Chapter 16: other intelligent beings

We live in an unimaginably large universe. Our earth rotates around a medium size hydrogen/helium star that we call the Sun. There are billions of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy alone, and there are billions of galaxies in the observable universe. As far as we know, we are the only intelligent beings who exist in this universe. Is there life elsewhere in the universe? Are there other intelligent beings who have developed civilizations like ours and are trying to make contact with the outside world? If earth is the only place where life exists, then the universe will have an “awful waste of space”, a quote famously attributed to the renowned cosmologist Carl Sagan, whose very popular television series in the 1980’s called “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage” was one of my favorite TV shows broadcasted in Pakistan during my childhood years.

Cosmologists have looked for signs of life and especially intelligent life on other planets in the solar system including Venus and Mars, but so far there is no convincing evidence that life exists elsewhere. However, this has not dampened the spirits of scientists, many of whom have dedicated their professional lives in this pursuit. The quest for life outside of this Earth is famously known as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence or SETI.

One of the scientific approaches to SETI is to search for planets similar to ours which are also rotating around a star and then look for signs of life. Using large radio telescopes, scientists are attempting to detect signals which may be transmitted by other advanced civilizations, just as we have been broadcasting radio signals since the beginning of the 20th Century.

The chance of detecting an advanced civilization like ours is calculated by what is known as Drake’s Equation.1 This equation takes into consideration how many stars are present in the universe; how many of those stars have planetary system like ours; how many of those planets have optimal conditions to start life spontaneously; how many of those life forms evolve to become intelligent species like us; and how many of those intelligent species create technology like radio transmission which can be broadcasted across interstellar distance for us to be able to detect it. Putting all of these different factors together, the chance of detecting such a signal from an extra-terrestrial source is slim, but considering how many stars exist in the universe it is certainly possible to do so.

Detecting other forms of life or making contact with them certainly has serious social and religious implications. Do those civilizations also have a concept of God? Did they develop religion or have prophets who claimed to have received revelation from God? What moral codes do they follow? How can we mutually benefit from one another?

Some people are of the view that since we have not found life outside of earth, this makes the chance of God’s existence less probable. Nevertheless, the scientific pursuit for other intelligent life forms continues.

Now let us take a look to see if the Qur’an, the last revelation to mankind, sheds any light on alien life? Did God create other life forms besides us who still exist? If yes, where are they and what do we know about them?

The Jinn

The Qur’an talks about another intelligent life form known as the jinn, different from mankind who are called ins or insan. The word jinn means something which is hidden, unseen or occult.2 The idea of the existence of the jinn predates even the advent of Islam, and people of the early times were familiar with their existence. The Qur’an confirms their existence, chapter 72 of the Qur’an is called The Jinn and they have been mentioned dozens of times at other places in the Qur’an as well.

1. The Physical Nature of the Jinn

Like humans, the jinn too have a material aspect to their existence, but their form/matter is different from the human being. While human bodies are made of “clay” i.e. carbon, oxygen, nitrogen etc., the jinn are made of a “fiery substance” or “scorching wind.” The Qur’an says:

وَخَلَقَ الْجَانَّ مِنْ مَارِجٍ مِنْ نَارٍ

And He (God) created the jinn of a flame of fire. (Qur’an, Surah al-Rahman, 55:15).

The Qur’an also mentions:

وَالْجَانَّ خَلَقْنَاهُ مِنْ قَبْلُ مِنْ نَارِ السَّمُومِ

And the jinn race, We had created before, from the fire of a scorching wind, (Qur’an, Surah al-Hijr, 15:27).

This makes them distinct entities, different from the physical entities which we experience around us. Their physical substance is finer and subtler than the humans which gives them a degree of invisibility in appearance and fluidity in shape. Could this fiery substance be “dark matter” or something totally new which does not interact with matter, neither reflects nor emits light? Little is known about the exact nature of the physical aspect of their existence.

Jinns are “pre-Adamites,” meaning that they occupied this earth long before the emergence of mankind. They still exist around us on the earth, in the seas and on the vast desolate plains but they are not perceived by our senses. They are said to be able to move between the visible or material realm, and the higher invisible or imaginal realm (a higher realm beyond the confines of our space-time - see Chapter 13 for further details).3

In terms of physical abilities, the jinn are more capeable than mankind. Their sensory perception is also better as they can see us, but we cannot see them. They can exist with us in the material realm not outside of it, but our lives do not cross each other in the day to day living:

إِنَّهُ يَرَاكُمْ هُوَ وَقَبِيلُهُ مِنْ حَيْثُ لَا تَرَوْنَهُمْ

For he and his tribe watch you from a position where you cannot see them. (Qur’an, Surah al-Aʿraf, 7:27).

