Friday, September 18, 2015

A Worthy Adversary, Part 2 Angel or Jinn

The title of my khutbah today is “A Worthy Adversary, Part 2 Angel or Jinn?” This is a continuation of a khutbah I gave last month on Iblis in the Qur’an. And again, I will be primarily drawing on Peter Awn’s book “Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology “.

The character of Iblis appears numerous times in the Qur’an, and in fact, there is an English language book which examines every ayah in the Qur’an in which Ilbis is mentioned: The Poetics of Iblis: Narrative Theology in the Qur’an by Whitney S. Bodman. The author does try to use the theme of the surah and the context of Iblis’ actions, in order to draw more light on the character of Iblis. However, despite this extensive analysis, the Qur’an alone gives a limited picture. By comparing links to the Iblis motif in other genres of Islamic religious literature, we can explore the common roots of the biography of the Muslim devil. Once we understand the significance of the devil in the context of Islamic life, then we can begin to see the enormous creativity the Sufis used with respect to Iblis symbols. In essence, all these stories whether in the Qur’an, in medieval Christian texts or non-canonical Jewish texts, all of these stories are wrestling with the question of evil and how to cope with it.

Just to demonstrate the enormous creative potential of borrowing from non-canonical and Rabbinic sources to explain evil, I’d like to read from the English language epic poem of  John Milton, “Paradise Lost” composed in the late 1600s. This is a beautiful poem with amazing language, and I’d like to quote one of the more famous lines. This is Satan speaking, he has been expelled from heaven, and you’ll see Milton makes a reference to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, and then takes it even further:

“…Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! Hail,
Infernal world! And thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor; one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter, where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but the less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; the Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure; and in my choice
To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”
-John Milton, lines 249-263, Book I, Paradise Lost

The two types of literature I’ll be looking at today are Qur’an commentaries (primarily Aṭ-Ṭabari) and collections of prophetic stories. There is a third area, hadith, but I won’t have time to discuss that today. Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Jarir Aṭ-Ṭabari was writing and collecting as many sirah, pre-Islamic stories and commentary(tafsir) from the time of the Prophet and the first few centuries after the Prophet's death ,as he best could in the ninth century. He did an impressive job, given the travel and communication restrictions of that time. In reading Aṭ-Ṭabari, he gives you a complete overview, complete with critique and commentary, and then allows the reader to decide how the data should be interpreted.

The Aṭ-Ṭabari tafsir of Iblis is likely to be drawing on the Jewish Book of Enoch (200 BC). Before he sinned, Iblis was known as Azazil or Harith. Azazil was the most hard-working and devout spirit who inhabited the earth, and he was famous for his learning and wisdom. Muslims do not question Iblis’ spirituality, he was clearly meant to be present when God asked the angels to bow before Adam. What is in question, is the precise definition of the species of spirits to which Iblis/Azazil belongs to. Iblis is clearly among the angels, but he is never named as an angel, and his sin of not bowing sets him clearly apart from the angels.  One Qur’anic verse describes him as a ‘jinn’:

And mention when We said to the angels: Prostrate to Adam! So they prostrated but Iblis. He had been among the jinn.” 18:50

But this verse does not clearly describe the nature of jinn. Are jinns a different breed of angel (Golden Retriever versus German Shepherd) or are they a different species (cats versus dogs)? And if they are a different species, then what is their relation to angels?

Some Qur’anic commentators interpret “he was from among the jinn” as the jinn are a particular tribe or clan of angels which were entrusted with guarding the gates to Paradise. It is the link with Paradise (al-janna or al-jinan) that accounts for their class name, jinn. These commentators argue that Iblis was in charge of the jinn clan, navigating the traffic between heaven and earth, and in the strength of his powerful position, his pride ripened.

