Friday, December 11, 2015

A Worthy Adversary, Part 4 Seduced by the Promise of Power

A Worthy Adversary, Part 4
The title of my khutbah today is “Seduced by the Promise of Power”.

When Iblis is punished for not bowing down to Adam, his response is to ask God for one thing. Only one thing, and that one thing is not forgiveness. Iblis asks for respite, and God grants him this request. Iblis’ respite gives him his opportunity for revenge.  Iblis will seduce the children of Adam and make them his, Iblis’, slaves. Iblis himself has become seduced by the promise of revenge and power over his enemies.

“The story is told…that Iblis said, ‘O Lord, You have driven me from Paradise on Adam’s account, but I could not have done what I did without Your authorization.’
He(God) said, ‘Truly, you will have sway over him (Adam).’
He (Iblis) said, ‘Lord, grant me more!”
He(God) said, ‘He will not beget a child without two of the same being born to you.’
He (Iblis) cried, ‘Lord, grant me more!’
He (God) replied, ‘Their breasts will be your dwelling place, you will flow in their bloodstream.’
He (Iblis) shouted, ‘Lord, grant me more!’
He(God) said, ‘Array against them your horses and footmen. Make them become partners in riches and children. Make promises to them. But Satan promises them nothing but vanities.’” 
– Ath-Thalabi, ‘Ara’is al-majalis

In context of the Quran, the seduction of Adam and Eve is linked to the acquisition of power and human sexuality. Although other details of the tale may vary, the elements of power and sexuality are consistent.

“And: O Adam! Inhabit you and your spouse the Garden and both eat from where you have both willed, but neither of you come near this tree or you both will be of the ones who are unjust. And Satan whispered evil to them both to show them both what was kept secret from them both- their intimate parts- and he said: the Lord of both of you prohibited you from this tree so that neither of you should become angels nor become ones who will dwell forever. And he swore an oath to them both that I am one who gives advice to both of you. Then he led both of them on to delusion. Then when they had both experienced of the tree, their intimate parts were shown to themselves and they took to stitch together over themselves the leaves of the Garden. And the Lord of both of them proclaimed to them: Prohibited I not both of you from that tree and did I not say to you both; Truly Satan is a clear enemy of you both.” Quran 7:19-22

I think it is noteworthy that the tree which is associated with the acquisition of immortality is consistently linked to a conscious awareness of human sexuality- and this is long before Freud's theories on Eros and Thanatos. Even modern biology reflects the immortality inherent in sex. Sexual reproduction leads to a generations- spanning immortality of our DNA. Within each of us, within each of our cells, is a chemical record of our deepest ancestry, tracing back to our earliest ancestors in Africa and beyond. But given the embarrassment that Adam and Eve feel over their new found knowledge of immortality i.e. rushing off to stitch together clothing, sex was probably not the answer they were expecting as the key to immortality.Lesson to all- be careful what you ask for.

There are a few inconsistencies in the temptation tale that caused intellectual discomfort for some Muslim writers. The reason I am going to explore this a bit is because these explanations form part of the Islamic tradition and even though you may have never heard of these stories before, there are others in the Muslim community who have heard these explanations, or parts of them. Additionally, these authors highlight the seductive power of immortality. This power comes from a deep rooted fear of change, fear of loss, fear of death, of nothingness. And this is all long before those French existentialists started writing about it.

Probably the biggest problem for some Muslim thinkers was how could Iblis confront Adam and Eve in the garden of Paradise if he had already been driven out of it? One writer suggested that Iblis spoke to Adam and Eve through the gates, since he was barred from entry. Another person proposed that Iblis was able to somehow converse with them from his new home in exile- by telepathic powers or… a kind of Skype? Others suggested that Iblis took on the shape of an animal known to reside in Paradise (possibly a camel) and was able to evade detection by the guardians at the gate.

The mythic formulation that gained the most favor was the serpent helper theory. In this explanation, Iblis comes across his friend the snake (who before the fall had four legs) and asks her to hide him in her mouth. She does so and Iblis is able to sneak past the guards and thus gain entry into the garden with the serpent’s help. In another version, it is Tawus, a peacock, that serves as the Iblis-carrier. 

 There is not one standard text of the complete myth, just fragments. This is not that surprising, the Quran itself has a fragmented structure in many of its longer surahs. Take surah 18, which thematically is about trust in God versus trust in this world, but it skips around a lot. From the sleepers in the caves, to the parable of the two farmers, Moses encounter with the mystical Teacher, and a king (Alexander the Great?) who contains some pesky demons. And there is also a quick recap of Iblis not bowing down before Adam (18:50)! Sometimes reading the Quran can be a bit like watching someone clicking a remote control on a television. Nevertheless, Peter Awn decided to pull together a translation from three authors (Ath-Tha’labi, At-Tabari, and Ad-Diyarbakri) to create a composite story of Iblis’ entry into Paradise and his seduction of Adam and Eve. The characters of this story symbolize mankind’s struggle with freedom, good and evil.

