Shaikh Hamza Yusuf on Jinns: Powerful Men or Demons?
Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
The above audio is a presentation by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf about Jinns. I have too much respect for him to ignore it or let it pass.
Today, in Ramadan of 2022, I came across another verse that shows that Jinn are often not demons in the Quran and imply powerful men. So, I am updating my article and opening with that verse from Suran Anaam, “And on the day when He will gather them all together, He will say, ‘O company of jinn! you sought to make subservient to yourselves a great many from among men!’ And their friends from among men will say, ‘Our Lord! we profited from one another but now we have reached our term which You did appoint for us.’ He will say, ‘The Fire is your abode, wherein you shall abide, save what Allah may will.’ Surely, your Lord is Wise, All-Knowing.” (Al Quran 6:128) So, the beneficial relationship between common men and Jinn is bilateral according to this Quranic verse. This is more plausible if we understand Jinn to be powerful men. Masses have no understanding how demons may be benefiting from us or at least we don’t know it enough to bring it up as our main reply in the Divine Court. However, the masses know too well their dependence on the human leaders and how they are generally exploited by the haves and the established.
Hamza Yusuf (born January 1, 1958) is an American Islamic scholar, and co-founder of Zaytuna College. He is a proponent of classical learning in Islam and has promoted Islamic sciences and classical teaching methodologies throughout the world.
He is an advisor to the Center for Islamic Studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. In addition, he serves as vice-president for the Global Center for Guidance and Renewal, which was founded and is currently presided over by Abdallah bin Bayyah. He also serves as the vice-president of the UAE-based Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Societies, where Abdullah bin Bayyah also serves as president.
He is one of the signatories of A Common Word Between Us and You, an open letter by Islamic scholars to Christian leaders, calling for peace and understanding. The Guardian newspaper in the United Kingdom reported that “Hamza Yusuf is arguably the west’s most influential Islamic scholar.” Similarly, The New Yorker magazine reported that Yusuf is “perhaps the most influential Islamic scholar in the Western world.”
I have often applauded him and promoted him in the Muslim Times. But, despite his laudable biography and accomplishments, when it comes to understanding of Jinns, he is simply wrong and ill informed, as documented in the above audio presentation. We are all vulnerable and fallible as the holy Quran has said that Allah has created man as weak. (4:28) I don’t take any delight in his fall. However, it is very easy for me to fix his shortcomings in this area, for I am standing on the shoulders of giants of both great scientists and the great theologians and in his understanding of Jinns, he has chosen to stand on the shoulders of great theologians and ignored scientific achievements and that I believe accounts for all the limitations that he presents in this audio.
You can listen to his above lecture about Jinns in YouTube also. In the above audio Hamza Yusuf not only talks about alien abduction but also suggests that Jinns can present in our life in form of cats, dogs or snakes and goes as far as saying that Jinn can have sex with women and suggests it is uncertain if that can lead to birth or not.
In so doing, he is destroying all understanding of science, human biology, morality and forensics.
I searched Quranic translations for Jinn and found at least 32 mentions. Almost all of these mentions are better explained by translating Jinns as powerful men rather than demons or fairies, unless we choose to live in a land of fairy tales. There is one exception to this reading and that is about Iblis or Satan and that I will save for the end of the article.
One verse of Surah Saba, actually makes it incumbent to read Jinn as powerful men rather than demons and that is my central focus of discussion here. We read:
And remember the day, when Allah will gather them all together; then He will say to the angels: ‘Was it you that they worshiped?’ They will say, ‘Holy are You. You are our Protector against them. Nay, but they worshiped the Jinn (powerful men); it was in them that most of them believed.’ (Al Quran 34:40-41)
Now, we all know that some Muslims may worship graves but none worship Jinn or imaginary beings besides Allah and we also know that the masses are often misled by the powerful people, be they political leaders or religious scholars or other religious elites, a fitting commentary of the above verses. So, it is easy to grasp that Jinn, at least in the above verse, means powerful men and not demons.
What makes me more confident in my reading and understanding of the term Jinn, in the Quran, is a recent survey by Pew Research Center.
Belief in jinn is relatively widespread among the Muslims – in 13 of 23 countries where the question was asked, more than half of Muslims believe in these supernatural beings.
