In recent years, I've learned that a movie was made to accompany the book. Click above to watch Walt Disney's “The Fisherman and the Genie.” (You may need to click Replay on the bottom left corner when it appears.)


 I cannot exonerate my self,
for it always commands to evil.

—Abraham (12:53)

The Prophet of God was sitting, surrounded by his Companions.
He said: “Every human being has a genie (devil).”
They asked: “Even you, Messenger of God?”

He replied: “Yes, and mine is the most formidable of them all.”
The Companions exchanged glances among themselves, surprised.
Then they said: “But Messenger of God, we can’t see anything devilish in you.”
He replied: “That’s because God has helped me against my devil,
and it has surrendered to me. Now it only commands me to do good.”

(Muslim 39.6757; alt. 52.62; 2814. Also Tirmidhi, Rada 17; Musnad, 3. 309.
Aslama shaytani: see Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, p. 113.)


When I was a child, my uncle gave me a book as a birthday present. It was Our Friend the Atom (1956), a Walt Disney book written by Heinz Haber. It was perhaps my first introduction to the marvels of science. The book started with a tale from the Arabian Nights: “The Fisherman and the Genie.”

I opened the book and began to read (I've updated the language a little bit):

There once lived an aged fisherman, who dwelt in poverty with his wife and three children. Each day he cast his net into the sea four times, and rested content with what it brought forth.

One day, after three vain casts, the old fisherman drew in his net for the fourth time. He found it heavier than usual. Examining his catch, he found among the shells and seaweeds a brazen vessel. On its leaden stopper was the ancient seal of King Solomon.

In Sufi lore, it is said that the seal of Solomon was inscribed on his ring, and stated: “From Solomon, and In the Name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful” (27:30). King Solomon would press the seal on his ring in dealing with his affairs.

“A better catch than fish!” he exclaimed. “This jar I can sell. And who knows what thing of value it might contain?”

With his knife he pried open the stopper. Then, as he peered into the jar, smoke began to pour from it. He fell back in astonishment as the smoke rose in a great dark column and spread like an enormous mushroom between earth and sky. And his astonishment turned into terror as the smoke formed into a mighty Genie, with eyes blazing like torches and fiery smoke whirling about him like the ominous cyclone of the desert.

“Alas!” cried the old fisherman, falling to his knees. “Spare me, O Genie. I am but a poor man, who has not offended you!”

The genie glared down at the trembling old man.

“Know,” he thundered, “that because you have freed me, you must die. For I am one of those condemned spirits who long ago disobeyed the word of King Solomon. In this brazen vessel he sealed me, and he commanded that it be cast into the sea, there to lie foreveror until some mortal should, by unlikely chance, bring up the vessel from the depths and set me free.”

The old fisherman listened in silent fear as the Genie's eyes flamed.

“For centuries,” the great voice of the Genie continued, “I lay imprisoned deep in the sea, vowing to grant my liberator any wisheven to make him the master of all the wealth in the world, should he desire it. But no liberator came. At last, in my bitterness, I vowed that my liberator, who had delayed so long, should have no wish granted himexcept how he should die. You, old man, are my liberator, and according to my solemn vow, you must die!”

Now the fisherman, having pleaded in vain, thought of a ruse in his plight. He said that he did not believe the tale, seeing that so huge a genie could never have come out of so small a jar. “Prove it!” he said.

Whereupon the genie made smoke of himself, and re-entered the vase. Instantly the fisherman stoppered it, and would not let the genie free until it had promised to spare his life.

“O fisherman,” the Genie implored, “Release me, and I give my solemn vow to grant you three wishes.”

So the fisherman decided to free the Genie. He opened the stopper of the brazen vessel.

The Genie's fiery smoke again swelled up to the sky, and the fisherman once more fell back in terror, fearing for his life, wondering if he had made a terrible mistake.

But the Genie bowed down before the fisherman.

“Fear not,” he said. “You heard my vow. O Fisherman, my master, name your three wishes...”


“I have made my devil surrender (to me).”—The Prophet of God


But What Does It Mean?

The book goes on to compare the power of the atom to a genie: a nuclear bomb resembles the genie's wrath, whereas the potential of the atom to serve humankind corresponds to the three wishes.

That's the fable. Now for the interpretation.

I have, on some occasions, mentioned how Sufi materials are interspersed throughout the Arabian Nights (also known as the 1001 Nights), and given some examples. The present fable is, perhaps, one of the best proofs of this.

