them are contained within the frame of the illustration.
The illustration of the devil is the first in this series. Its title, Iblis al-la‘in (Iblis the cursed), leaves no doubt about whom this image depicts. Iblis is shown enthroned in the center of the page sitting frontally and in a regal manner. He is crowned with large ram horns and his eyes blaze with fire. He is much larger than the other djinn, his subjects, and seems closer to the observer than them.
The Djinn Kings of Sunday and Monday
Carboni states that the folios containing the illustrations of the “Gold King” of Sunday and the “White King” of Monday are missing from Kitab al-Bulhan. However, they do make appearances in Ottoman copies, which give an indication of their name and appearance.
Al-Mudhahhab (the golden one) is the djinn king of Sunday. He is associated with the Sun. According to tradition, this djinn king possesses secrets of the occult and knowledge of the transmutation of gold and is also associated with silk brocade. He is depicted with a flaming golden halo around his head and what looks like a golden cloud or wool around his neck and shoulders and is richly dressed in what looks like a silk shirt and silk pants.
Al-Malik al-Abyad, or the white king of Monday (sometimes referred to as the white one, father of light). He is associated with the moon. The white king is one of Iblis’s closest cohorts. He is depicted as a white demon with horns and golden eyes. His head is partly that of a human, but more like a beast, with fangs, hanging ears, and wrinkled layers of flesh on his cheeks.
The King of Tuesday
Al-Malik al-Ahmar, or the Red King, is the djinn king of Monday. He is associated with the planet Mars, the planet of war. Like the ancient war god of the Romano-Greek Pantheon, Aries/Mars, this djinn is associated with war and depicted as a monstrous being riding a lion, armed with a sword and holding a severed head.
The King of Wednesday
Al-Malik al-Aswad, or the black king is the king of Wednesday. He is a powerful djinn king, said to rule over a multitude of other djinns. He is associated with the planet Mercury. Carboni describes his helpers as “quite extraordinary.” He is black and horned, with flames coming out of his mouth and eyes. A powerful sorcerer, he is also responsible for teaching magic to his followers.
The King of Thursday
The djinn king of Thursday is called Shamhurash. Some sources refer to him as Abu al-Walad, meaning “the father of the child.” He is therefore depicted holding a naked child. Carboni says that it is unclear whether this djinn’s influence on the child is positive or negative. He is associated with Jupiter.
The King of Friday
The djinn king of Friday is Zawba‘a, the four-headed demon. He is depicted sitting in a royal manner. Two of the heads are in profile and two facing forward. All of them depict some sort of animal or a morphing of animals. This djinn king, like the spirits and demons of ancient Mesopotamia, is associated with the wind. The name Zawba‘a means whirlwind. He is associated with the planet Venus.
The King of Saturday
The last of the seven djinn kings is Maymun, which means ‘monkey’ in both Arabic and Persian. He is sometimes referred to as Maymun al-Shahabi (Maymun of the clouds), making him another demon associated with the wind and the clouds because he uses them to fly. He is associated with Saturn. This demon is also depicted carrying a child or a man who appears to be asleep. This may signify that he is an abductor of the sleeping or unwary humans. He is winged, covered in hair, and has the face of a monkey with horns on his head. He is depicted as descended from the clouds and his followers also seem to be inhabiting the clouds, making him perhaps a leader among the wind demons.
Other Djinn in Kitab al-Bulhan
In addition to Iblis and the seven demon kings of the week in Kitab al-Bulhan, there are also some pages with illustrations of additional djinn. These demons can be related to disruptive forces in one’s daily life such as illnesses
One of these disruptive djinn is Kabus or “the nightmare.” Kabus can disrupt his victim’s nightly life causing nightmares and restless sleep. This sleep disruption can translate into one’s daily life, which is impacted by the fatigue of a fitful and restless sleep. In the illustration, Kabus visits his helpless victim while he is asleep in his bedroom. He descends upon him from above as a dark menacing figure ready to fully encompass him with little hope of escape from his influence.
