In my previous article titled God and Man: Two Western Themes, I introduced two contrary themes found in a variety of Western myths, from ancient religious texts to contemporary fantasy literature. After that, in my article titled The Rebellion of Satan in Paradise Lost, I showed how interpretations of Milton’s poem among literary critics fluctuated between those two themes. In this article, I will now look at the story of the disobedience of Iblis from the Qur’an. Many Islamic theologians predictably interpret this story according to what I would call the religious theme, but some interpretations surprisingly reflect aspects of the humanistic theme.
In the Qur’an, Iblis is a supernatural being — either a fallen angel or a diabolical fiery creature known as a jinn. In his disobedience against God and his role as tempter of mankind, Iblis resembles Satan in the Christian tradition. The occasion for Iblis’s disobedience comes immediately following God’s creation of Adam. Here’s one version of the story from the Qur’an:
[God] said to the angels: Make obeisance to Adam; they made obeisance, but Iblis did it not. He said: Shall I make obeisance to him whom Thou hast created of dust? … [God] said: Be gone! [ ] Surely hell is your recompense, a full recompense. (Qur’an 17:61, 63)
This story resembles that of Satan’s rebellion in Paradise Lost: God there issues a command for the angels to worship the Son, Satan refuses, and God casts him out. Milton’s Satan insists that the Son is not worthy of his worship, and Iblis insists the same of Adam in another passage from the Qur’an: “I am better than he: Thou hast created me of fire, while him Thou didst create of dust” (7:12). Why would God want the angels to worship something other than God himself, especially something apparently younger and inferior to them?
The traditional Islamic interpretation sees Iblis as proud and rebellious, justly sentenced to hell by God for his disobedience. This interpretation follows what I am calling the “religious” theme: Man must submit to God as the absolute authority; God’s actions are beyond scrutiny. While adherents of this interpretation may not understand God’s commands, they agree that these commands should be obeyed regardless. Iblis refused to do this, and he was justly punished for it.
Some of the great masters of Sufism (a mystical tradition within Islam) agreed with this traditional interpretation of the story of Iblis’s disobedience, though not all did. Others puzzled over God’s command and concluded that God could not have truly wanted Iblis to worship Adam. To illustrate this point, they told stories depicting conversations with Iblis; the following story comes from Ahmad Ghazali, a Sufi master from the late-eleventh and early-twelfth centuries:
Encountering Eblis on the slopes of Sinai, Moses hailed him and asked, “O Eblis, why did you not prostrate before Adam?” Eblis replied, “Heaven forbid that anyone worship anything but the One. [ ] This command was a test.” (Nurbakhsh 13)
What could Iblis believe God was testing? Clearly, Iblis did not envision God testing his obedience — for he then would have failed that test. Instead, he saw God testing his love. This test reflects a concern that many Western theologians have raised: if God gives good things to those who obey him, someone might obey God only to get those good things and not out of any love for God. Farid ad-Din Attar, writing in the late-twelfth or early-thirteenth century, described this concern with an analogy:
If you distinguish between a gem and a stone received from the King, you are not a man of the path! If you’re pleased with the gem and disappointed by a stone, you have no interest, then, in the King. (Nurbakhsh 39)
Farid ad-Din Attar used this analogy to depict God’s test of Iblis’s love: Iblis had to choose between remaining true to God (the King) while suffering the curse of disobedience (the stone) and rejecting God by worshiping Adam while receiving the rewards of obedience (the gem). Another twelfth-century master, Ayn al-Qozat Hamadani, expressed the same idea by ascribing these words to Iblis:
O Lord, I do not worship you for the sake of mercy; I maintain no condition for my devotion. I am content with whatever you will and whatever you do. (Nurbakhsh 7)
In such a religious context, the humanistic theme will not be reflected in full. The goodness of God in his test is never questioned in this story. The word islam itself means “submission,” and it would be unthinkable for any Sufi to advocate anything like Satan’s all-out rebellion against God in Paradise Lost. But the theme is nevertheless reflected in part: Iblis is commended for scrutinizing the divine command and praised for his determination to what he believes is a just cause, even in the face of difficulty and suffering.
So far in this series, I have explored some very intense material: the cause of human suffering, the inscrutability of divine commands, and disobedience and rebellion against tyrannous authority. All of the stories I have considered have reflected one of the two contrary themes: some like Job clearly reflect the religious theme, others like Prometheus Bound clearly reflect the humanistic theme, and about others like Paradise Lost interpreters disagree. I will conclude this series in the next issue by looking at another story with differing interpretations related to these two themes, though this one is much more light-hearted: the Aesopic fable explaining how the turtle got its shell.
- The Holy Qur’an. Translated by M.H. Shakir. Published by Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc.: 1983. (Full text available online: Qur’an 17.)
- Wensinck, A.J. “Iblis.” Encyclopedia of Islam. Ed. B. Lewis, et al. Volume 3. London: Brill 1979.
- Nurbakhsh, Javad. The Great Satan ‘Eblis.’ Minneapolis: Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications, 1986.
Image from Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities (image)