On Jinn, Tall Tales and Night Terrors

Jinn exist. As Muslims we accept this as fact. The Quran dedicates a Surah to these otherworldly beings and the Hadith mention them with some frequency. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) even dedicated a mosque to the jinn right near Masjid al-Haram.

Unfortunately, most of us are all too familiar with exhausting amounts of fanciful tales regarding jinn that usually fall somewhere between wild imaginings and blatant superstition. An uncle of mine (may God rest his soul) had an insufferable habit of saying salaam to every breeze that passed through an open window. He also claimed to have traveled with a jinni companion numerous times. I suppose that’s more convenient than Uber, but I digress.

Of course, there are some stories that inspire a good deal of apprehension as well. If true, many of the popular films and novels about possessions and hauntings – The Exorcist, The Conjuring, The Entity, etc. – suggest the handiwork of malevolent jinn. Some of us even have our own stories that reveal something more than just tall tales.

A Christian friend of mine recently recounted his terrifying experience with what he referred to as a demonic presence years ago as a teenager. Apparently it involved actual physical harm. Now a film producer well into his 30’s, he could not finish the story without welling up in tears. One of the most startling aspects of his many encounters was suddenly seeing a ghastly figure of a man standing in the middle of a lonely, rural Texas highway while driving home. The apparition appeared out of nowhere. He couldn’t brake in time. Strangely enough, his old Mustang passed right through the figure. My friend turned to his then-high school sweetheart riding alongside him and asked if she had witnessed the ghastly man as well. Puzzled, she denied seeing anything. He was certain he was losing his mind. Ten years later she finally admitted she saw the apparition as well. She was simply too terrified to acknowledge it for all those years.

My own experiences are, at the very least, peculiar. Since my late teens and well into my twenties I routinely experienced night terrors. While it’s clinically defined as a sleep disorder, actual studies and findings are nebulous at best, especially when one digs deeper for causes (The documentary, The Nightmare, currently on Netflix is worth viewing. The production values are not great, but the stories provide sufficient explanations about the mystery of night terrors).

Night terrors usually occur when one is in a state of sleep paralysis. Most importantly, in almost all of my experiences and those of others my surroundings remained identical with ‘waking life’ so to speak. Unlike a typical nightmare or dream, one is fully aware and conscious. However, one simply cannot move. At best, I could pry open my eyes or twitch an arm or leg. Often this is when I would sense another presence in the room.

Not until I lived in a single-wide trailer on the outskirts of a rural, college town as an undergrad was I finally assailed by the full scope of night terrors. By most outward aspects at the time, I was a pretty degenerate college student, drinking, partying and pursuing the opposite sex with foolish, ignoble intentions. Inside that trailer though and in secret from most of my peers, I’d begun my lifelong pursuit of faith in all its various guises. Though I’d read the entire Quran in Arabic as a boy, my comprehension was exceedingly poor. I began to read as many English translations of the Quran I could find. At the time, I must have had at least five different translations of the holy book to cross-reference alongside innumerable works by notable scholars on Islam. I also began studying other religious traditions on my own and at the university – something that to this day has afforded me greater understanding of my own faith in Islam.

This is when I began routinely waking up into a state of sleep paralysis at odd hours of the night. Unable to move at all, strange, vaguely human shadows would appear along the periphery of my half-open eyes. These figures would grab at me, crush against me, stealing my composure and breath. The pressure was often unbearable. Worse, at times I’d feel molested, caressed in incredibly inappropriate ways. Only after considerable panic, was I able to shake myself fully and finally awake; that is, awake as we traditionally define it. Sometimes I would be so disconcerted and frightened, I would be forced to turn on my bedroom light and stay awake for the remainder of the night.

Understandably, the veracity of my experiences may leave some wanting. Nonetheless, I should perhaps detail my most horrifying, yet strangely enlivening night terror that occurred before a great shift occurred inside of me. On one particular night having exhausted myself from studying both for my degree in Philosophy and from my own pursuit of faith I woke up, yet again, in a state of sleep paralysis. Face down and on my stomach I felt some hopelessly strong, unnatural force driving itself into my back effectively pinning me down on my mattress. I could hear pages being rapidly flipped on my desk from the many religious books scattered there. And for the first and last time I heard a voice. Deep, unnatural and almost bestial in nature it simply said, ‘don’t believe.’

This time, however, I didn’t wake up terrified. I woke up emboldened, smiling even. I finally understood that whatever I was experiencing, I was doing something right. From this point forward I began putting my whole trust in God during these nightmarish episodes. And it worked. Every time I woke up in a state of sleep paralysis and felt the telltale signs of another presence I vehemently began to pray. Most often I would simply repeat Surah Fatiha until I could break out of this dejected state. It’s difficult to put into words, but the prayer formed a wall of protection around me and this wall only grew more fortified and impenetrable with each successive encounter.

In fact, I knew that it was over to a large degree when I had a final, most telling dream. In the dream (an actual dream), I sat upon a park bench on the edge of a vast, impenetrable pine forest. Slowly, dozens upon dozens of shadows emerged from the woods surrounding me. I continued to sit without fear, trusting God. They could do nothing. I felt victorious.

It’s as though these unnatural, negative forces unwittingly compelled me toward faith not away from it. Perhaps this is a part of God’s great wisdom for all that we suffer. Again, I was utterly helpless in those moments. My physical prowess meant absolutely nothing. I was young, strong, had boxed and wrestled for some time. None of that could avail me. Only my trust in God could.

Many people who have suffered from night terrors insist that fear fuels the encounters. As my fear decreased and my trust in God Almighty increased the attacks trickled down to nothing as did the actual episodes of sleep paralysis.

Are night terrors the result of insidious jinn? Obviously, I can’t say for certain, but if you were to force my proverbial hand I think there is much more at play than just one’s subconscious. The dreamscape is certainly filled with mysteries.

My own experiences certainly changed me though and for the better, at least, so I hope though God knows best. Every so often I still have a night terror. It can still be disconcerting, but it’s as though my very being retreats into my heart as I recite Surah Fatiha and am fortified by God Almighty. I can feel the prayer course through my spirit as it vanquishes any attempt at frightening or harming me.

For certain, in all those horrifying episodes I’d discovered something incredibly beautiful. In such moments of complete helplessness the only thing I could do is call upon God’s Power and Mercy – something we often neglect to do when our day-to-day life invades us with all its distress and distractions. Amen.