The perspective on Iblis, the fallen being, in Islam has both a mainstream and a minority view. The mainstream view of Iblis is that of a motivated doer of evil. The other view of Iblis provides a slightly more complex vision of evil. So, in what manner do the two viewpoints differ?
The Motivated Fall
The majority tradition in Islamic thought gives us a powerful and stark depiction of Iblis as a failed creature, a once-glorious being fallen into the uttermost darkness, darkness of soul. This is a catastrophe of a creature now, who now seeks desperately to drag others down into that same catastrophe, not so much for company, but in some sense to master them; to convince himself that he is able to master these fools.
Furthermore, this picture of evil wants to avoid any sense of imagining, recognizing that this agent can serve God as a tempter. In other words, Iblis is not working on God’s team.
But, that’s the majority view—the orthodox, mainstream view in Islamic thought; but there is another tradition in Islamic thought on Iblis.
Learn more about the evil impulse.
Iblis: The Perfect Monotheist?
We can call this the minority report; one represented by a number of Sufi mystics. These are some people who are serious in their faith, but they manifest their faith in different ways than the mainstream of the orthodoxy found appropriate.
These writers suggest that Iblis was, or perhaps is, in a certain way the perfect monotheist; the one angel who would not bow down and worship Adam when God created him. In Islam, there is no other God; monotheism is the first and foremost virtue of the faithful. How could Satan be the perfect monotheist? Isn’t being a monotheist good?
That’s all true; but the Sufis suggest that there’s a way that monotheism can be taken too far; that it can become a kind of idolatry, and that the believer can become, in a certain sense, holier than thou. On one description of this account, then, Iblis could seem a tragic figure and a cautionary tale for those who value their own personal piety above all.
This is a transcript from the video series Why Evil Exists. Watch it now, Wondrium.
The Sufis are sort of saying that there’s a way of appropriating Islamic law that denies the goodness of life, and that is, they say, deeply un-Islamic, but it is nonetheless a danger on this religious tradition.
The Sufi interpretation is paradigmatic of a particular moment. It is always possible, the traditions have to recognize, to misappropriate the faith. Simply being a believer is no guarantee of moral rectitude; in fact, the appearance of belief can itself be one of the best disguises for evil. Perhaps the best believer turns out to be Satan. And, that’s a disquieting thought.
The Will of God?
For the Sufis, and for those who follow them in the Islamic tradition, this interpretation of Iblis is part of a larger mystical worldview where all is in God’s hands. God’s will for Iblis is not violated by Iblis’s refusal to bow before humanity; God’s will is rather fulfilled by it.
This interpretation insinuates a complication into the main story that offers an even deeper insight into the nature of evil as the faith professes it. Evil’s origin here is not completely irrational, nor simply a matter of excessive self-love or a rude sense of pride; evil is due to a misplaced but plausible sense of right value.
Iblis, on this account, cannot worship what is below him, or what is other than God; and he is offended that God has commanded spiritual beings to prostrate themselves, to worship, material ones, and that God has commanded anyone to worship anything other than God.
Learn more about Iblis in Islam.
The Sufi Context
It’s precisely Iblis’s prim theological propriety that is the problem. Iblis is driven by a set of motives that we can see at least on their first look to be noble and worthy. This is not irrational, this is not rebellion; it’s grounded on a reasonable, though misplaced it turns out, assessment of the right order of values.
It’s pretty clear that the Sufis were led to this view by some difficulties that they had living among the more orthodox Islamic believers of either the Sunni or Shia variety. (Sunni and Shia are the two main branches of Islam). The Sufis were often terribly persecuted, and so had good reason to grow to resent the more orthodox, the more theologically self-righteous.
Too Much a Believer?
There’s a real insight here for all three Abrahamic faiths on evil. The insight is that you have to think of a way in which your own tradition could not just enable, but maybe aggravate, amplify evil. It is precisely the story of Iblis as a believer who has gone wrong because of his belief that is the most powerful thing about that counter story.
These accounts of Iblis—the orthodox account and the minority report—offer significantly different pictures of evil from Christian accounts. Here, evil appears to be a moral choice, a decision for one good over another, not a completely irrational rebellion. It raises this question—especially the Sufi minority report interpretation—might evil itself be, at least sometimes, prompted by genuine, real good?
Common Questions about the Sufi View of Iblis
The majority tradition in Islamic thought gives us a powerful and stark depiction of Iblis as a failed creature, a once-glorious being, fallen into the uttermost darkness, darkness of soul. This is a catastrophe of a creature now, who now seeks desperately to drag others down. In this picture of evil Iblis is not working on God’s team.
Sufi thinkers seem to suggest that Iblis can be viewed as an over-zealous monotheist, the believer who came to evil due to a misplaced but plausible sense of right value.
The Sufi interpretation of Iblis raises the question whether evil might sometimes be prompted by genuine, real good.