(RNS) Eat your vegetables, Ajmal Zaheer Ahmad’s mother warned him when he was young. Otherwise, she said, you’ll be snatched by the “jinn.”
Now these same jinn — mercurial beings that, according to the Quran and other Eastern traditions, were created by God — are chasing a Muslim hero and his family in Ahmad’s latest action and horror movie, which opened April 4 in more than 200 theaters across the country.
The movie, titled “Jinn,” is not the first horror movie made by a Muslim American. The late Moustapha Akkad produced several films from the “Halloween” franchise. But the release of “Jinn” is a sign that there are a growing number of Muslims in the American film industry who are ready to introduce audiences to stories from their cultural traditions, even in the form of a horror movie featuring supernatural creatures from Islamic and Arabic folklore.
Invisible to the naked eye and living in another dimension, jinn appear in several places in the Quran. There is even a sura, or Quranic chapter, named after them. That sura, Al-Jinn, and other references describe how some of these creatures renounced their belief in many gods and accepted the belief in one God, and suggests there are good jinn as well as mischievous and even evil jinn.
The website themystica.org writes that, like people, jinn can be Muslims or non-Muslims, but because they are born of fire and have fiery personalities, most are not Muslim. The non-Muslim jinn form a large part of the army of the most famous jinn, Iblis, or the devil.
Many Muslims all over the world blame the jinn for unexplained mishaps.
“There seems to be a lot of superstition out there,” said Imam Achmat Salie, Islamic studies professor at the University of Detroit Mercy who previewed the film. “There are still many people in the community who blame everything on the jinn.”
In making the movie, Ahmad heard from many Muslims regarding their beliefs about the jinn, and he found that “25 or 30 percent” were still very fearful of the jinn.
“They just felt like it was a very scary topic and they were going to have to build up the courage to go watch the movie, because they feel that if you talk about them, or ask them to come into your life that they’ll kind of follow you around,” Ahmad said.
Drawing on Islamic lore, the movie’s narrator opens by saying: “In the beginning, three were created. Man, made of clay. Angels, made of light. And a third … made of fire.” The story goes on to explain that man has come to rule the Earth, having all but forgotten about the jinn, who live invisibly in another dimension.
The plot centers on Shawn Walker (Dominic Rains), a handsome Michigan auto designer, and his beautiful wife, Jasmine (Serinda Swan), who learn that because of a family curse, they are stalked by a powerful and evil jinn. To break the curse, Walker must kill the jinn. He receives help from a priest and a Jewish jinn. The thriller is fast-paced and action-packed.
The interfaith themes aren’t coincidental. “I thought, this is a good opportunity to show that we have more similarities amongst us than differences,” Ahmad said. “The jinn idea is very old, and we can find this through all the different faiths.”
Ahmad noted a Bible verse, Ezekiel 1:13, that refers to creatures whose appearance was like fire.
Many Muslims will also recognize a common Quranic phrase that is oft repeated in the film: “A’uzu billahi minishaitanir rajim,” which means, “I seek protection from God against Satan.”
Other elements of the movie are invented, such as the references to “jinn scrolls” and a prophecy.
To make sure he wouldn’t offend Muslim sensibilities, Ahmad previewed “Jinn” for seven imams. They approved.
“The Quran teaches us that the jinn had their own religions, so it’s possible that the jinn had their own prophets and their own religious texts,” explained Salie, one of the imams who previewed the film.
Distributed by Freestyle Releasing, “Jinn” already has distributors for large markets in China, Pakistan and India, where the creatures are a folklore fixture.
Ahmad believes Muslims can and should be more involved in creative arenas.
“There was a time when we were very creative and we created a lot of things, and we’ve kind of forgotten how to do that,” said Ahmad. “But we have a lot of our own stories to share.”