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

No comments:

Post a Comment