“People say that when Iblis heard about Adam’s entry into Paradise, he became envious of him and said, ‘Cursed be he! I was worshipping God for so many thousands of years and He never escorted me into Paradise. And this creature, God Most High just created him now, then He escorted him into Paradise!’ And so he plotted stratagems for removing Adam (peace be upon him) from Paradise.

    Iblis stationed himself before the gate of Paradise where he devoted himself to God’s service for three hundred years until he became renowned for his worship. And people took cognizance of him because of it. He (Iblis) through all of this, kept his eye peeled for the departure from Paradise of someone through whom he might gain access to Adam.

     He(Iblis) remained at the gate of Paradise for three hundred years. During that time God did not permit any creature’s departure from the garden. While he was thus engaged, all of a sudden Tawus came out to him. He (Tawus) was the lord of the birds of Paradise. When Iblis caught sight of him, he cried out, ‘O noble creature, who are you? And what is your name? I have never beheld one of God’s creatures more beautiful than you!’ And he (Tawus) replied, ‘I am one of the birds of Paradise. My name is Tawus.’ Then Iblis began to weep. Tawus asked him, ‘Who are you? And from whence your crying?’ Iblis answered him, ‘I am an angel from among the Cherubim. And I have shed tears in this state of grief because your beauty will pass away as well as the perfection of your nature.’ Tawus asked him, ‘ Will all that I am slip away from me?’ He (Iblis) said, ‘Most assuredly, Truly you will pass away and die. All creatures will die except those who eat from the tree of immortality. Then they will be the immortal ones from among these creatures.’ Tawus asked, ‘Well, where is this tree?’ Iblis answered, ‘It is in the garden.’ Tawus said, ‘And who will point out its location to us?’ Iblis said, ‘I will point it out to you if you get me into Paradise.’ Tawus said, ‘How can I get you into the garden? There is no way to it except through the presence of Ridwan. No one enters or leaves the garden without his permission. But I will direct you to one of the creatures of God Most High who will bring you into it (the garden). If anyone can do it, she is the one, she and no one else. She is the attendant of God Most High’s viceregent, Adam.’ And Iblis asked, ‘Who is she?’ Tawus answered, ‘The serpent.’ Iblis said, ‘Hurry to her. And if good fortune is with us in our undertaking, perhaps she will be able to accomplish this.’

    And so Tawus came to the snake and told her of Iblis’ whereabouts and of what he had heard from him. And he (Tawus) said, ‘I saw at the gate of Paradise an angel of the Cherubim with such and such characteristics. Do you see your way clear to getting him into Paradise so that he can point out to us the tree of immortality?’

  The serpent rushed off in his direction. And when she came to him, Iblis told her roughly what he had said to Tawus. And she said, ‘How can I get you into Paradise? If Ridwan catches sight of you, you will not be able to enter.’ He answered her, ‘I will change into a wind and you can put me between your fangs.’ She said, ‘Yes’. (Note: In At-Tabari’s work, Iblis has to ask many different animals for this favor, and they all refuse until he finds the snake).

    Thereupon Iblis- may God curse him- transformed into a wind and entered the snake’s mouth. Then she brought him into Paradise. When Iblis had entered Paradise, he showed her (the snake) the tree that God had forbidden to Adam. He proceeded on until he stood before Adam and Eve- may peace be upon them both. They did not perceive that he was Iblis. He (Iblis) started to wail a lament which saddened them both and they began to cry (He was the first person who ever wailed). They asked him, ‘What is making you cry?’ He replied, ‘I am crying over you, because you will die and you will be separated from the happiness and esteem you now experience.’ This touched them both to the quick and they pondered it. Iblis shed tears and then went on his way.

     After a time Iblis came back to them for his words had made an impression on them both. He said, ‘O Adam, shall I point out to you the tree of immortality and power that does not dwindle away?’ He (Adam) said, ‘Yes!’. He (Iblis) said, ‘Eat from this tree, the tree of wheat.’ He (Adam) replied, ‘But my Lord forbade it to me.’ Iblis retorted, ‘Your Lord has forbidden you this tree only to prevent your both becoming angels or immortal ones.’

     He(Adam) refused to give in to him. So he (Iblis) swore to them both by God that he was offering sound advice. This fooled them for they could not imagine that anyone would falsely take an oath using God’s name. Eve rushed to eat of the tree. She kept telling Adam how wonderful it was until he ate of it. (Note- some people have suggested that Eve got Adam drunk on wine to get him to eat from the tree, and from this incident came the Quranic prohibitions against alcohol consumption).

     Thereupon their private parts were exposed to them both. Adam hid in the hollow of a tree. Then his Lord called him, ‘O Adam, where are you?’. He answered, ‘Here I am Lord.’ He (God) said, ‘Are you not coming out?’ He (Adam) replied, ‘I am ashamed in Your presence, O Lord.’ And he (God) said, ‘Damned be the earth from which you were created as a curse.’

