Did Muhammad Speak of Ghouls?

Muhammad's words on the existence of ghouls vary depending on which text you read. The Quran does not mention them at all, but contested references do pop up in the Hadith (a book of Muhammad's attributed acts and sayings) [source: El-Zein]. In some accounts, the seventh-century prophet dismisses them as nonexistent, while in others he gives advice on banishing them. His companion Abū Asīd al-Sa'dī takes a more balanced approach, stating that ghouls lived in the pre-Islamic past, but that Allah no longer permitted them to exist. Meanwhile, legend has it that Umar Bin al-Khaṭṭâb, another of Muhammad's companions, put a ghoul to the sword on the road to Syria [source: Al-Rawi].

Ancient History of the Ghouls

Tales of the ghoul circulated throughout the Middle East long before the seventh-century spread of Islam through the region. In fact, the Arabic ghul may stem from gallu, the name of an Akkadian demon in ancient Mesopotamian mythology [source: Al-Rawi]. Arabic scholars of the eighth, ninth and 10th centuries compiled various Bedouin folktales involving ghouls, many of which found their way into the collection "The Thousand and One Nights." Translations of this book traveled to Europe in the 18th century -- as did the notion of the ghoul.

In the original Arabic texts, the ghouls of "The Thousand and One Nights" were vile tricksters and ravenous flesh eaters. They kidnapped victims and lured lustful men to their doom by taking the guise of beautiful women. Sometimes they even snuck into storerooms and munched on dates.

Although ghouls were sometimes associated with scavenging hyenas, Arabic texts did not identify them as grave robbers who dined on the dead. This detail, according to scholar Ahmed Al-Rawi, seems to emerge with Antoine Galland's French translation of "The Thousand and One Nights" in the early 18th century. Not only did Galland take liberties in his translation, he even introduced (and allegedly created) the female character Amina, who prefers the company of graveyard ghouls to that of her new husband. This inaccurate translation, however, was hugely influential on the Western world and its understanding of the Middle East, inspiring the work of William Beckford, the 18th century author of the Arabian-themed novel "Vathek," and the folkloric studies of Sabine Baring-Gould.

Still, even if Arabic ghouls refused to dine on corpses, their peers in Asian folktales weren't so picky. In the Tamil mythology of India, a shaggy-haired creature known as the pey sought out human battles so as to lap blood from the open wounds of the dying. Still other ghouls emerge in the eighth-century Tibetan Book of the Dead, which details the Buddhist journey through death. Here, in the dreamlike state known as bardo, the departed soul encounters the Pishachi ghouls, fierce female beings with bestial heads and an appetite for bones and viscera.

Where are the ghouls today? Let's find out on the next page.