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Iblīs (or Eblis) is a figure frequently occurring in the Quran, commonly in relation to the creation of Adam and the command to prostrate himself before him. After he refused, he was cast out of heaven. For many classical scholars, he was an angel, but regarded as a jinn in most contemporary scholarship. Due to his fall from God's grace, he is often compared to Satan in Christian traditions. In Islamic tradition, Iblis is often identified with Al-Shaitan ("the Devil"). However, while Shaitan is used exclusively for an evil force, Iblis himself holds a more ambivalent role in Islamic traditions.
Naming and etymology
The term Iblis (Arabic: إِبْلِيس) may have been derived from the Arabic verbal root BLS ب-ل-س (with the broad meaning of "remain in grief") or بَلَسَ (balasa, "he despaired"). Furthermore, the name is related to talbis meaning confusion. Another possibility is that it is derived from Ancient Greek διάβολος (diábolos), via a Syriac intermediary, which is also the source of the English word 'devil'.
Although the name Iblis possibly derived from the same source as the English devil, the proper translation of Iblis would be Satan, while the term devil corresponds to the Arabic Shaitan.
In Islamic traditions, Iblis is known by many alternative names or titles, such as Abu Murrah (Father of Bitterness), adūw-Allāh or aduwallah (enemy of God), Abu Al-Harith (the father of the plowmen) and Al-Hakam (the arbiter or judge).
Although Iblis is often compared to the devil in Christian theology, Islam rejects the idea that the devil is an opponent of God. Furthermore, there is no mention of Iblis trying to take God's throne. According to the Qu'ran, he was banished due to his disdain for humanity, a narrative already occurring in early apocrypha. As a mere creature, Iblis can not be the cause or creator of evil in the world; he is merely a tempter who takes advantage of humanity's weakness and self-centeredness and leads them away from God's path.
Iblis is mentioned 11 times in the Qu'ran by name, nine times related to his rebellion against God's command to prostrate himself before Adam. The term Shaitan is more prevalent, although Iblis is sometimes referred to as Shaitan; the terms are not interchangeable. The different fragments of Iblis' story are scattered across the Qu'ran. In the aggregate, the story can be summarized as follows:
When God created Adam, He ordered all the angels to bow before the new creation. All the angels bowed down, but Iblis refused to do so. He argued that since he himself was created from fire, he is superior to humans, made from Clay-mud, and that he should not prostrate himself before Adam. As punishment for his haughtiness, God banished Iblis from heaven and condemned him to hell. Later, Iblis made a request for the ability to try to mislead Adam and his descendants. God granted his request but also warned him that he will have no power over God's servants.
Sufism developed an unusual perspective of Iblis' refusal by regarding Muhammed and Iblis as the two true monotheists. Therefore, some Sufis hold, Iblis refused to bow to Adam because he was devoted to God alone and refused to bow to anyone else. By weakening the evil in the Satanic figure, dualism is also degraded, that corresponds with the Sufi cosmology of unity of existence rejecting dualistic tendecies. The belief in dualism or that evil is caused by something else than God, even if only by one's own will, is regarded as shirk by some Sufis. For Iblis' preference to be damned to hell, than prostrating himself before someone else other than the "Beloved" (here referring to God), Iblis also became an example for unrequited love.
A famous narration about an encounter between Moses and Iblis on the slopes of Sinai, told by Mansur al-Hallaj, Ruzbihan Baqli and Ghazzali, emphasizes the nobility of Iblis. Accordingly, Moses asks Iblis why he refused God's order. Iblis replied that the command was actually a test. Then Moses replied, obviously Iblis was punished by being turned from an angel to a devil. Iblis responds, his form is just temporary and his love towards God remains the same.
However, not all Sufis are in agreement with a positive depiction of Iblis. Rumi's viewpoint on Iblis is much more in tune with Islamic orthodoxy. Rumi views Iblis as the manifestation of the great sins of haughtiness and envy. He states: "(Cunning) intelligence is from Iblis, and love from Adam." Iblis represents the principle of "one-eyed" intellect; he only saw the outward earthly form of Adam, but was blind to the Divine spark hidden in him, using an illicit method of comparison. Hasan of Basra holds that Iblis was the first who used "analogy", comparing himself to someone else, this causing his sin. Iblis therefore also represents humans' psyche moving towards sin or shows how love can cause envy and anxiety.
