Friday, February 17, 2017

Good and Blind

The title of my khutbah today is “Good and Blind“.  This is part 10 of my series on Iblis, the Muslim devil. I talk about the devil because I think the question of evil (What is it? Where does it come from? How can we avoid it?) is central to religious discussion.

The past khutbahs have been about the roots of the Iblis story from the traditions and stories found in hadith and tafsir (Quranic commentary). Today I will delve into Sufi literature which adds a new layer of subtlety and complexity to Iblis as the devil figure. The Sufis, Muslim mystics committed to improving their spiritual character and communing with God, are very concerned with evil because they need to purify their souls from evil and Satan’s influence.

From the tafsir and related tales, we know that Iblis is a corrupt spiritual teacher. Prior to his fall, Iblis was one of the most spiritually adept of the jinn and was afforded a place of honor near God in Heaven. For the Sufis, the idea of a corrupt spiritual teacher who would lead novices astray is a powerful reminder of betrayal along the spiritual path. This is coupled with the underlying insight that like seduces like. In other words, to use a popular Sufi metaphor, the hunter traps sparrows using decoy sparrows, not decoy crows! Hopefully, the novice will be able to see through the façade before it is too late.

Another popular motif in the Sufi literature was the devil would encourage the believer to do the lesser good. Now, Al-Muhasibi rejected this concept, it bothered him that the devil could get anyone to do good, and then the whole question of intention would get muddied up. But despite his objections, many Sufis were quick to run with this ‘performing the lesser good’. Two examples: in one, a group of people are performing dhikr. The devil tries to prevent them from their prayers, but to no avail. Then, a group of people show up outside the building and they start to fight among themselves. The people performing dhikr rush out to break up the fight. They stop the fight, but they also stopped their prayers. Score for the devil. In a second tale, a shaykh wants to chop down a tree that the local people have been worshipping. Iblis offers to make a donation to the Muslim community if the shaykh leaves the tree alone, and the shaykh agrees to this arrangement- wrong, worship one God should come before community coffers. The last popular cautionary tale is of the monk, Barsisa, who reluctantly agrees to help a sick girl and then ends up getting her pregnant. Cures the girl, but then breaks his vow of chastity, etc.

The bottom line for the Sufis is there is no guarantee that even the most spiritually adept will be able to navigate ambiguous situations. They might feel paralyzed to make choices when faced with these circumstances. However, in the end, one must make a choice and accept the consequences. The awareness of examining one’s subconscious motivations, trying to predict long range consequences of seemingly good actions, and never really being certain you are doing the most right thing, serve to give one a profound sense of humility. Nothing like the feeling of being on the brink of spiritual disaster to bring one down a few pegs!

Although Iblis is the master of suggestion and persuasion, there are some Sufi stories where Iblis himself actually does a good deed. Again, this is done so the believer is prevented from achieving a greater good. For example, there is a holy man who curses Iblis a thousand times every morning. One morning, he is woken up and pulled out of his house before it collapses. Iblis pulled him out, as he explains, so the man would not be a martyr. Probably the most famous example is from Rumi’s Mathnawi, where Iblis wakes up Mu’awiya so he can perform fajr. This is a long dialog where Mu’awiya questions Iblis’ motivation (whichi is basically that Mu’awiya will feel so guilty for having missed fajr that his laments will reach God), but in the course of this discussion, Iblis says that he is God’s tool. Iblis tests man and this test is required by God. Men fail because of their own choices, and Iblis is simply the scapegoat.

“How can I make a good man bad? I am not God.
I am one who invites, I am not their Creator.
Me, make what is good, obscene? I am not Lord!
I am but the mirror of the beautiful and the ugly”- Rumi, Mathnawi, Book 2, 2686-2687

Rumi does consider Iblis to be a force for evil, but at the same time, he sees a tragic paradox in the core of Iblis’ character. Iblis has a passionate love for God which contrasts with his cold, sadistic attitude for humans. From the Sufi world view, we have an Iblis who suggests (lesser) good deeds, can do good deeds, and says these good deed spring from his love and obedience to God.
From this view of Iblis’ character, there are a series of didactic Sufi stories which council the novice on what pitfalls to avoid along the spiritual path- using Iblis as the teacher. The theological shift in these stories is huge, because now Iblis is revealing his most potent strategies with the intention of moving the Sufi murid along his spiritual path. In these stories, it is even possible to substitute the name ‘Muhammad’ or a Sufi master for that of Iblis without doing any damage to the structure of the story! Some examples are of Iblis being questioned by saints in Al-Ghazali’s Ihya. They ask him “What is the best method of conquering man? His reply: violent rage and passion. Iblis also warns Moses about anger, Noah about greed and envy, and I’ll end here with Iblis’ warning to Jesus:

“The story is told of Jesus-may peace be upon him!- that he placed a stone beneath his head. It was as though when he elevated his head off the ground by that means he was able to rest. Iblis raised objections to him and said, “O son of Mary, do you not claim that you have renounced the world?” He replied, “Yes.” Iblis asked, “That thing you have put under your head, where does that come from?” Jesus, may peace be upon him!-threw the stone away and said, “Take that! Together with what I have abandoned, and anything else like it.” -Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali, Ihya, vol 3 book 2.


