Friday, May 19, 2017

Mixed Signals

“And mention when We said to the angels:Prostrate to Adam! So they prostrated but Iblis. He had been among the jinn and he disobeyed the command of His Lord. Will you then take him to yourselves and his offspring to be protectors other than Me while they are an enemy to you? Miserable it is to give in place of Him ones who are unjust!” Quran18:50


“And certainly We have diversified in this, the Quran, every kind of example for humanity. And the human being has been more than anything argumentative. Nothing prevented humanity from believing when the guidance drew near to them or from asking forgiveness of their Lord but that approaches them customs of the ancient ones or approaches upon them the punishment face to face. We send not the ones who are sent bus as ones who give good tidings and as ones who warn. And those who are ungrateful dispute with falsehood in order to refute the Truth by it and they take My signs to themselves and what they were warned of – in mockery. And who does greater wrong than he who was reminded of the signs of his Lord, turns aside from them and forgets what his hands have put forward? Truly We have laid sheaths over their hearts so that they should not understand it and heaviness in their ears and if you call them to the guidance, yet they will not be truly guided ever.” Quran 18:54-57

Last month, my discussion of Iblis led us to the question of free will and destiny. Today, we will be undertaking a similarly thorny theological question, that of God’s command (amr) versus God’s will (irāda). The title of my khutbah is ‘Mixed Signals’.

In the ayahs I just read from the Quran, if you keep reading on, at ayat 18:60 , you come to the start of a journey. Prophet Musa, peace be upon him, is trying to find a spiritual teacher.  That’s right, this is the prophet known as the "Law-Giver" who is looking for someone to teach HIM something new. “Moses said to him; May I follow you so that you be teaching me something of what you have been taught of right judgment?” Quran 18:66. The person he finds embodies this paradox of God’s rule versus God’s will. To briefly recap, this teacher acts in ways that are against common law (destruction of property, murder) as well as common sense (going out of his way to be helpful to people who are jerks to him). Musa is not happy about any of this, and in the end he can no longer continue as a student because of, what he perceives to be, irrational behavior. Before the teacher dismisses him, he tells Musa that he was acting in accordance with God’s will, and the teacher’s actions do make sense in this context. Before we get into Iblis and God’s will, I want to point out that this topic is not a theoretical theological question. When the Taliban attempted to kill Malala Yusefzai (a girl who blogged about the importance of educating girls), their justification for this murderous act was to cite the murder of a youth who, “…should constrain them (his parents) with defiance and ingratitude so we wanted their Lord to cause for them in exchange one better than he in purity and nearer in sympathy.” 18:80-81

To backtrack with respect to Iblis: last time we examined Iblis’ excuse that he was “set up “ by God, that God knew Iblis wouldn’t bow to Adam and therefore Iblis is just a victim of destiny. God needed a fall guy. Rumi effectively quashes this by saying that humans do have free will, we do have a choice to be bad or good, we must take responsibility for our choices, and humbly ask for forgiveness when we make poor choices.

A different tactic Iblis uses to justify his behavior is that while God commanded the angels to bow (an example of amr), God’s will (irāda) is that only God Himself is worthy of prostration. Since God’s command was clearly in contradiction to His will, Iblis insists that God intended for the command to be ignored. The command to bow to Adam was a test for the angels and jinn, and Iblis was the only one who passed the test! Iblis’ reasoning  is similar to dealing with south Asian extended family. If these family members arrive at your doorstep and you offer to make them tea and they will most likely say, “No no, don’t bother. We’re not thirsty.” If you believe them and don’t make the tea, you fail the test.  They want that tea. They just don’t want to have to tell you to bring it to them. They want you to identify their deepest desire, their will, without being told. And believe me, if you don’t pass the tea test, you will be hearing it that for, what will seem like, an eternity. This kind of “following the irāda” rationale does not only play out at home, we see it as a national/political philosophy of a “pre-emptive strike”. Our politicians believe they know the deepest desire of our enemies, and so they act in a way that they feel is consistent with protecting national interests.

Getting back to Iblis, there is a manifest conflict between God’s will (irāda) and His command (amr).  However, what is up for debate is what line of action should one take in the face of this kind of paradox.  How do you obey a command that contradicts the will of God? This was a big concern to Sufis very early on. Al-Makki, in Qut al-qulub, goes through a long series of arguments, and in the end asserted that God orders one thing and wills the coming into existence of its opposite. Hasan Al-Basri answers that God does not punish because of the unfolding of His will, but He punishes individuals for going against His commands.

The bottom line for these scholars is that no one, and no jinn such as Iblis, has the right to try and figure out the difference between His will and His command. The challenge in such a paradox is to accept both in humble submission, even when the circumstances seem completely beyond human reason. Believers are enjoined to conform to God’s command while, at the same time, recognizing the mysteriousness of His will. Furthermore, by accepting both, the believer must take on the responsibility for which these consequences entail. The best you can do in such potential lose-lose situations, is hope that God in His mercy will look upon you with compassion.

For some Sufis, the paradox between amr and irāda Iblis encounters when he is ordered to bow down before Adam is a major element in his tragedy.  They see Iblis’ inflexible monotheism as a sign of his strength of character, nobility, and victimhood.

