Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World

Demons- the red king of the djinns, Al-Malik al-Ahmar. Demon portrait. From a 15th-century Arabic collectaneous manuscript known as Kitab al-bulhan.
The Red King (al-Malik al-aḥmar), from Kitāb al-Bulhān, produced c. 1390-1450, probably Baghdad (MS. Bodl. Or. 133, fol. 31a)

The presence and potential power of the jinn- beings neither human nor angel, but instead somewhere in-between, capable of both helping and harming humans but mostly just interested in their own devices- has been a constant throughout Islamic history, with the concept of the jinn probably pre-dating Islam considerably in fact. Ways of dealing with the jinn have varied considerably, though certain practices- the use of talismans and amulets, or other sacred or semi-sacred prophylactics- has been common across many Islamic societies. The two examples I’ve presented here demonstrate at least two ways in which people in the sixteenth century Ottoman world imagined and sought to control the power of the jinn.

The image above is of one of the most fearsome of the jinn, the ‘Red King,’ also referenced in the story below. He is surrounded by various other ferocious, indeed rather terrifying, jinn, sitting astride a lion. His malevolent nature, had it been in doubt, is emphasized by the decapitated human head he holds in one hand. This image comes from a 15th (or possibly late 14th) century compilation, the Kitāb al-Bulhān, produced in pre-Ottoman Baghdad, a book which features a range of material from the astrological to the occult- subjects and genres that hover somewhere among our modern categories of science, magic, and religion. The image itself contains prophylactic letters and numbers- visible to the left and right of the Red King’s head- which are meant to control this particular jinn’s manifestations. More interesting for our purposes, this manuscript was modified by later Ottoman owners: Ottoman Turkish has been added, and some of the images have been modified. This painting of the Red King bears the most striking modifications. Through some technique the paint has been removed from the jinn chief’s body at strategic points: his neck and hands have been ‘cut,’ his head ‘pierced,’ and his mount’s eye put out. As you might guess these are not accidental injuries to the manuscript, but were done deliberately, almost certainly by a 16th century Ottoman owner (at some point in the 17th century it was acquired by a English collector, who added his own cryptographic writing to parts of the text- but that’s another story!). What is going on here?

In her recent discussion of Ottoman and Safavid devotional artistic practices [1], the Islamic art historian Christiane Gruber drew attention to the physical interactions that audiences of manuscript paintings in both empires had with particular images. Along with ‘positive’ devotional acts like the addition of face-covering veils to images of Muhammad and members of the Ahl al-Bayt, kissing and rubbing depictions of Muhammad and others, and other types of practices that modified the image on the page, we also see evidence of symbolic devotional ‘violence’ in images: the faces of Muhammad’s pagan enemies being rubbed out, their necks and hands ‘cut,’ and, in Shi’i contexts, explicitly Sunni figures being ritually defaced. Gruber argues that these actions were seen as relating to the subjects depicted in some way: cutting the necks of Muhammad’s opponents de-fanged their potential power, while allowing the viewer to not just view but participate, albeit at a remove, in the drama being depicted in the picture. Something very similar is going on in this image: whoever modified this image sought to control the power of the Red King through symbolic ritual action, with the understanding that violence done to the jinn’s depiction ‘translated’ to the jinn himself. Note that this is not iconoclasm, at least not in the traditional sense: most of the pictures in this collection have not been modified at all, indicating both the lack of iconoclasm in the book’s audience and the apparently especially dangerous nature of the Red King, dangerous enough that even his image in an occult handbook needed to be ‘brought to heel.’

The second example of controlling the jinn- including the Red King- comes from the saint’s life of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb al-Sha’rānī (d. 1565), Tadhkirat ūlī al-albāb, by Muḥammad Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Malījī. The short story I have translated below is only one of numerous anecdotes in which the saint confronts jinn, both singly and in groups. In these stories a recurring feature, and one that long predated al-Sha’rānī, is the jinn’s occupation of particular places and spaces, especially abandoned human dwellings. The ability of saints to confront and control the jinn was also well established by the 16th century; al-Sha’rānī is shown using his saintly power to mark out spaces in the urban fabric of Cairo, not so much to defeat the jinn as to demonstrate his sanctity by moving into their space and avoiding any harm from them. Continue reading “Two Ways of Dealing with the Jinn in the Ottoman World”

