Saturday, September 21, 2013

Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar

by Robert Lebling
(New York: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2010)
eBook, 272 Pages, 2364 KB, Nonfiction

When Westerners think of a genie, the first image that comes to mind may be Barbara Eden in her pink harem pants or the illuminated blue buffoon from the animated Disney film Aladdin. But to the people of the Arab and Islamic worlds, the picture is dramatically different. Legends of the Fire Spirits looks beyond Westernized caricatures to immerse the readers in the vibrant lore of the jinn—the wondrous, often troublesome, and sometimes terrifying spirit beings of ancient Arab and Islamic tradition. Robert Lebling delves into long-lost accounts, medieval histories, colonial records, anthropologists’ reports, and travelers’ tales to explore the origin and evolution of legends that continue to thrive in the Middle East and beyond. He cuts through centuries of Orientalists’ cultural presumptions to craft a study that stands apart from the overwhelming body of literature concerned with religion in the Middle East. A captivating synthesis of history and folklore, this is the most diverse collection of jinn lore ever assembled in one volume. From ancient scriptures to The Arabian Nights and beyond, and with a foreword by acclaimed filmmaker Tahir Shah, Lebling has constructed a comprehensive account that not only transcends geographical borders and also spans some four millennia.

I first heard about this book listening to the Monster Talk podcast (a podcast which I highly recommend, by the way, as it is a scientific, rational skeptic and generally fun look at monsters and other paranormal, supernatural, cryptozoological phenomena). They interviewed Lebling on their December 7, 2011 episode (I only discovered and started listening to the podcast last year), and it was fascinating so I decided to pick up Lebling’s book and learn more about Jinn. I also learned that there are really only two books out there on the topic of Jinn, this one and The Vengeful Djinn: Unveiling the Hidden Agenda of Genies by Rosemary Ellen Guiley and Philip J. Imbrogno and I can only endorse one of them and Lebling’s book. Guiley and Imbrogno’s book is a collection of half-truths, new age mysticism, unsourced claims, and misinterpretations with a healthy dose of racism and xenophobia. Lebling’s book, on the other hand, is an academic look at the world of Jinn that relies on primary documents, researched sources and first-hand accounts of dealings with the jinn.

What unfolds in Legends of the Fire Spirits is a fascinating look at the world of jinn and all their many variations and permutations, and how each of these types of Jinn fit into the Arabic and Islamic worlds. It covers the history of jinn, as well as the demons and spirituality that predates Islam and how those ideas and beliefs were then, possibly, folded into the beliefs of Islam, as well as surveying Muhammad’s own dealings with Jinn as detailed in the Quran and other contemporary writings of the Prophet’s companions.

Given the tensions surrounding Islam in the world today, Lebling handles this potentially sensitive topic very well. He grounds his book in evidence (as I stated above) and cites his sources extensively and does both of these very well spanning across the millennia and looking at cultures from North Africa, into the Middle East and reaching further into Malaysia. He quotes Arabian, Islamic, and even Western studies that have come before him all the while claiming that he merely hopes this will help others continue research. That claims serves him well since he has no degree in any academic field we'd expect of such a study, only a career as a journalist that gives him the ability to research and to write in an engaging fashion.

I went into this book just looking for an interesting read, and ended up finding inspiration for my own horror novel, which was a very pleasant surprise. Whether you want to research jinn academically and need a starting point, or if you just want to learn more about a little-known topic, or if you just need something to fill the time, I can recommend this book to you without reservations.

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