Let's unpack the meaning of the fairy tale in terms of Sufi psychology:

The fisherman represents our spirit. And the Genie corresponds to our inner demon, the Base Self (nafs al-ammara, 12:53). Unless we tame it, constrain it, confine it, it will spell doom for us. Properly confined, however, it has the power to grant us things that are “undreamt of in our philosophy.”

We cannot kill the Base Self, for that would mean suicide. Rather, we need to restrain it and cleanse it. We have to purify the self. Only after that will its latent powers come to the surface. Otherwise, it will use the means available to it for our destruction.

I have seen this happen so many times, in close acquaintances and distant ones. Let's say they wish for a nice drink. And, sooner or later, it happens: someone brings it and puts it on the table in front of them. They reach out to take it. At that instant, the Base Self lashes out, uses their own hand to strike the glass, and knocks it off the table. The drink is wasted. But they had really, really wished for that drink, and God in His grace had given it to them. The Base Self makes them ruin their chance with their own hands. Which is probably one of the reasons why the Prophet said: “If you knew what I knew, you would laugh little and weep much.”

As the Turkish Sufi poet Yunus Emre sang,

A fly swung and threw, an eagle to the ground—
It's no lie, it's true, I saw its dust too.

The fly is the Base Self, and the eagle is our spirit, or a great person. As the Master remarked, “An eagle equals fifty thousand flies in strength.” And yet, that fly is enough to vanquish the eagle.

So there is really no alternative in this life: if only to find some peace of mind, you have to tackle the Base Self. (And also in the next life, but that's another story, though a continuation of this one.)

I have also mentioned the Two Doors that need to be closed if we are to tame the Base Self: Illicit Gain and Illicit (extramarital) Sex. Unless we close these two doors, no attempt to subdue the Base Self will succeed. This is where we put the Genie back into its vessel. Once this is done, we have to perfect our ethics in order to give this vessel exactly the right shape: the shape of a human, or more precisely, a Perfect Human.

Master Kayhan explained it this way:

There are four elements in man. What disturbs the body, the spirit most is air [caprice] and fire [anger]. If one restrains them, one will be in comfort. When you cut off fire and air, water and earth [life-affirmative elements in the human constitution] remain. It is a fertile soil, and when rain falls, it’s done!

The spirit is not bound by the four elements, the four elements are bound by the spirit. The Base Self does not die, it is reformed. They [the wise] work hard until they reform it. They put it in a bottle. If the bottle is not sealed properly, air will blow, the fire inside will flare. The fire boils over. Once they seal off the fire, they reform the air as well. It can’t affect the fire. What remains is water and earth. When rain falls on fecund soil, a rosebed, a rose garden is produced.

It is then that the spirit begins to move. Then, the spirit begins to sing like a canary bird. Then we will have planted the flag, and the fortress stands conquered. Then we will have some peace.

(The Teachings of a Perfect Master (2012), p. 83. Emphasis added.)

The practices of Sufism slowly bring the spirit, and with it the spiritual body, out of suspended animation. (This can also occur spontaneously, but it is very rare, and will swerve off course at some point.)    


Fission and Fusion

Is there any way, then, in which the processes of the self can be compared to the processes of the atom?

If the Base Self is uncontrolled, it can explode just like an atomic bomb. It will lay waste to whatever lies within its reach.

If, however, it is controlled, it can be used as a source of, well, “energy” (a better word might be “transformation”), just like a nuclear reactor.

A similar analogy holds for thermonuclear fusion. At temperatures of about 100 million degrees (doesn't matter which scale you use!), matter enters the plasma state, where neither atoms nor their nuclei can survive, but form a furious swarm of individual protons, electrons, and neutrons. Uncontrolled, this can give you an explosion that dwarfs an atomic explosionthe hydrogen bomb.

Scientists are still working to confine this awesome power. One design is to confine the plasma in a magnetic bottle. They have not quite succeeded yet, because nonlinearities in the plasma burst the confines of magnetic bottles. But if they succeed one day, that will be the equivalent of putting the Genie in the bottle. The deuterium in the Earth's seawater will then ensure that all of humankind's energy needs will be met for the foreseeable future.

Here, too, we see an analogy with controlling the self. For without control, power is not powerit is a liability. And an uncontrolled Base Self is not freedom, but rather, our doom.

Let's subdue that genie. Let's put the Seal of the Prophet (who is himself “the seal of the prophets”) on that stopper.