Ms. Marvel’s debut in the MCU had many people questioning what the new source of her powers might be, especially considering her apparent lack of her trademark polymorphism. But in the third episode of the MCU’s Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan (Iman Vellani) and her audience finally learn more about the mysterious bangle that activates her powers. Through Najma’s (Nimra Bucha) exposition, she learns that Najma and Kamala’s ancestors (and their descendants, like her and Kamran) are the Clandestine beings who come from another dimension entirely.
They have gone by many names, Najma says, including “djinn” — which perked up the ears of Kamala and countless Muslim viewers watching. It’s a frightening thought to her, which might surprise those whose familiarity with djinn comes exclusively through a Western lens. But what exactly are these beings of Islamic teaching?
Djinn in SWANASA folklore, Islamic teaching, and Western media
Djinn (or jinn) have existed in various myths and legends among people in the Southwest Asian, North African, and South Asian (SWANASA) regions, even predating Islam for centuries. The root of their name is taken from the Arabic “janna,” which means “hidden.” In various tales, they are spiritlike or demonlike beings that shapeshift and trick unsuspecting humans into getting what they want from them. Per these stories, people learn to be wary of them. In some tales — namely in One Thousand and One Nights, which compiled stories from all across the SWANASA region — they have more magical abilities, including the ability to grant wishes in “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” and “The Fisherman and the Jinni.”
In Islam, djinn, per the Quran, are a people made by God (Allah) and are said to be beings of “smokeless fire” that have the same range of morality as humans and live on a separate plane of existence from humans. Allah gifted them free will in the same way he gifted humans with free will. This distinguishes both them and humans from angels in Islam, who do not have free will, ensuring their express purpose of serving the goodness of God. Djinn, meanwhile, can either be good or bad, as they undergo the same tests of morality as humans under Allah. The devil in Islam (Iblis) is a powerful djinn, not a fallen angel as he is in Christianity, (since an angel can never commit wrongdoing in Islam); he’s able to employ other wicked djinn, collectively called “Shayāṭīn,” to influence humans into wickedness as well.
Djinn are an overall minor subject in Muslim communities, and in many cases may simply be considered haram when it comes to Al-Shaytan. Instead, the popular understanding of djinn tends to come from Western storytelling. It excessively uses them as an otherworldly magical force, particularly the trope of the wish-granting genie. It’s an overdone Orientalist depiction that’s often been used to “exoticize” the SWANASA regions and Muslim people.
In things like I Dream of Jeannie and the animated Disney classic Aladdin, the Western depictions put a strong focus on the most fantastical aspects of djinn to further the exoticization of the culture. Even though I still enjoy Aladdin — especially for the scrap of representation it gave me as a brown West Asian child — and the character of Genie, it’s inherently Orientalist. Particularly as it presents all djinn as having “phenomenal cosmic power” to grant wishes, when what most Muslims believe is actually far more nuanced and complicated regarding djinn.
Though the djinn have fallen into being an Orientalist trope, more SWANASA and Muslim people are starting to take the storytelling reins back when it comes to djinn in fantasy. American Kuwaiti author Chelsea Abdullah just published her debut novel The Stardust Thief, the start of her fantasy Sandsea Trilogy. Basing her fantasy on stories of djinn she had heard growing up in Kuwait, along with various other aspects of Arab culture, Abdullah provides a more hopeful, nuanced, and culturally confident depiction of Djinn in popular media.
Ms. Marvel and djinn in the comics (and beyond)
The djinn have been present in Marvel comics as well, particularly as the Clandestine that we see in Ms. Marvel, although their comic origins seem to differ significantly. They also, as you might imagine, play into the Western Orientalism of djinn.
In the comics, the ClanDestine are the superpowered children of Englishman Adam Destine and his djinn wife Elalyth, who granted him immortality and invulnerability. They would have many children through the centuries with various powers, most of whom would come together as the “Clan Destine.”
They’re a relatively small and obscure team from the comics — Kamala Khan in the comics and other media has never encountered the ClanDestine, or even the djinn in general. This makes them a puzzling choice to be put into the show headlining the first major Muslim and Pakistani Marvel superhero. But considering that the Ms. Marvel show has South Asian and Muslim creators who made a vocal commitment to respectful representation, they presumably attempted to undo or subvert the Orientalism of the comics ClanDestine with this version led by Najma.
And the djinn’s invocation in Ms. Marvel is over almost as quickly as it came. When Kamala speaks to her grandmother, Sana (Samina Ahmad), about what Najma told her about the djinn, she’s very casual about it, calling it only “genetics.” We hear from the head of the Red Daggers, Waleed (Farhan Akhtar), that the Clandestine are not like the djinn that any of us have heard about in stories or religious texts, and that if Thor landed in the Himalayan mountains, he too would have been called a djinn. We also learn about the “Noor Dimension” and how it’s the origin of the Clandestine.
Considering all of this, the djinn aspect seems meant to be a red herring or distraction, if a culturally specific one, especially considering how visibly uncomfortable Kamala seemed at this revelation. Couple that with the stray clues that point back toward some version of Kamala’s comic book origin (a severed blue arm in the opening flashback of episode 3 looks like an alien Kree arm; in the comics, Kamala is an Inhuman, whom the Kree genetically gave powers to via the Terrigen Mist) and we might be out of djinn folklore territory completely. But even if I’m still betting my money on some Kree involvement — and maybe, hopefully, some Inhumans — the djinn diversion wasn’t a wasted one. Perhaps the intent was to scare Kamala in episode 3, and episode 4 is the start of her building confidence as a hero connected to a nobler legacy than what she initially thought.