Other Qur’anic commentators maintain ‘he was from among the jinn” has more significance than a tribal designation.  They argue that jinns and angels are fundamentally different, and Iblis’ origin should be traced to an inferior species of spirits called jinn. The argument against Iblis angel status is the definition of an angel, and in this Muslim and Jewish angelology and in agreement, “...angels, harsh,severe, who do not disobey whatever God commands them and they accomplish.” 66:6.

So if Iblis was not an angel, then how did he get to be with the angels when God created Adam? A number of Muslim commentators tell the story of a violent battle that took place when Iblis was a baby. The angels and jinn were at war, and during the combat Iblis was carried off by the angels as a captive. He grew up among them, not knowing his jinn origins, although God knew where he came from. Iblis lived and  prayed as an angel and even took on angel jobs (guardian of Paradise). Only when God created Adam was Iblis’ true nature revealed.

Aṭ-Ṭabari summarized the arguments in favor of Iblis having a non-angel origin in four areas;
  1. When Qur’an speaks of jinn, it seems to indicate a clearly recognizable species of spirits and not just a class or breed
  2. Angels by their nature are incapable of sin
  3. Iblis has progeny and offspring, fathering jinn the same as Adam fathered mankind. Iblis is made of fire, angels are made of wind or light. Angels don’t eat, drink, or reproduce.
  4. God would not make His messengers unbelieving or  depraved, because then they would distort His message, from “The Praise belongs to God, One Who is the originator of the heavens and earth, the One Who Makes the angels messengers...” 35:1.
Arguments in favor of Iblis being an angel are
  1. Iblis has angelic status because he was among the angels at the time they were ordered to bow before Adam. If he hadn’t been one of them, he wouldn’t have been ordered to bow, nor would he have been accountable for his refusal. The order was only for angels. Jinn are a species or tribe of angels of a slightly different nature, called jinn because hidden (ijtanna) from eyes of men.
  2. Perfection should not be attributed to all angels. Why is it not possible to have an angel who sins, even if most of them don’t? We are told that men are sinners, but we have examples of sinless people (Mariam, Muhammad peace be upon them both)
  3. Jinns are made of fire versus angels made of wind or light- is there are real difference between fire and light? If there is, that difference is pretty negligible and the eat and drink evidence- hmmm. Just because Iblis has offspring is not automatically a sign of perversity or bad nature. Angels that are able to reproduce may be known as jinn
  4. Another verse in the Qur’an reads, “God favors from the angels messengers and from humanity “ (22:75). To assume that God has messengers who are truthful and obedient is in accord with revelation, but to assume that the messengerhood of  few men and angels means all messengers are perfect is not good logic. There are always going to be a few exceptions to any rule.

Why am I spending all this time on Iblis, angel or jinn? To me, this argument is very similar to our current day “nature versus nurture” debate. Are some people simply born evil (jinns, inferior spirits) or do people learn to be evil (nurture, pride, bad choices). While we still debate this nature versus nurture discussion in the 21st century, by the sixteenth century, the inconclusive debate over Iblis origin had shifted. The primary concern was with Iblis’ interior life of faith. Was he a believer? What kind of worshiper was he? Two myths related by Ad-Diyarbakri describe Iblis’ life going through various stages of spiritual enlightenment, a Sufi path.

In the first myth, God creates Iblis, puts him under seven earths, and Iblis progresses through these earths using thousands of years of uninterrupted worship to climb higher into heaven. Only once Iblis is at heaven, he realizes there are six more heavens, so again, uninterrupted worship for thousands of years to end his arduous journey at the foot of the Throne of God.