Islam differs in regard of Iblis' nature. Some scholars such as Tabari, Ash'ari, Al-Baydawi and Mahmud al-Alusi, regard him as an angel. Tabari argued for an angelic origin of Iblis in his tafsir:
"The reason people held this opinion [that Iblis was not an angel] is that God stated in His Book that He created Iblis from the fire of the Samum (15:27) and from smokeless fire (55:15), but did not state that He created the angels from any like of that. And God states he was of the jinn, so they said that it is not possible that he should be related to that which God does not relate him to; they said that Iblis had progeny and offspring, but the angels do not procreate or have children.
But these reasons only bespeak the weakness of these people's knowledge, for there is nothing objectionable in that God should have created the categories of His angels from all kinds of things that He had created: He created some of them from light, some of them from fire, and some of them from what He willed apart from that. There is thus nothing in God's omitting to state what He created His angels from, and in His stating what He created Iblis from, which necessarily implies that Iblis is outside of the meaning of [angel], for it is possible that He created a category of His angels, among whom was Iblis, from fire, and even that Iblis was unique in that He created him, and no other angels of His, from the fire of the Samum.
Likewise, he cannot be excluded from being an angel by fact that he had progeny or offspring, because passion and lust, from which the other angels were free, was compounded in him when God willed disobedience in him. As for God's statement that he was <one of the jinn>, it is not to be rejected that everything which hides itself (ijtanna) from the sight is a 'jinn', . . . and Iblis and the angels should then be among them, because they hide themselves from the eyes of mankind."
On the other hand, the Quranic exegete Ibn Kathir, preferred to regard him as a jinni, an opinion shared by scholars such as Hasan of Basra, Ja'far al-Sadiq, Al-Zamakhshari and Al-Munajjid, stating in his tafsir:
"When Allah commanded the angels to prostrate before Adam, Iblis was included in this command. Although Iblis was not an angel, he was trying- and pretending - to imitate the angels' behavior and deeds, and this is why he was also included in the command to the angels to prostrate before Adam. Satan was criticized for defying that command, (. . .)
(So they prostrated themselves except Iblis. He was one of the Jinn;) meaning, his original nature betrayed him. He had been created from smokeless fire, whereas the angels had been created from light, (. . .)
When matters crucial every vessel leaks that which to contains and is betrayed by its true nature. Iblis used to do, what the angels did and resembled them in their devotion and worship, so he was included when they were addressed, but he disobeyed and went what he was told to do. So Allah points out here that he was one of the Jinn, he was created from fire, as He says elsewhere."
The common viewpoints about Iblis' affilation can be summarized as follows:
- Iblis is from a type of angel, who was created from fire.
- Iblis is a jinni differing from the angels, who are made out of light.
- Once an angel, Iblis turned into a jinn by his act of disobedience.
As an angel
As an angel, Iblis is described as an Archangel, the leader and teacher of the other angels, and a keeper of heaven. At the same time, he was the closest to the Throne of God. God gave him authority over the lower heavens and the earth. Iblis is also considered as the leader of those angels who battled the earthly jinn. Therefore, Iblis and his army drove the jinn to the edge of the world, Mount Qaf. Knowing about the corruption of the former earthen inhabitants, Iblis protested, when he was instructed to prostrate himself before the new earthen inhabitant, that is Adam. He assumed that the angels who praise God's glory day and night are superior in contrast to the mud-made human and their bodily flaws. He even regarded himself superior in comparison to the other angels, since he was (one of those) created from fire. However, he was degraded by God for his arrogance. But Iblis made a request to prove that he is actually right, therefore God entrusted him as a tempter for humanity as long as his punishment endures, concurrently giving him a change to redeem himself. Thus, his abode in hell could be a merely temporary place, until the Judgement Day and after his assignment as a tempter is over, he might return to God as one of the most cherished Angels, but this is not necessary.
Furthermore, the transformation of Iblis from angelic into demonic is a reminder of God's capacity to reverse injustice even on an ontological level. It is both a warning and a reminder that the special gifts given by God can also be taken away by Him.
