Jinn, poets, scientists and epistemological truth

June 22, 2004 12:00 AM

One day, Sindbad, the fictional sailor of Baghdad, was having a bad fishing day when a small bottle sealed with lead, was caught up in his net. Curious, he tried to open the bottle. As soon as he removed the seal he was knocked over by a cloud of thick black smoke pouring out of the bottle. When Sindbad opened his eyes, he saw the smoke had condensed into a huge man-like figure. It was a jinni (Genie).

The jinni said to Sindbad: "Tell me oh worshipper of God, were you the one who liberated me from my prison?"

"Yes," Sindbad replied proudly.

"Well, say your prayers, because I am going to kill you," said the jinni.

"Why do you want kill me?" asked the terrified sailor.

The jinni then started telling his story: He said he was sentenced by King Solomon to live in that small bottle in the bottom of the sea till the Day of Judgment. For the first millennium he waited for a savior, he vowed he would give him the power to rule over all kingdoms of the world. But no one came. For the next millennium, he vowed he would give his savior all the gold in the hands of men and all the gold still in the mountains, but no one saved him still. His patience ran out, the savior was too late, the pain of waiting for him was much worse than the pleasure of liberation. The jinni vowed that if the savior came, he must be punished for his most cruel delay.

"You were late, very late, young sailor!" the jinni told Sindbad, "and therefore I will kill you."

Sindbad, powerless except for his quick thinking, said that he would accept his fate, but asked the jinni for a death wish: "I cannot believe that a big jinni like you can fit into this small bottle, as my death wish, prove to me that you were actually in it and that the whole story is not just made up for you to kill an innocent man!"

The jinni, anxious to prove the truth of his story, turned into smoke and returned to his bottle. Sindbad  then sealed the bottle and threw it into the sea: "Stay there for another thousand years, maybe then you will change your way of rewarding your savior!"

This traditional fairy tale is typical of Arab about the jinn. The protagonist of the tale is definitely the jinni, not Sindbad and the tale itself is not about gratitude, but about the cruelty of waiting. It is in the way the psychological condition of the jinni is described, as he moves from one stage of waiting to another, that the aesthetic value of the tale lies. In pre-Islamic as well as the medieval Arab imagination, jinn formed a parallel world to that of humans. The name of the imagined creatures come from the stem jann, "to hide, be unseen," the word majnoun, "crazy," comes from the same stem, for a madman was thought to be possessed by jinn.

In pre-Islamic Arabian society, jinn were seen as morally neutral. They were imaginary inventions to explain the sounds of winds blowing in dark valleys and between caves. Jinn were also seen as the friends of poets. Poetry was their main craft, and like muses, they inspired poets with their rhyming words. Some pre-Islamic poets, like Al-Asha al-Bahili, liked the mystery and power the legend cast on him, so he kept referring to a jinni friend of his by the name of Mizhal, who taught him poetry. The great poet Abid Ibn al-Abras wrote a poem telling his story about serpent dying of thirst in the middle of the desert. The poet pours whatever water he has at the serpent and saves his life. Later on, the poet's camel dies, and he is left alone in the desert. As he looks around in terror, he sees a white camel coming to him, and a sound thunders from a distant mountain with lines of poetry: "I am the serpent you saved in the valley, generous you have been to me, and grateful I am to you!"

After Islam, scientists and jurists, rather than poets, came to define the world. And as usual, shifting the epistemological paradigm from one based on metaphor and led by poets to one based on truth led by "scientists" had some catastrophic implications.

When Al-Asha al-Bahili claimed to be taught by Mizhal the jinni, the only thing he expected from his audience was to marvel at the mystery of his words, he did not demand them to believe in them as truth. When jinn were mentioned in the Koran, as the mutazila, a rational Islamic philosophical movement argued, they were meant as metaphors, not physical entities.

But, as the grand debate between metaphor and truth ended with the latter's triumph, scientists of the middle ages considered the existence of jinn to be a fact of life, and belief in them a prerequisite for being a good Muslim.

Kamaluddin al-Dumairi, an Egyptian scientist from the thirteenth century, wrote more than 15 pages discussing the properties of jinn in his great work on taxonomy. By then some had become the children of Iblis (Satan), some of whom believed in Islam and were therefore kind and useful, but the rest were just harmful demons. Dumairi recreates the story of Abid the poet and the serpent, only this time the protagonist is one of the prophet's companions and the serpent is one of the jinn who heard the prophet reading the Koran and embraced Islam. But the most interesting difference is that, while Abid's story was a poem, Dumairi's story was supposed to be history and science.

Which poses the question: can the modern epistemology based on science and truth be in its unmerited certainty as misled as Dumairi's?

Read more: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Culture/Art/2004/Jun-22/92406-jinn-poets-scientists-and-epistemological-truth.ashx#ixzz2wG4l4d8E 
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