Like humans, the jinn have genders - male and female, use language, and also form tribes and communities. Their lifespan can be long, much longer than a typical human’s life span sometimes lasting hundreds or thousands of years. They are intelligent beings and can discern between good and evil.

2. Jinn Listening to the Qur’an

The Qur’an narrates that when Prophet Muhammad (S) started preaching his message and used to recite the Qur’an, a group of jinn listened to it and were very impressed by what the Prophet (S) was reciting. After attentively listening to it, they communicated it with their comrades. This tells us that they can understand human language. In Surah al-Jinn it says:

قُلْ أُوحِيَ إِلَيَّ أَنَّهُ اسْتَمَعَ نَفَرٌ مِنَ الْجِنِّ فَقَالُوا إِنَّا سَمِعْنَا قُرْآنًا عَجَبًا 1 يَهْدِي إِلَى الرُّشْدِ فَآمَنَّا بِهِ ۖ وَلَنْ نُشْرِكَ بِرَبِّنَا أَحَدًا

Say: ‘It has been revealed to me that a party of the jinn listened (to the Qur’an), so they said (to their people on their return), ‘Surely, we have heard a wonderful Qur’an. It guides towards righteousness, so we declare our faith in it. We shall no longer worship any god besides our Lord.’’ (Qur’an, Surah al-Jinn, 72:1-2).

At another instance, a different group of jinn listened to the Qur’an and compared it with the revelation that was sent before to Prophet Moses (‘a). This is how the Qur’an narrates that event:

وَإِذْ صَرَفْنَا إِلَيْكَ نَفَرًا مِنَ الْجِنِّ يَسْتَمِعُونَ الْقُرْآنَ فَلَمَّا حَضَرُوهُ قَالُوا أَنْصِتُوا فَلَمَّا قُضِيَ وَلَّوْا إِلَىٰ قَوْمِهِمْ مُنْذِرِينَ قَالُوا يَا قَوْمَنَا إِنَّا سَمِعْنَا كِتَابًا أُنْزِلَ مِنْ بَعْدِ مُوسَىٰ مُصَدِّقًا لِمَا بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ يَهْدِي إِلَى الْحَقِّ وَإِلَىٰ طَرِيقٍ مُسْتَقِيمٍ يَا قَوْمَنَا أَجِيبُوا دَاعِيَ اللّٰهِ وَآمِنُوا بِهِ يَغْفِرْ لَكُمْ مِنْ ذُنُوبِكُمْ وَيُجِرْكُمْ مِنْ عَذَابٍ أَلِيمٍ

And (Prophet! recall the time) when We brought some people from among the jinns to you. They wished to listen to the Qur’an. When they attended it (its recitation) they said (one to another): ‘Be silent (and listen).’ When this (recitation) was over they went back to their people as warners. They (having gone there) said: ‘O our people! we have listened to a Book which has been revealed after (the time of) Moses confirming that (divine Scripture) which is before it. It guides to the truth and to the right and straight path. O our people! accept the call of one calling to God and believe in Him. (If you do so) He will keep you safe from (the woeful consequences of) your sins and will screen you from the woeful punishment.’ (Qur’an, Surah al-Ahqaf, 46:29-31).

3. Do the Jinn Follow Religion?

Jinns are a parallel creation to mankind and like us also have free will, knowledge and wisdom. Amongst them some are believers and others are non-believers; and for spiritual guidance they tend to follow what has been revealed to mankind. The Qur’an says:

وَأَنَّا مِنَّا الصَّالِحُونَ وَمِنَّا دُونَ ذَٰلِكَ كُنَّا طَرَائِقَ قِدَدًا

And some of us are righteous and some of us are otherwise. We follow different ways. (Qur’an, Surah al-Jinn, 72:11).

وَأَنَّا مِنَّا الْمُسْلِمُونَ وَمِنَّا الْقَاسِطُونَ فَــمَنْ أَسْلَمَ فَأُولَٰئِكَ تَحَرَّوْا رَشَدًا

And some of us submit (to the will of God) while some of us are deviators (from the right course). (It has also been revealed to the Prophet that) those who submit (to God’s commandments) are actually those who earnestly aim at the right way and find it out. (Qur’an, Surah al-Jinn, 72:14).

In many instances, the Qur’an addresses both mankind and the jinn collectively giving general guidance applicable to both of them:

وَمَا خَلَقْتُ الْجِنَّ وَالْإِنْسَ إِلَّا لِيَعْبُدُونِ

And I (God) have not created the jinn and humanity except that they should serve Me. (Qur’an, Surah al-Dhariyat, 51:56).

