Friday, October 23, 2015

A Worthy Adversay, Part 3 Confrontation and Consequences

The title of my khutbah today is Confrontation and Consequences.

From Quran 38:71-85
“Your Lord said to the angels, ‘Truly I create a mortal from clay. So when I have shaped him and breathed into him My Spirit, then fall to him, ones who prostrate themselves.
So the angels prostrated, one and all, altogether but Iblis. He grew arrogant and had been among the ones who were ungrateful.
He (God) said, “O Iblis! What prevented you from prostrating to what I created with My two Hands? Have you grown arrogant or have you been among the ones who exalt themselves?
(Iblis) said, “I am better than he. You have created me from fire while You have created him from clay.
He (God) said, “Then go forth from here for truly you are accursed. And truly on you is My curse until the Day of Judgment.”
(Iblis) said, “My Lord! Then give me respite until the Day to be raised up.”
He (God) said, “Truly you are among the ones who are given respite until the Day of the known time.”
(Iblis) said, “By Your Great Glory, then I will certainly lead them one and all into error, but Your devoted servants among them.”
He (God) said, “This is The Truth and The Truth I say that I will fill hell with you and with one and all of those who heed you.”

Muslim commentators of the Quran, such as at-Tabari in the 8th century, Ath-Tha’labi in the 11th century,  Ibn Kathir in the 14th century and Ad-Diyarbakri in the  19th century offer background contextual information to support the Muslim creation story. God started creating on a Sunday and finished on a Friday. On the previous days, the heavens, Paradise, and the angels had been created, but on the last hour of Friday Adam’s body was shaped from clay collected from all parts of the world as well as from the Ka’ba. God placed Adam at the gate of Paradise expecting all the angels to come and marvel at His latest creation.

Ibn-Kathir and Ath-Tha’labi lay out the scenario:
“And so the angels pass by him. When they looked upon him they were terrified. Of all of them Iblis was the most frightened. Iblis kept walking around him and striking him. The body made sounds like a clay pot. (1)
And Iblis said, ‘You were created for some reason or other.’ He struck him with his hand. He seemed hollow! Iblis entered him through the mouth and exited by his rear. He said to his comrades, the angels who were with him, ‘This is a hollow creature. It is neither strong nor firmly connected.’ Then Iblis said to them, ‘You notice that He gave preference to this over you? So what are you going to do about it?’ They answered, ‘We will obey our Lord.’ Iblis said to himself, ‘By God, truly if He has given preference to this thing over me, I surely will defy Him. And if I am set above him, then I will destroy him.’ (2)

(1)Ibn Kathir, Abu ‘l-Fida’ Ismai’il. Qisas al-anbiya 1.40, edited by Mustafa ‘Abd Al-Wahid (Cairo: Dar at-ta’lif) 1968
(2)Ath-Tha’labi, Abu Ishaq Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim An-Nisaburi.  Qisas al-anbiya’ al-masaama ara’is al majalis, not published, cited in Peter Awn’s Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology

There is some scholarly debate as to whether it was just the angels in Iblis’ entourage who were asked to bow down before Adam or whether it was all the angels in the whole universe. Ibn Kathir concludes that this is something Only God knows.

Iblis’ refusal to acknowledge Adam by prostration puts him into the hypocrites camp- those whose pride renders them deaf to the Lord’s Word, the kafirun. “Ana khayrun minhu” or “I am better than he!” has become the catchphrase of arrogant boasters through the ages, and was likely to have been an ayat, a sign, to the community of the Prophet Muhammad. Just as Iblis was brought low with his pride, the Lord was preparing the same fate for the mushrikin who opposed Muhammad and refused to listen to his message.

Iblis’ pride comes from his belief that fire (his essence) is superior to clay (Adam’s essence).  “I am better than he. You have created me of fire and You have created him of clay.” 7:12. Iblis comes to this conclusion using reasoning by analogy, qiyas. Fire is more noble and more powerful than clay and fire can destroy clay completely in the heat of its flames. For Iblis, the superior being never bows to weaklings who, temporarily, have powerful supporters.

Later Quranic commentators actually used qiyas to point out that clay is better than fire. They noted that while fire can destroy clay, it is also true that clay is a more essential and flexible component of creation. The earth, home of mankind and so many other creatures, is made of clay. Clay is characterized by stability, composure, perseverance, and gentleness. Fire is restless, fickle, volatile, hasty, and has a tendency to breed destruction and ruin.

