The title of my khutbah today is “The Power of Divine Gifts“, this is a continuation of the exploration of the problem of evil and role of sin, suing the Iblis story in the Quran, hadith and Sufi literature i.e. Part 13 of The Worthy Adversary series.
In Quran, there are numerous passages which tell us that a true believer is protected from doing evil acts which might be commissioned by Satan.
“Truly as for My servants, you (Iblis) will have no authority over them, but ones who are in error followed you.” 15:42
“Truly My servants, over them there is no authority for you (Iblis). You your Lord has sufficed as a Trustee.” 17:65
“And certainly established as true about them was the opion of Iblis and they followed him, but a group of people of the ones you believe. There had not been for him any authority over them but that We might know these who believe in the world to come from theose who are in certainty of it.” 34: 20-21
“And remember Our servant Job when he cried out to his Lord: Truly Saatan has afflicted me with fatigue and punishment! (It was said) Stomp your foot. This is a place of washing that is cool and from which to drink. And We bestowed on him his people and the like of them along with them as a mercy from us, a reminder for those imbued with intuition.” 38:41-43
From hadith, we know that consistent spiritual practice, such as saying Allah’s name before eating, invoking du’a before important acts, and even the act of ablution and prayer- particularly prostration- banish Iblis and his satanic minions- at least for a bit.
From these primary sources, theological interpretations arouse about the “impeccability” or freedom from sin “mahsum” that all prophets were endowed with by the nature of their prophethood. Sufis extended this argument to say that any spiritually perfected person, particularly their shaykhs, had a partial impeccability or protection, called mahfuz. This doctrine of partial perfection or near perfection was also appropriated by political leaders, first the calipha rashideen and then later governments, which resulted in a culture of low tolerance for political criticism. I remember hearing a khutbah that civil disobedience, even peaceful protest, was considered ‘haram’ by some Muslims because they had been taught that their leaders were ‘impeccable’ and beyond criticism and judgment.
To our modern, Western sensibilities, this idea of ‘impeccability” clashes with our cultural understanding of political accountability, transparency, and what it means to be human. Everyone makes mistakes. Furthermore, given the tremendous social and technological changes we have seen in the modern era, we tend to look back at the actions of our ancestors and judge them negatively. However, I would argue that our ancestors could do the same with us. For example, nowadays in our society, slavery is considered evil- particularly in the United States where Americans still wrestle with the repercussions of slavery and concubinage in the form of racism and misogyny. Slaveholders of the past are often considered of having questionable moral judgment or being hypocrites. When we hear of ISIS fighters making Christian women concubines, Muslims all over the world are horrified. Sexual trafficking, by world and Muslim majority consensus, is a crime. So when we look at the sirah of the Prophet and see that he owned at least two concubines- gifts from Egypt- what does this say about the impeccability doctrine? Just to be fair, what would our Muslim ancestors think of our modern attitude toward ‘collateral damage’- the killing of non-combatants during warfare? In pre-modern times, it was pretty clear who was a combatant when you were fighting one-on-one. But our arsenal of modern weapons does not discriminate between soldiers and civilians. Perhaps to make ourselves feel better we expand our definition of combatant to include villagers who “aid and abet” or citizens who “pay taxes”- but how many of these people have a real choice in this matter? In our time, armies and governments refuse to count the number of dead human beings that are considered “collateral damage”.
What I’m trying to convey is that our modern notion of impeccability is at odds with the entrenched Muslim Tradition concept of “impeccability”. However, when I bring this up, that “impeccability” has a historical and cultural context, I am inevitably ‘mansplained’ by a traditional Muslim that I am a ‘post-modern relativist” and values in the Quran are Good For All Time. These arguments propel the Muslim Mansplainer into a corner, because he will soon find himself forced to defend the keeping of concubines, ethnic cleansing and the assassination of cartoonists. I do not know how to reconcile the traditional doctrine of impeccability with modern ethics, maybe you can solve that in the discussion afterwards.
Getting back to the main topic, let’s assume for the sake of argument that there are people who are highly resistant to the temptations of Satan. They have this resistance because of their disciplined spiritual practice, gifted it by God, or a mutation in their DNA. Whatever it is, they are immune to Iblis. What is interesting in the Muslim tradition is that even though these individuals have power over Iblis, making him tell how he leads people astray for example, there are a number of Sufi stories which relate that spiritual superiority is a gift and feelings of smugness or superiority are not tolerated. Iblis has been sunk to a very low station, but remember his former stature and, more importantly, but for the grace of God, there got I. Rumi warns of this in his poetry:
“One day Adam looked on the wretched Iblis with contempt and disdain.
