In short, what I’ve presented in this very brief series summarises the nucleus of the debate, and other things said about the issue tend to be complimentary or tangential. Along with scriptural sources and people’s experiences, a major topic that crops up is what scholars have had to say. What I’d like to put forward here about the view of scholars of the past is that many of them are not actually saying much of what’s claimed.
For example, some cite al-Qurtubi’s views on 2:275 which I covered in the post on the Qur’an, but as I highlighted (in the post on hadith), drawing on the sources holistically scholars concluded that jinn could penetrate the body to add potency to their whispers, not that the devil would penetrate the body to take it over and appropriate human autonomy. This is what Ibn Taymiyyah’s statement that “the leaders of Ahlussunnah agree that the jinns’ penetration of the human body is valid” was referring to in Majmu’ al-Fataawa, or Abul Hasan al-Ash’ari’s explanation (if we can soundly ascribe the Maqalaat to him) that “Ahlussunnah say that the jinn may penetrate the body of the afflicted.”
As for whether jinns take over a person’s limbs or intellect, then yes, Ibn Taymiyyah might have personally sympathised with this view but it’s one he noticeably doesn’t go on to ascribe to the leaders of Ahlussunnah instead reasoning it as an empirical fact (which I’ve asserted is incorrect in the ‘experiences’ post), saying: “it is something witnessed and felt for those who contemplate it.” The fact is, the view doesn’t seem to have been greatly held nor explicitly addressed in the way we do today. Yes, al-Qurtubi saw it as causing epilepsy, but think about it, even from al-Qurtubi’s point of view: causation is clearly not the same as taking over the body to pretend it has epilepsy! Many scholars of Ahlussunnah, past and present, have explicitly discussed the capabilities of devils, affirming from one perspective that their physical constitution allows them to be able to pass through a human body (and other things) but that their power (sultan) over humans is limited to waswasah (whispers). For clarity, there are two separate/distinct theological issues here:
1) that the faint physical constitution of jinns (like air) allows them to move through small crevices, including those within the human body;
2) that the power (sultan) jinns have is limited to waswasah/whispers, i.e. the power of suggestion (and not possession).
What has always surprised me, beyond how such matters have been conflated, is how people get away with an appeal to scholars that tends to rest on just a couple of names perceived to be in favour of possession. Although there are many scholars we’re at liberty to cite, from whom we might infer a dismissal of the view, I’ll provide just a few here for some balance. I’ve chosen these luminaries because I believe that collectively they speak to the majority of British Sunni Muslims:
1. Ibn Hazm not only dismissed the idea of jinn possession explicitly, referring to it as a superstition (kharafaat), but held that “such things are not possible (i.e they don’t fall for it) except to the weak minds of the elderly…that he (the devil) can speak using someone’s tongue is senility and clear insanity; we seek protection in God from deception and affirming superstitions.”
2. Al-Tahawi’s commentary on previously cited hadiths in Mushkil al-Athaar resolutely puts it that the influence of the jinn on humans is limited to the power of suggestion through waswasah (whispers) saying, “The only thing people were commanded to do is seek protection from the devil against the power (sultan) he has over them which is waswasah (whispers) that incite an adoration for evil and a dislike of good…” Ibn al-Qayyim provides a similar commentary for the same hadith on cursing the devil in Zaad al-Ma’ad.
3. Al-Razi, the imam of kalam/Ash’arism/tafsir/fiqh/usul pretty much seems to suggest the same as al-Tahawi in his al-Tafsir al-Kabir, affirming that the physical constitution of jinns allows them to be able to pass through a human body (and other things) but that their power (sultan) over humans is whisperings. The latter point is seemingly further advocated where he explores two opinions that people hold on the devil’s touch suffered by the Prophet Job, with an emphasised exploration of the view that “the devil has absolutely no ability to confer diseases or painful afflictions.”
4. In more modern times, Ibn Ashur also holds to the Quranic narrative that limits the influence of the jinn to waswasah in Tahrir wa Tanwir, and in his explanation interprets the oft-cited hadiths consistently in that context.
In the same vein, there’s a final point that stoutly needs to be corrected about the Mu’tazilah, which also exposes the ignorance of those who engage in bad faith. As I wrote, those today who charge interlocutors with Mu’tazilism (in nearly every matter) know absolutely nothing about the scholarly tradition of the Mu’tazilah. On this matter, Qadi Abdul Jabbar, an imam of the Mu’tazilah, sympathised with Ahlussunnah’s view that jinns might be able to traverse a human body, stating that “if what we have argued about the faint constitution of the jinn and that their constitution is like air is correct, then it is not inconceivable that they may enter our bodies just as air or repeated breaths do.” Other Mu’tazilis didn’t even get to the point of dismissing possession per se since they erroneously believed that scriptural references to jinns were metaphorical and that jinns don’t exist in reality. What I’m highlighting here is that essentialising Mu’tazili opinion to deploy the fallacy of association (“this is just Mu’tazili!”) is plain ignorant. To add to this is the obvious point that not all of what the Mu’tazilis held was wrong – as if they got nothing right!
Whilst the aversion of early scholars towards the Mu’tazilah began as theological, the aversion quickly included legitimate political grievances towards them. This grievance was carried by later generations into a wider theological setting where misconceptualisations of many Mu’tazili views became essentialised and entrenched, with the group conveniently employed as theological bogeymen. Where some later medieval scholars would disparage the alleged views of the Mu’tazilah, it wasn’t always the case that the Mu’tazilah homogeneously held those views, if at all. In case someone misses the point here, I’m not launching a defence of the Mu’tazilah but highlighting how scholarship requires diligence when unpacking claims/assertions, let alone resorting to juvenile tactics.
Having said all this, I hope what I have presented in this series is clear and coherent. There are many British Muslims who do not really believe in possession (and other superstitions), but due to the militant way in which many advocates behave, most are intimidated into outward submission. If people want to believe in possessions then that’s their (unhealthy) prerogative, but we’ll not leave believers to be intimidated into accepting superstitions that are impediments to good health and faith, and opportunistically abused by pretenders.
May God guide us all to what is upright and beneficial for both abodes.