In the second myth, after God created the jinn, God puts them on earth. The jinn reproduce, their offspring over-run the world and their lives consist of doing everything that is forbidden. They are greedy, envious and combative creatures. God sends them messengers in hope of some reform, but the jinn don’t listen. However, in the midst of all these bad jinn, there is one named Azazil who is different. Azazil doesn’t like his community and so he withdraws to a high mountain top where he spends his days and nights worshiping God. The angels in the lowest heaven notice Azazil’s piety and beg God to raise Azazil to their level in heaven. God does so, and Azazil is soon out-worshiping the angels. The angels in the second heaven now notice Azazil, beg God to raise him up, and so on through all seven heavens until Azazil is at the foot of the Throne. Azazil is so esteemed by the angels surrounding the Throne of God that he is granted guardianship of the treasury and the key to Paradise. However, Ad-Diyarbakri reminds the reader not to be too impressed by Azazil’s worship practice: “Do not be misled by his piety! Under every pious deed is evil. Do not put your trust in obedience! In every obedient act is ruin.”

No matter how faithful you are in acts of worship, no matter how deep your knowledge, at some critical junction you may be asked to make an irreversible decision and without God’s grace, you will make the wrong choice.


I want to end with a brief discussion of jinn in the Islamic tradition because jinn, considered to be the progeny /tribe of Iblis, have been used as a paradigm to explain evil for hundreds of years.  In other words, to understand why someone would cheat in the marketplace or commit adultery or gossip or forget their place in a prayer or fall sick or have an accident, people would say that a jinn was responsible. And this answer, at that time, and even now in some parts of the world, was acceptable. “The devil made me do it” was a perfectly reasonable explanation.

In early 21st century North America, we have different explanations which, by and large, do not invoke jinn.  Some of our ‘reasonable’ explanations include mental illness, genetic defects, bacteria, viruses, nutrient-poor diets, evolution, laws of physics, tectonic plate shifts, inadequate engineering design, socio-cultural power structures, and economics. These are our generation's perfectly reasonable explanations, and hundreds of years from now it is quite likely that our great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will probably smirk and deride our ‘reasonable’ explanations.

Nevertheless, the common feature through time is that human beings have a deep need to name evil, and by naming the evil, then humans can figure out strategies for how to cope with it.

Siddhartha Mukherjee, writing about the history of cancer in the Emperor of All Maladies,notes:

“Even an ancient monster needs a name. To name an illness is to describe a certain condition of suffering- a literary act before it becomes a medical one. A patient, long before he becomes the subject of medical scrutiny, is, at first, simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering- a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill. To relieve an illness, one must begin, then, by unburdening its story.” p 46.

Let’s go through a brief overview of jinn because jinn are a part of our Islamic tradition and many of these stories were collected by Aṭ-Ṭabari. Jinn are considered spiritual beings that live in the world of the unseen, that is reflected in their Arabic root word jim-nun-nun = invisibility/concealment. They were created before man, may be angels or at least created around the same time as angels. Not all jinn are the same. Some eat, drink, have kids, and die, others  are wind and do none of that stuff. Some have wings, some take on the form of animals.  Some commentators believed Iblis was the father of all jinn, in the same way that Adam was the father of all humans. In this way, Iblis is sometimes called Al-Jann. In the Islamic tradition, Iblis and his offspring were created from nar as-samun or marj min nar. This substance has been described as fierce heat of a smokeless fire, heat that penetrates the pores of the skin, the substance that makes lightning bolts, hot winds that blow at night, a very strong whirlwind, or the heart of a fire’s flame. The common features here are violent heat and immaterial quality.

Iblis is the father of the jinn in a physical as well as spiritual sense because jinn continue to reproduce among themselves.  Aṭ-Ṭabari reports from Ibn Zayd that God said to Iblis, “I will not provide Adam with offspring without having provided the same to you. No son of man exists who does not have a shaytan (satan) who is yoked together with him.” The mechanism of jinn reproduction is not clear. Iblis may be a hermaphrodite, in another story he makes eggs from which his children hatch, and a third story suggests he needs a mate, such s the serpent of Paradise who was his co-conspirator.  Iblis’ offspring include jinn as well as shaytin, satans or devils.

