Again, nowhere near.

Here I’ll briefly deal with the most significant hadith cited in favour of possession. The aim is to make clear how the interpretation of particular hadith to establish that jinns take control of humans where the soul loses cognitive and physical autonomy is either a misunderstanding of the hadith, exceedingly far-fetched and weak, and in some cases relies on ambiguous wording – all of which is an illegitimate way to establish what is meant to be a theological imperative. As I’ve stated, I’m not dealing with the entirety of the subject but the popular arguments made for possession.

Here are some of the most cited hadith used for jinn possession, with very brief comments:

1. Hadith of Ibn Abbas (al-Bukhari and Muslim) about a women suffering from seizures who came to the Prophet and said: “I suffer from seizures and I become exposed, so call on God for me.” The Prophet replied: ‘If you want, you can be patient and you’ll have paradise, or if you want I can call on God to cure you.” She responded: “I’ll have patience…but call on God that I do not become exposed.” The discussion on possession arises because in another narration she blames the devil for her exposure. Yet in that narration she does not ascribe the seizures to the devil and neither does the Prophet. Furthermore, we almost certainly know that the Prophet didn’t view the seizures as the works of the devil for it is inconceivable that a believer would come to the Prophet complaining about the devil whom the Prophet could effortlessly ward off, yet would consciously allow the devil to persist and instead tell the believer to have patience with him, not even encouraging her to take refuge in God as per his advice to others (in keeping with 41:36). This is an important hadith as it explicitly relates how the Prophet saw a seizure, clearly he viewed it as a physiological problem which God poses to test human patience and godly resolve (indicated by his response in the story). Not only is it far-fetched to interpret this hadith as evidence of jinn possession, it’s counter-productive as it establishes the opposite!

2. Hadith of Uthman b. Aas al-Thaqafi (Sahih Muslim) whom the Prophet told to lead his people in prayer. He responded “I find something within me.” The Prophet placed his hand on his chest and back and then said: “Lead your people in prayer, and the one who does so should lighten it for amongst them are the old, the sick…” What he felt within him, as al-Nawawi points out in his commentary of Sahih Muslim, is the whisperings of the devil that sought to confuse him. This is made evident by the other narration in al-Bukhari and Muslim, where he says to the Prophet: “The devil comes between me and my recitation, confusing me.” The Prophet responded: “That is the devil Khanzab. So if you feel him (trying to confuse you), seek refuge in God from him…” With what is consistent with waswasah, the Prophet instructed him to seek refuge in God, acting on the verse: “If Satan should prompt you to do something, seek refuge with God.” (7:200, 41:36) It is extremely unsound to interpret the event as Uthman being possessed by the devil. (The narration in Ibn Majah is problematic as it contradicts narrations far more sound than it, and its various chains include weak narrators or those known for munkar narrations.)

3. Hadith of Safiyyah b. Huyay (al-Bukhari and Muslim), the noble wife of the Prophet, who visited the Prophet whilst he was in I’tikaf. The Prophet said to two Companions who noticed him walking her home later that night and feared that they may misunderstand the affair: “The devil runs in the veins of Adam, and I feared that he would plant something in your hearts.” Some scholars took the statement concerning the devil running through the veins of Adam literally, others took it figuratively. I think the context strongly suggests that “the devil runs in the veins of Adam” was meant as a figuritive expression. However, the key point here is that the Prophet doesn’t say that he fears the devil will possess them, but clearly refers to the devil’s planting of ill-thoughts in their hearts – waswasah.

A very important point to note is that it was mainly this hadith led scholars to conclude that the devil can enter the body – NOT to possess the human but simply to get closer to the heart/brain where the devil’s whispers would be even more potent. This was the position of scholars who advocated that the devil could penetrate the body (i.e. to have more potency), not that the devil would penetrate the body to take over and appropriate human autonomy. Those who advocate possession and draw on classical scholars completely misunderstand what the vast majority of those scholars were actually saying!

4. Hadith of Ya’la b. Murrah (Musnad Ahmad and others) about a young boy who had seemingly been afflicted with insanity. The Prophet said to him: “Get out enemy of God, I am the Prophet of God!” The particular narration often cited in Musnad Ahmad is weak having a broken chain (munqati’) although there are numerous corroborating narrations, the acceptability of which have been debated by muhaddithin, some of whom have deemed them reliable. Even if we were to accept the narration, it does not tell us that the boy was possessed, nor does it clarify what the Prophet was referring to. He may have been speaking to the affliction itself, or conceivably, speaking to a devil hiding within the boy to get closer to the heart/brain where the devil’s whispers would be even more potent (as explained in point 3). Also note that the Prophet didn’t perform ruqyah for possession as has become the habit today, but commanded departure – and of exactly what he intended, we cannot be certain. (In a hadith of Ibn Abbas, agreed to be a fiction by all muhaddithin, a mouse jumped out of the boy’s mouth!) Asserting this inconclusive narration as the basis for substantiating a theological imperative is simply absurd by any standard of religious reasoning and theology construction, especially when the interpretation contradicts the Quranic narrative.

The next post addresses what we’re to make of people’s experiences.

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