“Illusion is needed to disguise the emptiness within” – Arthur Erickson
If you’re going to pursue a career loosely rooted in Djinn-based stagecraft, you should probably be aware that they have entertainment lawyers, and a penchant for enforcing “moral clauses” in the contract. In the mid-19th century, Muslim sorcerer Hassan Khan “Djinni”, originally of Hyderabad, Deccan in India found this out the hard way, much to his chagrin, when he descended into debauchery and licentiousness, and consequently lost control of his supporting cast of elemental spirits.
Its difficult to get precise dates when it comes to Hassan Khan Djinni. He was believed to be roughly 35 years old when he died, which means he was born somewhere around 1841. He spent a lot of time in Calcutta. He was in Alighur, Uttar Pradesh in 1872. We know he was in Lucknow in 1876, where he died in prison (or possibly a lunatic asylum, the difference being minimal at the time). In his prime it was said that Hassan Khan was in stature, “somewhat above the middle height; of dark brown complexion, and a rather robust physique; on the whole, his appearance was rather pleasing than otherwise” (Olcott, 1900, p284).
Djinn (Arabic: jinn, anglicized: genie) are curious supernatural creatures from pre-Islamic Arabian folklore and later Islamic theology, distinct from angels and demons (shayāṭīn) in that they are considered taqalan, that is not innately good or evil, but “accountable” for their deeds much like humans. They are said to be mortal, although live a lot longer than people, yet eat, drink, sleep, and breed with the opposite sex (including humans). As primarily elemental spirits they are generally invisible, but are said to have zoomorphic manifestations, can appear as storms or shadows, and can partially materialize in human-like shape. Traditionally, a skilled sorcerer can summon a Djinn and subjugate them to their will, forcing them to perform various services, rendering them a sort of jacked-up wizard’s familiar. As with most magical invocations, there are usually a few requirements for maintaining the relationship. Hassan Khan more or less inherited his Djinn (although some say they were acquired by the favor and initiation of an unrelated Hindu sadhu).
He learnt his art from his father, a greater adept in Occultism than himself, who duly initiated him with certain weird ceremonies. He had been given power over seven djinnis, on the condition that he should lead a moral and temperate life (Olcott, 1900, p283).
Hassan Khan himself gave a slightly different account (not suggesting his Djinn wrangling mentor was related to him).
“When I was a mere lad, ” said this remarkable man, ” there came one day to my native village a gaunt sadhu with matted locks and altogether repulsive aspect. The boys crowded round him and mocked him, but I reproved their rudeness, telling them that they should respect a holy man, even though a Hindu. The sadhu observed me closely, and later on we met frequently, for he took up his abode in the village for some little time. On my part I seemed to be drawn towards the strange man, and visited him as often as I could. One day he offered to confer on me an important secret power, if I would follow his instructions faithfully and implicitly. I promised to do whatever might be required of me, and under the sadhu’s directions commenced a system of discipline with fasting which lasted many, perhaps forty, days. My instructor taught me to repeat many mystic spells and incantations, and, after imposing a very strict fast, commanded me to enter a dark cavern in the hillside and tell him what I saw there. With much trepidation I obeyed his behests, and returned with the information that the only thing visible to me in the gloom was a huge flaming eye. That is well — success has been achieved,” was the sadhu’s remark, and I began wondering what power I had acquired. Pointing to some stones lying about, the sadhu made me make a particular mystical sign upon each one. I did so. “Now go home,” said my mentor, “shut the door of your room, and command your familiar to bring these stones to you”. Away I went, in a state of nervous excitement, and, locking myself in my chamber, commanded the unseen djinn to bring those stones to me at once. Hardly had my mandate been uttered, when, to my amazement and secret terror, the stones lay at my feet. I went back and told the sadhu of my success. “Now,” he said, “you have a power which you can exercise over everything upon which you can make the mystical sign I have taught you, but use your power with discretion, for my gift is qualified by the fact that, do what you will, the things, whatever they may be, acquired through your familiar spirit, cannot be accumulated by you, but must soon pass out of your hands”. And the sadhu’s words have been verified in my life, and his gift has not been an unmixed blessing, for my djinn resents my power, and has often tried to harm me; but happily his time is not yet come (Oman, 1905, p61-64).
