Jinn (sg. jinni) are supernatural beings in Arabian folklore; some regard them as angels and some as demons, yet they are neither. While man was built from clay and angels from light, as related in the Quran, jinn were created from smokeless fire. And so these creatures were cast into being: with their own powers and free will and the troubles that come with it. In the many stories told about them in “Arabian nights”, jinn posses people and make them commit heinous crimes, but they also grant wishes and give gifts, and visit poets to inspire them with art. The chaos and the confusion they could cause has earned them a spot in the Arabic language; the word for crazy, majnūn (مجنون) means “possessed by a jinni”.
Jinn are invisible to humans, but they do on occasion present themselves in the form of animals, plants, human-like beings or even inanimate objects. The ancient collection of jinn illustrations, known as Mehmed Siyah Qalam (known in Turkish as Siyah Kalem, meaning "Black Pen") contains around eighty paintings of jinn, who are represented as anthropomorphic beings.
While man was built from clay and angels from light, jinn were created from smokeless fire.
It is unknown exactly when and how Mehmed Siyah Qalam came into existence. As the pictures are of varying sizes and artistic styles (many of them influenced by Chinese, Persian, Turkish or Mongol artistic traditions), it is believed that the collection was compiled over several centuries, receiving its current form in the late 14th and early 15th century. One theory is that it might have served as a storytelling prop at the Persian royal court.
Most of the illustrations in Siyah Qalam show jinn, but some also contain historically valuable portrayals of nomadic life, as well as rituals related to the last rites and the culture of the dead.
Even though jinn predate the Quran, they have been acknowledged in it and later as Islam spread across the world so did the they. They found their place in a wide range of cultures, from the Maghreb to the Balkans and Middle-East, all the way to Indonesia. These mythical beings are even present in today’s Western World. The word jinni has been anglicized to genie, and the stories from “Arabian nights” have served as the inspiration for Disney’s classic “Aladdin”, with Robin Williams’ as the benevolent Genie. They have been among us for many centuries and it seems that they will stay for many more to come, with all the mischief, apathy and good will that they had with them so far.
Many of the portrayals of jinn have been inspired by the illustrations in Mehmed Siyah Qalam. The collection is nowadays kept at Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul, where it is believed to have arrived following the Ottoman war with Persia in 1514.