The female djinn, Tabi‘a, is depicted holding a child. Carboni states that the presence if this djinn is interesting because her origins hearken back to the Kabbalah. She represents the demonic goddess Lilith who seeks to control and weaken babies. He also argues that she can be linked to Christian demonology as the character of the queen of witches. Carboni says that “this image acquires an extraordinary significance linking Hebrew, Christian and Islamic traditions together.”
Humma is the last of the djinns illustrated in Kitab al-Bulhan. Humma is “the fever” and thus a bringer and spreader of illness. In the image, he is three-headed and frontally seated with his arms wide as if he were going to embrace his next victim and cause him to be ill.
This concludes the overview of the djinn in Ajaib al-Makhluqat wa Gharaib al-Mawjudat and Kitab al-Bulhan. These books give an overview of some of the djinn, but there is large number of them not discussed or described in detail in these texts. There is a short anecdote in Ajaib al-Makhluqat that illustrates this point. In this story, the prophet and king Suleiman (King Solomon), was given dominion over the djinn and the shayatin. They were commanded by Gabriel to appear before Suleiman/Solomon and they came in hordes from the caves, mountains, swamps, deserts, plains, valleys, forests, islands, rivers, and seas to serve their new master. Al-Qazwini states that they were driven to him, almost like cattle, by the angels and gathered before him. He says that 420 groups of djinns were gathered under his dominion. It is unclear if these groups were further subdivided into smaller clans and tribes.
The source then says that Suleiman looked upon them and saw that there were multitudes of these creatures with strange and frightening forms and they also came in various colours including black, white, yellow, red, blue, and some were multicoloured and piebald. They took on humanoid and animal shapes and sometimes morphed the two. They had claws, hooves, horns, talons, wings, tails, snouts, beaks, trunks, fangs, tusks, feathers, and furry hides and resembled livestock, birds of prey, and wild animals both predators and herbivores. Some of them walked on two legs, others on four. So frightful a sight was they to behold that Suleiman prostrated to God and asked him for the strength and the power to behold and command these creatures.
The account continues and states that once his prayer was answered, Suleiman set about questioning the djinn about their backgrounds, homelands, religions, and deeds. Ajaib al-Makhluqat presents a few examples of the dialogues that Suleiman had with his djinn servants. One of them, a certain Mihr ibn Hafan, was a half dog and half cat with a trunk. when asked what he did, Mihr stated that he produced intoxicants and tempted the sons of Adam to their consumption. Another djin, al-Hilhal ibn Mahlul, was a fearful-looking dog-like monster. He was covered in black hide and blood dripped from every hair on his body. He was a causer of bloodshed among men.
Suleiman then set all the djinn to various tasks. For example, one group, the marada (plural of maarid), were put to work as blacksmiths, masons, and carpenters and they were commanded to build fortifications. Their female folk were also put to work as silk and cotton weavers and commanded to produce carpets and cushions. Other djinn were commanded to construct pots, cauldrons, jugs, and vases. Other groups and tribes were set to work as butchers, well-diggers, deep sea divers (to extract pearls and sunken treasures), canal diggers, miners, and horse tamers. Al-Qazwini states that King Suleiman commanded the various groups and species of djinns to carry out all the most difficult tasks in order to keep them busy and to prevent them from spreading their evil and corruption on Earth. This anecdote exemplifies just how varied the types of djinn are in Islamic tradition and folklore.
Not unlike the witches, trolls, goblins, and fairies of Europe, these creatures make appearances in the folklore, stories, legends, and traditions of the Muslim world. In some parts, people still attribute daily occurrences to their influence, meddling, or haunting. One of the most famous set of stories in which the djinn play a big role is the familiar tales of the 1001 Nights, where they make several appearances both as benevolent helpers and evil antagonists to the humans with whom they interact. The story of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp is probably one of the better-known tales (thanks to its retelling in the form of both an aminated and live-action movie) with djinn (or a genie) figuring prominently as a granter of wishes to his master.
Adam Ali is a lecturer at the University of Toronto. Click here to read more from Adam.
Carboni, Stefano, “The ‘Book of Surprises’ (Kitab al-bulhan) of the Bodleian Library,” La Trobe Journal, 91 (2013), 22-34.
Lebling, Robert. Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar. London: I.B. Taurus, 2010.