Friday, April 15, 2016

A Worthy Adversary Part 7, The Nutrition Connection

In the previous khutbahs, we have explored the mythic biography of Iblis based on a variety of sources including the Quran, commentary of Quran, hadith, and didactic tales. Another group of Muslims in the Islamic tradition were also fascinated by Iblis, and their discussion and commentary will form the remainder of my khutbahs on Iblis. This group represents an important pillar of our Islamic tradition, and its members refer to themselves as the seekers of religious truth and followers of the mystic Path. This group is the Sufis.

In this metaphysical strand of the Islamic tradition, there is a rich variety of Iblis material which reflects the diversity, complexity, and depth of the Sufi world. Some Sufi writings resonate with the commentary or hadith traditions of which we have already spoken, however these stories often take on a new perspective unique to Sufis. The Sufi contribution to the Iblis biography has further transformed Iblis into an important figure in the religious symbolism of Islam.

The general outline of Iblis’ biography is taken at face value by most Sufis, but particular events and details that concern an individual or a group of Sufis are reiterated.  Some Sufi groups took an interest in Iblis’ ability to take on animal shapes; dogs, frogs, pigs, monkeys. Other Sufi orders gave Iblis a different name or title that focuses on one or more of Satan’s characteristics. For example, in Al-Makki’s work he is called, Al-Batil, “The Worthless One”, while in Al-Kubra he is called Yunaq, “The One Who Flatters with Ruses”.

By far the more compelling interest in Iblis took the form of commentary on Iblis’ progeny and in the all-too effective means of Iblis’ children to dominate man’s spiritual life. The 9th century Sufi, Abdul-Qadir Al-Jilani, provides Iblis with a wife, Ash-Shaytana, who is formed from his left rib- as per the Eve instruction kit. As a result of the Shaytan-Shaytana union, she lays 31 eggs, which hatch out ten thousand male and female devils, who then spread over land and sea, reproducing like rabbits. Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad Al-Ghazali  (also 9th century) does not give Iblis a wife, instead Al-Ghazali proposes that Satan lays the eggs from which his children hatch. Al-Ghazali’s focusis not on Satan’s reproductive capacity, it is rather an attempt to describe, through the use of narrative, the interference of Satan and his family in man’s inner spiritual development. Like a true parasite, Satan lays his eggs in the hearts of men, and once the young devils hatch they reproduce exponentially. The devils feed on man’s lusts, desires, and passions. Al-Ghazali uses the satanic lifecycle to convey a spiritual allegory on the origin of sensuality and the destruction these lusts and desires wreck on man’s spiritual life. Every expression of passion is a confirmation of humanity’s coexistence with Iblis and his tribe.

“Truly the ones who spend extravagantly have been brothers of satans and Satan was ungrateful to his Lord.” 17:27

In the hadith, children of Iblis are singled out and given names based on their particular duties.  For the Sufis, these duties were important because they signified the spiritual pitfalls than a religious seeker of truth could fall into.The Sufi writers use the same genealogical structure and expand on the names and occupations of the Iblis clan.  Al-Ghazali (following At-Tabari and Muslim) lists Thabr, Al-A’war, Dasim, Zalanbur, Miswat, and Khinzab (or Khinzib) and adding Al-Walhan- the devil who disrupts wudu. Al-Makki only mentions Khinzab, Al-Walhan, and Zalanbur, and adds Al-Munaqid. Al-Munaqid gets men and women to talk about their good deeds so they lose the bonus points they have acquired through them. In a work attributed to Ibn Arabi, the same job is assigned to a different devil, Al-Mutaqadi. Two other satans are also named, ‘Utma, who urinates in the ears of those who sleep through the night, and Kahil, who induces sleep in those who are listening to the teaching of learned men or to the jummah prayer. Farid Ad-Din Attar names one devil Al-Khannas, “The One Who Slinks Away”- a name used for Iblis in Quran 114- in his discussion of At-Tirmidhi and in a story which I will bring up at the end of this khutbah- if Kahil does not put you to sleep by then.
‘Abdul-Qadir Al-Jilani relates a very dramatic Iblis story, which he claims to have come through an impressive list of authorities via A’isha. According to A’isha, when an important group of companions came to the Prophet’s house one day:
The messenger of God-may God bless him and grant him peace! –came out. A terrible fever had taken hold of him; the feverish sweat rolled off him like glistening pearls. Then he wiped his brow and said three times, ‘May God curse the abominable one!’ and bowed his head in silence. ‘Ali- may God be pleased with him!- questioned him, ‘O you who are as dear to me as my father and mother, whom have you just cursed?’ (1)

