Satan and mystics

Print edition : May 18, 2012

The book makes a fascinating exploration of the story of Iblis in Quranic verses.

FOR centuries, the motif of Iblis (Satan) as a figure to be admired, rather than despised, has continued in Sufi lore and Islamic literature. Of course, Iblis also retained his place in religious belief as the damned one. The lay Muslim and the ulema point to the Quranic verses which describe the fall of Satan from the exalted position he once occupied as Azazil, the archangel, and Satan's confrontation with Adam and Eve leading to their expulsion from heaven. The Sufi resents any suggestion that his faith in the Quran is weaker than that of the maulvi. But he reads the text differently.

God formed Adam from clay and breathed into him His spirit. He ordered the angels to bow before this unique creation made of clay but with the divine spark within. All obeyed, except Iblis. He argued: I would never prostrate myself before a mortal whom Thou has created out of clay and mould. I am better than he: Thou created me of fire and, him Thou created of clay. Satan is banished from Paradise for his defiance, and a divine curse rests in him until Judgment Day. But he is given a respite until then so that he can tempt and test man.

The fall of the angel preceded the fall of man. Adam and Eve were asked to live in the garden where God provided for them in abundance. He denied them the produce of only one tree. Iblis tempted them to eat just that. They lost their innocence and were driven to an earthly existence carrying with them the seeds of human aggression and fratricide.

Iblis was sworn to serve as the enemy of man. The Quranic account bears a close resemblance to that in the Bible.

Dr Peter J. Awn of the Department of Religion in Columbia University was the first to explore the theme with a wealth of learning in his work Satan's Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1983). Whitney S. Bodman, Associate Professor of Comparative Religion, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, discusses his work and proceeds to make his own fascinating exploration of the Quranic verses, the classic Commentaries, the writings of old mystics and modern writings including those of the poet-philosopher Iqbal. The diversity of interpretations of Iblis in modern works, he holds, is foreshadowed in the diversity of the Quranic story itself. The Quran does not tell a simple story of Iblis but weaves a complex and suggestive narrative that allows for a range of diverse and divergent interpretations. Muslims through the ages have found within that range the opportunity to explore various nuances of the age-old issue of theodicy. The Quran indeed not only allows this exploration but also invites and encourages it.

The mathnawis of Fariduddin Attar and Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the greatest mystic poets of all time, are rich in allusions to Iblis. In his devotion, Iblis can still hope for God's mercy. Attar wrote: My heart was filled with His glory;/ I was a confessor of His unity./ Nevertheless, without cause, in spite of all this devotion,/ He drove me from His threshold without warning/ Since without cause I was driven away by Him,/ I can also, without cause, be called back by Him./ Since in God's actions there is no how and why, it is not right to abandon hope in God./ Since, without cause, You bestowed the gift of existence,/ In the same way, without cause, drown me in Your generosity.

In the Quran, God assures man that He is closer to you than your jugular vein. But He warns also that truly Satan flows in man's very bloodstream. He thrives on man's nafs, the lower soul, which leads him astray.

WHIRLING SUFI DANCERS at an annual ceremony to mark the death anniversary of Jalaluddin Rumi, in Konya, Turkey. The mathnawis of Rumi, one of the greatest mystic poets of all time, are rich in allusions to Iblis.-WANG JIAN/AP

Satan's fate illustrates the results of pride and intellectual conceit. He revelled in logic, little realising its limitations. He did not realise that one who bowed to Adam in accordance with God's command was truly bowing to God himself. Rumi's lines on this failing reflect the Sufi disdain for the intellect as the sole guide in the spiritual progress of man: He possessed intellect, but since he possessed not the passionate yearning of faith, He saw in Adam only a clay form. Even if you possess the fine points of knowledge, O worthy fellow, that will not open your two eyes to pierce the unseen.

But, it is to Mansur Al-Hallaj, who went to the gallows declaiming that he was the Truth (God), that one must turn to discover the first elaborations of the complex tragedy surrounding the personality of lblis. For Mansur, lblis is a tragic victim. Condemned he was, but perfect in his devotion to God and preferred self-destruction to a compromise with his faith. To man, lblis is teacher no less than tempter.

Mansur devotes a whole chapter in his Tawasin to lblis. There was no monotheist like lblis among the inhabitants of the heavens. When the essence revealed itself to him in stunning glory, he renounced even a glance at it and worshipped God in ascetic isolation. God said to him, Bow.' He replied, To no other.' He said to him, Even if my curse be upon you?' He cried out, To no other.'

A few centuries later, Sarmad spoke in the same vein. He was a Jewish convert to Sufism who met the same fate as Mansur. Aurangzeb ordered him to be beheaded on the steps of Jama Masjid, Delhi, where his tomb is. Sarmad wrote in one of his quatrains: Go, learn the method of servantship from Satan: Choose one qibla and do not prostrate yourself before anything. Satan emerges as a strikingly colourful, almost attractive, figure in Iqbal's Javid-Namah. In another poem, Iqbal has Gabriel and Iblis exchanging taunts and reproaches. Gabriel tells Iblis: You lost the loftiest position by your denial. What prestige can angels now enjoy in the eyes of the Almighty? Iblis retorts what a daring and stormy life he leads on earth in contrast to Gabriel's uneventful existence in heaven. The concluding lines read: If ever you find yourself alone with God, ask Him: Who has coloured the story of Adam with his own blood? I prick the conscience of the Almighty like a thorn. You can only declaim, Oh God! Oh God!

It is an erudite and fascinating book. Its author's summing up is perfect. The burdens of discernment and the power of desire, even desire for God, lead mortals into a wilderness of God's own design. Although will and righteousness direct us towards the final destination, that same will and righteousness also lead us astray. Like al-Hallaj's Iblis, we cannot assume that God's command, often interpreted through human medium and contextualised in time and space, with God's will, which is eternal, are the same. The very recognition that there is a difference is the fertile soil of tragedy. We choose, discern, reason, decide, and suffer the consequences, trusting in God's mercy. While it is tempting, in the human search for the straight path, to dismiss tragedy as a failure of faith in God's good mercy, in fact, it is in the tragic that we recognise that the straight path is not well lit. We choose, and suffer the consequences. That is the path.

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