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What kind of beings are jinn and can they appear in different forms in the visible, material world?
Oct 1, 1997

The nature of jinn

Jinn are conscious beings charged with Divine obligations.

The word jinn literally means something hidden or veiled from sight. As mentioned earlier (The Fountain No. 15), jinn are a species or kind of beings that cannot be seen with the naked eye, nor can we see them with telescopes or microscopes. In the Qur'an, there is a short chapter called Jinn, which tells us that a band of jinn listened to the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, and some of them believed in his message and some did not:

Say: 'It has been revealed to me that a company of the jinn gave ear, and they said: "We have heard a wonderful Qur'an, which guides to righteousness, so we believe in it and we shall not join (in belief and worship) any (gods) with our Lord. And (we believe) that He-exalted be the glory of our Lord-has taken neither wife nor son... Among us there are righteous folk and among us there are far from that. We are sects having different rules, (al-Jinn, 72. 1-2, 11)

From this we understand that like mankind, jinn are also conscious beings charged with Divine obligations. Recent discoveries in biology made it clear that God created beings particular to each realm in the universe. Jinn might have been created while the earth was a body of some sort of fire. They preceded mankind in creation and were responsible for cultivating and improving the world. Although God later superseded them with mankind, He did not exempt the jinn from religious obligations.

Jinn are created from smokeless fire

As we mentioned before, the Qur'an states that jinn are created from smokeless fire (al-Rahman, 55.15). In another verse, it clarifies that the fire from which jinn are created is scorching and penetrating as deep as the inner part of the body (al-Hijr, 15.27). We are not certain whether the Qur'an means energy or something like X-rays by smokeless, penetrating and scorching fire.

Jinn, like angels, are not bound by the constraints of time and space within which we move.

Like angels, jinn move extremely fast; they are not bound by the constraints of time and space within which we normally move. However, since the spirit is more active and faster than jinn, a man who lives at the level of the spirit's life, who can go beyond the limits of matter and the confines of time and space within which normal people live, can excel the jinn in speed and activity. For example, as we read in the Qur'an, when the Prophet Solomon asked those around him who could bring the throne of the Queen of the Yemen, one of the jinn answered that he could bring it before he finished the meeting and stood up from his seat. However, a man who had special knowledge from God replied; 'I can bring it to you in a time shorter than the twinkling of an eye,' and he did so (al-Naml, 27.38-40).

Compared to men, jinn, like angels, can do more difficult things.

Nothing is difficult for God Almighty; it is equally easy for Him to create the whole of the universe and a tiny particle. He has provided men, jinn and angels with power and strength appropriate for the function or duties of each. As He uses angels in the supervision of the movements of celestial bodies, He has allowed man to rule on the earth, dominate over matter and build civilizations and produce technology.

Power and strength are not limited to the physical world, nor are they proportional to bodily size. We observe that immaterial things are much more powerful than huge physical bodies. For example, memory is much more spacious and comprehensive than a large room. We can touch with our hands a very near object, but our eyes can travel long distances in an instant while our imagination can go beyond time and space all at once. Winds can pull out trees and demolish huge buildings. A young, thin shoot of a plant can split rocks and appear in sun-light. The power of energy, whose existence we can know through the effect it produces, is known to every body. All this shows that the power of something is not proportional to its physical structure, rather the immaterial world is dominant over the physical world, and immaterial entities are much more powerful than material ones.

Appearance of angels and jinn in the visible world in different forms

As we indicated earlier, it is possible for angels and jinn to take on form and appear in the visible world in the shape of any being. We do observe, in the material world, a movement from the visible to the invisible. For example, the evaporation of water and its disappearance in the atmosphere; the transformation of solid matter into fluid or gas (steam); or, in nuclear fission, the transformation of matter into energy. Likewise, we also observe in the world a movement, in the other direction, namely from the invisible to the visible. Gases become fluid, evaporated water is transformed into drops of rain or snow or even hail, and energy into matter. Similarly, intangible thoughts and meanings in our minds can appear in the tangible form of letters and words in essays and books.

In an analogous way, invisible beings like angels, jinn and other spirit entities are clothed in some material substance such as air or ether and then become visible. According to Imam Shibli, if God wills, He allows them to take on a form when they utter any of God's Names which functions like a key or visa enabling them to take on form, and they become visible in the world. If they attempt to take on a visible form without God's permission in reliance on their own abilities, they are torn into pieces and perish.'

We read in the Qur'an (Maryam, 19.17) that the spirit God sent to Mary, and whom Muslim scholars have concluded was the Archangel Gabriel, appeared before her as a human being. When Gabriel came to the Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, with Revelation or God's Messages, he rarely appeared in his original form but usually came in the form of either a warrior or a traveller or a Companion called Dihya. For example, he came in the form of a warrior on horseback following the end of the Battle of the Trench and told the Prophet upon him be peace: 'O Messenger of God! You have taken off your mail-coat but we, the angels, have not yet done so. God orders you to march upon Banu Qurayza.' Once he came in the form of a traveller dressed in white and, in order to instruct the Companions in religion, asked the Prophet questions like What is belief? What is Islam? What is Ihsan (excellence or perfection of virtue), and When is Doomsday?

Like angels and jinn, Satan (who belongs to the jinn) can also appear in different forms. It is narrated that before the Battle of Badr he appeared to the leaders of the Quraysh in the form of on old man from Najd and gave them some advice. Likewise, a Companion who was keeping guard of war spoils caught him trying to harm the spoils. He entreated the Companion to release him, which he did. However, when this took place the third time, the Companion attempted to take him to God's Messenger, but Satan appealed: 'Release me, and I will tell you that by which you can be secure against me.' The Companion asked what that was. Satan replied that it was the Verse of the Throne (the verse 255 of sura al-Baqara). When informed of the event, God's Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, commented: 'That wicked one is a liar, but on that occasion he told the truth.'

In the chapter of the Qur'an called al-Ahqaf, it is related that a party of jinn listened to God's Messenger reciting the Qur'an and, when they returned to their people, said: 'Our people! Surely we listened to a Book which has been revealed after Moses and affirms what precedes it, and which guides to right and to the Straight Path' (46.30). The sura continues with their impressions of or remarks on what they listened to. There are also Traditions which tell us that the Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, recited to them from the Qur'an and preached to them his Message.

Jinn can also appear in the forms of different animals like snakes, scorpions, cattle, donkeys and birds. When our Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, took the oath of allegiance from them in the valley of Batn al-Nakhla, he wanted them to appear to his Umma either in their own form or in other agreeable forms, not in the forms of harmful animals like dogs and scorpions. He also warned his Umma, saying: 'When you see any vermin in your house, say to it three times: "For God's sake, leave here!" For it may be from your jinn friends. If it does not leave, it is not from jinn. Then you are permitted to kill it, if it is harmful.' The jinn who gave allegiance to God's Messenger promised him: 'If your Umma recite basmala (the formula In the Name of God, the All-Merciful, the All-Compassionate) before anything they do and cover all their dishes, we will touch neither their food nor their drink.' We do not know how they eat of our foods or drink of our beverages. Another Tradition says: '[When you have relieved yourselves] do not clean yourselves with bones and dried pieces of dung, for they are among the foods of your jinn brothers.'