Journey to the Sea

an online magazine devoted to the study of myth

The Disobedience of Iblis in Sufism

Posted by • Sep 1st, 2008

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)

9 Responses »

  1. A very enjoyable article, Randy. One question: I can’t help noticing that the portion of the image you used above represents a pair of angels who did prostrate themselves before Adam. Was that a deliberate choice? In the larger source image, is one of the standing angels then Iblis? Perhaps the one behind Adam’s seat, looking away? Or perhaps the one falling, Icarus-like, from the sky?

    I poked around just a little bit for other images of Iblis, and came across this pantheon of Islamic demons. This one looks especially gnarly. :)

  2. @Jason Fisher — Most of the artwork I found depicted Iblis as a “gnarly demon” and not as the great lover of God that some of the Sufi masters described. I wasn’t sure if Iblis was portrayed in this image, though I also thought he might be one of the two you mentioned. Without certainty on this point, I decided to use a portion of the image that I thought captured well the solemnity and reverence of the scene — even though the artist seems to have interpreted the story along the lines of the more traditional reading instead of the one I have presented here.

  3. The alternative interpretation reminds me of Weston/Satan’s temptation of the Lady in Perelandra. Wasn’t there a quote somewhere along the lines of “But the command is a test, Maleldil wants you to disobey so that you can become truly wise” ?

  4. @JackieD — Indeed he does; excellent connection!

    Weston: “There is no good in [this command]. Maleldil Himself is showing you that, this moment, through your own reason. […] It is forbidding for the mere sake of forbidding […] in order that you make break it. It is not [a] good [command]. Is not Maleldil showing you as plainly as He can that it was set up as a test[?]” (Perelandra 117)

    In Perelandra, Lewis portrays Weston as being clearly wrong about this. It was not a test and they were not supposed to disobey it. (Was Weston deceiving the Lady or was he himself deceived? I don’t remember if that detail is clear.)

  5. I think at that point Weston had been completely possessed by the ‘Bent One’ from Earth and was trying to tempt the Lady into the same fall as Eve, so he’d be the deceiver.

    It would be interesting to know if Lewis was familiar with the story of Iblis and the debate–I’d always assumed he’d drawn from his own experience with apologetics.

  6. I can’t recall Lewis ever mentioning Iblis in his written works, though he could very realistically have been acquainted with this story. I think I would agree with your point that Lewis was drawing from his own experience with apologetics. I know he asked the question why God would forbid such a thing as eating from the tree; one answer he must have encountered (though would not have personally embraced) is this view he gives to Weston.

    It’s hard to read Lewis’s Perelandra or The Magician’s Nephew without feeling a resonance of Paradise Lost, but Weston’s attempt to deceive the Lady differs quite a bit from Satan’s in Paradise Lost. Milton draws more from the serpent’s attempt to deceive Eve in Genesis 3 than Lewis did:

    Why then was this forbid? Why but to awe,
    Why but to keep ye low and ignorant,
    His worshippers? He knows that in the day
    Ye eat thereof your eyes, that seem so clear
    Yet are but dim, shall perfectly be then
    Opened and cleared and ye shall be as gods
    (Paradise Lost IX.703-708)

  7. In Islam, Prostrating is of two kinds:

    It may an act of veneration and drawing closer to the one to whom one prostrates. This kind of prostration is worship, and should only be done for Allaah, according to the laws of the Prophets.

    The second type is a kind of greeting and honouring a person. This is the kind of prostration which Allaah commanded the angels to do in the case of Adam, so they prostrated to him as an act of honouring him. It was an act of worship towards Allaah on their part, because they were obeying His command to prostrate to Adam.

  8. Lucifer wasn’t asked to “worship” Adam but like George said, it was an act of honoring God’s creation of Adam. And the fact that Lucifer decided to wreak havoc on Adam’s children on Earth as revenge for being banished from heaven, for his disobedience proves that Lucifer had no love for his Creator… He was proud and arrogant and vengeful and refused to ask forgiveness of his Lord.