In the South Asian countries surveyed, at least seven-in-ten Muslims affirm that jinn exist, including 84% in Bangladesh. In Southeast Asia, a similar proportion of Malaysian Muslims (77%) believe in jinn, while fewer in Indonesia (53%) and Thailand (47%) share this belief.
Across the Middle Eastern and North African nations surveyed, belief in jinn ranges from 86% in Morocco to 55% in Iraq.
Overall, Muslims in Central Asia and across Southern and Eastern Europe (Russia and the Balkans) are least likely to say that jinn are real. In Central Asia, Turkey is the only country where a majority (63%) of Muslims believe in jinn. Elsewhere in Central Asia, about a fifth or fewer Muslims accept the existence of jinn. In Southern and Eastern Europe, fewer than four-in-ten in any country surveyed believe in these supernatural beings.
In general, Muslims who pray several times a day are more likely to believe in jinn. For example, in Russia, 62% of those who pray more than once a day say that jinn exist, compared with 24% of those who pray less often. A similar gap also appears in Lebanon (+25 percentage points), Malaysia (+24) and Afghanistan (+21).
The survey also asked if respondents had ever seen jinn. In 21 of the 23 countries where the question was asked, fewer than one-in-ten report having seen jinn, while the proportion is 12% in Bangladesh and 10% in Lebanon.
The fact that only 10% report seeing Jinns is very telling. Those who say prayers regularly in Russia are perhaps more exposed to the religious scholars who mislead them, a testimony to the truth of the above quoted verses of the Quran that a majority of the Muslims, worship their scholars and leaders.
To interpret the Quran it is very important to decide which verses we consider as fundamental on a given subject and which we assign as metaphorical, to take a secondary position, as that changes the whole understanding. I find the following verse of Surah Ale Imran, as my most important guide to understand and interpret the holy scripture:
Allah it is Who has sent down to you (Muhammad) the Book; in it there are verses that are decisive in meaning (fundamental) — they are the basis of the Book — and there are others that are susceptible of different interpretations (metaphorical). But those in whose hearts is perversity pursue such thereof as are susceptible of different interpretations, seeking discord and seeking wrong interpretation of it. And none knows its right interpretation except Allah and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge; they say, ‘We believe in it; the whole is from our Lord.’ — And none heed except those gifted with understanding. (Al Quran 3:7)
Only those firmly grounded in knowledge are gifted with understanding and are able to tell fundamental from metaphorical, who have broad and wide study, are not self centered, don’t worship prior commentators of the Quran and are not prisoners of their ego or their sects.
I am always chasing what is most important, clear and fundamental and trying to examine it from multiple different perspectives. I find the above verses of Surah Saba, key to the understanding of the Jinns. When I put them in the primary place and other verses on the subject in secondary place then wallah the whole mystery is solved and I and no other human can ever be possessed by a Jinn or imaginary beings, as they don’t exist.
I first understand the Quran from the Quran itself and other commentators and then my secular knowledge of psychiatry, neurology and their history, in the discussion at hand comes to my further reaffirmation.
In 1858 a simple peasant girl, 14-year-old, named Bernadette Soubirous, living in the small village of Lourdes in southwestern France, announced that she had seen an apparition, a supernatural appearance of mother Mary. A ‘lady’ dressed in white that had appeared to her and told her she wanted to convey important spiritual messages to the community. First chastised for telling tales, then examined by a medical doctor for signs of delusion or hysteria, Bernadette was eventually redeemed in the eyes of the authorities when the apparition provided various signs through the child that she was in fact the Virgin Mary, “the Immaculate Conception.” The apparition then led the child to a previously unknown underground spring in the grotto, revealed to Bernadette, was declared to have miraculous qualities, and Lourdes has since become a major pilgrimage center. More than 5,000,000 pilgrims, many of them sick or disabled, visit the site annually.
Miracles began to happen soon after the discovery of the fresh water spring. But, it would not do for any number of ordinary people to begin deciding for themselves whether or not they were recipients of a miracle healing. Miracles were the sort of things that needed to be determined by experts, and so in the course of recognizing Lourdes as a healing shrine, the Church authorities also undertook to set up a Medical Bureau-a commission of Catholic doctors-whose job it was to act as gatekeepers, to determine which of the many healings at Lourdes really met the stringent criteria for what was called ‘medical inexplicability.’ So stringent were the criteria set down that to this day, out of thousands of cases of claimed miracle healings at Lourdes, only sixty-six have been recognized by the Church as true ‘signs of God.’ (The most recent was ratified in February 1999: a case of multiple sclerosis suffered by a middle-aged Frenchman named Jean-Pierre Bely.)
