Iblis and al-Shaitan

Surah 7 (Al-Araf/The Heights) 11-13

11. And indeed, We created you, then We fashioned you, then We said to the angels ‘Prostrate yourselves unto Adam.’ So they (all) did prostrate themselves except Iblees; he was not of the prostrating ones.

12. (He said) ‘What prevented you that you did not prostrate when I commanded you? ‘

He said ‘ I am better than him. You created me of fire while You created him of clay.’

13. (Allah) said ‘Get you down from this (state). It does not befit you to behave proudly therein. Therefore, go you out. Verily you are of the abject ones’.

[‘An Enlightening Commentary into the Light of the Holy Qur’an’, Sayyed Abbas Sadr-ameli, 2014, (Iranian Shia)]

 

Iblis

The name Iblis is derived from the Greek word ‘diabolos’- that gives us the English word ‘devil’. The refusal of Iblis to obey God’s command to prostrate himself before Adam referred to in the previous section, is described at {2.34}, {7.11-13}, {15.31-32}, {17.61}, {18.50}, {20.116}, and {38.74-75}.

 

In {7.11}, produced above, Iblis is introduced as though he was one of the angels, although he was ‘made of fire’, like a jinn 〈15.〉 and in {18.50} he is described as being ‘of the jinn’. An imaginative solution to this apparent inconsistency was found in the creation of a backstory of battles between angels and jinn, in which the infant jinn Iblis was captured and brought with the angels to heaven where he was raised amongst them, until the day that his fiery spirit prevented him paying homage to a mere mortal.

 

The story of the angels being required to bow to Adam is an episode taken from The Life of Adam and Eve , a document that likely had Jewish origins but which circulated amongst Christians from the first century. In this, Eve asks Satan, following their expulsion from Eden, why he had hated her and Adam so much as to trick them into disobeying God. Satan replies that he had been an angel but had been expelled from heaven for refusing to worship Adam. A version of the story also appeared in the fourth century Questions of St Bartholomew , in which Satan explains himself using words that are almost identical to those of Iblis in {7.12}:

I am fire of fire. I was the first angel to be formed and shall I worship clay and matter?

However, the purpose of the story within the wider Quranic context is far from clear. If there is one overriding theological message of the Qur’an it is that worship is due to God alone, and yet story of God requiring the angels and Iblis to bow to mortal Adam seems to contravene this and even constitute a command to commit shirk. One possible  explanation is that whilst most of creation came into existence at God’s verbal command ‘Be!’, Adam deserved special veneration as the work of God’s ‘two hands〈13.〉 and containing God’s spirit 〈12.〉 But cattle are also said by God to have been ‘among that which Our hands have wrought’, {13.71}, and the implication of this reasoning is that humans share some trace of their creator’s essence, an idea that is closer to Christianity than to the traditional Islamic outlook, whereby we are His created slaves only. On balance, Iblis’s sin is better understood as his failure to obey God’s command immediately and without question, rather than the specific act that he was refusing to perform, which remains unexplained and incongruous.

 

Al-Shaitan

The name Iblis only appears in the Qur’an in relation to the story of the expulsion of Adam. Throughout the remainder of the Qur’an a figure is frequently cited called ‘al-Shaitan’, (from the Hebrew ‘Satan’) and in traditional Islamic thought the two terms are treated as effectively interchangeable (as the words ‘devil’ and ‘satan’ are in the Book of Revelation, 12.9 and 20.2 ). It is a linguistic oddity that in the Qur’an Iblis is used as a personal name and ‘al-Shaitan’ as a descriptor, whereas in modern English usage, the position has been reversed, with Satan being the proper noun for the devil. The fact that the character bears the Greek name in relation to the story of the refusal to bow to Adam, but that he is thereafter, even in the Garden of Eden narratives, invariably referred to by the Hebrew name, is suggestive that the non-bowing story was lifted, almost verbatim, from a Christian source.