The number of Djinn bequeathed to Hassan Khan is theologically interesting in so far as in the 14th Century Kitab al-Bulhan (“Book of Surprises”), an Arabic illustrated treatise on astronomy, astrology, and geomancy compiled by Abd al-Hasan Al-Isfahani in Baghdad, there were said to be “Seven Djinn Kings”, so one might surmise that Djinn, replicating their own social order, tend to come in packs of seven. It may also simply be that the number seven figures prominently in Islam, from the number of ayat in surat al-Fatiha, the number of heavens, the number of hells, the number of times you circle the Kaaba in Mecca, the day of the naming ceremony for newborns, and the number of major sins, among other significant usages. At any rate, Hassan Khan had himself seven Djinn.
Now, with seven Djinn at his beck and call, one might assume that Hassan Khan proceeded to go all Disney-style Aladdin, but this appears not to have been the case as “Hassan Khan was not a professional wizard, nor even a performer, but he could be persuaded on occasion to display to a small circle his peculiar powers, and this without any pecuniary reward” (Oman, 1905, p6-64). While Hassan was popular amongst his native brethren, Victorian Era European spiritualists took special interest in his wonder-working antics as, “at many different places in the presence of many witnesses, his wonders were performed. He required neither darkness, nor ‘cabinets’, nor the singing of hymns. He would go to any stranger’s house, and do his feats in broad daylight; without apparatus or confederates” (Theosophical Society, 1880, p117). Thus, Hassan wandered about randomly performing strange feats.
A favorite kind was to command his spirits to bring fruits of different distant countries, bottles of wine and other drinkables, and other articles. He would extract jewels or money out of locked burglar-proof safes, or out of the innermost box of a nest of boxes, locked or sealed. He would tell you to gather the finger-rings of the company and cast them into a well, and presently either produce them to you out of his hand or somebody’s pocket; or would tell you to go and pick an orange or lime off a tree in the garden — he not touching it — and upon cutting it open you would find the rings there. In short, his phenomena were the prototypes of the familiar illusions of our Western conjurors, effected by them by the help of confederacy and sleight of hand (Assier, 1887, p253).
Stage magic was starting to get big as a form of entertainment in Europe at the time, so Hassan’s wonders were equated with them, although some of the reports of his magical prowess went a little beyond mere “sleight of hand”. There are several eyewitness account of Hassan Khan’s impromptu performances. Babu Girdharilal, Assistant Superintendent of Police in the North West Provinces once had Hassan Khan brought from the lunatic asylum where he was by that time incarcerated.
This same experiment I saw performed at my own house at Bareilly. Hassan was then conﬁned in the lunatic asylum; but the power was apparently not impaired. I obtained permission from the medical ofﬁcer in charge of the asylum, and Hassan was brought to my house, direct from the asylum, by the chuprassies or keepers who watched him. It was perhaps 2 o’clock P. M., and I had gathered a number of friends to witness the performance. Nothing specially strange could be noticed in his face, nor did he make any ceremonies, but when we told him we were ready for him to begin, he crossed the hall and standing on the threshold of a side room, raised his hands backwards above his head so as to conceal them temporarily from our View, and the next minute, bringing them down again, showed a large pomolo. In the same way he produced a number of other fruits, some, as I remember, out of season, and some from a distance, as, for instance, grapes that grow in Kabul. He then in like manner produced for us toys for the children, and last of all did the feat with the rings. In this instance he himself collected the rings, but when we expressed some apprehension lest our property should go to Patal, or the Christian hell, he laughingly told me to take them into my own hand and throw them into my well. I looked wistfully at my own costly ring which was among the number, but ﬁnally concluded to see the thing through at all hazards. So, I went out to the well and cast the jewels in and saw them sink in the water. Coming back into the hall, I reported to Hassan what I had done. Thereupon he again placed himself in the doorway, raised his hands as before, muttering his charm or mantram—which I omitted mentioning before—and in an instant held out for our inspection an orange. It was cut open, and—there were our rings packed snugly inside and quite uninjured (Theosophical Society, 1880, p117).
By 1872, Hassan Khan was living in Alighur with a bunch of dancers or nautch girls, as distinguished from Domni (hereditary female singer), Kasbi (a female belonging to family which practices hereditary sex trade), Randi (first generation prostitute), Tawaif (elegant and cultured female master of arts, including singing and dancing), Kanjari (low-class uncultured Tawaif), Nochi (young girl trainee under a tawaaif) or Devdasi (temple dancer devoted to the practice of spiritual dancing). Hassan himself was by this point widely renowned as a “man of depraved habits, a drunkard and debauchee” (Theosophical Society, 1880, p117). Mind you, the original requirement of Hassan’s Djinn control was that he lead a moral and temperate life. Sadly, Hassan started to lose control of his Djinn.
