Muhammed al-Hinai points to the spot behind his modest cement house where the inferno appeared eight months ago.
Even today, as though the blaze might re-kindle any moment, al-Hinai stops short of his yard, halting at the edge to trace the shape of the green flames that hovered ominously for several minutes above the sand, neither growing nor relenting. His fingers shake as he remembers, and outlines for me, their odd diagonal angles.
Spontaneous fire under the scorching sun in this patch of desert might almost be expected—except that the blaze in al-Hinai’s yard broke out amid sand and rock on a cloudless night during the bitter chill of an Oman winter. And then there’s the matter of the awful cackling he heard echoing within the flames—and the pale woman in rags who stood atop his wispy sidr tree just before the blaze, who vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
Al-Hinai dashes back up his staircase and insists on closing the door tightly before continuing our discussion of the fire. Because outside—hidden among the endless sand and shrub—the evil demons that plague the desert town of Bahla, Oman, are almost certainly listening.
A devout Muslim who attended the country’s premiere university, raised five children, and worked as a supervisor at a factory 20 miles down the road, al-Hinai is not delusional. Nor is he alone in this disturbing experience. Stories about confrontations with malicious spirits in Bahla—and rampant speculation as to why they intrude so frequently here—abound within this tight-knit community and have spilled out into the rest of the country.
“Today, now—Friday around Maghreb prayer—this is when the evil jinn are most active in Bahla,” al-Hinai declares while the sunlight fades and he draws tight the blinds in his sitting room. “Everyone here has had an experience with them,” he continues in a lower voice, so the jinn might not hear.
But with so many regular jinn encounters, the community is divided over what to do about these spirits—whether, indeed, anything at all can be done, or even whether they should be acknowledged in the first place. Like the desert darkness that settles each night over this sandy outpost, here in Bahla, the burden of jinn is real.
Belief in spirit beings in one form or another, from the wailing banshees of Irish mythology to the corpse-eating Jikininki ghosts of Japanese Buddhist lore, transcends geography, faith, and ethnicity. Nor are these beliefs simply relegated to bygone eras: In 2013, a nationwide Harris poll found that, in addition to the two-thirds of Americans who believe in angels, over a quarter believe in witches and nearly half believe in ghosts.
Among Muslims—the second-largest religious group in the world—belief in spirit beings is common, and descriptions of them are particularly vivid in Islamic texts. The Qur’an tells the story of the birth of the jinn, supernatural creatures born of “smokeless fire,” while further verses and Hadith—collections of quotes attributed to the prophet Muhammed that supplement the holy book of Islam—lay out further details of the origins and principles of jinn.
These texts present an unsettling picture of jinn: extremely powerful beings made in the eyes of Allah alongside humans but with a proclivity for following the evil lead of Iblis, a haughty jinn (later to be known as Satan) who refused to bow to the superiority of Adam and subsequently vowed to lead all humans astray. Jinn also enjoy lurking in dark, unclean places, and Islamic doctrine even offers a supplication to ward off these foul spirits specifically for when entering shadowy or impure places like that bathroom: “In the name of God, I take refuge with you from all evil and evildoers.”
Comprehensive polling suggests that belief in jinn is substantial across the Muslim world; recent studies in Morocco, Pakistan, and the Islamic diaspora in the United Kingdom place the rate of belief in jinn above 80 percent among adherents of Islam. In theocracies like Saudi Arabia, jinn even regularly make the news for brushes with the law. In one 2009 court case, a Medina family tried to take a jinn to court for harassment, claiming the jinn had evicted them from their home. And while rich oral histories of jinn encounters exist as far west as Casablanca, it is in Arabia where many of these tales often spawned.
“The Arabian Peninsula is the heartland of jinn and, as the birthplace of Islam, the focal point of many jinn legends and beliefs,” writes scholar Robert Lebling in his book Legends of the Fire Spirits, Jinn and Genies From Arabia to Zanzibar. But why is Bahla, a nowhere town over a thousand miles east of Islam’s epicenter, so afflicted? Like jinn concealed in shadow, the clues are cloaked deep in the annals of its unique history.
