Knot of the Soul Book Event: A Political Theology of Jinn?

Stefania Pandolfo’s book provides us with an intersecting account of the wounds left open by the trauma of colonization in Morocco. It is less a theoretical work than an attempt to be true to the lives and experiences of those to whom she has lent her ethnographic ear. Their lives and experiences are outlined and unfolded in terms of dialogue between Islamic psychology and psychoanalysis that she finds to be already well underway—not only in colonial and postcolonial debates over psychiatric practice in France and Morocco, but in the most authoritative texts of psychoanalysis itself. Yet even this framing is inadequate, as her rich exploration of the artwork produced by Ilyias while in a psychotic “state” (hāla) draws on the aesthetics of Aby Warburg and Giorgio Agamben as well as Islamic thought on the importance of the image and the imagination. Here above all, we can see that her theorization follows her ethnographic subject rather than the other way around—a priority that had already become clear in Chapter 6, “The Burning,” which is made up largely of her interlocutors’ debate over whether risking the passage to Europe amounts to suicide. Indeed, she concludes her work with a harrowing account of the Imam’s use of Qur’anic healing to drive out a jinn.

There is much in this work to instruct a Western reader—I certainly learned a great deal. Few academics in the West know much of anything about the history of public policy in any postcolonial society, and in that respect her discussions of the debates surrounding psychiatric care in Morocco were very informative. Here and elsewhere, she shows the Western debate to be parochial and narrow compared to what is found in the postcolonial world, where intellectuals engage with Islamic traditions and Western thinkers as a matter of course. Hence when she draws her own analogies with Freud, Lacan, Warburg, Agamben, or any number of other Western thinkers, it comes across as a suggestion or a hypothesis rather than an “explanation” in any strong or reductive sense. She never claims that the jinn simply “are” unconscious drives, for instance, even if psychoanalytic explorations of the drives can shed some light on the dynamics of the fraught relationship between human beings and jinn. If the Imam can live in a world in which Western psychiatry and Qur’anic healing can coexist without fully reducing one to the other, then so can she.

While I admire this approach, I did find myself wishing for more explicit theorization. In fact, it sometimes seemed to me that Pandolfo was planting hints for such a theorization, allowing the reader to piece together the implications of her work rather than belaboring them herself. Another way to look at this is that she sets up a series of Möbius strip, where certain realities are inextricably linked without ever being able to appear on the same level. To return to the relation between the jinn and the unconscious drives—the two discourses operate in parallel but, due to a twist along the way, they can never directly meet.

Something similar can be said of the relationship between the social and individual levels. None of the rich personal histories she details can be reduced to a mere symptom of the trauma of colonization and its aftermath. But the parallel is inescapable even in the case studies that are least overtly political, such as that of Amina, who is traumatized when her fiancé rejects her on her wedding night. Amina’s story could be said to provide the key to the entire book, as her limbo state—trapped by a broken relationship that she can neither restore nor fully escape—echoes the postcolonial condition of a culture-wide humiliation wherein the country cannot simply restore the status quo ante and yet can never become fully Western either. Yet Amina is not a symbol, she is a real woman caught in a cycle of very real suffering that threatens to destroy her. The suggestion of a parallel can never be more than a suggestion, because anything else would run the risk of appropriating the suffering of the postcolonial subject for the sake of Western academic prestige.

As a scholar of the demonic, I was most interested in her treatment of jinn-possession. While it would be reductive to say that the jinn are equivalent to demons, there are clear parallels, and so, with my argument from The Prince of This World on the political roots of demonology in mind, I wondered whether the jinn could be taken in a similar sense. I found two relatively isolated hints here. The first comes in the aforementioned chapter on the risk of migration, when Said, one of her informants, speaks of “confronting the fitna (discord) of a she-demon, who is also a personification of Europe” (pg. 216). He is referring to an attempted seduction by a female jinn during an attempt to migrate, and it is not clear to me whether he himself drew the parallel to Europe or that is Pandolfo’s own extrapolation. I suspect it is the latter, since she uses the Western terminology of the “demon,” though her use of the Arabic term fitna makes me more unsure. Here again, she is nudging the reader rather than declaring or explaining, leaving the status of her references to Western concepts vague and indeterminate.

The other explicit parallel between the jinn and the political comes a few pages from the end, in a lengthy quotation from the Imam, where he explains the relationship between human and jinn by inviting us to “imagine the example of Europe and the Maghreb, two separate worlds and continents, neighboring each other, but different. Such are the jinn and the human” (pg. 349). This quotation initially seems to fit with my image of the Möbius strip, but the Imam complicates this impression when he continues: “They are distinct, but one always overpowers the other. If we don’t conquer the jinn, the jinn conquer us.” How can this imperative of conquest fit with the imagery of two separate continents coexisting? Perhaps the Imam is too studiously apolitical to make the connection explicit, but from the context it is clear that the mandate of conquest arises when the jinn (identified with Europe in his initial image) attempts to invade the complex space of the human soul.

The Imam’s answer to this aggression is not to invade the territory of the jinn in turn—one never hears of a human attempting to possess a jinn—but to set one’s own house in order through religious piety, fearing God rather than other human beings. By ending on an apparently successful Qur’anic healing, Pandolfo may seem to be endorsing the Imam’s point of view. Yet once more, the social and individual level cannot be collapsed into each other. The jinn may be ontologically distinct from the woman it has possessed, but its emotional pain is every bit as real and complex, as is the shattered life of the man who maliciously bound the jinn to her. It cannot be simply rejected, but must be heard and understood: “All things considered the jinn told us a little bit of truth” (348).

Is there a political, or political theological, message here? I hesitate to draw any firm conclusions, but I come away with a sense that we would do well to listen attentively to the stories that the jinn—and possibly our own Western demons as well—are attempting to tell us and to recognize the trauma and pain with which those demons are entangled even as they may seem to offer a tantalizing compensation for it. And even if she does end on a healing that has apparently “worked,” we should also recall those jinn-possessions that are, by the Imam’s own account, permanently unfixable.

2 thoughts on “Knot of the Soul Book Event: A Political Theology of Jinn?

  1. Apologies for the stupid question, my understanding is that Jinn are not all demonic in the Islamic theophilosophic view, i.e they are more like the Western concepts of spirits (good and bad), though spirit in Islam seems to have an altogether different meaning and conception – is this broadly correct?. Is this part of the analogy that Adam Kotsko is referring to?

  2. They are different from demons in the Christian tradition, though there are analogies — such as being able to possess people. Iblis (Satan) is also sometimes referred to as a jinn sometimes in the Qur’an. I find the relationship between jinn and angels to be ambiguous as it’s presented in the Qur’an.

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