4. Prophet Solomon (S) and the Jinn

The Qur’an narrates that Prophet Solomon (S) had a vast kingdom. His authority was not only over humanity, but also animals and the jinn:

وَوَرِثَ سُلَيْمَانُ دَاوُودَ وَقَالَ يَا أَيُّهَا النَّاسُ عُلِّمْنَا مَنْطِقَ الطَّيْرِ وَأُوتِينَا مِنْ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ إِنَّ هَٰذَا لَهُوَ الْفَضْلُ الْمُبِينُ وَحُشِرَ لِسُلَيْمَانَ جُنُودُهُ مِنَ الْجِنِّ وَالْإِنْسِ وَالطَّيْرِ فَهُمْ يُوزَعُونَ

And Solomon succeeded David and he said: ‘O you people! we have been taught the language of the birds (and also the technique of horsemanship), and bestowed with everything (essential for us). This indeed is a distinct favour (of God and His grace).’ And there were gathered together before Solomon his hosts comprising of jinn and (ordinary) people and birds and swift footed horses, and they were then arranged in separate well-disciplined columns. (Qur’an, Surah al-Naml, 27:16-17).

The jinns worked for him and performed various tasks which included construction and art work, as the Qur’an says:

وَمِنَ الْجِنِّ مَنْ يَعْمَلُ بَيْنَ يَدَيْهِ بِإِذْنِ رَبِّهِ وَمَنْ يَزِغْ مِنْهُمْ عَنْ أَمْرِنَا نُذِقْهُ مِنْ عَذَابِ السَّعِيرِ يَعْمَلُونَ لَهُ مَا يَشَاءُ مِنْ مَحَارِيبَ وَتَمَاثِيلَ وَجِفَانٍ كَالْجَوَابِ وَقُدُورٍ رَاسِيَاتٍ اعْمَلُوا آلَ دَاوُودَ شُكْرًا وَقَلِيلٌ مِنْ عِبَادِيَ الشَّكُورُ

Also (given into his service were) some of the jinns, who worked under him as trained craftsmen) by the command of his Lord. And (We also told them) whoever of them deviated from and disobeyed Our command (that they should obey Solomon) We shall make him suffer the agony of burning. Those (jinn) made for him (Solomon) whatever he desired, places for worship and plans and basins (as large) as the tanks and large and heavy cooking pots well-set (on their trivets due to their large size). (And We said,) ‘Act gratefully, O people of David.’ Yet few are My people who are (really) grateful.’ (Qur’an, Surah al-Saba’, 34:12-13).

In one instance, Prophet Soloman (‘a) asked which of his courtier’s can bring him the throne of the queen of Sheeba. A jinn present offered to do the task:

قَالَ يَا أَيُّهَا الْمَلَأُ أَيُّكُمْ يَأْتِينِي بِعَرْشِهَا قَبْلَ أَنْ يَأْتُونِي مُسْلِمِينَ قَالَ عِفْرِيتٌ مِنَ الْجِنِّ أَنَا آتِيكَ بِهِ قَبْلَ أَنْ تَقُومَ مِنْ مَقَامِكَ وَإِنِّي عَلَيْهِ لَقَوِيٌّ أَمِينٌ

(Later on addressing his courtiers Solomon) said: ‘Nobles! which one of you will bring me a throne befitting her (the Queen) before they come to me surrendering in submission.’ A stalwart from among the jinn said: ‘I will bring it to you (prepared as you desire), before you rise and depart from your place of encampment. Surely, I am strong and expert enough (to accomplish this task and can be) trusted (with it).’ (Qur’an, Surah al-Naml, 27:38-39).

Ultimately however, it was not a jinn who did the task which Prophet Soloman (‘a) wanted, it was someone who had an even greater level of power and ability who rose to the occasion:

قَالَ الَّذِي عِنْدَهُ عِلْمٌ مِنَ الْكِتَابِ أَنَا آتِيكَ بِهِ قَبْلَ أَنْ يَرْتَدَّ إِلَيْكَ طَرْفُكَ ۚ فَلَمَّا رَآهُ مُسْتَقِرًّا عِنْدَهُ قَالَ هَٰذَا مِنْ فَضْلِ رَبِّي لِيَبْلُوَنِي أَأَشْكُرُ أَمْ أَكْفُرُ وَمَنْ شَكَرَ فَإِنَّمَا يَشْكُرُ لِنَفْسِهِ وَمَنْ كَفَرَ فَإِنَّ رَبِّي غَنِيٌّ كَرِيمٌ

But one who had knowledge of the letter, said: ‘I will bring it to you in the twinkling of an eye.’ When Solomon saw it before him, (he said): ‘This is by the grace of my Lord that He may test me whether I am grateful or I am thankless. Yet if one is grateful, he is grateful for himself, and if one is thankless, then surely my Lord is unconcerned and magnanimous.’ (Qur’an, Surah al-Naml, 27:40).