As a jinn
On the other hand, as a jinni, Iblis is commonly placed as one of the jinn, who lived on earth during the battle of the angels. When the angels took prisoners, Iblis was one of them and carried to heaven. Since he, unlike the other jinn, was pious, the angels were impressed by his nobility and Iblis was allowed to join the company of angels and elevated to their rank. However, although he got the outer appearance of an angel, he was still a jinn in essence, thus he was able to choose when the angels and Iblis were commanded to prostrate themselves before Adam. Iblis, abusing his free-will, disobeyed the command of God. Iblis considered himself superior because of his physical nature constituted of fire and not of clay. God sentenced Iblis to hell forever, but granted him a favor for his former worship, that is to take revenge on humans by attempting to mislead them until the Day of Judgment. Here, Iblis damnation is clear and he and his host are the first who enter hell to dwell therein forever, when he is not killed in a battle by the Mahdi, an interpretation especially prevalent among Shia Muslims.
Illustrations of Iblis in Islamic paintings often depict him black-faced, a feature which would later symbolize any Satanic figure or heretic, and with a black body, to symbolize his corrupted nature. Another common depiction of Iblis shows him wearing special headcovering, clearly different from the traditional Islamic turban. In one painting however, Iblis wears a traditional Islamic headcovering. The turban probably refers to a narration of Iblis' fall: there he wore a turban, then he was sent down from heaven. Many other pictures show and describe Iblis at the moment, when the angels prostrate themselves before Adam. Here, he is usually seen beyond the outcrop, his face transformed from that of an angel created from fire, to the envious countenance of a devil.
Disputing his essence
Islamic traditions are undecided about the exact nature of Iblis. He may either be a fallen angel or a jinni or something entirely unique. This lack of final specification arises from the Qu'ran itself, while Iblis is included into the command addressed to the angels and apparently among them, he is identified as a jinni ('الجِنِّ') in Surah 18:50. This combined with the fact, he himself boasts to be created from fire (nar), suggests that he is not an angel but a jinni, since according to hadith the angels are created from light (nur) and the jinn from fire (nar). But the term jinni itself is ambiguous. In Pre-Islamic Arabia the term denoted any type of invisible creature including angels known from Arab Christians, Arab Jews and Zorastrians. Additionally, the Qu'ran does not mention light as a separate source from which the angels are supposed to be created. In Ancient Near Eastern traditions, the nature of angels was associated with fire, therefore Iblis could indeed be intended to represent an angel, such as a Seraph.
Otherwise, the nature of the jinn in later Islamic tradition is not always clear either. Some hold the jinn to be a sub-category of "fiery angels" who are guardians of jannah, differing from the earthly jinn, who are like monsters or demons. Accordingly, they are named 'Jinni', because of their relation to heaven. On the other hand, in another story, the earthen jinn themselves are related to angels. Therefore, they were angels sent down to earth to experience bodily pleasure and although they remained obedient towards God during the beginning, they later found themselves lost in wars, bloodshed, and other unjust deeds. Iblis, disgusted by his fellow beings, prayed for his return to heaven until his prayers were answered.
Assuming Iblis was one of the jinn, who differ from the angels, scholars tried to explain his stay among the angels. According to a narrative provided by Ibn Kathir, Iblis was once an ordinary earthly creature, but, due to his piety and constant worship, elevated among the angels. He lived there for thousands of years, until his non-angelic origin was forgotten and only God remembered Iblis' true identity. To reveal his haughtiness, God commanded the angels, Iblis, due to his rank among the angels included, to prostrate himself before Adam. But Iblis refused, thus his own nature betrayed him, leading to his downfall.
Other scholars, such as Hasan of Basra and Ibn Taymiyyah, do not provide an explanation for his abode among the angels. In this case, his stay in heaven is self explanatory, because every creature is created in heaven first. Here, although created in heaven, Iblis is not regarded as an angel, but the equivalent father of the jinn, compared to what Adam is to humanity. Iblis, as the father of the jinn, was cast out of heaven due to his own sin, just as Adam was banished after his corresponding transgression of God's order not to eat from the Forbidden Tree.
