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Halloween season is for ghosts, goblins, and other supernatural creatures. In the Christian-inflected United States, if we take these visitors seriously at all, we usually see them as evil forces to be avoided. As anthropologist Naveed Khan explains, attitudes are very different in Pakistan, where a jinni (genii, pl. jinn) may be a welcome guest.

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Khan writes that most Muslims believe that God created jinn long before humans, though how literally to take them is a subject of theological debate. Unlike angels, which are beings of pure goodness, jinn are more like humans. Some are Muslims, while others are not, and they’re capable of both good and evil. They can think rationally, experience emotions, eat, have children, and die. But they have superhuman abilities such as shapeshifting and extreme strength and speed, and they live very long lives.

One day in 2001, while doing research for her dissertation in Lahore, Khan visited the home of her Urdu teacher and co-researcher, Farooq Sahib. She overheard the family talking about a jinni named Sulayman, who had lived with them several years earlier. Sahib explained that an acquaintance had inherited a group of jinn from his magician father and gave them out to households like his, made up of “good Muslims.”

Sulayman communicated with them through his daughter Maryam, who was then eight years old. Khan notes that permitting the girl to shoulder this responsibility aligns with a Muslim conception of childhood.

“In Islam, children are free of religious obligations up to the age when they are seen as maturing,” Khan writes. “However, they are not seen as innocent creatures to be protected until this age. Rather, they are considered to have a certain strength and prescience that makes them effective as conduits to the world of spirits.”

When the jinni arrived, the family spent hours asking questions about the jinn world. Sulayman explained that he had lived at the time of Prophet Muhammed, and the family viewed his religious devotion as admirable.

One day, Maryam told her father that Sulayman wanted to taste human food. With Sahib’s permission, the jinni entered his body. “That day, as Farooq Sahib related to me, he had an appetite that frightened him with its enormity,” Khan writes. “He felt that he would have stayed rooted to his seat on the floor and would have eaten throughout the night, if he had not run out of food.”

People outside the family also respected the words of the jinni as relayed by Maryam. “For a while we were the most harangued house in this neighborhood, with the women dropping by all the time to ask us to locate lost keys, secure marriages, get their husbands jobs,” Sahib said.

But Sulayman eventually returned to its previous home, which Sahib believed was probably a good thing since the family had become too reliant on the jinni, weakening its direct relationship with God. Apparently one more commonality between jinn and humans is that both can sometimes outstay their welcome.

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Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 21, No. 2 (May 2006), pp. 234–264
Wiley on behalf of the American Anthropological Association