In the 13th century, the spiritual writer Ibn Ghanim Al-Maqdisi explored further the irāda-amr conflict in Taflis Iblis (The Bankruptcy of Iblis). Al-Maqdisi tells the reader that human life is like a circle whose circumference is God’s command, amr, and at the center is God’s will, irāda. A crisis arises when you have a situation where amr says “Do!” and irāda says “Do not!”.  Choosing only one (irada at the expense of amr or vice versa), which is what most of us tend to do when confronted with this kind of paradox, leads to destruction. The very few in number right-guided people understand how to navigate both. How do you navigate both? Let’s look first at what happens when you choose one and ignore the other.

People who cling to amr (command) and ignore God’s irāda ascribe the creation of actions to their own selves. God created the individual self, but God has no part in its evil deeds. The self (nafs) alone are the source of evil actions. The theological problem with this argument is that it makes man the creator of evil actions. If you believe that God does not create, decree, or will sin and evil, and if you believe that you- all by yourself- will it, then it logically follows that you have brought something into existence apart from God’s will. In fact, your will is stronger than God’s will and judgment  (because look at how successfully sinful we are!) while God’s will is weak and easily overcome. This is a huge theological no-no! All that Omnipotent stuff whisked out the door with your sinful little will.

What about those who only focus on irāda and toss out God’s amr? In this case, all actions, even creaturely ones, are assigned to the creative will of God. They claim to be compelled to act, powerless in the wake of God’s will. External commands, prohibitions, Holy Books, prophets, law, common sense, and so on are all considered valueless because these force one to make a choice. People who focus on irāda are not fond of the ‘personal choice’ concept. They tend to quote Quran ayah that focus on God saves whomever He wills and condemns who He wills and if He wanted, He could have made all humans believers. The theological problem with this argument is that God does not condemn or save all men randomly. God has permitted people to participate in the journey of their own salvation or condemnation through His amr, His external command. God’s commands are made more explicit via revelations to the prophets, Quran, sunna, etc and through it all man has the power to accept or reject freely.

Al-Maqdisi uses a metaphor to describe the relationship between man’s freedom and God’s creative will. Two men are carrying a heavy load, one man is able to carry it alone while the other is too weak to manage it by himself. Both men pick up the burden and help each other carry it, although the first is the one who has the power and expertise. The weak individual participates as a kind of partner because he is transporting the load. In the same way, God is the ultimate source of power for anything to emerge, He uses His amr  as a way of presenting man with orders and prohibitions that he can accept or reject using the willpower God grants him. This is how Al-Maqdisi sees man participating in the process of his own salvation.


Iblis could not navigate the paradox of God’s will versus his command. In fact, when the whole thing blew up in his face, Iblis subsequently flip-flopped between the two extremes. First, he claimed irada with the “You have led me astray. I was just doing Your will.” excuse, thereby excluding choice and personal freedom. Then, when he got punished he pushed the amr label with “I will lead them astray.”, an example of radical freedom because he ascribes his acts to himself alone. Iblis didn’t pay attention to the angels who were trying to navigate the straight path of irada and amr, he was the first to despair at the mercy of God, the first to deceive others, and the first to sin. Al-Maqdisi believes that if Iblis had been able to discern the true nature of Adam, he would not have rejected the amr of God. However, Al-Maqdisi does not equate Iblis’ behavior with Adam’s- when Adam saw he had done wrong, he ascribed guilt to himself and asked for forgiveness. This is the correct action for a servant in the presence of a divinity. Iblis never asked for forgiveness, he blamed God for being the cause of his sin, and he never accepts the blame himself.

Finally, Al-Maqdisi asserts that Iblis’ failure to obey God’s command is worse that his pride because it implies that Iblis understands perfectly God’s will. In fact, he doesn’t. God’s will goes beyond the understanding of mere creatures. When God wants to reveal His will, He does it, no more. Iblis’ refusal to bow springs from his aberrant faith in his own foreknowledge, and jealousy sparked by pride.

While the power of Iblis may be localized in man’s bloodstream, God’s power cannot be encompassed by the heavens or the earth- yet the paradox of God is that He can be right there with a human’s soul. If a person thinks on God for a moment, God will shower her with blessings, if she moves toward God the distance of a cubit, God will move a fathom; and if she comes to God walking, God will come to her running. 

“Because He is the absolute being in His sovereignty, neither is His doctrine changed in His presence, nor is His judgment contested against Him. His speech is truth; His promise, sincerity, whether He has promised redemption or threatened obliteration. To Him belongs the volition to menace, and to Him belongs the will to promise and to threaten. To Him belongs the power to punish without reason, and to be angry at the best of achievements. He, in everything, is just. To Him belong created beings and the command; in His hand is advantage and harm. He is not questioned about what He does, but they (the creatures) are questioned.”                   -‘Izz Ad-Din ‘Abd As-Salam Ibn Ahmad Ibn Ghanim Al-Maqdisi, Taflis Iblis (Cairo, 1860)

I’d like to end with a du’a from Quran 28:88, “There is no god but He! Everything is passing to destruction but His face. To Him is the judgment and to Him is your return.” Amen