Those scholars, who argue against Iblis' angelic origin also refer to his progeny, since angels do not procreate in Islam, pointing at 18:51. Islamic study scholar Fritz Meier also insists, that the Islamic Iblis can not be held as an angel, since angels have no progeny by definition. Otherwise Walther Eickmann argued that the progeny of Iblis does not correspond with "progeny" in a literal sense, but just refers to the cohorts of Iblis. Actually, according to some Islamic traditions, Iblis is indeed an asexuel being just like the other angels. On the other hand, he occurs as a hermaphrodite creature, whose children split from himself, for that he lays eggs, characteristical for Shayatin (demons). The Qu'ran exegete Tabari however, who defends Iblis' angelic origin, asserts, that Iblis did not procreate until he lost his angelic state and became a demon. Therefore, the fact Iblis has progeny could not exclude him from an angelic origin.
Another central argument to determine Iblis essence, also relating to his theological significance, deals with his disobedience. Since angels are, according to Islam, merely servants of God, Iblis' disobedience speaks against his angelic nature, as opponents of Iblis' angelic origin argue. Unlike the angels, he was endowed with the ability to choose, but he decided to disobey due to his own arrogance. His nature to disregard God is thought of a part of the free-will given to jinn. On the other hand, scholars who adhere to Iblis' angelic nature, regards him as just another instrument of God, a tester who acts within God's plan and not someone, who choose to disobey. Therefore, his disobedience was in accordance with God's will. Although early scholars, who held him to be an angel (Ibn Abbas, Ibn Masud), described him as an infidel (kafir), in early Islamic period, he didn't actually sinned. As thought in early Islamic period, he could not understand sin or expiate it. Therefore, Iblis was created as a rebellious angel.
Several narratives attempt to explain the reason why he choose to refuse the command, unlike the other angels. According to one, Iblis, as the teachers of the angels, was more knowledgeable than the others and knew about a command, not to prostrate himself, when all the other angels do. In another narrative, Iblis has stolen the secret writings of heaven, therefore he had insight into the future. Knowing about Adams future, he was no longer able to prostrate himself. However, this narrative is more unconvincing, since other angels protested alike, knowing about the corruption. In another explanation, Iblis is endowed with the task to seduce humans, comparable to other angels, such as Gabriel, is endowed with the transmission of revelation, and created for this purpose from fire differing from the other angels.
Keeper of Paradise
In some interpretations, Iblis is associated with light that misleads people. Hasan of Basra was quoted as saying: "If Iblis were to reveal his light to mankind, they would worship him as god." Additionally, based on Iblis' role as keeper of heaven and ruler of earth, Ayn al-Quzat Hamadani stated, Iblis represents the "Dark light" that is the earthen world, standing in opposite to the Muhammadan Light that represents the heavens. Quzat Hamadani traces back his interpretation to Sahl al-Tustari and Shayban Ar-Ra'i who in return claim to derive their opinions from Khidr. Quzat Hamadani relates his interpretation of Iblis' light to the shahada: Accordingly, people whose service for God is just superficial, are trapped within the circle of la ilah (the first part of shahada meaning "there is no God") just worshipping their nafs rather than God. Only those who are worthy to leave this circle, can pass Iblis towards the circle of illa Allah the Divine presence.
Serpent and peacock
Although the Serpent is not mentioned in the Quran, Quranic commentaries as well as the Stories of the Prophets added the serpent borrowed from Gnostic and Jewish oral tradition circulating in the Arabian Peninsula. Iblis tries to enter the abode of Adam, but the angelic guardian keeps him away. Then Iblis invents a plan to trick the guardian. He approaches a peacock and tells him, that all creatures will die and the peacock's beauty will perish. But if he gets the fruit of eternity, every creature will last forever. Therefore, the peacock convinces the serpent to slip Iblis into the Garden, by carrying him in his mouth. In another, yet similar narration, Iblis is warded of by Riḍwans burning sword for 100 years. Then he found the serpent. He says, since he was one of the first cherubim, he will one day return to God's grace, and promises to show gratitude if the serpent does him a favor. In both narratives, in the Garden, Iblis speaks through the serpent to Adam and Eve, and tricks them into eating from the forbidden tree. Modern Muslims accuse the Yazidis of devil-worship for venerating the peacock.
In the Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, Iblis appears in dualistic fashion, as a substitute for Ahriman, the Zoroastrian principle of evil and leader of the malevolent Diws. He supports Zahhak to usurp the throne and kissed his shoulders, whereupon serpents grew from the spot Iblis kissed, a narrative rooting in ancient Avesta.
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