He mainftested arrogance and conceit; he laughed at the predicament of the accursed Iblis.
The jealousy of God thundered aloud, ‘O upright fellow,
Are you not aware of the hidden secret?
Were He to turn the fur inside out,
He would rip the mountain from its root and base.
At that moment He would tear the veil off a hundred Adams
And bring forth a hundred Iblises newly converted to Islam.’
Adam cried, ‘I beg forgiveness for this look!
I will never again think such presumptuous thoughts.’ “ –Mathnawi Book1 3893-3898
Making fun of Iblis or showing contempt must be tempered with the knowledge that this is the kind of arrogance that led to Iblis’ downfall! Attar wrote, “Iblis is the sacrificed one of God. It is not manliness to hurl a stone at God’s sacrifice.”
The sirah of Ibn Khafif tells the story of the Sufi mystic Abu’d-Dahhak who had a discussion with Iblis during which Iblis recited an ayah. Abu’d-Dahhak was so angry at Iblis’ impudence that he beat him up. Some time later, Abu’d-Dahhak was returning from Mecca when he came to a fast flowing river. He stood on the bank, unsure of whether it was safe to cross. An old man came by and walked into the river and crossed it easily. Abu’d-Dahhak thought he could manage it if the old guy could, so he started across the river and when he got to the middle the water overcame him. God intervened and Abu’d-Dahhak was able to struggle safely to the other side. There he saw the old man waiting for him. “Have you repented” he asked the shaykh, “so that hereafter you never pass judgment against me?”
What is the final verdict on Iblis? Is his sentence irrevocable? There are different opinions in the Sufi tradition.
Most of the authors I have discussed thus far, Al-Makki, Rumi, Junayd and others, all agree that while Iblis had a novle character and place of stature before his fall, he has become so corrupted by his power on earth that he only plots to destroy man by any means possible (including good!). Iblis should be avoided at all cost. He must be constantly and unrelentingly repelled.
Rumi wrote Iblis’ sin is an innate part of his being, so there is no hope of forgiveness for him. Sari As-Sagari reaffirms this opinion and posits that ordinary sins of passion are readily forgiven but perhaps the sin of pride is different and not forgivable.
Not even the intervention of a perfected Sufi mystic can help Iblis. Al-Bistami asked God to show mercy to Iblis and was told,
“You have spoken arrogantly; be silent! For he is of fire and a fiery being deserves something fiery hot. Take care that you do not bring yourself to this end. For you become deserving of fire when you are disobedient!” – from Attar’s Tadhkirat al-awliya” p 187
Al-Junayd asserts that Iblis never attained true contemplation when he was at the peak of his obedience and guardian of the heavens. Adam did have this contemplation, and retained it even when he sinned. Therefore, Iblis’ worship was never the real thing- dross instead of gold. Al-Junayd then goes on to list all of Iblis’ victims, where no one is excluded, and from the fact that Iblis hated Adam just on the basis of his existence. Adam did nothing to antagonize Iblis. Al Junayd does not think Iblis has acquired the necessary traits in his life as minister of the Divine Throne that would allow for his rehabilitation.
There are clearly Sufi writers who do not think Iblis will ever be forgiven via his personal repentance or by his getting ‘divine credit’ for his former position. However, in my subsequent khutbahs we will discover other Sufis who had a different theological perspective.
It is important to remember that in the “no forgiveness” camp, there is usually an emphasis on the randomness of God’s benevolence: He bestows His love on whomever He pleases, be he good or evil, saint or devil. Rumi asserts that there is tremendous power in the divine gifts of faith, mercy, and love. Their power is so strong that they have the power to transform even an Iblis. The emphasis here is on the power of the gift, not on Iblis’ transformation.
Rumi wrote, “Iblis does not despair of Your benevolence/ every moment another ray of hope shines on him from You” (from Kulliyat i-Shamis-I Tabrizi #1028)
Rumi compares God’s mercy to a cypress tree: “When the cypress of mercy waves proudly in the garden, yes, Iblis the accursed one, discovers faith” (from Kulliyat i-Shamis-I Tabrizi #2896).
Let us thank Allah for the divine gifts He has chosen to grace us with in our lives. Let us thank Him for His mercy to us and to the power of hope.