By Charles Mathewes, Ph.D., University of Virginia
The Qur’an is unique among the scriptures of the Abrahamic faiths in explicitly rendering the episode of the origin of evil in Creation by recounting the rebellion of Iblis, the rebellious spirit. Some Islamic thinkers call Iblis an angel, some call Iblis a genie; Iblis is the one who becomes ash-Shaitan, the primordial rebel against God.
Iblis Refuses to Bow
The Qur’an tells the story of Iblis several different times, each time offering different facets of the story. The version most relevant for our purposes, is in the seventh sura. God speaks first.
We created you, We formed you; and then We commanded the angels, “bow down before Adam,” and they bowed. But not Iblis; he refused to be one of those who bow.
God said: “What prevented you from bowing down as I commanded you?” And he [Iblis] said: “I am better than he: You created me from fire and him from clay.”
God said: “Get down from here! Here is no place for your arrogance, Get out! You are the lowest of creatures!”
but Iblis said, “Give me respite until the day they are raised.”
and God said, “You have respite.”
And then Iblis said, “Because you have put me in the wrong, I shall lie in wait for them on Your straight path; I will assault them from the front and the back, from their right and their left; nor will you find that most of them are grateful.”
God said, “Get out! You are disgraced and expelled! I swear I shall fill Hell with you and all who follow you.”
Learn more about Iblis in Islam.
The Fall of Iblis
In the Qur’anic stories, Iblis and all the angels, all the spirits, are told to ‘bow down to Adam’. The words ‘bow down’ here in Arabic is the word sujud. That word is also used for the ritual prostration in Islamic prayer. So, in at least on one meaning of the term, God is telling the angels to worship Adam. Iblis refuses to recognize Adam’s theological supremacy.
Iblis doesn’t do something, he simply doesn’t bow; and in that act, he becomes the accuser, the rebel, the opponent, ash-Shaitan, Satan, and from this rebellious refusal all evil proceeds. He says, “I will lay in wait for them, everywhere, on Your straight path,” and God says, “You who were once high, now I am casting you down low.”
It is precisely because Iblis is so high that he doesn’t want to get lower than Adam; he doesn’t want to lower himself in that way. Instead, what happens is because he is too high for God, God casts him down; you see the kind of poetic paradoxes here.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Motives of Iblis
Understanding this event and understanding how the Qur’an describes it and the main traditions of interpreting these stories really casts a lot of light on Islamic understandings of evil and the relation between religious piety and moral rectitude. Think about Iblis’s fall; Iblis has his motives. It seems inappropriate to Iblis that he should lower himself below something that was made of clay since he was made of fire.
Furthermore, another picture, another dimension, of evil here: Iblis does not, per se, act; Iblis refuses to act. He does not bow down. Then, in his description of why he will now lay in wait for the good people of God, Iblis says, “Because you, God, brought me low”; that is, Iblis blames God for making him go bad.
The Paradox of Evil
These show a couple of different dimensions of evil in Islamic accounts that are worth noting. First of all, the paradoxical dimension of it: Evil is clearly something that is done by people, but it can also be seen as something that happens to them. Many people who have done evil acts often report their deeds as effectively things they had to do; compelled to do. Effectively, then, action of this sort looks ambivalently like it was done, but also like it happened without an agent.
In the Islamic tradition, Satan himself is only ambiguously a personal agent. Sometimes Iblis appears as an agent, a person, with desires and designs on humanity; the Qur’anic story we gave tells that perfectly. But at other times, Iblis, the satanic energies, seems more like an impersonal force; a power in the cosmos that humans experience as preying on their weakness and seducing them.
Learn more about the origins of Evil.
Evil Is Everywhere
Questions of responsibility are enormously complicated here, but they seem inescapable in these traditions. The idea here seems to be that Satan’s character as ambiguously personal and the nature of satanic action, evil action, as ambiguously done or happening to a person reveals something really deep about the nature of evil. That evil is both personal and impersonal at once; intimate to you, something you do, and also something that you watch yourself doing, something that happens outside of you.
This helps us think about Iblis as saturating all dimensions of human existence. Satan is potentially everywhere and anywhere, in all of our deficiencies, large and small.
Evil as Basically Destructive
That’s an attempt to talk about a category of evil that in some ways captures both Rabbinic concerns with the minutiae of ordinary life and also the kind of metaphysical concerns of some of the more dramatic pictures of Christianity.
But most fundamental of all on this account, remember Iblis doesn’t do anything. At no point is Iblis doing anything until at the end when he says, “This is what I’m going to do; I’m going to ruin things for you, God.” Iblis is fundamentally and finally merely destructive, against God’s creation, committed in the most literal way to nothing.
Common Questions about Iblis in the Islamic Tradition
In the Qur’anic stories, Iblis and all the angels, all the spirits, are told to ‘bow down to Adam’. But Iblis refuses to recognize Adam’s theological supremacy, and does not bow to him.
Iblis refuses to bow before Adam because Adam is made from earth, while Iblis was made from fire. Iblis feels that he is superior to Adam.
Iblis blames God and Adam for his fall from grace. For Iblis, God brought him down, and so he would strive to bring man down.