The skeptics and the secular thinkers thought that the ‘miracle cases’ were nothing more than a case of hysteria responding to the power of suggestion. But, what about the sudden remission of symptoms that were not obviously hysterical in origin?
Charcot had extensive experience in neurological illnesses that formed the majority of the miracle cures at Lourdes. Charcot’s most enduring work was on hypnosis and hysteria. He used hypnosis to induce a state of hysteria in patients and studied the results, and was single-handedly responsible for changing the French medical community’s opinion about the validity of hypnosis (it was previously rejected as Mesmerism).
As clerics invoked the idea of suggestion only to call attention to its explanatory limits, asking why ‘suggestion’ worked the best at the shrine only, the champion of the world of French hysteria and hypnosis research, Jean-Martin Charcot, found himself boiling with indignation. Secularists to the core, with no love for the Catholic Church, he was gravely affronted that members of the clergy should misappropriate medical discussions about the power of suggestion to advance spurious supernaturalist arguments. His view of the healings at Lourdes was that these simply showed that medicine had underestimated the power of the mind to heal the body. Alongside the power of suggestion, Charcot thus began to argue, medicine needed to recognize a second, more potent power of the mind, one that was perhaps often stimulated by religious belief but that in itself had no inherent religious implications. He called this power faith.
French medicine needed a strong rebuttal to the Church’s views on Lourdes, and he was in a perfect position, on behalf of his profession, to provide one. Charcot wrote ‘The Faith Cure’ (‘La foi qui guerit), and arranged for it to be published simultaneously in English and French in 1892, one year before his death. All the healings at Lourdes, extraordinary as they were, were simply evidence that the natural healing powers of the mind were far more extensive than the medical profession had previously appreciated. Why had it taken Lourdes to reveal this? Charcot focused on the remarkable features of Lourdes as a site. Its remoteness meant that all pilgrims underwent a long, arduous journey to reach it (the train trip from Paris at that time took twenty-two hours). When they finally arrived, they were exhausted and their critical faculties were diminished. Arriving at the shrine (grotto) itself, they were then immediately immersed in multiple sacred symbols of healing. Joining crowds of other believers, they were infected with the emotional contagion of collective hope. It all added up to a fabulous confluence of factors guaranteed to open the mind to any and all influences.
Hence the cures and the miracles that have continued till date. There is no need for supernatural explanation for these events and the medical science today has perfectly natural explanation for such healings and the so called demonic possessions or exorcisms.
If humanity denies logic and science we are vulnerable to be misled. It is very apparent in a Pew Research Center study of exorcism in different Christian communities, while in US only 11% are vulnerable the odds increase to 61% in Kenya:
If we have to keep our understanding of medicine, psychology, psychiatry and neurology, the Muslim scholars have to give up their obsession with Jinn. Otherwise, hell breaks loose and we never know when we are moving from the domain of human psychology to demonic possession.
If we keep our minds open and learn from all sources religious and secular we get a more wholesome understanding.
As regards the issue of Iblis or Satan, in the interest of space, let me just link two articles here: Surah Zukhruf – Ornaments of Gold: The Satan that Doesn’t Exist and Surah Al Baqara (The Cow): Section 4: Adam and Eve.
If we elevate one person to the pedestal, be he a great Sunni scholar like Hamza Yusuf, supreme leader of Shiite Islam in Iran: Ali Khamenei, Imam of Ismailis: Prince Aga Khan or the Khalifa of Ahmadiyya Muslims: Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad, and limit our learning only to them with the exclusion of others, then we are disobeying the prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, when he said a word of wisdom is the lost wealth of a believer, he finds it and accepts it from whatever source or wherever he finds it.
The prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, said that the scholars of my Ummat are like the prophets among the Israelites. So, let us respect our teachers as such but not elevate them to the status of Gods, for in so doing we divide ourselves into sects and wisdom, rationality, vision and beautifully evolving understanding of the Quran escapes us.