Hemmed in by a vast mountain range to the north and dizzying expanses of open desert to the south, Bahla initially looks like one of many towns strung together like beads along the winding road carved into Oman’s sleepy interior. But one imposing structure makes Bahla stand out among the country’s chain of inland settlements: the 12th-century mud-brick fort that looms over the town, casting shadows over the market square that sits near its base. From this medieval Islamic stronghold, the area’s dominant tribe, the Banu Nebhan, ruled for three centuries and the center of Ibadism, the dominant school of Islam in Oman to the present day, emerged—as did stories of the evil jinn who prowled the area.
“Bahla was the center of military, religion, and politics in that age,” says Abdulfattah al-Humairi, a historian who worked on the Bahla Fort during its meticulous 25-year restoration process from 1987 to 2012, while sitting under its mighty mudbrick tower rising 155 feet in the air. “And powerful people attracted powerful jinn,” he admits, recalling stories of ancient Bahlawi generals who were potent enough to stand atop the fort and command the jinn.
But Bahla’s residents needed more than just inspiring figures, and for everyone else in town, success in the harsh medieval desert required tangible protection, which came in the form of 14 kilometers of impressive walls built in the 15th century to encircle the city. Walls meant real safety and became an integral part of local lore, affecting the town’s perception of outsiders and spirits, even into modernity.
Outside the walls meant danger: Stories circulated around town of Bedouin who would “come into the walls and kidnap people, take them to Dubai or Saudi Arabia, sell them like goats”—as well as “evil spirits that ate dogs and cannibalized humans,” writes Dr. Mandana Limbert, associate professor of anthropology at CUNY–Queens, in her book on Bahla in the 1970s. Even now, many Bahlawis continue to relay origin stories rooted in suspicion and distrust for three ancient mosques, now reduced to ruins, sitting just outside the town’s walls.
“The stories our grandfathers told us were that they were old Sufi mosques,” says one 70-year-old Bahla resident over a cup of tea in the town square. “Some stories said that the mosques just flew in and landed there one day. Some also said that the Sufis were banished from their own town because of their collaboration with jinn, and they brought [jinn] here,” he continues.
And though tales of jinn may have existed in the region even before the Bahla Fort (the word “ghoul” is the cognate of “gul,” a monster found in pre-Islamic Arabian storytelling)—and whether or not stories of ruthless cannibalizing spirits or mysterious Sufi outsiders in Bahla harbor any kernels of truth—their place is certainly deeply rooted in the town’s own mythology.
Today, stories of jinn sightings in Bahla still range from disquieting to downright bone-chilling. I sit with one family that woke each week to a low moaning outside the house—and each week they would find strange mounds of rocks and sand meticulously piled directly underneath the window of their infant son’s room. A group of farmers tell me of the jinn they have heard haunting the palm oases dotting town, preying on them after dusk by calling their names across the valley until they are dangerously lost and bitterly cold.
But outright possession by these malevolent spirits is much more terrifying than these fleeting encounters. If the acute physical afflictions are unnerving—one middle-aged man blew directly into my ears to convey the sensation he felt rattling through his skull for months—the mental consequences and personality changes are categorically disturbing.
“I found my brother some nights muttering against a wall, muttering unintelligible words,” one man claims of his 30-year-old sibling.
In the oldest section of Bahla’s downtown souk area, shopkeepers fretfully point out two spots where spirits are believed to enter humans—an old stoop near a tea shop that they adamantly insist must be avoided, and a leafy tree casting shadows over the market’s main square. But others maintain when a heart doesn’t properly recognize the power of God, the soul becomes susceptible to jinn possession.
