The mythical ghoul in Arabic culture.

Author:Al-Rawi, Ahmed

The Pre-Islamic Ghoul

The earliest records of Arabs document their activities in Mesopotamia, providing evidence that the nomads of Arabia were always in direct contact with the more "advanced" people of Mesopotamia, mainly for the purpose of trade. This contact produced cultural exchange between the two peoples, mostly in terms of life style and borrowed words. In ancient Mesopotamia, there was a monster called 'Gallu' that could be regarded as one of the origins of the Arabic ghoul. (1) Gallu was an Akkadian demon of the underworld 'responsible for the abduction of the vegetationgod Damuzi (Tammuz) to the realm of death' (Lindemans). Since Akkad and Sumer were very close to the Arabian deserts, Arab Bedouins in contact with Mesopotamian cultures could have borrowed the belief in the ghoul from the Akkadians.

Before discussing different ideas of the ghoul, however, I will examine the ghoul's general depiction in a pre-Islamic context to show that the Arabic ghoul is older than the religion of Islam. In some old Arabic works written before Islam, ghouls were regarded as devilish creatures. al-Mas'udi (c. 896- c. 957) referred in Muruj al-Dhahab to the older books written by Ibn 'Ishqq and Wahb Ibn al-Munabbih, who tackled the old Bedouins' myth of creation. Arabs before Islam believed that when God created genies from the gusts of fire, He made from this type of fire their female part, but one of their eggs was split in two. Hence, the Qutrub, (2) which looked like a cat, was created. As for the devils, they came from another egg and settled in the seas. Other evil creatures, such as the Marid, (3) inhabited the islands; the ghoul resided in the wilderness; the si'lwah dwelt in lavatories and waste areas; and the hamah4 lived in the air in the form of a flying snake (1986, 171).

al-Qazwini (c.1208-c.1283) mentioned a different description taken from an old Arabic source, which says that when the devils wanted to eavesdrop on Heaven, God threw meteors at them, (5) whereupon some were burnt, fell into the sea and later turned into crocodiles, while others dropped onto the ground and changed into ghouls (1980, 236). Such descriptions cannot be found in Islamic texts. For instance, Abu 'Uthman al-Jahiz (c. 775- c. 868), who compiled many popular beliefs in his book al-Haywan (The Animal), wrote that commoners thought that the devil's eyes were upright as in images taken from the Bedouins (1969, 214), whose ideas lived on for almost two thousand years.

As for popular tales, several stories dealing with the ghoul circulated before Islam. For instance, 'Umar Bin al-Khattab (c. 586-644), the second Muslim Caliph, was known as the man who killed a ghoul in the desert when he was traveling to Syria. After stopping him, the female monster asked the man: 'Bin al-Khattab, where are you heading?' The Caliph answered: 'This is not your concern,' and the ghoul turned its head completely around in order to frighten him (Ibn Manzur vol. xxvii, 269-70). Knowing the evil intentions of the monster, Bin al-Khattab raised his sword and killed it by striking it between its shoulder and neck. When he returned to the same place after few hours, however, he could not find the ghoul there (Ibid.).

In addition, Abu Asid al-Sa'di mentioned the story of Arqam Bin Abu al-Arqam in which a ghoul appeared and kidnapped al-Arqam's, son who was on a desert journey. The ghoul, disguised in the form of a woman, carried the boy on its back. When they saw al-Arqam's friend, the woman pretended to be the boy's attendant (al-Waqidl 1984, 104). This story emphasizes the well-known deceitful and wicked character of the ghoul. In folktales, motif (G443.2) 'Ogre abducts woman's children...' (El-Shamy 1995, 149) is similar to the account given above. In general, the Pre-Islamic ghoul is known as a devilish female creature that intends to inflict harm on travelers and is able to change its form. In most cases, the ghoul is defeated by striking it with a sword. (6) The following section discusses how the ghoul has been associated with Islamic practices.

The Islamic Ghoul

When Islam firstly spread in the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, it succeeded in changing many old customs, such as ending the habit of burying recently born baby girls and preventing women from marrying more than one man at a time. It could not, however, change other ideas such as the belief in the ghoul or the si'lwah (si'lah). (7) Prophet Muhammed mentioned the ghoul in several of his sayings, but later Muslim scholars had conflicting views about the authenticity of these sayings, as some negated the ghoul's existence and others confirmed it. Despite the rational voices that rejected the existence of this monster, many Arabs (especially Bedouins) narrated tales and recited poetry that featured or mentioned the ghoul. Since this creature originated in the desert, it was particularly popular there from the pre-Islamic period until present time. However, the legend spread to the Arabs' urban areas and became part of the culture there, which suggests that the Bedouins' beliefs were very influential, and in some cases formed the very fabric of the Arab society. As mentioned earlier, Holt and Katherine's argument that Islam could not change all the old beliefs of Arabia is valid in the case of belief in the ghoul.