He would produce articles of food, such as biscuits or cakes, and cigars too, enough for the assembled company. On a certain occasion, so I was informed by one who was present, the supply of comestibles seemed to be exhausted. Several members seated round the table raised a laugh against Hassan Khan, and jeeringly challenged him to produce a bottle of champagne. Much agitated and stammering badly — he always had an impediment in his speech — Hassan Khan went into the verandah, and in angry tones commanded some unseen agent to bring the champagne at once. He had to repeat his orders two or three times, when, hurtling through the air, came the required bottle. It struck the magician on the chest with force, and, falling to the floor, broke into a thousand pieces. “There,” said Hassan Khan, much excited, “I have shown my power, but I have enraged my djinn by my importunities” (Oman, 1905, p61-64).
From there on out, Hassan’s Djinn seem to have escalated the expression of their displeasure. Dr. Abdul Rahman Khan of Lucknow reported his 1876 encounter with Hassan.
One day he entered my dispensary where I Had been occupied at my work for some time. He seated himself, and suddenly a large brick fell just close to my feet. I was much startled, for there were no bricks in or about the place, and no reasonable way to account for the phenomenon. I walked out with him into my garden, when suddenly a number of bricks and clods of clay began dropping from the air all about us. I told him that, if this sort of thing were to go on, I should certainly leave him, for I had no desire to have my head broken. He laughed, looked up at the sky, made a deprecatory gesture, and said in Hindustani, “Stop! Stop! That’s enough!” We walked on for some paces, when other bricks fell. He again made a gesture and said, “Bas, bas!”- “that will do”- but his djinns evidently did not agree with him, for there began to fall a shower of dust or sand upon our heads. Then he seemed to get angry, and peremptorily ordered the thing to stop, and it did stop”. The same thing occurred on another occasion when he came to my house for a medical prescription. The brick-shower ceased after he has twice commanded the invisibles to stop their nonsense. The missiles did not seem to fall according to any attractive force proceeding from his own person; sometimes they dropped very close to him, and sometimes at a distance. Their fall was sometimes vertical, sometimes diagonal, and sometimes in a parabola (Theosophist, 1882).
Hassan Khan explained that due to his dubious lifestyle, one by one his Djinn had abandoned him until only one was left, and that he lived in constant dread, and was unable to perform miracles except at the convenience of the remaining spirit. “If a bottle of wine or other heavy object was called for, he would give the command, but put up his hands to guard his head from the projectile the angry spirit would now invariably make of it” (Assier, 1887, p253). Poor Hassan died in prison (or asylum) in Lucknow to which he was committed for unspecified reasons.
A few lessons are to be had here, “don’t drink and djinn” being an important one. Its nice to have a few Djinn in your pocket, but you’ve got to abide by their rules, which makes sense as they are “accountable”, and your misbehavior reflects badly on them. Although, perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson wad right when he said, “Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits”.
Assier, Adolphe d’, 1828-, and Henry Steel Olcott. Posthumous Humanity: A Study of Phantoms. London: G. Redway, 1887.
Olcott, Henry Steel, 1832-1907. Old Diary Leaves: The Only Authentic History of the Theosophical Society. London: The Theosophical Pub. Society, 1900.
Oman, John Campbell, 1841-1911. The Mystics, Ascetics, And Saints of India: a Study of Sadhuism, With an Account of the Yogis, Sanyasis, Bairagis, And Other Strange Hindu Sectarians. London: T. F. Unwin, 1905.
“Hassan Khan Djinni”. Theosophical Society (Madras, India). The Theosophist (February). [Adyar, etc.: Theosophical Publishing House, etc.], 1880.
“More Anecdotes of Hassan Khan Djinni”. Theosophical Society (Madras, India). The Theosophist (May). [Adyar, etc.: Theosophical Publishing House, etc.], 1882.
All I know I learned from Hassan Ben Ezi.
It’s difficult to muster any sympathy for Hassan since he seems to have enslaved some sentient beings and used them as little more than gofers. I have no problem with his debauchery (New Orleans is my hometown), but his mistreatment of djinns offends me. I call it mistreatment because their service was involuntary, the tasks menial, and as far as I can tell, there was no compensation for their time and effort. Even social niceties were neglected. Always commands and nary a “please” or “thank you.”