 

It has been seen 〈16.〉 that al-Shaitan speaks to Adam and his mate in Paradise by suggesting to Adam that he eat from the tree that God had forbidden to them. Outside of the Garden of Eden, although the Qur’an frequently refers to ‘al-Shayṭān’ as a ‘manifest enemy’ of mankind, it also tends to use the term less as a reference to a specific person, than as a personification of the power either of temptation –

{2.168 & 208}, {6.142} and {24.21}: ‘Follow not the footsteps of al-Shaitan’,

{22.52-53}: ‘No messenger or prophet did We send before thee but that when he had a longing; al-Shaitan would cast into his longing, whereupon God effaces what al-Shaitan cast‘,

{41.36}: ‘Should a temptation from al-Shaitan provoke thee, seek refuge in God‘;

(also {4.60})

or of error:

{4.119-20} and {17.64}: ‘Al-Shaitan promises naught but delusion’,

{8.48}: ‘And remember when al-Shaitan made (the Meccans before the Battle of Badr’s) deeds seem fair unto them and said: ‘None among mankind shall overcome you today and I am indeed your defender.’

But when the two hosts saw each other he turned on his heels and said: ‘I am quit of you! Truly I see what you see not. Truly I fear God and God is severe in retribution’;

(see also {14.22}, {27.24}, {29.38} and {59.16});

as a sower of enmity {5.90-91}, {12.100}, {17.53} see 〈33.〉, or of fear {3.175}.

 

In {7.175-176} the Qur’an refers to an unnamed person to whom God had given signs but who had ‘cast them off ‘ and became a follower of Shaitan and one of the deviant, see 〈90.〉

 

In this manner of usage, the Qur’an follows the example of Jesus who, in the gospel of Matthew (16.23 ) and mark (8.33 ) rebukes St Peter with the words ‘Get behind me, Satan’.

 

Shaitan is also an entity that is available to be blamed in a general sort of way whenever things go wrong: for example when Pharaoh’s sommelier, after his release from prison forgot to tell his master about Joseph who continued to languish behind bars, {6.68}; or when Moses’s servant forgot that the fish he had been washing had wriggled away from him, {18.63}; when Moses in rage killed the Egyptian slave driver, {28.15}, or when Job was afflicted with weariness and punishment {38.41} (see also the ‘Satanic verses’ episode 〈33.〉)

 

On yet other occasions, ‘shayatīn’ is used in the plural form, as a type of supernatural creature (possibly either a class of, or a term synonymous with, the jinn):

{26.221}: ‘Shall I inform thee of those upon whom the shayatin descend…’

{22.3}: ‘And among mankind are those who dispute concerning God without knowledge, and follow every defiant shaitan’,

{19.68}: ‘And by thy Lord, We shall surely gather them (unbelievers) and the shaitans and We shall surely bring them around Hell on their knees‘.

and

{15.17-18}, {37.6-10} and {67.5-7}’s descriptions of shaytīn, being chased away from eavesdropping into heaven with flaming missiles (note the similar account in {72.8-9} 〈15.〉, relating to jinn),

or a pejorative term capable of being applied to men and/or jinn:

{6.112}: ‘We made for every prophet an enemy – shaitans from among mankind and jinn – who inspire each other with flowery discourse in order to deceive’,

 

Both the singular ‘al-Shaitan’, {3.36} and {16.98} , and the plural ‘shayatīn‘, {15.17} and {81.25}, appear alongside the word ‘al-rajīm’ which is generally translated as ‘accursed’ or ‘outcast’ but literally comes from the root r-g-m ‘to stone’. The origins of this phrase is unclear, but it has been observed that the Ethiopic Bible renders the cursing by God of the serpent in the Book of Genesis (3.14 – a story that is obviously fundamental to the character of Satan) as ‘ragamt’, and the phrase ‘saytan regum’ (‘accursed satan’) became popular in Ethiopian Christianity at about the same time that the Qur’an was being composed, suggesting that its origin had an Ethiopian element . The dual meaning of the term ‘al-rajīm’ as referring to the casting either of curses or of stones may well lie behind the Qur’an’s account of satans being chased away from heaven with fiery missiles 〈15.〉, and the ritual of stoning a pillar to represent Satan during the hajj pilgrimage 〈56.〉

 

More shaitanic references include {2.102 & 268}, {17.27} (‘the wasteful are the brethren of al-Shaitan’), {35.6}, {36.60} and {59.16}.