The Qur’an not only speaks of Iblis progeny, but  anyone- man, woman, jinn, shaytan- who pledges their allegiance to Iblis. The characteristics of Iblis’ followers are that they have no boundaries; anything depraved, gross, arrogant, insolent, wicked, sinful or wanton is acceptable to them. They even compete to see who is the most wicked as illustrated in this 14th century couplet:

“I was a fellow in Iblis’ gang
But I made such progress that he ended up in mine!” –An-Nisaburi

Which just goes to show that as with anything else, given enough determination and practice, any follower of Iblis, human or jinn, can perfect their skill in corruption and cruelty.

In my next khutbah, I will return again to the Adam story and review Iblis’ confrontation with God, the consequences of that choice, and the seduction of Adam and Eve.

My closing du’a is from 25:65-66 Our Lord! Turn away from us the punishment of hell, truly its punishment has been a continuous torment. Truly how evil a habitation and resting place.

Quran translation: The Sublime Quran, translated into English by Laleh Bakhtiar 
Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology, by Peter Awn, 1983 Brill Press
The Poetics of Iblis: Narrative Theology in the Qur’an by Whitney S. Bodman, 2011 Harvard Divinity School Press
Paradise Lost by John Milton

Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Beauty In and Of Creation

Surah 7, Al-A’raf, Ayat 31-32

Ya banil Adama khudhu zinatakum inda kulli masjidinw-wa kulu wash-rabu wa la tusrifu.  Innahu la yuhibbul-musrifin. [31]
Qul man harrama zinatal-lahi-latil akhraja li ibadihi wat-tayyibati minar-rizq.  Qul hiya lilladhina amanu fil-hayatid-dunya khalisatany-Yawmal-Qiyamah. 
Kadhalika nufassilul-Ayati liqawminy-ya lamun. [32]

O Children of Adam!  Beautify yourselves for every act of worship, and eat and drink freely, but do not waste:  verily, Allah does not love the wasteful. [31]
Say:  ‘Who is there to forbid the beauty which God has brought forth for His creatures, and the good things from among the means of sustenance?’
Say:  ‘they are lawful in the life of this world unto all who have attained to faith – to be theirs alone on Resurrection Day.’  Thus clearly do We spell out these messages unto people of innate knowledge! [32]

I want to focus today on the beauty – in and of creation…. the beauty that God has created around us, and the beauty we re-create as beings entrusted with consciousness, (or as Quran puts it, Allah’s Vice-Regents on earth).  Our first relationship with beauty lies in our capacity to appreciate it in its many forms in nature, God’s creation.  In fact, Quran  reminds us that appreciating beauty is a path to understanding the transcendence of Allah.

Surah 16, An-Nahl (The Bee), Ayat 5-17

And Allah creates cattle:  you derive warmth from them, and various uses; and from them you obtain food; [5] and you find beauty in them when you drive them home in the evenings and when you take them out to pasture in the mornings. [6]
And they carry your loads to many places you would not otherwise be able to reach without great hardship to yourselves.  Truly, your Sustainer is most compassionate, a dispenser of grace! [7]
And it is Allah who creates horses and mules and donkeys for you to ride, as well as for their beauty:  and He will yet create things of which today you have no knowledge. [8]

Think of the birds in all their glorious forms and patterns and colors – the phylogenetic descendants of the dinosaurs – and think of what life forms God will create in another 250 million years, or has already created on other planets.

And Allah made the night and the day and the sun and the moon subservient to laws, so that they may be of use to you; and all the stars are subservient to Allah’s command:  in this, behold, there are messages indeed for people who use their reason! [16:12]
And all the beauty of many hues which Allah has created for you on earth:  in this, behold, there is a message for people who are willing to take it to heart!  [16:13]
And Allah made the sea subservient to laws, so that you might eat fresh meat from it, and take from it gems which you may wear.. [14]
Is then, the One who creates comparable to any being that cannot create?  Will you not, then, bethink yourselves?  [16:17]

The Quran references beautiful things in creation that the Prophet and his followers knew from their world.  We recognize them still today, but we can add so many more from the world we live in now, things that 7th century Arabs could never have dreamed of. 