The prophet then relates the tale of Iblis asexual reproduction resulting the laying of seven eggs with seven child devils, each devil would concentrate his efforts on one segment of humanity. Al-Mudahhish targets the learned men, ulama, whom he seduces with sensual delights. Ḥadith disrupts prayer. Al-Zalabnun (Zalanbur?) is in charge of bazaars, and pickpockets and muggers are under the domain of Batr (Thabr?). Lies, gossip, and tall tales are the workings of Manshut (Miswat?) and Wasim (Dasim?) induces people to indulge in fornication. The last is is Al-A’war who protects thieves and robbers and also convinces people that if they use part of their ill-gotten goods to fulfill their religious obligations of almsgiving they will be forgiven.

The Sufis may have emphasized the inventory and cataloging of shaytans as a way to navigate spiritual progression. Once a shaytan was named, it could potentially be tamed via prayer, recitation of God's name, acts of charity, etc. 

Although the Sufis inventoried the various satanic forces embodied in Satan’s progeny, the pervasive preoccupation with Iblis was centered in Iblis’s intimate relationship with human beings. This relationship is defined by two hadith I have discussed in previous khutbahs namely, 1) each person possesses his or her own personal shaytan (or jinn) and 2) ‘truly Satan flows in man’s very bloodstream’ Inna  ‘sh-Shayṭān yajrī min al-insān majrā ‘d-dam.”

According to the first hadith, each person, including the Prophet himself has his or her own personal shaytan, although in the case of Prophet Muhammad, his personal shaytan became a Muslim and only told him to do good. Al-Muhasibi wrote that this special privilege did not make Muhammad complacent, and he reminds the reader of Quran 5:49:
“And give judgment between them by what God has sent forth and follow not their desires and beware of them so that they tempt you not from some of what God has sent forth to you. And if they turn away, then know that God only wants that he light on them for some of their impieties. And truly many within humanity are ones who disobey.”

If this caveat to beware the temptations of passions is directed at God’s beloved prophet, then Al-Muhasibi warns, imagine how much more, we normal people, must be on guard against any sense of false security that would lower our guard to Iblis.


The second hadith that resounded for Sufis was “truly Satan flows in man’s very bloodstream.” For the Sufis, no man or woman was exempt from this premise, they believed Satan fills human hearts the way air fills an empty bowl.

Although the Sufis psychology of Iblis’ presence at the core of every human could be treated  in abstract terms, often analogies were made which incorporated the most basic and concrete of human physiology. For Al-Makki, the prohibition to Moses from eating animal veins (as documented in the Torah) was a link to Satan’s interior presence in human veins. Al-Makki and Al-Ghazali quote an expanded version of the hadith, which are not found in the bigger collections of Al-Bukhari, Muslim or Ibn Maja, as “truly Satan flows in man’s bloodstream, make narrow his pathways through hunger and thirst.”

This expanded version of the hadith adds an ascetic element, coherent with the Sufi view that the body must be trained to detach itself from worldly pleasures.  Choosing whether to overindulge in food or to abstain is now raised to a spiritual battlefield. Gluttony allows Satan to become part of one’s flesh and blood, whereas fasting provides a shield to starve out the Evil One and render him weak.

It is revealed that Ibrahim Ibn Adhan- may God’s mercy be upon him!- said, ‘I heard that for a day and night Iblis looked upon Jesus-may peace be upon him!- while he (Jesus) was writhing about. He (Iblis) said,’ How is it I see you writhing about?’ Shall I not bring you some food?’ Jesus answered,’You know well that if I said to these mountains and valleys ‘Become food for me, with God’s permission! Truly they would be. But you are my enemy, and my lower soul is your spy within me. However, I am starving out the spy and weakening it, that it may no longer posses the strength to pass on news about me to you. Truly my going hunger infuriates you! I wish nothing else from the world; and in this state of hunger I recite: I realize that a small loaf/ and a cup of Euphrates water overpowers hunger;/ I realize, too, that hunger is a help in prayer,’ and that a full stomach helps only to lethargy.”(2)

The belief that overeating provides Iblis with the means to occupy and control a human being’s soul is a persistent theme in the writings of many Sufis, including Attar and Rumi. As a warning, many of these stories use extremely graphic and grotesque imagery. The reason for this is the stories are supposed to be a ‘wake-up’ call and push the listener into a state of positive change.

