Here I’ll briefly deal with the most significant verse cited in favour of possession (2:275). The aim is to make clear how the interpretation of verses that try to establish that jinns take control of humans where the soul loses cognitive and physical autonomy is exceedingly far-fetched and weak, and misunderstands what’s been said by scholars of the past. I’m not dealing with the entirety of the subject but the popular arguments made for possession.
The MOST cited Quranic evidence for jinn possession, and the strongest according to its advocates, is the following verse:
But those who consume usury will rise up like someone tormented/driven insane by the devil’s touch.Qur’an 2:275
This verse refers to the resurrection of those who practice usury, who shall come back to life behaving like someone who is insane. al-Qurtubi explains this behaviour as caused by the usury weighing heavily down on their stomachs (from its consumption) which causes the usurer to continously lose balance and fall over thus resembling someone crazy. The verse led scholars to explore the nature of the statement that God made in 2:275: was it literal or figuritive? If it’s literal, can a devil merely touch someone to cause epilepsy? Given that the verse is related to the afterlife, and if it’s taken literally, does it only refer to interactions between humans and devils in the afterlife? On all of these al-Qurtubi records the variant views. But what the scholars were NOT discussing was whether jinns take control of humans personally.
Explaining the devil’s “touch”
1. The verse clearly refers to touch, NOT autonomy-losing possession. In a desperate bid to make the verse about possession, some draw on al-Qurtubi’s 11-12th points of commentary (on 2:275) where he discusses how the touch of the devil can afflict a person. To be clear: al-Qurtubi is often misrepresented here – he doesn’t say jinns take control of humans where the soul loses cognitive and physical autonomy. He claims that the touch causes a seizure, going on to define “touch” as the cause of insanity (junun) and NOT a jinn inside of a human pretending to be insane. al-Qurtubi then goes on to express two contentions:
a) with those who dismiss epilesy as being caused by the jinn, claiming that epilepsy is a physiological phenomenon (and not a supernatural one), and;
b) with those that claim the devil cannot traverse the human body, and that no such “touch” ever occurs.
Now the idea that epilepsy is simply a supernatural phenomenon is one nobody legitimately accepts today. However I sympathise with his second contention (which I’ll explain in a later post).
2. Some draw on Ibn Taymiyyah’s claim to consensus, somthing I’ll deal with later on. However, according to Ibn Taymiyyah’s (et al) interpretational principles, the strongest form of tafsir is to understand the Qur’an by means of the Qur’an itself (تفسير القران بالقران), i.e. an inter-textual analysis. So in this vein, if we look at God’s use of the “devil’s touch” elsewhere in the Qur’an, what might we strongly conclude? That “touch” refers to the whispers (waswasah) of the devil. Being touched by devils is to be subjected to their whispers (i.e figuratively touched by them) which either incite you to disobedience or misguidance, or draw on vulnerable emotions to push you over the edge.
3. For an inter-textual analysis: the most significant and detailed verses on the devil’s touch are:
Those who are aware of God think of Him when the touch of Satan prompts them to do something and immediately they can see [straight]; the followers of devils are led relentlessly into error by them and cannot stop.Qur’an 7:202-204
The verses simply tell us that God-conscious people think of God and seek refuge in him when the touch of Satan prompts them to do something. Here God relates the devil’s touch as being his misguidance – by remembering God and seeking refuge in Him, they overcome a touch that leads others (followers of devils, or literally “their brothers”) who don’t remember God into error (الغي). Interestingly, al-Qurtubi doesn’t repeat his contentions here, and considering views variant to his own without disparagement, cites Abu Ja’far al-Nuhas who said that “touch” refers to the devil’s whispers. Understanding the “devil’s touch” in the Quranic context is really that simple.
4. But to briefly add to this, another notable reference to “devil’s touch” concerns the Prophet Job who cried out to his Lord: “Satan has touched me with weariness and suffering.’” (38:41) This verse creates a double-edged dilemma for advocates of possession. If they use it literally it helps in the argument that the devil can cause physical suffering, but taking it literally also means that it’s through touch and NOT possession. Even if they had found a way around this dilemma (which they haven’t), would they have the temerity to suggest that the Prophet of God Job was possessed, and thus open to be inspired, by the devil?! If the devil had such power, especially over Prophets, it’d be the end of truth and monotheism!
So what did Job actually say?
The Arabic phrase can be taken in a number of ways depending on the ‘ba’ (preposition). Grammatically, we may take it as the devil’s touch causing Job’s suffering, OR it can be taken as the devil’s waswasah which exploited Job’s suffering and vulnerability in an attempt to misguide him. For many reasons, it seems that the most reasonable and consistent way (inter-textually) to take his statement is that the devil would whisper to him using his vulnerabilities to incite him against God. To provide a couple:
– The context of Job’s story: the devil believed he could misguide Job and turn him away from God. Throughout the Qur’an the term “touch” can be consistently understood as waswasah, which the Quran tells us is through “whispers into the hearts of people” (114:4) with “no power over you except to call you.” (14:22) Notably, it’s related (in the Isra’iliyaat and by Muslim historians) that the devil appeared to Job as an old man suggesting that God was ignoring his supplications and prayers.
– With what is consistent with waswasah, Job’s reaction (as 38:41 illustrates) was to seek refuge in God. Thus he acted as God expects: “If Satan should prompt you to do something, seek refuge with God.” (7:200, 41:36)
[Note: some exegetes merely considered it godly etiquette that Job ascribed the harm to the devil since it is inappropriate to ascribe negative things to God.]
Now as I’ve said, this is a very short treatment of the most significant verse cited in favour of possession. This isn’t even being ‘scholarly’ yet and I’m sure much of this is apparent for most laymen who actually engage the Qur’an. There’s so much more that can be explained, and many more verses that we can draw on, but for the purposes of a short post I hope that this very short treatment suffices.
The next post looks at some of the most significant hadith cited in favour of possession.