Michael Mock asked: Does Islam have/discuss a Satan-equivalent? If so, how is the Islamic version similar to/different from the (ever-so-very-monolithic… not) Christian view of the Adversary? If not – and if you’re feeling really, really ambitious – how does Islam address the problem of Evil?
Obviously this is a really massive concept, so I’m going to focus primarily on the early and Medieval model, and in particular, those aspects that have survived into the modern practice of Islam.
In general, Islam places a much heavier emphasis on the omnipotence of God, and therefore is much more deterministic in its cosmology than Christianity. By that I mean that Islamic theology has always been more likely to accept the idea that everything – even bad things – are acts of God, thus the range of things attributed to evil is smaller.
There is an Islamic devil – in Arabic, the Devil is called Iblis or Satan (Shaytan). Like in the Christian tradition, Iblis is understood as a former angel who was cast out of heaven. In Islamic tradition, Iblis, who was made out of fire, refused to bow down before God’s new creation, Man, because Man was made from dirt/mud. For this, Iblis was cast out.
However, Iblis plays a much smaller role in Islamic theology (and I’d guess, anecdotally, Islamic literature) than the Devil in the Christian tradition, and is most often portrayed as appearing in human guise on earth to teach wrong beliefs – so, for example, many early Islamic heresiographies (books of heresy) record the founder of particularly extreme sects as being Iblis himself, who appeared in human form to teach the members of the movement wrong beliefs. There is still an idea of Iblis as corrupting humanity, like the Devil in Christianity, but Iblis does this in a much more practical, much less supernatural way, again usually by talking to people and manipulating their teaching.
This corresponds pretty closely with the larger concept of evil in Islam. To put this in perspective, much of the Christian conception of evil, in particular in the Patristic and Medieval periods, relates to the Christian understanding of the resurrection of Christ as an act of salvation by which God redeemed humanity to Himself. In some ways, it’s useful to think of Christian writers as working backwards – they understood that Christ had died to save mankind, and that in doing so, God had redeemed mankind. Therefore there must have been something they were being redeemed from, and a condition they were being released from. The two answers early Christian writers came up with were Sin and Death, a conception which understood that all people who had lived before the lifetime of Jesus as living an existence essentially infected by sin (thus, the concept of Original Sin). The essential link between Sin and Death in early Christian thinking is well-illustrated by a series of mystery plays that circulated in Syriac in the second and third centuries, which take place in hell during the three days in which Christ was cast down. The plays narrate a wtf? conversation between the Devil and the personification of Death, with the Devil freaking out and Death acting as a sort of Grouch Marx-style commentary on his hysteria. They are, actually, hilarious. But more to the point, they highlight how closely akin these ideas were understood as being by early Christians.
Original Sin doesn’t exist in Islam – in fact, the Qur’anic version of the Adam and Eve story is remarkably emotionless. Like in the Genesis account, Adam is tricked into eating the fruit by the Devil. God casts Adam and Eve out of Paradise, but says to them “Go down (from hence), one of you a foe unto the other. There will be for you on earth a habitation and a provision for a while.” (7:24). Although they are definitely cast out, it’s clear from the Qur’anic account that it was a temporary punishment, for the specific misdeed they had performed. In the same way, evil and sin are generally portrayed as transient conditions in Islamic theology – even after death, according to some Medieval theologians, who argued that one’s tenure in hell would be temporary, a set term based on the sins committed in life.
Similarly, death is not consistently portrayed as evil in Islam, but is more often portrayed as an act of God. Again, the omnipotence of God is stressed as one of His most important characteristics – as the Arabic phrase goes, “Ma sha’ Allah” (what God wills). As it happens, if you ever travel in the Middle East, you’ll see that phrase all of the time – it gets used as a decal in car windows. Personally I always found this a bit disheartening, especially driving around narrow, mountain roads in Jordan, but I couldn’t argue with the logic – if there is an omnipotent creator God, whether I die in a fiery car wreck is definitely up to God’s will. I don’t necessarily want to be reminded of that fact, but it does serve as a nice illustration of deterministic theology.
Evil does still exist in Islam, but it lacks the insidiousness with which it is portrayed in Christianity, because Islam lacks a concept of Christ’s redemption, but instead understands humanity as having had more or less the same relationship to God throughout history, giving no significance to the revelation of Muhammad (peace be upon them) over those of Moses or Jesus. Thus evil becomes a temporary condition, more often understood as something people do than something people are.
The obvious question that arises from this kind of cosmology is whether God makes people do evil, which is a concept that Islamic theologians struggled with for centuries, and, as far as I am aware, never really came up with an entirely acceptable answer for. I can’t think of any Islamic theologian who actually said that God makes people do evil (although to my memory Abu ‘Isa, who wrote in the tenth century and was posthumously declared a dualist came close – that probably contributed to why he was called a dualist), but it’s certainly a question that arises in a lot of Islamic theological works.
Incidentally, although Iblis is rarely portrayed as intervening through supernatural activities, there are lesser demons, the ‘ifrit, who apparently exist to screw with people (indeed, their name comes from ‘afrat, the Arabic for evil, and means literally ‘the evil ones’). But the ‘ifrit appear primarily in literature, and probably represent an indigenous cultural tradition, probably Arabian or Persian, getting integrated into Islamic belief, and not something distinct or essential to Islamic theology, per se.