Rumi has a quite shocking Iblis poem which describes a gourmand of lust who has given himself to oral pleasures, “Satan’s fodder.” Once this gourmand is fully enmeshed in a web of desire, his dignity and spiritual worth vanish, the wretched being is left groveling before Satan like a catamite. Resolutions to fast are useless to the one who has the “nose-bag” of Iblis tied to his face. When the death rattle finally overtakes this wretched being his mouth reeks of bad vinegar, like the mouth of Iblis. Rumi’s shocking imagery is intend to
“Wean your infant soul from the devil’s milk;
    Afterward make it join company with the angel.”(3)

Attar uses a fable he attributes to At-Tirmidhi to explain Iblis becoming a permanent component of man’s corporeal self. This myth dramatizes the particular hadith without making a specific reference to it.

After Adam and Eve have sinned and then made their peace with God, they are busily engaged in the work of this world. One day Adam goes off to work, and Iblis comes to visit Eve, bringing along his son, Al-Khannas.

“Iblis said, ‘Something important has come up. Please watch my son until I come back.’ Even agreed and Iblis went on his way. When Adam came back, he asked, ‘Who is this?’ She said, ‘It is the child of Iblis, he has been left in my care.’ Adam reproached her, ‘Why did you agree?’ He flew into a rage, killed the child, chopped him into pieces, and hung each piece from the branch of a tree. Iblis came back and asked, ‘Where is my child?’ Eve told him the whole story. ‘He has been cut into piece and each piece has been hung from the branch of a tree.’ Iblis called out to his child and he was joined back together. Alive once again he stood before Iblis. Another time he addressed Eve. ‘Here, take him; I have something else important to do.’ Eve refused. He kept after her with entreaty and lament until she agreed. Then Iblis went on his way. Adam returned and asked her, ‘Who is this?’ Eve tole the whole story. Adam berated her and said, ‘I do not know what the secret is in this affair. My order you reject, but the one from God’s enemy you accept, and you are beguiled by his words!’ Thereupon he killed the child and burned him. Half of his ashes he threw in the water and half he flung to the winds, then he left.”

Iblis returns and resurrects his son from the ashes, then asks Eve to watch over him. But she refuses because now she fears Adam’s anger. “He will destroy me!’ she pleads. Iblis reassures her, and she agrees, unable to resist Iblis’ power. Adam returns and he’s furious. He’s at his wit’s end and he comes to a permanent solution

“Adam killed Khannas and fried him; he ate half himself and gave Eve the other half to eat…When Iblis returned and asked him for his child, Eve recounted the whole tale. ‘He killed him and fried him. I ate half and Adam ate half.’ Iblis said, “This was exactly my intention in order that I might have access to man’s interior! Since his breast is now my abode, my goal is achieved.”(4)

This tale goes back to the earliest texts; Iblis has mingled himself within the fabric of each human and continues to do so. The mingling is symbolized by the eating process. Attar’s version implies that the sharing of ‘sacred’ food possesses transforming qualities, yet here the good is the food of death, and the transformation is one of spiritual degradation. The myth can be interpreted at different levels, but the central focus is the need to explain Iblis’ link with humans.

All the Sufi imagery used to describe Satan’s relationship within humans has been concrete; flowing blood, veins, food, gluttony, starvation, cannibalism. In the next khutbah, I will examine traditions that integrate Iblis into a more abstract and psychological prototype.

The Sublime Quran, an English translation by Layla Bakhtiar
“Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology” by Peter Awn 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

 (1)‘Abd Al-Qadir Al-Jilani, Al-Ghunya li talibi tariq al-haqq, 2 vol
(2) Abu Talib Muhammad Ibn Ali Atiya Al-Harithi Al-Makki, Qut al-qulub 2 vol. and Ilm al-qulub.
(3) Jalal ad-Din Rumi, Kulliyat-I diwan-I Shams-I Tabrizi  ed. Badi Azx-Zaman Furuzanfar and Ali Dashti (Tehran) pp 1065-1066 #2879 and #3250
(4) Farid Ad-Din Attar Nayshaburi, Tadhkirat al-awliya

Abu Hamid Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Al-Ghazali, Ihya ‘ulum ad-din 5 vol, 40 books

Muhyi ‘d-Din Ibn ‘Arabi, Shajarat al-kawm, containing a short treatise called Hikayat Iblis

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