I heard an author interview recently, of a woman who had written a book about the oceans.  She is also a surfer, and she and others like her travel around the world in pursuit of the biggest waves they can find, waves as high as 40 to 60 feet tall.  I never really understood why people would try to ride 60 foot waves.  But when the interviewer asked her if she was afraid, she said, “Of course it is incredibly dangerous, and you know that.  Of course you have to fight fear going into it.  But once you catch that wave, you have to be so focused, you do not have room for fear.  When you are riding a 60 foot wave, every cell in your body is responding to the energy of that wave.  You lose your sense of self.  You become one with the universe.  That is why we do what we do.”  How beautiful is that!

What are some of your favorites?  What are some of the things that you have done or seen that made you feel close to God?  Some of mine:  the stars at night in the desert; the Grand Canyon; Bryce Canyon;  galloping on a horse at full speed in an open field; standing on a beach looking out at the ocean – any ocean.

The other way we connect to beauty is when we try to create something beautiful ourselves.  This includes creating beautiful things, but also doing beautiful deeds.  Abou El-Fadl reminds us that “In the Quranic usage, to do acts of ihsan – goodness – is to perform beautiful deeds or acts of grace and beauty.  It is as if ihsan  is at the very logic of creation, as natural as the rules of symmetry that define not just balance and beauty but reality.  Ihsan is not just kindness or generosity; it is life giving and life sustaining.   “Do good as Allah has been good to you.”  [Quran 28:77]

Creating art of any kind is also a form of ihsan, an act of grace and beauty.  Allah has given us all the ability to create something, be it delicious food, a painting, a poem, a song, an original design for a website, a flower garden, a beautiful building.  When we create, we are channeling, in our own finite way, a part of the energy of God’s creation.  And every once in awhile, we manage to achieve something that borders on the sublime… a Mozart concerto, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, De Vinci’s Mona Lisa, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, a child’s drawing for her mother – what are some of your favorites?

But we can never forget that everything we create is only a finite and temporary reflection of the greater creative Truth that is Allah.  Quran reminds us of this.

Surah 10, Jonah, Ayah 24

The parable of the life of this world is but that of rain which We send down from the sky, and which is absorbed by the plants of the earth whereof people and animals draw nourishment, until – when the earth has assumed its artful adornment and has been embellished, and they who dwell on it believe that they have gained mastery over it – there comes down upon it Our judgment, by night or by day, and We cause it to become like a field mown down, as if there had been no yesterday.  Thus clearly do We spell out these messages unto people who think!  [24]

Created works of beauty are like that.  They fade, or are forgotten, or are misunderstood or unappreciated by subsequent generations.  One form of Buddhist  practice ritualizes the impermanent aspect of beauty.  Mandala paintings are created by Buddhist monks, who painstakingly place grains of sand to create exquisite works of intricate, multicolored design.  They can literally take weeks or months to create the most elaborate works of art.  And as soon as they finish, they carefully sweep up and collect all the sand, and lovingly release it into a moving stream or river.  In doing this, they symbolize the impermanence of the beauty of this world.  They have created a ritual around the idea that beauty is not static.  The real beauty is in the act of creation itself, an ongoing, dynamic process.  This is why we feel energized when we are inspired to create something – the process of creating is beautiful in itself, even if we are never satisfied with the result of our effort.  Creating makes us feel what it is to be alive.

