Muslims Said it First: ‘Ghoul’

There are dozens of ordinary ‘English’ words that originally came from languages historically associated with Islam, such as Arabic, Persian and Urdu. 

Muslims have never been strangers to the West; we are as inseparable from its culture, history & heritage as our words are from its languages. And our contribution to its development can be found in any dictionary.

Mansoor Dahri, UK

© Shutterstock

Halloween is bad. It’s not just bad for the physical environment, as thousands of tonnes of plastic in landfills can attest to, but it’s also bad for the spiritual environment, though the millions of children who are taught to beg for sweets while dressing like demons will probably deny this.

It tells parents to teach kids to gorge on sugar and terrorise each other on top of the generally worsening rates of child obesity and mental health issues. 

Moreover, numerous unnecessary studies have confirmed that it’s not okay to scare very young children; it’s literally a form of child abuse.

Monsters can take many forms; Halloween itself is surely one of them. Myths, legends, tales and pieces of folklore from all over the world are populated with a staggering array of nightmarish creatures. If Halloween had to be described as one of these monsters, I wonder which one it would be. Would Halloween be a ghost, a vampire, a zombie or a werewolf? 

Well, it can’t be any of the above because all those creatures were at least once originally human; only later through a curse or infection were they transformed into monsters. So that’s less like Halloween and more like the recently mutated corporate materialist version of Christmas, which at any rate doesn’t terrorise children, it only makes them greedy and entitled.

Sure, modern consumerism is new to Halloween too but trashing our living planet is hardly contrary to the message behind a holiday obsessed with death and doom. It certainly is contrary to the traditional message of Christmas, with its emphasis on humility, moderation and of course nativity (i.e. the birth of new life). Corporate consumerism is a sad mutation for Christmas but more like an upgrade for Halloween.

To describe Halloween, you’d need a monster that was never human to begin with. Like, for instance, a ghoul.

Ghouls are specifically monsters that spend their time in graveyards and feast on human flesh. Ghouls can resemble humans but are not and have never been humans, unlike ghosts or vampires. The noun ‘ghoul’ along with the corresponding adjective ‘ghoulish’ is often used generically to refer to all sorts of demons, monsters or ghosts but the term actually refers to a very specific fictional creature.

The concept of ghouls was first popularised in the West by Antoine Guillard in the early 1700s, when he translated One Thousand and One Nights into French from the original Arabic, and the concept originates in the folklore of that language. In pre-Islamic Arabian mythology ghouls were flesh-eating demons that robbed graves and were just generally a menace to society. Ghouls have also been portrayed as shapeshifters. e.g. the disguise of a beautiful woman to trick people and lure them into being eaten (trick and treat, I guess).

Even after the advent of Islam had uprooted numerous unfounded superstitions, tales of ghouls still continued. Some considered them to be a kind of jinn, a term frequently used in the Holy Qur’an that is often misinterpreted as referring to magical beings when it really just refers to unseen creatures, like remote tribes, secret societies, and bacteria for instance. Others considered ghouls to be burned devils that had tried to fly to heaven but were stopped by blazing comets that charred them and sent them hurtling towards the earth, where they were doomed to be stuck forever. 

The term ‘ghoul‘ (“غُول”) comes from the Arabic root ‘ghala‘ (“غَالَ”) meaning to ‘seize’ or ‘snatch’. So “ghoul” basically means ‘snatcher’ like a grave-robber or people-snatcher.

Ghouls aren’t directly mentioned in the Holy Qur’an. However, we do find one occurrence of the same root:

لَا فِیۡھَا غَوۡلٌ وَّلَا ھُمۡ عَنۡھَا یُنۡزَفُوۡنَ

Wherein there will be no intoxication, nor will they be exhausted thereby.(37:48)

This verse refers to a wonderful drink that will be served to the righteous in paradise, a drink which will be like wine except there will be no ‘intoxication’ in it i.e. it won’t make you lose your senses or become drunk. Interestingly, the word ‘ghawl‘ (“غَوۡلٌ”) is used for “intoxication” i.e. something that “snatches” away your senses.

In that sense, Halloween really is like a ‘ghoul’; it snatches the sense of otherwise reasonable people and blinds them to the obvious harm it does. As Ahmadi Muslims it is our duty to warn those around us about the dangers of this unhealthy tradition and help them give it up rather heedlessly stumbling into it ourselves.

About the Author: Mansoor Dahri is an online editor for The Review of Religions. He graduated from UCL in BA Ancient Languages.