The belief in jinn (genies) is both serious and widespread in the Arabic world.
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Close associates of Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have been accused of using witchcraft and summoning genies by influential clerics in that country. According to news reports, about two dozen of Ahmadinejad's close aides have been arrested and charged with being "magicians." One man, Abbas Ghaffari, was reportedly accused of summoning a genie who caused a heart attack in a man who was persecuting him.
Witchcraft and genies sound bizarre, but it's important to understand the cultural context of these accusations. The genies that most Americans are familiar with come from entertainment and pop culture, such as the 1960s sitcom "I Dream of Jeannie," and the animated big blue wisecracking genie in "Aladdin." [Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena]
However belief in genies (or jinn, as they are better known in the Arabic world) is both serious and widespread. In his book "Legends of the Fire Spirits: Jinn and Genies from Arabia to Zanzibar" (Counterpoint Books, 2011), journalist Robert Lebling notes that "jinn are taken seriously and regarded as real, tangible beings by a large segment of the world's population.... They often appear humanoid or even human but possess amazing powers we lack. They can change their shapes, can fly through the air, and even can render themselves invisible."
Just like humans, some genies are good, and some are evil; there are even genies of different faiths — or no religion at all. Genies grow up, marry, raise families, live in their own communities, and die, just like us.
Though belief in genies predates Islam, the creatures are repeatedly referenced in the Koran, the Muslim holy book — not as metaphors but instead as real entities whose existence and activities is no more remarkable than those of humans. The Koran states that Allah created three types of beings: humans, made of earth; angels, made of light; and jinn, made of smokeless fire.
Just as many Christians readily accept the literal reality of angels (and see evidence of their influence and presence around them), many Muslims accept the existence of genies as self-evident. And just as Christian theologians have long debated the nature of angels, Muslim theologians have long debated the nature of jinn: whether they have physical bodies, where they live, and even whether it is permissible for humans to have sex with jinn.
Accusations of witchcraft and sorcery are not unheard of around the world, especially in political campaigns where they are used as a smear tactic. In America, Christine O'Donnell, the Republican who ran a failed bid for a Senate seat in 2010, had to answer political questions about whether she had practiced witchcraft. [6 Misconceptions About Witchcraft]
The accusations against Ahmadinejad's aide Ghaffari are especially powerful coming from Islamic religious authorities. Indeed, accusations of witchcraft can be quite serious. In 2008 a man named Ali Sabat, who claimed to be psychic, was arrested in Saudi Arabia where fortunetelling and prophecy have been condemned as witchcraft. Sabat was condemned to die for practicing witchcraft, though last month his death sentence was reduced to 15 years in prison.
In the end, the accusations of sorcery and genie summoning against Ahmadinejad and his associates provides a fascinating glimpse of how ancient religious and popular beliefs can be used inmodern political struggles.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries. His Web site is www.RadfordBooks.com.