But the fact that Iblis was linked to qiyas became a concern for the Muslim community. Iblis’ reasoning on external qualities blinded him from appreciating Adam’s inner qualities, such as the spirit that God breathed into him and Adam’s knowledge. Iblis was so convinced of the logic of his argument regarding external qualities that his heart was hardened to God’s command and his stubbornness regulated him to destruction.  However, even if Iblis’ reasoning was not off, (maybe fire is better than clay- who knows), an even deeper concern remains which haunts us to this day: to what extent can man attain truth through his own reasoning? Or is all truth contained in the revelation? To what extent should we obey, and when can we strike out on our own because of reasoned decisions, even if this means to disobey? On a practical level, what was the later Muslim community to do when faced with problems whose solutions were not readily apparent in the Quran or sunnah of the Prophet?

In the Muslim tradition, different groups took different positions. The Zahiris rejected human reasoning entirely. Human reason alone was too feeble to be equated with the divine Quran and traditions of the Prophet. The Mu’tazilites took the opposite stance and thoroughly supported human reasoning power, nazar, as well as qiyas. Historically what won out was the moderate position of the legal scholar Ash-Shafi’i. Although there are times when human reason may be used to address questions of religious truth, it is fraught with danger and reason must not be allowed to overstep the limits. Thus, Iblis becomes. in the Muslim philosophical-theological tradition, a paradigm for the limitations and unreliability of reason.

I’d like to end this section on confrontation with a composite story that was popular in the 16th century and is related by Ad-Diyarbakri in Ta’rikh al-khamis. It takes the encounter of Iblis with Adam and weaves through Quranic and oral traditions. Iblis is a holy ascetic, zahid, who in Sufi fashion, ascends from the lower regions of earth to the highest layers of heaven to worship near the Divine Throne, one of the few brought near to God. There seems to be no measured place in the heavens or on earth where Iblis has not bowed to God in submissive worship.

“My God, does there remain a place in which I have not bowed?’ He (God) answered, “Yes, there is a place on earth. Hurry down there.’ Iblis descended down and said, ‘What is he?’ He replied, “That is Adam. Bow down before him!’ He (Iblis) asked, ‘Does there remain a place other than Adam?’ He answered, ‘No.’ He (Iblis) said, ‘Do not order me to bow before him! You have given preference over me.’ He said, ‘ I am the one who is free to choose. I do what I will. Do not question what I do.’ The angels were terrified when they heard this. They shuddered and trembled with fear. It is said that Iblis perceived Adam to be made of molded clay which had originated from between Ta’if and Makka. Iblis puffed himself up in grandiose fashion because of his own graceful adornments. He scorned Adam because of his clay substance.
        He (Iblis) would not face Adam. Instead he turned away from him and turned his back on him. He held himself erect in this way until they (the angels) bowed. They remained bowing for a hundred years, some say five hundred years. They raised their heads and he (Iblis) was still standing in the same place. He did not repent his refusal nor did he resolve to follow suit. When they discerned that he had held back and would not bow, they bowed again, a second time. This time it was to God whereas the first had been to Adam. Iblis saw this and yet he did not do what they did. It was of this that his refusal consisted.”


The consequence of Iblis’ initial confrontation with a human being ended in complete personal tragedy for him: Iblis is cut off from his angelic companions, branded a pariah, driven out of Paradise and other heavenly abodes, and his worth reduced to total contempt by God. Quranic commentators are unsure of his exact place of exile. Some think he lives on earth, others say the middle of the ocean, and then there is always Hell. They all agree that Hell is Iblis’ final resting place. In addition to his external transformation, Iblis is also transformed internally. There is the name change from Azazil to Iblis. His corrupt nature manifests itself as Ash-Shaytan, Satan. He is to be cursed, reviled, and driven away by decent people of faith. He is the stoned Satan, as per Quran 15:34 and 38:77; “Go you forth from here, for truly you are accursed! And truly a curse will be upon you until the Day of Judgment.”