Prophet Muhammed himself was said, in many instances, to comment on or confirm the existence of ghouls. For example, Isma'il bin 'Umar Abu al-Fida' (?- c. 1372) mentioned in Tafsir Ibn Kathir that ghouls were the 'demons of genies', and cited the following famous incident: When the Prophet met his companion Abu Dharr in a mosque, the Prophet advised Abu Dharr to pray in order to be saved from the mischief of the devils of humans and genies. Abu Dharr was surprised to hear the Prophet confirmed the existence of creatures such as these, which the Prophet identified as ghouls (1980, 306-8).

In another anecdote, Abu Ayub al-Ansari asked the Prophet's advice because some ghouls used to eat from his dates store at night. The Prophet told him to say the following: 'In the Name of God, answer the Prophet of God'. al-Ansari followed the advice and the ghouls promised not to return. The next day, the Prophet informed the man that the ghouls might come back because they lied. His prediction was accurate. The Prophet then advised al-Ansari to recite the 'Ayat al-Kursl' (Throne verse) from the Holy Quran, which proved to be useful in getting rid of the ghouls (Abu al-Fida' 1980, 306-8; al-Tirmidhl n.d., 158; al-Kufi 1988, 94; al-'Asqalani 1959, 159; al-Naysaburl n.d., 519). Abu Asid al-Sa'di, another of Prophet Muhammed's companions, had a similar experience (al-'Asqalani 1959, 489) though in this version the ghouls themselves gave advice on how to rid humans of their harm.

To sum up, according to the Prophet Muhammed, ghouls are the demons or enchantresses of genies that hurt human beings by eating or spoiling their food or by frightening travelers when they are in the wilderness. In order to avoid their harm, one can recite a verse from the Holy Quran or call for prayer since they hate any reference to God.

Other Muslim scholars like Abl al-Sheikh al-Asbahani (c.887-c.979) described the ghoul or si'lwah as a kind of a female demon that was able to change its shape and appear to travelers in the wilderness to delude and harm them. He narrated the story of Ahmed al-Dabbagh's father, who went once on a trip and took a risky road that was known to be frequented by ghouls. After walking for few hours, Ahmed al-Dabbagh's father saw a woman wearing a ragged dress lying on a bed above hung lanterns used to illuminate the place. When she saw him approaching, the woman started calling on the man to attract him; however, he realized that she was a ghoul, so he recited the Surat Yasm from the Holy Quran. As a result, the woman put out her lantern lights and said: 'Oh man, what did you do to me?' Hence, he was saved from her harm (1987, vol. v, 1652) (Motif F491.10) en-Naddahah 'the she-Caller' was described as a 'female spirit who calls people by name and then leads them astray') (El-Shamy 1995, 130). (8)

On the other hand, an authenticated saying attributed to Prophet Muhammed by Abdullah Bin Jabir stated that ghouls did not exist: 'No ghoul, no 'adwa (9), and no tayrrah' (10) Ma'ruf et al. 1993, vol. iv, 251; al-Shawkani 1973, 373; al-Jawhari 1990, 381). In addition to the ghoul, the Prophet negated other fallacies or old customs like the 'hama' (11) (al-Tahawi 1994, 308), 'banu' (12) (al-Qushayri n.d., 1745; al-Tamiml 1967, 498), 'f13 (Ma'ruf et al. 1996, vol. vi, 23) and 'naw" (14) (al-Qushayri n.d., 1742).

Though the sayings attributed to Prophet Muhammed seem to contradict one another, (15) many Muslim scholars believe that ghouls used to exist before Islam. For instance, Abu Asid al-Sa'di (cited above) commented after narrating a story involving a ghoul that 'ghouls lived at that time [before and at the beginning of Islam], but they perished later' (al-Waqidi 1984, 104). Yusuf al anafi shared the same view, stating that 'God could have created this creature, but later He removed its harm from human beings' (n.d., 268). According to the writings of these scholars, the Prophet Muhammed states ghouls no longer exist because God has rid humans of their mischief.

In brief, Islam tried to direct the people's way of thinking to the one omnipresent God as the creator and mover of all things and did not acknowledge that there were other forces involved in controlling the universe. Conflicting views about the existence of ghouls, however, imply that Muslim scholars were still struggling to balance the widespread popular beliefs taken from Jahiliyya era (before Islam) with the new ideas of the Islamic doctrine. In order to understand the further influence of the ghoul on the Arab culture, this essay will analyze the popular beliefs expressed in different books written after the...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP