My Favorite Story from the Qur’an

While we’re on the subject of Satan, and the fall, I’d like to deal a bit with one of my favorite stories from the Qur’an al-Kareem, one of the Qur’an’s several versions of the fall of Man and the disobedience of Satan. This is from Surah al-Araf, The Heights, the seventh surah of the Qur’an.

The translation by Mohsin and Khan — my personal favorite, given how literal its non-parenthetical translation is — reads as follows:

11 And surely, We created you (your father Adam) and then gave you shape (the noble shape of a human being); then We told the angels, “Prostrate yourselves to Adam”, and they prostrated themselves, except Iblis (Satan), he refused to be of those who prostrated themselves.
12 (Allah) said: “What prevented you (O Iblis) that you did not prostrate yourself, when I commanded you?” Iblis said: “I am better than him (Adam), You created me from fire, and him You created from clay.”
13 (Allah) said: “(O Iblis) get down from this (Paradise), it is not for you to be arrogant here. Get out, for you are of those humiliated and disgraced.”
14 (Iblis) said: “Allow me respite till the Day they are raised up (i.e. the Day of Resurrection).”
15 (Allah) said: “You are of those respited.”
16 (Iblis) said: “Because You have sent me astray, surely I will sit in wait against them (human beings) on Your Straight Path.
17 “Then I will come to them from before them and behind them, from their right and from their left, and You will not find most of them as thankful ones (i.e. they will not be dutiful to You).”
18 (Allah) said (to Iblis): “Get out from this (Paradise), disgraced and expelled. Whoever of them (mankind) will follow you, then surely I will fill Hell with you all.”

What follows is the story of Adam and Huwwa’s temptation and fall. But this little exchange fascinates me, and tells me all I need to know about who and what Satan is. (Because it does not contradict a Bible story, or anything specific in scripture, I accept its moral legitimacy.)

Iblis (an Arabic version of diabolos, διάβολος, the term used in Matthew 4), is present with all the angels in heaven or paradise the moment God makes man from clay (طين). Sometime before, God made the angels and Iblis, and while it’s not said here what God made them from, Iblis claims to be made from fire (نار) — a fact he haughtily and arrogantly cites when he refuses the command of God that all the other created things bow before the Man.

Consider, for a moment, this scene. In Surah al-Baqara, another version of this is related. God has commanded the angels to bow before the man, the Angels question God. “Do you mean to fill the earth with these things that will cause mischief while we worship and adore you?” God dismisses the objection, teaches the man the names of all things, then asks the angels, who do not know. But here, there is no angelic objection, just a demand — all the beings God has created up to this point are commanded to bow, to grovel before the thing made of clay. And they do.

All but Iblis. Angel of jinn, it doesn’t matter (there is evidence in the Qur’an for both.)

“I am better than he!” (انا خير منه) Because Satan was made of fire, and fire is apparently better than clay.

At this point, God condemns Iblis. Leave paradise! You are finished!

And Iblis, for his part, doesn’t argue about this. “Hold off on that until the last day!” he demands. And God, in God’s mercy, agrees.

Further, Iblis then promises to lead astray any of the mud creatures as he possibly can, in order to teach God a lesson. This new creature, so dear to God (and who just seems to be standing there while all this happens), will prove to not love God anywhere near as much. And to not be anymore loyal to God than Iblis.

Fine, says God. I will fill Hell with all of you.

What intrigues me most is that Satan, from the moment of his rebellion against God, knows that he is doomed and defeated. He doesn’t argue with God — he merely asks for a postponement to his sentence, in order to work more mischief. But Iblis/Satan knows he is done. Knows he has been defeated and condemned.

So from this, it is pointless to follow Satan. Because then you are following one who has already lost and knows it. There can be no victory in following Satan, in falling for his temptations, because we are falling for one who has already lost, and in his desire to wreck some kind of vengeance upon God, promises to drag as many of these mud creatures with him as he can. (What follows next is the fall, but the qur’anic version always ends with Adam and Huwwa learning and speaking words of repentance to God, so this is not an Augustinian “original sin” moment so much as it is an attempt to deal with the human condition and create a foundation for humanity’s moral relationship with God for Muslims. To be fair, this is what Augustine does too.)

