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Alternate Names

Jinn, Ifrit

Appears In

The Qur'an, The Book of One Thousand and One Nights



Character Overview

Genies (also called jinn or genii) are spirits in cultures of the Middle East and Africa. The term genie comes from the Arabic word jinni, which refers to an evil spirit that could take the shape of an animal or person. It could be found in every kind of nonliving thing, even air and fire. Jinn (the plural of jinni) were said to have magical powers.

In the Qur'an, jinn were created by Allah (pronounced ah-LAH), Islam's single supreme god, from smokeless fire. In perhaps the most well-known tale of jinn found in the Qur'an, Iblis (pronounced IB-liss), a jinni who refused to bow to Allah's creation Adam, was banished to Jahannam (pronounced JAH-hah-nahm; hell). Iblis is similar to the Christian idea of the devil.

In The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (a collection of stories of Persian, Indian, and Arabian origin dating from the Middle Ages), two tales centered on genies are included. The first and most famous is the tale of Aladdin , a poor boy who was tricked by a sorcerer into taking a magic lamp from a cave. The sorcerer trapped Aladdin in the cave, but Aladdin managed to keep the lamp and escaped the cave thanks to a magic ring that contained a genie. Back home, Aladdin's mother tried to clean the lamp by rubbing it, and accidentally summoned an even more powerful genie that lived within it. The genie of the lamp granted Aladdin great wealth and a palace, and he married the daughter of the emperor. However, the sorcerer managed to find Aladdin and trick his wife into giving up the lamp. Aladdin then had to rely on the lesser genie from his magic ring to help find the sorcerer and reclaim the lamp.

The other tale of genies in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights concerns a fisherman who netted a jar while casting for fish. He opened the jar and released a genie that had been imprisoned for hundreds of years. The genie, angry from being trapped for centuries in the jar, did not offer to fulfill the fisherman's wishes, but instead offered him his choice of death. The fisherman tricked the genie back into the jar by saying that he did not see how the genie could have possibly fit into such a tiny jar. The fisherman resealed the jar until the genie agreed to provide a favor. After being released, the genie led the fisherman to a pond where he caught four magical fish to present to the sultan. The fisherman gave the sultan the fish, and his children became prosperous members of the sultan's court.

Roman Genius

In ancient Rome, the term genii, the plural form of the Latin word genius, referred to the spirits that watched over every man. The genius was responsible for forming a man's character and caused all actions. Believed to be present at birth, genius came to be thought of as great inborn ability. Women had a similar spirit known as a juno. Some Romans also believed in a spirit, called an evil genius, that fought the good genius for control of a man's fate. In later Roman mythology, genii were spirits who guarded a household or community.

Genies in Context

In early Islamic belief, jinn made up a world that existed parallel to humans: although they were invisible to humans, they existed in much the same types of communities and tribes. Just as people were defined by their relation to Islam, there were jinn that accepted Islam and jinn that did not. Jinn were essentially a reflection of the same beliefs and concerns that humans dealt with, but on a grander, more supernatural scale. They also provided an explanation for the temptations and frustrations people faced on a daily basis, which were seen as the work of unholy jinn.

Key Themes and Symbols

Jinn often represent great power that can be devastating if not properly controlled. The vessel that contains a jinni, whether it is a ring, lamp, jar, or some other object, is usually seen as a symbol of imprisonment. One of the main themes of many stories about jinn is wish fulfillment, as shown in the tales of both Aladdin and the fisherman. In many such tales, justice also plays an important role: those who are undeserving may get their wishes granted, but these wishes often have unforeseen consequences.

Genies in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

Although genies appear prominently in the Qur'an, they are most popularly known from their appearances in folk tales and The Book ofOne Thousand and One Nights. This collection of tales has appeared in many translations and versions over the centuries. The story of Aladdin is especially well known, and has been used as the basis for many films— most notably The Thief of Baghdad (1940) and the 1992 Disney animated tale Aladdin.

Other modern depictions of genies can be found in the novel Declare by Tim Powers (2001), and the Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud (2003). Popular depictions of genies in television and film include the 1965 series / Dream of Jeannie starring Barbara Eden, and the 1996 Shaquille O'Neal film Kazaam.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

The Children of the Lamp series by P. B. Kerr is a series of fantasy novels about twelve-year-old twins named John and Philippa who discover they are actually descended from a line of jinn and must find a way to adjust to their new supernatural lives. The first book, The Akhenaten Adventure (2005), follows the pair from New York to England to Egypt in pursuit of the ghost of Akhenaten, all while being pursued by an evil jinn named Iblis.

SEE ALSO African Mythology; Roman Mythology; Semitic Mythology