Stoning as a symbol of punishment is preserved in the sky. Shooting stars are described in the Quran as a battle in the spirit world whereby Iblis’ jinn vanguards attempt to discern heavenly conversations only to be repelled by angels throwing meteorites at them. In 15:16-18 “And certainly We have made constellations in the heavens and We made them appear pleasing to the ones who look. And We have kept them safe from every accursed satan except he who has the ability to hear by eavesdropping. Then he is pursed by a clear flame.”  From 37:6-10 “Truly We have made to appear pleasing the present heaven with the adornment of the stars and kept safe from every emboldened Satan. They pay no attention to the lofty Council for they are hurled at from every edge, rejected.”  And finally in 72: 8-9 “And we (the jinn) stretched towards the heaven. Then we found it filled with stern guards and burning flames. And we had been sitting in a position having the ability to hear but whoever listens now will find a burning flame watching for him.”

Iblis’ punishment was put into ten categories by Ath-Tha’labi:
  1. Iblis is stripped of all power. He no longer has guardianship of Paradise
  2. God orders that Iblis be banished from Paradise and sent to earth.
  3. Iblis form degenerates, he is no longer angelic, now he is devilish.
  4. His old name, Azazil, is dropped and he now takes on the name Iblis. The name change also reflects a change of his internal character
  5. God grants him leadership over the worst of people
  6. Iblis bears God’s curse
  7. Divine gnosis (ma’rifa) is beyond Iblis’ reach
  8. There is no repentance for him
  9. He is the eternal rebel, lacking goodness and compassion
  10. Iblis will spend eternity being the spokesperson for the people of the raging Hellfire.
There are many stories from the Islamic tradition that express the emotional power of Iblis’ fall from grace. Ad-Diyarbakri emphasizes Iblis’ hard heart and contrary nature:

“Abu ‘’l-‘Aliya related that when Noah boarded the ark, lo and behold! There was Iblis standing at the ark’s stern. Noah said to him, ‘Woe unto you! It is because of you that people have drowned.’ He (Iblis) said, “What do you bid me do?’ He (Noah) said, ‘Repent!’. Iblis responded, “Ask your Lord whether a way of repentance is open to me.’ He (Iblis) was told that his repentace lay in bowing before the grave of Adam. Iblis retorted, ‘I abandoned him when he was alive. Will I bow down before him now that he is dead?’”

But the Muslim tradition does not just remember Iblis’ fierce pride. Ath-Tha’labi reaffirms the glory of Iblis’ former life, reminding the reader that as Azazil his existence had been completely different:

The story is told that Iblis appeared to a group of the Banu Isra’il. They said to him ‘Assume the statue you held in the presence of the Lord God Almighty, in other words, in accordance with the position you held before you disobeyed your Lord.’ He answered, ‘You could not bear the sight of it.’ They kept pestering him, so he assumed his former posture. When they looked upon him, upon his humility and obedience, they fell down dead- every last one of them.    Ath-Tha’labi, ‘Ara’is al-majalis

Despite all his former devoted service, Iblis’ requests bring back nothing but harsh condemnations. Ath-Tha’labi recounts another exchange:

People tell the story that Iblis cried, “O Lord, You have cursed me. You have banished me from Paradise; You have transformed me into a stoned satan, reprehensible, cast out. Yet You have sent messengers among the people of Adam. You have sent holy books down upon them. Who are to be my messengers?’
God answered, ‘The soothsayers.’
Iblis asked, ‘And what are my holy scriptures?’
“Tattooed scrawls’
‘And what are to be my traditions (hadith)?’
‘Your hadith are lies.’
‘And what should I recite?’
‘Your recitation is poetry.’
And who is my muezzin?’
‘Your muezzin is the piper.’
‘And what is my mosque?’
‘Your mosque is the bazaar.’
‘And what is my home?’
‘Your home is the bath.’
‘And what is my food?’
‘Your food is the food over which My name has not been invoked.’
‘And what is my drink?’
‘Your drink is anything alcoholic.’
‘And what are my hunting grounds?’
‘Your hunting grounds are women.’

It would be wrong to think that Iblis’ many thousands of years of humble submission didn’t count for anything. After all, when Iblis petitions for a stay of execution, God gives him a respite until the final Day of Resurrection and Judgment.

Nevertheless, some commentators have interpreted Iblis request as a scheme to secure freedom from Hell. After the Resurrection there will no longer be any death. If Iblis can stay alive until Resurrection Day he will have outwitted God. But this ruse is bound to fail as God will only allow him to exist up until the First Trumpet blast. Iblis will be destroyed, along with the rest of the world, in the apocalypse and his reward is the eternal fire, final resting place of all unbelievers.

In my next khutbah I will examine Iblis’ seduction of our ancestors, Adam and Eve.

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