A while back, I wrote a post on Shiva as presented in the Final Fantasy series. To make a long story short, Final Fantasy isn’t very accurate. Nevertheless, its use of Shiva still got me interested in the original mythology. The same is true for a lot of the other summons, and so I thought it would be fun to look into their source material as well. Shiva has appeared in just about every game I’ve played, but another commonly recurring summon is Ifrit, a demon-like entity with awesome fire powers. Based on Middle Eastern stories, Ifrit’s use is nowhere near as culturally appropriative as Shiva’s, if only because Ifrit is not a deity at the center of a particular faith. Its presentation is still not quite accurate, so let’s delve into the differences between its use in Final Fantasy and Middle Eastern lore.
Ifrit is another recurring element in Final Fantasy, and he appears in almost all the games I’ve played. In all his appearances, Ifrit presents as male, has two demon-like horns on his head, and is surrounded by fire. In FFVII, he’s a powerful spell called forth through a magic rock. In FFVIII, he’s a Guardian Force, a being that lends its powers to the characters but in turn devours their memories. And in FFX, he’s an Aeon, a dream made manifest through prayer. None of these iterations sets Ifrit apart from any other summon—Shiva can be called forth through the exact same means as Ifrit in all the games. So at the end of the day, he’s really just a powerful fire spell.
Interestingly enough, we do get to see Ifrit talk during FFVIII. At the beginning of the game, the main character, Squall, is graduating from school, and his final field test is to best Ifrit in battle. After this, Ifrit lends Squall his abilities. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t take this opportunity to really delve into who Ifrit is. We get to see a few other Guardian Forces speak, and the game does a much better job letting us get to know who they are during a short dungeon run. We learn how they view humans, how they relate to each other, and get a brief glimpse into their personalities. I wouldn’t say their characterization was great by any means, but the game at least tried. Seeing as Ifrit is so commonly used in Final Fantasy, I’m a bit annoyed that the story didn’t put more effort into him as well. We don’t learn anything about him other than that he hates Shiva, because his element is fire and hers is ice. So I can’t say seeing him talk for once was all that interesting.
In real mythology, Ifrit is a djinn. Djinns are supernatural creatures from Arabic and Islamic theology and mythology. In the Western world, they’re better known to us as genies who grant wishes, but djinn can also mean demon. The Qur’an tells us that they were born of scorching and smokeless fire, and they make up one of the three sentient creations of God, along with humans and angels. Djinn and humans share a lot of traits. Like human beings, djinn are capable of both good and evil, and they can interact with the physical world. In pre-Islamic Arabia, they were worshiped as gods themselves, but in current Islamic theology, they are subservient to God, the same as humans. God also gave them free will, and according to the Qur’an, sent the prophet Mohammad to preach to them as well as to humans.
Final Fantasy presents Ifrit as one solitary spell, and FFVIII even has him living alone in a cave, but djinn are actually supposed to thrive in a community. They can have kings, marriages, and funerals, and they live out their lives much the same as humans. Ifrit is also not just the only kind of djinn, but one of the five classes of djinn. In particular, they are an infernal class, best known for their “cunning and strength”, so at the very least we can say that Final Fantasy got the “powerful fire” part about them correct. They can live underground or in ruins, but they don’t do so alone. They still have a structured society like the other djinn, and while Final Fantasy always presents Ifrit as male, they can be either male or female.
Earlier folklore says that Ifrit are born of blood from people who have been murdered. They can change their appearance to trick people, taking on the form of sandstorms, the murder victim, or even Satan. In the tale One Thousand and One Nights, an Ifrit kidnaps a beautiful woman. When a prince rescues her, the Ifrit becomes jealous and curses the prince, turning him into an ape. In the Qur’an, we see an Ifrit in service to Solomon. The Ifrit proclaims himself to be trustworthy and strong, before bringing Solomon a throne as Solomon requested. Other than that, Ifrit don’t seem to appear all that often.
I can’t find any references to djinn in general granting wishes in their original theology and mythology, let alone Ifrit granting wishes. However, we do see djinn serving human masters such as Solomon. In Final Fantasy, Ifrit joins Squall of his own free will, albeit begrudgingly, because he recognizes Squall’s strength. In FFX, Ifrit also joins Yuna freely, because she forms an emotional bond to him through prayer. Solomon shackles the djinn in his court and orders them to perform certain tasks against their will, so it’s not entirely inaccurate to the original theology to have Ifrit serving the main characters.
While there are a number of similarities between Final Fantasy’s portrayal and the Ifrit in Islamic theology, they are superficial at best. Again, this doesn’t really bother me anywhere near as much as Shiva’s use does, because Shiva is one of the three principal deities of Hinduism and a supreme god. Having Shiva as a summon would be like having Jesus Christ as a summon with arbitrary magical powers that occasionally don’t work. Ifrit is a class of djinn and not the center of an entire faith. This can still be culturally appropriative—Final Fantasy has once again borrowed from another religion and reduced something to a spell without any intention of exploring the original theology—but it’s not quite on the same level. I don’t practice Islam or have any kind of emotional connection to that theology and mythology, so I can’t speak from that perspective. But what I can say is that just because I’m okay with Ifrit’s portrayal doesn’t mean other people will be. Appropriating Ifrit may not be at the same level as appropriating Shiva, but it’s still appropriation, and that is a slippery slope. Many audience members also don’t question whether or not a portrayal is correct, and therefore Final Fantasy still runs the risk of lying to the players. This is also a shame, because the Ifrit in Islamic theology sound awesome—they’re born of fire, they can marry humans, they have their own society and culture. There are so many opportunities Final Fantasy misses out on here.
I had fun reading about djinn in order to write this post, and I came out of the experience knowing more about the Qur’an as a result. Seeing Ifrit show up in Final Fantasy led me to learning more about another faith, and I wouldn’t have even known that Ifrit was a thing if it weren’t for the games. But this is an oversimplification of a religion that is not my own, and the Final Fantasy series certainly could have done better with it.
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Though, in fairness, since ifrit (and so many other things in Islam) have pre-Islamic origins, and some cultural relevance outside of Islam in several Middle Eastern cultures, it isn’t as if Islam has the final say on them, any more than they have the final say on anything else that is in the Qur’an that also occurs elsewhere: e.g. the Jewish patriarchs, Jesus and Mary, Alexander the Great, or the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus and their dog, amongst many other things…