The Sufis have invested in an Iblis character who loves God, seeks spiritual perfection, is capable of doing good (the lesser good), but who unreservedly hates humanity. I would argue that the Iblis character hits close to home for many Sufis- the seeks who wishes to be close to God, who labors for spiritual perfection, and who hats the sins man is prone to doing. What is Iblis' fatal flaw that pushes him over the edge to eternal damnation? Why is Iblis such a hater? The Sufis looked for the answer in the Quran.

“After that We said to the angels: Prostrate before Adam! Then they prostrated but not Iblis. He would not be of the ones who prostrated. God said: What prevented you prostrating when I commanded you? Satan said: I am better than he. You have created me of fire and You have created him of clay. He said: So get down from this! It is not for you to increase in pride in it. Then go forth. Truly you are of the ones who are disgraced.” 7:11-13

For the Sufis, Iblis fatal flaw is his pride. Iblis’ pride makes him unable to see the true nature of new Adam. The Sufis referred to Iblis as “The One-Eyed”, and I’ll reference here from Rumi’s Mathnawi

“See in everyone’s face a wondrous moon.
When you have seen the beginning, see the end
So that you do not become like Iblis, one-eyed.
Half he sees, half not, like some defective.
He saw Adam’s clay, but his faith he saw not.
He saw this world in him, but his other-worldly eye he saw not.Mathnawi  Book 4, 1615-1617

Rumi uses many different metaphors to describe Adam’s zahir, the exterior which Iblis can assess, and Adam’s batin, the interior connection to God that Iblis cannot see. Some examples:

1)      “In an Adam who possessed neither like nor equal,
The eye of Iblis saw nothing but a clay figure.Mathnawi Book 3, 2759

2)      “Since Adam’s treasure was buried in a ruin,
His clay became a blindfold for the accursed one.
He kept looking at the clay with scornful contempt;
Adam’s spirit kept saying, ‘My clay is a barrier to you!’. Mathnawi Book 5, 3452-3453

3)      “Bowing to Adam is manifest proof of his superiority;
The husk continually bows to the kernel.” Mathnawi Book 6, 2077

There are more metaphors; Iblis as a cow, or a short-sighted Mr Magoo type person, and so on. Regardless of the imagery used, what is being conveyed is man’s hidden spirit which links humans to God in an intimate way never before permitted other creatures.

“Gaze upon that life-breath; do not see Adam,
That we might ravish your soul with grace.
Iblis possessed a gaze that separates;
He imagined that we are separated from God.”    -Rumi, Kuliyat-I Shams-I Tabrizi , #1576

The mystical relationship between man and God stems from God’s creative gift of His own spirit in Adam. Iblis cannot see the spirit, therefore, he rejects the relationship. Iblis’ intensive worship practice does not give him insight, he lacks divine grace. Not only Iblis’ pride of worship, Iblis’ faith in analogical reasoning, qiya, condemns him. Iblis says that he is superior to Adam because he is made of fire, and fire better than clay.”I am better than he!” Ana khayrun minhu!  Iblis’ intellectual self-reliance, his confidence in qiyas, is an offshoot of pride. But before we begin an assault on intellectuals and the use of reason, Rumi ads an important insertion between pride and intellectual blindness. Rumi says that narcissism, a side effect of pride, directs all one’s love towards oneself, thereby negating the possibility of reaching out towards God. Intellectual blindness is the consequence of Iblis’ inability to recognize what is beyond himself, primarily God’s love at work in the creation of Adam. Iblis is only able to see empty shells bereft of love.

“He possessed intellect, but since he possessed not the passionate yearning of faith,
he saw in Adam only a clay form.
Even if you possess the fine points of knowledge, O worthy fellow,
That will not open your two eyes to pierce the unseen.”     -Rumi, Mathnawi Book 6, 260-261.

Just to reiterate this point, the metaphor of “the one-eyed” is particularly apt. From a biological standpoint, each of our eyes sees objects from two slightly different perspectives. Most of the time we are unaware of this incongruity because our brain integrates the two images harmoniously to produce one image. When someone loses sight in one eye, not only does their peripheral vision field decrease, but they also have difficulty with spatial relations and their place in the environment because they can only see from one perspective. We need two perspectives to anchor ourselves safely in this world. Narcissism narrows our moral field and reduces us to one point of view, and this limiting perspective is dangerous to ourselves and to those around us.

In closing, we ask God to help us see His divine spirit in every human being, to keep us humble, and to make us mindful and grateful of the many blessing He has given us. Amen.

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