Q. I am in love with the material on your website, may God reward you for your efforts. I wanted to ask another question regarding Jinn. Before I get into it, let me preface by saying I have come to many of the same conclusions I have read at your website through years of study and contemplation (that's not to say I haven't learned a ton in the two days since I've discovered your website). Every once in a while, however, I hit a roadblock in understanding some of the "difficult" verses dealing with the unseen, miracles, etc. Alhamdullilah, I've been studying enough to know that when I run into something I can't rationalize, I should just accept what Allah says while consigning the true knowledge of the matter to God without resorting to literalism or rejection (unfortunately, the two most prevalent routes people take when encountering difficult verses – as if God's words would be so shallow that all of its secrets would be unveiled over a cursory perusal).
Anyway, back to my question. I have no problem accepting that God exists with all the attributes of perfection, or that there is a hereafter, or that there are messengers that He inspires with guidance, or in the concept of predestination (while maintaining that we have free will). I also believe that Allah is capable of performing miracles, but I prefer the rationalist explanations on the basis that God seems to want to be found through introspection, reflection, and study. That leaves the beings such as the angels and Jinn, specifically the idea that sentience can exist outside of a corporeal body (this is not hard for me to understand when it comes to God for many reasons; it's also not hard for me to envision the idea of Jinn as non-sentient dark energy). I have seen some of the alternative opinions – that the Jinn in the eponymously named sura refers to people of other nations, leaders, etc., but that's unappealing to me because just a few verses down in the Qur’an, the word Jinn is used in the sense of unseen creation. Personification and symbolism don't work either, since the story is in reference to a recent (relative to the revelation of the verses) occurrence. Also, your idea – that I really liked, by the way – that you used in another verse, that the Qur'an speaks to the people relative to their understanding of reality – doesn't work either in this case since it's actually introducing a new dimension of Jinn into the canon.
At this point, do we accept that Jinn exist as sentient beings with choice, reason, etc., or do we wait for a better explanation, or what? I'm fine either way, since I definitely believe that the Qur'an is the word of God (wa'lhamdullilah). But I thought I'd reach out to you and get your opinion on the matter.
A. Thank you for your kind comments, we are happy to hear that you find the website so beneficial. Having carefully read your letter, I feel we can take the liberty of introducing another dimension to the concept of exegesis. It is not something new, but merely elaborating what others have propounded: Ibn Rushd's idea of understanding on different levels, and also Nasr Abu Zayd's concept that is similar, albeit in a modern coinage; namely that as our intellect expands, so too does our understanding. To all of that now, I wonder if you have read Karen Armstrong's "History of God," which introduces another concept of epistemology: that of knowledge and truth being categorized into mythos and logos. This brings us to how the Qur’an couches its words: are we to take everything in terms of the rational, scientific truth as our modern learning spurs us to do, or take some verses and concepts on the dimension of myth and metaphor? If we say NO, then we can accept that mountains did not actually PRAY with David when he did. If we say YES, then the mountains did pray with him, and I don't think this leaves any room for reconciliation with the Qur’anic concept of amthal: parables and metaphors. And how would the people of the Prophet’s time have understood Jinn? Given their worldview, they would have probably conceived of unseen beings, possibly demonic, given that the word itself comes from the root "unseen." Yet we know such interpretation has evolved where some ulama (scholars) have ruled on the possibility of microbes or some other form of existence that are beyond our perception. On a personal level, I take the verses as some sort of illustration that there are other forms of creation, mentioned so that we can compare our state of being with God. The possible interpretations are myriad, so I stay away from those because each one that I incline to opt for seems to have a flaw. If we get beyond the idea of the meaning of 'truth" in the Qur’an as purely literal – rational in the scientific paradigm – then I think we are okay. On what level, one may ask? For me, I like to think that the philosophical message of the Qur’an is a general one. In our time we may even regard Jinns as a trope that made sense to the people of the Prophet's time, for the duty of any prophet is to deliver his message in a manner that is acceptable to his contemporaries. To us, depending on our academic or confessional backgrounds, we may read the verses differently. What matters is that we avoid denigrating even that which seems silly, because after all, the intent and meaning is the spirit that such verses inculcate in the mind of the believer. May God guide us, with our limitations, to understanding in such a manner that makes us useful citizens of this planet earth, ameen.
Posted August 4, 2013