Exploring the tradition of jinn inspiring poets
Detail from "The Day of Judgement," picturing "five incorporeal beings," possible jinn; Folio 10b from Falnameh (Book of Divination), ca. 1610- 1630 CE
On a full-mooned night, a jinniyah of green smoke and eyes whispered into human ears:
"Let us build a nation where you and I can love the earth anew."
The jinn, the spiritual and fiery beings of Arabic deserts and gardens, have been known to inspire famous Arab poets, such as Hassan ibn Thabit and Abu Nuwas, with verses of poetry.
The phenomenon of poets getting inspired by the jinn can be traced back to pre-Islamic times. It is a living artistic and spiritual tradition that allows people to experience, to some extant, the visionary realities of the prophets, the Friends of God (Awliya) and the saints.
The poet begins to manifest through his words some of the non-physical visions of the al-ghayeb (invisible world). The words become the flesh, the given form of a spiritual idea or feeling that can help, as the jinniyah puts it, "build a nation where you and I can love the earth anew."
According to El-Zein, a scholar and poet, poetic verse can be the product of two camps: poets of reason and poets of inspiration. The first believes that poets need to master the craft of poetry in order to give birth to good verses.
On the other hand, the second falls under the tradition of jinn inspiring poets, which puts more emphasis on inspiration. It is a camp that believes poetry springs forth out of an invisible spiritual source.
Who are the Jinn?
The jinn are shape-shifters. They can take the form of many living creatures, such as that of animals or humans. They can come as seducing beautiful women with red lips or cats with sparkly eyes.
The term jinn has the two Arabic letters "jim" and "nun," which El-Zein states that once they occur together, "they carry the meaning of invisible, hidden and mysterious (Islam, Arabs and the Intelligent world of the Jinn, 34)." But their nature can still be accessed and celebrated through poetry.
The poet 'Antarah ibn Shaddad al-'Absi expressed the shape-shifting quality in his verse: "Like the flickering flame of a torch, the ghoul/ sometimes appears and sometimes disappears in my hands."
The ghoul, along with the hinn, 'ifrit, marid, nasnas, shiqq, and the si'lat, is one of the many jinn species. It is arguably the most talented in the art of shape shifting.
From the Book of Wonders (Kitab al-Bulhan), late 14th century
The Arabic word ghoul, according to Al-Jahiz, Islamic theologian and intellectual, is defined as "every supernatural creature that is capable of taking on infinite forms." Whereas in poetic language, according to Al-Zabidi, the word ghoul, as used in Shaddad's verse, means anything that is perpetually changing.
The poet who follows the inspiration of the jinn ends up roaming in a world where he or she owns to nothing. Every belief, artistic vision or feeling is understood to be changing. Thus, the poet is taught to let go of his ecstatic visions once he or she is done transforming them into words, no matter how gripping they can be.
The ghoul starts to threaten whatever the human upholds and believes in to be part of their 'solid' identity with the ecstasy of inspiration. One begins to drift into a sea of infinite waves, possibilities and beauty. There is never only one thing.
A poet can be blessed with divine inspiration, but it must not be taken for granted. There are times when inspiration does not come, teaching the poet patience and humbleness until it strikes again.
The poet's world
Poetry is a place that brings different psychological states to the surface. It brings the inwards, outwards and that's what makes it life changing.
A story of a poet who got lost on his way to Hadramout, in Yemen, shows how that can be possible:
In the desert, poet al-'A'shah came across a tent. A host named Mish'al welcomed him inside. The host asked him about whom he was. The poet said, "I am al-'A'shah." Suddenly, the host started to recite some poetry to him, which surprised al-'A'shah for the verses were his own. The verses were describing a woman called Summaya whom the poet knew. At that moment, the host called for the woman, who appeared out of nowhere and Al-'A'shah began to shiver. Finally, his host told him he was Mish'al, his jinni inspirer (Islam, Arabs and the Intelligent world of the Jinn, 131)."
This vision of the poet is not an illusion or made up. For it has taken place in the world of the jinn- a non-physical reality called the imaginal.
In Islam, the cosmos are perceived as the whole of three worlds: the spiritual (world of light), the imaginal (world of fire), and the corporeal (world of clay). Angels inhabit the first world, jinn the second, and humans the third.
According to William C. Chittick, one the world's leading translators and interpreters of classical Islamic philosophical and mystical texts, for Muslim thinkers there is God (Being) and everything other than God (the three worlds). Our world and that of the jinn and angels are what God imagines into being. Even though they are not God, the worlds can provide us a path towards the "true knowledge of ourselves and of God," since they reflect His nature (The Sufi Path of Knowledge 4, 16).
The jinn act as guides for the poet in seeking knowledge. And they start from within. For the jinn are the hidden ones, blossoming from the inward and non manifest parts of creation.
Once the pen of the poet is held, a bridge appears uniting the physical (our world) and that of the jinn, the imaginal, for divine inspiration to spill.
From The Wonders of Creation book (Acaib-ül Mahlûkat). Translated into Turkish from Arabic. Originally published in 1553 AD. The map shows the Islamic view of the cosmos. The earth is surrounded by the mountains of Qaf, which are also known to be a place for the jinn.
Macrocosm and the microcosm
The poet starts to get in touch with the whole of creation. For the human also holds within him/herself the three worlds: the spirit (ruh) representing the spiritual world, the soul (nafs) representing the imaginal and the body (jism) representing the corporeal. Thus, the human is the microcosm of the macrocosm, holding the outward worlds inwardly.
It is easier to get in touch with the jinn than the angels because they are closest to our nature. Just like their world (the imaginal), they stand in-between the spiritual and pyshical. This makes them have qualities from both the spiritual and the physical worlds, but at the same time they are neither spiritual nor physical, nor dark or light. This makes them intermediary and ambiguous, capable to appear in many different forms.
According to Ibn 'Arabi, dreams take place in that in-between world. In dreams, spirits can take a physical form, while the physical bodies can take a spiritual form. In that way, dreams make anything possible and the jinn share in that quality of pushing the limits we have taken to be indisputable.
The world of the jinn, standing as intermediary, between the spiritual and physical worlds is what Ibn 'Arabi calls the imagination. It is part of who we are, which allows us to tap into the infinite imagination of God.
To be inspired by the jinn is to dare dream outside the box and to have a taste of the prophets' path of revelation.
As Chittick puts it, the soul (nafs)- our self-awareness - begins to travel the world of imagination, of the jinn, "moving from darkness to light, ignorance to knowledge, meanness to generosity" for the purpose of self-discovery and finding, which is what the tradition of jinn inspiring poets is all about.
Along the journey, the poet awaits divine inspiration, where it falls like a water drop on the chest, trickling from the hidden stream that begins in the world of imagination and ends in the physical.
Illustration from an illuminated manuscript of Hamsah, a poem by Nezami. Makhan embraced by an Ifrit, a type of jinn.
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