In the second part of this khutbah, I would like to share an example of how our ability to appreciate the beauty of God’s creation, and our ability to create beauty ourselves have merged into one elegant process.  The progression of human creation to the age of computers led recently to the discovery of a way to simulate the act of creating through mathematics.  A mathematician named Benoit Mandelbrot in the 1980s revealed a new form of mathematics – fractile geometry – and gave us a tool to create visual images of the creative process itself.  Mandelbrot’s set of equations is based on adding and multiplying, but carries these operations millions and billions of times – not possible until humans had invented computers - in order to create a complete set, a set that creates a model of infinity.  It has been called “one of the most astonishing discoveries in the entire history of mathematics.”  [Find visual images of the Mandelbrot set on You Tube.]

The basic model looks rather like a feathery, seated Buddha, but no matter how much you magnify it, it continues to create new patterns, and the little Buddha image eventually reappears, over and over.  The image can be magnified indefinitely.  When color is added to the equations, they yield visually stunning images of infinite complexity.  One scientist has called it “the thumbprint of God.”

The Mandelbrot set creates patterns that mimic those in nature, not linear and finite, but infinitely varied and complex.  Living creatures are also complicated structures, created from simple rules, simple laws of physics and chemistry, repeated millions, billions of times following the map of their DNA.  Scientists have already begun to explore ways that fractile geometry could provide maps to natural selection, and even the workings of our brains.  Some have noted that geometric art forms - mandala paintings, stained glass windows, Islamic art – all creations of the human brain - exhibit echoes of the Mandelbrot set, created centuries before it was discovered.  So we see that laws – God’s natural laws – govern the creative process, not just in nature, but within our brains.  Our brains are hardwired, if you will, to create acts of goodness and beauty, if we only follow God’s natural laws.  The Mandelbrot set, in visual form, can be seen as a representation of ihsan. 

The set yields new patterns all the time, never exactly the same one twice, but always following the same mathematical formula.  One mathematician equated the set with life itself, commenting, “God created a system which gave us free will.  It’s the most brilliant manoeuver in the universe… to create something in which everything is free.  How could you do that?”  Another said, “The Mandelbrot set shows us that you can have chance and deterministic laws at the same time.  It’s not whether God plays dice with the universe that matters, it’s how God plays dice.”  Sir Arthur Clarke (who wrote 2001, A Space Odyssey) said this about the set, “We’ve all heard about maps that lead to hidden treasure.  In this case, the map IS the treasure. “

Albert Einstein believed that “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious [the God we cannot know].  It is the source of all true art and science.”   I would add that experiencing the mysterious by engaging in the process of creating the good and the beautiful is an act of worship as powerful as prayer.  As with prayer, it is the process that links us to our Creator.   The result of our efforts is not the real point.  The point is that when we stop creating, we cut our link to God’s life giving creative energy, we become hardened and bitter and lost.

Surah 39, Az-Zumar (The Throngs), Ayat 22-23

Afaman-sharahal-lahu sadrahu lil ‘Islami fahuwa ala nurim-mir-Rabbih.  Fawalul-lilqasiyati qulubu-hum-min-dhijril-lah.  Ulaa ika fi dalalim-mubin. [22]
Allahu nazzala ahsanal-hadithi Kitabam-mutashabiham-mathaniya taqsha ‘irru minhu juludul-ladhina yakhshawna Rabbahum thumma talinu juluduhum wa qulubuhum ila dhikril-lah.
Dhalika hudal-lahi yahdi bihi many-yashaa.  Wa many-yudilil-lahu fama lahu min had. [23]

Could, then, one whose bosom God has opened wide with willingness towards self-surrender unto Allah, illumined by a light from our Sustainer, be likened to the blind and deaf of heart?
Woe, then, unto those whose hearts are hardened against all remembrance of God!  They are most certainly lost in error!  [22]
God bestows from on high the best of all teachings in the shape of a divine writ fully consistent within itself, repeating each statement [of the truth] in manifold forms – a divine writ whereat shiver the skins of all who of their Sustainer stand in awe:  [but] in the end their skins and their hearts do soften at the remembrance of the grace of God…
Such is God’s guidance:  guiding therewith those who will to be guided – whereas those who choose to go astray can never find any guide.  [23]