This encounter tells us that though the jinn may be physically more capable but overall mankind has superiority over the jinn. We both have freewill, but humans have the potential of achieving a much higher spiritual position than the jinn.

5. Satanic Jinn

The jinns existence predates mankind and when God wanted to appoint His vicegerent on earth in the form of Prophet Adam (S), He ordered all who had gathered in that heavenly assembly, which included not only the angels, but also Iblis (who is a jinn) to bow down to Adam (S). Everyone did except Satan who refused – keeping in mind that Satan is not one of the angels, but is actually a jinn:

وَإِذْ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ اسْجُدُوا لِآدَمَ فَسَجَدُوا إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ كَانَ مِنَ الْجِنِّ فَفَسَقَ عَنْ أَمْرِ رَبِّهِ ۗ أَفَتَتَّخِذُونَهُ وَذُرِّيَّتَهُ أَوْلِيَاءَ مِنْ دُونِي وَهُمْ لَكُمْ عَدُوٌّ ۚ بِئْسَ لِلظَّالِمِينَ بَدَلًا

And (recall the time) when We said to the angels: ‘Submit to Adam.’ So they all submitted (bowing), but Iblis (did not); he was one of the jinn, he disobeyed the command of his Lord. (Mankind!) would you (then) take him and his progeny (and cohorts) for friends rather than Me while they are your enemies? How evil is the substitute (of God) the unjust have chosen! (Qur’an, Surah al-Kahf, 18:50).

Adam (‘a) as a vicegerent of God on the earth has a superior spiritual status over the other creations including the jinn. The satanic jinn and his descendants, due to animosity towards the progeny of Adam (‘a), whisper in our ears and try to incite us towards hatred, suspicion of others, racism, violence and disobedience towards God. They cannot force us to do anything, but can certainly incite us towards that which is harmful to us.

The Qur’an as a book of guidance warns us about Satan, and we have been asked to be mindful about such evil thoughts which always cross our minds, and to seek protection of God from such satanic whispering.

In this regards, the last chapter in the Qur’an states:

مِنْ شَرِّ الْوَسْوَاسِ الْخَنَّاسِ 4 الَّذِي يُوَسْوِسُ فِي صُدُورِ النَّاسِ 5 مِنَ الْجِنَّةِ وَالنَّاسِ

From the evil (of the whisperings) of the whisperer, the sneaking one. Who whispers evil suggestions into the hearts of mankind, From among the jinn and the (ordinary) mankind. (Qur’an, Surah al-Nas, 114:4-6).

In fact, the Qur’an clearly warns us that Satan is mankind’s open enemy, so we need to be careful of him and not fall into his traps and temptations:

أَلَمْ أَعْهَدْ إِلَيْكُمْ يَا بَنِي آدَمَ أَنْ لَا تَعْبُدُوا الشَّيْطَان إِنَّهُ لَكُمْ عَدُوٌّ مُبِينٌ

O Children of Adam! did I not enjoin on you never to worship satan, for he is to you an enemy severing (your) ties (with Me). (Qur’an, Surah Ya Sin, 36:60).

In al-Sahifa al-Kamila al-Sajjadiyya, a book of supplications by the 4th Imam, ʿAli b. Husayn (‘a), he teaches a supplication in which he warns us about satanic temptations, about him having access to our inner being, and seeking refuge in God from his whisperings. In a portion of supplication number 25, he prays:

You assigned to us an enemy who schemes against us,
[You] gave him an authority over us in a way that You did not give us authority over him,
[You] allowed him to dwell in our breasts and let him run in our blood vessels;
He (Satan) is not heedless, though we be heedless, he does not forget, though we forget…

The acknowledgment of existence of other intelligent life forms help us understand our own position in the large scheme of things. We are one of the creations of God not the only one. He has created other intelligent life forms as well who predate our existence.

Revelation in the form of the Qur’an can give us insight into the many pure scientific questions like SETI. It helps us make a world view which is much broader in scope than what can be obtained from using pure empirical knowledge only. What is important is to use the knowledge of the revelation to direct our scientific research towards a path which will help us make better sense of the world around us as well as our position and goal in it.

وَنَزَّلْنَا عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ تِبْيَانًا لِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَهُدًى وَرَحْمَةً وَبُشْرَىٰ لِلْمُسْلِمِينَ

And (that is why) We have revealed to you this perfect Book explaining every (basic) thing and (which serves as) a guidance and a mercy, and (gives) good tidings to those who submit (to God). (Qur’an, Surah al-Nahl, 16:89).

  • 1.
  • 2. Zein, Amira el-, Islam, Arabs and the Intelligent World of the Jinn, Syracuse University Press, 2009, New York.
  • 3. Zein, Amira el-, Islam, Arabs and the Intelligent World of the Jinn, Syracuse University Press, 2009, New York.