Ghazali on Plants, Astrology, and Some Other Stuff


Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (450-505 AH/1058-1111 AD) wrote about pretty much everything. He is best known for the work from which the translation below comes from, the Ihya Ulum-al-Din, the Revivification of the Religious Sciences; he is often referred to- not incorrectly in many respects- as the great synthesizer of Sufism and ‘mainstream’ Islam. He is also remembered for his engagement with philosophy, which included both thorough-going critiques and (sometimes unintentional) integration with his theological and mystical concerns. In this passage, drawn from volume four, book two, section four of the Ihya, Ghazali describes the operations of nature as understood through his particular reckoning of Islamic philosophy. He limits his analysis to the nourishing nature of food and where it comes from; this however leads him down several paths, including a short excursion into a critique of astrology. Most of it is pretty self-explanatory; some terms like ‘traces’ are rather technical but I think are still understandable in the context. There are a couple of spots where I was not entirely sure of the meaning- as always, suggestions for a clearer or more accurate translation are always helpful.

Know that there are many sorts of food, and that God has, in creating them, given great wonders beyond reckoning and consecutive causes without end, and the mentioning [of these things] in every food can be stretched out on end- food providing healing, pleasure, and nourishment. But let us take nourishment [as our topic], as it is the root of the rest. And let us take from all we have gathered the grain of wheat, leaving off every other nourishing thing. So we say: When you find a grain or grains, but do not eat it, but rather resolve [to save it] and so remain hungry, then what you need is for the grain to grow in itself, to increase and multiply until it meets the full measure of your need. God created in the grain of wheat potency (al-quwa), which nourishes it, just as He created in you. While He divided you up into sense and motion, unlike in a plant, He did not make you different in nourishment, because a plant is nourished by water and draws it up into its insides by means of roots/veins [the Arabic word means both roots and veins], just as you are nourished and draw up [water].

But we will not remain mentioning the means of the plant attracting nourishment to itself, but instead we will simply point out its [sources of] nourishment. So we say: Just as wood and soil do not nourish you, but rather you need specific food, likewise grain is not nourished by just anything, but rather has need of something specific. For instance: if you leave grain in your house, it will not increase, as there is nothing there for it other than air, and air alone does not suffice to nourish it. And if you leave it in water it will not increase, and if you leave it in land without water it will not increase. On the contrary, whenever earth has water in it, its water mixes with the earth making mud, and this is pointed to in His words: ‘Let man look to his food: We pour out water, then we split the earth, and we plant in it seed: grapes, herbs, olive trees, palms…’ et al. However, water and dirt do not by themselves suffice. If you leave it in damp, hard, packed earth, it will not sprout due to the lack of air. It needs to be left in in ground that is stirred up, worked loose, so that air can penetrate it. But then air cannot move to it by itself, so it needs winds to move the air, and to strike with power and force upon the ground until it penetrates it- and this is pointed out in His words: ‘We send vivifying winds.’ Verily, their vivification is in the occurrence of the coupling of air, water, and earth. But all of that does not profit you if it is excessively cold or in wintertime, but rather the seed needs the heat of spring or summer.

So, inasmuch as its nourishment needs these four conditions, see what it needs of each one: if it needs for water to be led to agricultural land from large rivers, springs, and streams, then see how God created large rivers, gushing of springs, and streams flowing from them. But perhaps the land is elevated and water does not rise to it- then see how God- exalted is He- created clouds and how He directs the winds upon them in order to lead them, by His permitting, over the quarters of the earth (they are the rain-bearing clouds). Then see how He sends rain-bearing clouds over the earth during the spring and fall, according to need, and see how He created mountains conserving water, springs flowing out of them gradually- for if they burst out suddenly, then the lands [below] would be flooded, and the crops and cattle would be destroyed. And it is not possible to enumerate all of the graces of God in mountains, clouds, rivers, and rain.

And as for heat, it does not arise by means of water and earth- rather both are cold, so see how the sun dawns and how He created it distant from the earth, warming the earth at times and not at others, so that cold arises according to need for cold, and heat arises according to need for heat. And this is but one of the wise matters concerning the sun- the wisdom evident in it is more than can be reckoned. Then the plant, when it rises from the earth, the fruit becomes congealed and hardened, so that it requires moist softness in order to ripen. So see how He created the moon and made among its specialties the capacity of making moist and soft, just as He made among the sun’s specialties the capacity of heating. So it [the moon] ripens fruit and transforms it, through the power of the Wise Creator. And because of that, if there were trees giving off shade which blocked the shining of the sun, the moon, and all the stars, then they would rot and decrease, just as small trees rot if large trees overshadow them. And you can know the moist softness of the moon in that if you uncover your head at night, then moisture that passes over from it through clouds will alight on you head. And just as your head is moistened, so fruits are also. But we will not linger, as we do not here desire a deeper investigation.