     God reproved Adam and said to him, ‘Why did you eat from this tree? Did I not forbid to both of you this tree?’ He answered, ‘Eve gave me to eat.’ He (God) said to her, ‘Why did you give him to eat?’ She said, ‘the serpent directed me.’ He (God) said to the snake, ‘Why did you do this?’ She said, ‘Tawus guided me.’ He (God) said to Tawus, ‘Why did you do this?’ He (Tawus) replied, “Iblis ordered me.’ And so He punished Iblis and cursed him.” Ad-Diyarbakri then goes on to give a description of the transformation of Iblis from angel to devil because of his role in Adam and Eve’s seduction. Although this seems redundant because Iblis was already transformed when he refused to bow down, the lack of consistency may indicated the oral origins of Iblis’ mythic history. It may also indicate an overlaying of the two incidents in the popular mind into two successive aspects of the same event.

Iblis appears to have fulfilled the ousting of Adam and Eve from Paradise part of his revenge, but the relationship between Adam and Iblis is not finished. The jealousy and hatred that comprise the relationship between Iblis and Adam bind them together for eternity. They will never be rid of one another, and each one’s fate is found up with the other’s destiny.  Their conflict is repeated endlessly in the lives of their descendants.  “…Go down, some of you as an enemy to one another, and for you on the earth, a time appointed and sustenance for a while.” Quran 2:36.

The hatred of Adam’s progeny to Iblis’s tribe is commonly taken as a sign of hope, a sign of mankind’s faith in God’s Word. The enmity of Iblis’ progeny towards Adam’s children is a constant reminder of their kufr, unbelief.

    What is very striking, however, is that the Muslim tradition refuses to lay all the responsibility or blame on Iblis. Each one- Iblis and Adam- has actively taken part in his own personal downfall as well as in the downfall of the other. Neither the centuries-long worship of one or the divine spark in the other is sufficient protection from the machinations of pride and the promise of power.

“The story is told that Adam encountered Iblis in a land of waterless desert. And he (Adam) rebuked him for his deed. He said to him, ‘ O cursed one! What kind of thing is this that you caused to happen to me? You beguiled me. You dislodged me from Paradise. You did with me what you set out to do.’ Iblis wept. He said, ‘O Adam, I did with you what you say. I brought you down to this place. But who brought about the state that I am in, and settled me in this place?’


It is difficult to give an overview of Iblis in the hadith literature because the field is so huge and not systematically organized. In most hadith collections, Iblis does not have a separate section, he just crops up randomly throughout. Al-Bukhari does dedicate two sections to Iblis and his followers, so most of the hadith I will talk about are from Al-Bukhari.

It is striking that the name ‘Iblis’ is rarely mentioned in hadith, fewer than ten specific references to Iblis in Muslim, Ibn Maja, and Al-Bukhari combined. However, there are over 200 instances of the name Ash-Shaytan, of which most of those refer to Satan himself, not some lesser demon.
Is the predominance of Ash-Shaytan over Iblis simply a semantic preference or is there more at work here? Indeed, the different names suggest the Islamic devil figure can be considered in a distinct manner. The name Iblis is linked with the development of a complex personality. Iblis is ascetic, devoted worshipper, master of the heavens, guardian of Paradise, defender of the Throne, arrogant, prideful, impetuous. It is difficult to paint him in black and white or render him into some cardboard character.  There is too much ambiguity in his personality and this complexity gives him vividness and depth.

The name Ash-Shaytan, particularly as used in hadith, is a completely different character. Here we have a cardboard cut-out of malevolent, bad guy evil. There is no reflection here on what makes this character tick, instead we are faced with an evil force that systematically ruins the lives of anyone he comes across. Perhaps this is not terribly surprising because hadith are primarily concerned with human ritual praxis. The Satan of hadith is completely one-dimensional; evil, cunning, wily, delighting in leading man astray. It is only in the very few specific references to Iblis by name do we get a hint of a complex personality.

In my next khutbah, I will give a brief overview of the Iblis/Ash-Shaytan hadith material and how it touches upon human life. The four areas are;

1.Satan’s link with man’s nature and his appearance in man’s psychic life (sleep, dreams, visions)
2. Satan’s efforts to disrupt man’s prayer and meddling with eating, drinking, and other bodily functions.
3. Satan’s most effective time of day for leading people astray (twilight, night, dawn)
4. God’s assistance to men and women against Satan.

“Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology” in Studies in the History of Religions (supplement to NUMEN) Vol XLIV, edited by M. Heerma van Voss, EJ Sharpe and RJZ Weblowsky, (Leiden: EJ Brill Publishers) 1983

The Sublime Quran English translation by Laleh Bakhtiar

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