“Many people acquire [jinn] when they start sentences and actions without first saying bismillah (in the name of God) or when giving a compliment without first saying mashallah (God has willed it),” explains Muhammed al-Wardi, a former shopkeeper who now spends his days reading the Qur’an within the market.
But it is the course of treatment after someone has been possessed by jinn that’s truly the most delicate topic in town. As one young resident puts it, “With jinn, there is a fine line between Islam and something else. And exorcisms start to cross into that ‘something else’ territory,” he pauses, searching for the right word. “’Something else’ even darker than jinn.”
Like Christianity and other religions that harbor beliefs in non-human spirits, Islam has its own traditions in exorcism. But in Oman, another exorcizing ritual known as zar also exists. In the academic journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture, Dr. Samir al-Adawi, a psychiatrist and researcher at Oman’s Sultan Qaboos University, describes the mechanics of a zar exorcism:
The essence of the ritual is to coerce the spirit to possess the medium so that it reveals why it has possessed that particular person. The shaman will lure his own Zar spirit to possess him or her. The shaman is then used to lure the unknown Zar spirit of the possessed person…. The client or ‘mobtala’a’ (possessed or afflicted one) wears special dresses for the occasion and often fasts until the ceremony ends…. The shaman is sometimes also a trained singer, who knows the songs and rhythms of each particular spirit. As he or she sings each spirit’s song and watches for a reaction, he or she is able to diagnose which type of spirit has taken possession of the person and how to “exorcize” it.
In Bahla, concerns about zar revolve around whether its ceremonies and rituals actually can be classified as Islamic exorcism, run somehow parallel to it, or—more worryingly—fall into shirk, or beliefs that can’t be reconciled within the monotheistic framework of Islam. Though it is practiced in several Muslim majority countries from Egypt to Iran, zar probably originated in Ethiopia and was brought to the Muslim world by Ethiopian slaves. But in Oman, zar was transferred via Zanzibari slaves during the mid-19th century when large territories of East Africa were controlled by Oman—and this tie to Zanzibar alone is problematic for some Omanis.
“Like America, Oman has a quiet history of race and culture tension with people whose ancestors were slaves,” says Said al-Ismaili, an Omani educator who proclaims two decades of experience communicating with jinn. “Some Omanis see Zanzibari heritage in Oman as foreign and then don’t trust it.”
But people within the community of zar practitioners are quick to espouse the ceremony’s inherently Islamic soul. “I have heard stories—people think zar means eating hot coals, performing sex rituals in the desert, or human blood sacrifices—everything,” says Harib al-Shukhaili, a zar exorcist who estimates that he has treated over 5,000 patients during his two decade-long practice, mostly from Bahla and the surrounding area.
“We only want to activate evils inside the human body and free people from them. This is Islamic,” he insists.
To bolster his point, al-Shukhaili grabs his young apprentice son—zar shamans’ skills are often passed down through generations—to relay one of their most desperate hopeless cases: a man and woman who came for treatment after losing 11 children before the age of three. But after an exorcism where al-Shukhaili claims he wrestled the spirit of a jinn from the wife’s body, the couple now has three children—all of them healthy and approaching their teens. “The only ‘sacrifice’ for them was a small zakat [Islamic charity] offering,” al-Shukhaili’s son says. “What we did was Islam.”
Al-Shukhaili is especially incensed by some of the stories of spirits he hears around town by people who look down on “Zanzibari” jinn beliefs and practices. “Some Omanis say they see dead relatives walking around the market and then disappearing. This is not in Islam, this is only ghost stories,” he says, tossing an amulet back and forth between his hands
“But in the end, this is all jinn,” he says, looking up to the sky as another sunset darkens the town square. “They want to tear us apart—our minds, communities, with arguments, disbelief, everything. And all the time the jinn are still here, waiting. This is the burden of Bahla.”
Demon Week is Pacific Standard‘s series of essays exploring all things diabolical—from devils to dogs, monsters to mental illness.