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Bedeviled: Jinn Doppelgangers in Islam & Akbarian Sufism

February 19, 2024 at 2:49 pm

Bedeviled: Jinn Doppelgangers in Islam & Akbarian Sufism
  • Book Author(s): Dunja Rasic
  • Published Date: March 2024
  • Publisher: State University of New York Press
  • Hardback: 220 pages
  • ISBN-13: 9781438496894

Doppelgangers are the stuff of fantasy, folklore and tradition and are an integral part of popular culture; one only has to think of Jake Gyllenhaal’s 2014 film, Enemy, where a depressed history teacher discovers he has an exact look-alike who works as an extra in films, to see how doppelgangers capture our imaginations today. The main definition of doppelganger seems to be a biologically unrelated exact look-alike of a person, or the double of a living person. Outside of the West, there is also a tradition of doppelgangers and, in the Islamicate, they are associated with jinns. Dunja Rasic’s Bedeviled: Jinn Doppelgangers in Islam & Akbarian Sufism explores the world of doppelganger jinn in medieval Islam and the writings of thirteenth-century Sufi mystic, traveller, scholar and poet, Ibn Arabi. Devotees of Ibn Arabi, who follow the Akbari Sufi order, not only continue to pore over his works for wisdom, they also preserve and pass down some of our understanding of doppelganger jinns. Who the jinn are and what their significance is has long been debated but, broadly, they are understood to be beings who are neither human nor angels, who exist between worlds and can influence humans.

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Doppelganger jinn, known as qarin (pl. qurana) or qarina, were the subject of lively debate in the medieval period. In Islamic tradition, “a qarin was generally understood to be a jinni companion and a doppelganger of human beings. Each qarin was thought to be conceived at the same time as its human. When a child is born, a qarin enters its heart.” Qurana are usually evil or mischievous beings who whisper to humans to tempt them to either follow whims and passions, or to do bad things. While we find jinns discussed in the Quran and a collection of prophetic narrations known as hadiths, the concept of jinns predates Islam and has strong ties to pre-Islamic Arabian folklore traditions. In different regions, local oral traditions make their way into Islamic debates about jinn, including qarin. In Palestinian oral tradition, the idea of evil doppelgangers may have given rise to tales of a female demoness, Qarina, who was a succubus, seductress and murderer of pregnant women and children. The belief in Qarina was likely inspired by tales of Lilith, the first wife of Adam, who, like Qarina, became a succubus, seduced men and harmed children. Qarina could appear as a beautiful woman and, in the Iraqi tradition, we encounter stories of men marrying her. But does this disqualify her from being classed as a jinn? As Rasic observers, “the main difference between a qarin and Qarina is reflected in the fact that Qarina’s cruelty is not reserved for a single person. Jinn are disgusted with menstrual blood which seems to attract Qarina.” What these discussions highlight is a concern with identifying boundaries and categorising jinn by medieval thinkers.

For Ibn Arabi, he saw qarin as “a devil within the blood and hearts of humans”. For the Sufi mystic, both jinn and qarin were not only supernatural entities, they were also ways of probing theological issues and problems in society. Through writing about them, Ibn Arabi not only tried to make sense of evil, but also, “to show how humans, jinn and, even the Devil himself, might be saved from it.” Indeed spiritual self work was key for all humans, “Sufi works often made no distinction between the act of taming a qarin and the purification of the lower soul.” Given how closely tied qarin were to humans, advice on how to deal with them often meant advice on how to deal with the individual self. A righteous human being who resists temptation offered by qarin could actually convert the qarin to Islam, as they will follow the piety and good actions of the person they are tied to.

Bedeviled offers a niche and exciting exploration of Jinn doppelgangers in Islamic thought; it lays out both clearly and concisely debates Ibn Arabi and others were having about the qarin and gives the read an excellent introduction into the world of jinn studies. In both medieval and contemporary societies in the Middle East, jinns are an active part of how people interpret the world around them and, while there is a lot of complexity and nuance in how people interact with these ideas, to imagine a world in which jinns are not part of the cultural landscape in the Islamicate would be hard to fathom. Both medieval and contemporary debates about jinn are not merely about exchanging scary stories, as we have become accustomed to doing with ghost stories, but are about grappling with moral issues, boundaries, religious obligations and the edge of human knowledge. While reading Bedeviled, I got a sense of a whole range of issues confronting society in the time of Ibn Arabi and the book provides an important window into it. Rasic’s book will surely not only be of interest to those who are interested in jinns, but also to those who are interested in the concept of doppelgangers and how different cultures think about them.

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