Satan has already lost, the story says. So only a fool follows Satan.

I take something similar from something Jesus says in John 16:

33 I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world. (ESV)

All of these things are important to me because I get a little tired of people saying we must struggle to overcome evil. The overcoming of evil has already been done, and too often the evil in question is usually outside ourselves. It resides in some other. Or it is in a pietistic denial of self, a demand for denial which leaves no room for the kind of “love of self” that a true love of neighbor requires. The Devil has already lost. He was defeated on the day he came into being. We need not fear him. The love of God, in the Son of God, has already overcome the world.

The Fall of Man and the Frustrating of Human Purpose

That’s a terrible title, I know. Sorry.

As I was preparing for my sermon this Sunday, I noticed something interesting in the Genesis 2-3 account of “the fall” of humanity. (I put that in quotation marks because not everyone sees it that way. I don’t believe most Jews do.)

God makes the man out of mud — mud formed, I think, from the soil of the ground and the mist that is in the air (it hasn’t rained yet) — breathes into him of his spirit, which makes the man alive. And then, in Gensis 2:15, God does the following:

The LORD God took the man kand put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (ESV)

So, the whole point of humanity’s existence — the man is humanity at this point — is to tend the garden.

God later says that the man shouldn’t be alone. God then makes a mess of animals, sets them before the man and he invents all sorts of wonderful and silly names for all the creatures God has just made. But it’s not enough. The man is still alone, however. The animals are swell, but not quite fit company to truly help the man. To truly be a companion. So, he put the man to sleep, does a bit of surgery, and makes a woman.

Her purpose, in this passage (this is a passage about purposes) is to keep the man company. To help him. To be a companion.

So, then there’s this snake, and an eating of fruit, and pretty soon, the man and the woman find themselves ashamed and embarrassed because they did something God told them not to do. And then come the curses. We’ll skip past the cursing of the serpent, noting only this is why girls are afraid of snakes (joke), and go to the heart of the matter in Genesis 3:16-19:

16 To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”   17 And to Adam he said, “Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, ‘You shall not eat of it,’ cursed is the ground because of you; in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;  18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field.  19 By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (ESV)

At first glance, it seems the curses are unequal. Even possibly unfair. The woman is cursed, but when God turns to the man, God curses the whole earth. The man himself is not actually cursed.

But consider the matter if we speak of created purposes. The Genesis passage seems clear — the man is created to tend the garden, the woman is created to be a companion and partner to the man. Her curse, then, frustrates that created purpose. It turns it into something that can, and often times will, be unpleasant, the source of much pain and suffering. She is no longer a partner, but her desire is changed, and the man shall rule over her. This is not nature, this is curse. That is, the way so many men and women organize their lives together is not what God originally created either for.

And in cursing the earth, God is frustrating the man’s purpose. He was made to tend a garden, a garden which required little work because it was full of so many good things to eat. (UPDATE: Or rather, the nature of work itself was changed, and work itself has become a curse, something human beings do in pain more than with joy.) Now, he will work hard, and often times pointlessly, to eke out a bare living from an uncooperative earth. (Thistles and thorns appear to be a product of the fall, if the text is to be taken literally…) By the sweat of your brow you shall eat your bread. Again, this is not nature, it is curse.

So, we live in the curse. In which we have been alienated, by the man and the woman’s disobedience (Adam and Hawwa), from our created purposes. I don’t honestly know what other implications flow from this, and I won’t try too hard to build an entire edifice of theology on this scaffold. We are fools to think we can, through our own efforts, alter the curse at all (the earth remains at times terribly uncooperative and capricious, even with the gifts that science and mass industrial production have given us). And yet we can, as men and women, in moments, transcend the curse. Perhaps this is what the kingdom Jesus proclaims is all about.