Rather, we say: every star in the heaven manifests some sort of benefit, just as the sun manifests heat and the moon moistness, and not one of them desists from great wisdom which the power of man is incapable of enumerating. And were it not so, then He created them as jest and emptiness, and His words would not be sound: ‘Our Lord did not create this in vain,’ and His words, ‘We did not create the heavens and the earth and is between them in vain.’ And just as there is not in the limbs of your body any without use, so is there none among the limbs of the earth a limb without use. And the whole world is as a single person, and the units of its bodies are like limbs- the limbs of your body are mutually reinforcing and aiding in the whole of your body, and the explication of that is lengthy. And it not seemly for you to speculate; rather, faith [holds] that the stars and sun and moon are subject to the command of God, glorified is He, in occasions which were made as means of wisdom. The differing with Revelation is under the heading of prohibition against the belief of the astrologers and the ‘knowledge of the stars.’ Rather, the prohibition against faith in the stars is twofold: One: that you believe that they are the doers of the actions, independent in them, and that they are not subservient to the power of a Director which created and controls them- and this is unbelief. Second: the belief of the astrologers in the detailed description of what they report regarding the traces which are not comprehended by the whole of creation, for they say that out of ignorance. And know that the precision of the stars is deficient before but one of the Prophets, upon them be peace. Then that knowledge is obliterated and does not subsist until it is unmixed, the right in it not being distinguished from the wrong. So belief that the stars are a means for traces which occur through the creating of God, exalted is He, in the earth, plants, and animals- [this belief] is not repugnant to religion, but on the contrary is truth. However, the allegation of knowledge by means of these traces regarding unknown particularities is repugnant to religion. And that is as if you had a garment that you washed and wished to dry out, and someone said to you: Take your garment out and spread it out, and the sun will rise and the day and the air will become hot- his deceit is not thrust upon you, and attribution of wrongdoing by the speaker is not incumbent upon you through his assignment of the heating of the day and air. And if you ask someone about the change of his face and he says: The sun beat down on me in the road, and my face was darkened- he is not being deceitful towards you.

And so it is with all the traces, other than that some of the traces are known, and some unknown. As for those which are unknown, it is impossible to allege knowledge in them, while of those which are known, some are known to everyone, like the occurrence of light and heat through the rising of the sun, while others are limited to some people, like the occurrence of dew through the rising of the moon. Therefore, the stars were not created in jest; on the contrary in them is abundant wisdom beyond enumeration. For this reason, the Prophet of God, upon whom be peace and prayer, looked to the heavens and recited His words: ‘Our Lord did not create them in vain-  Glory to You! Deliver us from the torment of the Fire.’ Then Muhammad said, ‘Woe to the one who recites this verse, then wipes his moustache with it’- meaning that one would recite but abandon further contemplation, limiting his understanding of the realms of heaven to knowing the color of the sky and the shining of the stars- things even the beasts know. So the one who is content in knowledge of that is ‘the one who wipes his moustache’ with the verse. But God- exalted is He!- possesses in the realms of the heavens, the stars, people, and animals wonders which those who love God seek to know.

Whoever loves a certain knowledgeable person, he does not cease being occupied in seeking out his writings, in order to increase in the full measure of understanding regarding his wonders out of love for him. It is likewise regarding the craftsmanship of God, exalted is He: verily, the entire world is of His composition; indeed, the composition of writers is from His composition, which He composes by means of the hearts of His servants. Are you amazed over the composition but not amazed at the composer? On the contrary, whoever makes the composer subject to his composition according to what benefits him in guidance, payment, and knowledge, it is as if you thought that it was the playthings of the juggler that were themselves dancing and moving in rhythmic, proportionate movements. But in fact you do not marvel at the playthings- they are clumsy things, without motion- rather, you marvel at the skill of the juggler, moving them through subtle connections hidden from sight. Likewise, the nourishing of plants is not accomplished save through water, air, sun, moon, and stars, nor is that accomplished save through the celestial spheres in which they are embedded. Nor are the celestial spheres complete save through their motion, and their motion is not complete save through the celestial angelic beings which set them in motion. And so the mention of the distant causes could be extended, but we will leave off their mention, letting what we have mentioned clarify whatever we have neglected- so let us confine mention of causes to the nourishing of plants.