How does Islam address the problem of Evil?

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.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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17 Responses to How does Islam address the problem of Evil?

  1. Michael Mock says:

    Okay, that was completely fascinating… and very different from any of the Christian views I’ve run across. Thanks for answering!

    Just as a point of clarification, am I correct in thinking that there isn’t any direct connection between Iblis and the ‘ifrit? (The Christian version of Satan is sometimes seen to command armies of demons, particularly among the ‘Spiritual Warfare’ crowd.)

    • Not directly, as far as I’m aware – the ‘ifrit are actually a class of jinn, the general term for spirits in Arabic. Some jinn are evil, some are good, some are just benign. They’re not demons like in the Christian tradition, as they reside on earth and don’t torture people in hell, but in their interactions with people on earth, they play a lot of the same roles. They do interact with Iblis, as the Qur’an is simultaneously revealed to the jinn at the same time as humanity, and there is a war for conversion among the jinn in which they fight the ‘ifrit and Iblis. But as far as I know, Iblis and the ‘ifrit are understood as being different creatures, one a fallen angel and the rest a group of spirits that have always inhabited the earth.

  2. Nahida says:

    I love love love love your writing style. I imagine you make everything so clear for those who don’t know much about Islam (and are afraid to ask)–you should totally publish an introductory book! The ones that exist right now are mostly dry and lecture-y. =P I love that you can cover the basics and still make it so fascinating.

  3. Sameer says:

    Hi, nice article. As a note, Iblis is considered a jinn in Islam, not an angel. Angels are incapable of disobeying Allah. Iblis, on the other hand, was a jinn that achieved a high rank among the angels through his once-pious nature. However, as jinn (like men) have free-will, Iblis disobeyed Allah and did not prostrate to Aadam. An angel would not have been able to disobey.

    Also, I just felt like mentioning that the concept of death in Islam does not have the macabre/scary/dark associations with it that we in the West consider it to be. After a true believer passes Munkar and Nakeer’s test (Who is your Lord, religion, Prophet?), death and after death are joyous times – nothing to be scared of.

  4. What are Islam’s other rationalizations for evil, such as free- will and soul-making, the greater good, the unknown defense, bad notes so that good notes are better appreciated and so forth?
    I’m a gnu atheist who goes to the heart of theism: we are independent beings, owing Him nothing, and He has no rights over us, none to judge and punish us!
    So, I am much aghast at Islam’s totalitarian view of Him! He’d face that one-way street of having to have put us into a better situation in the first place per Fr.Meslier’s the problem of Heaven!
    Yes, we humanists so appreciate freedom from superstition !
    Please, write about contemporary, tolerant reformers !
    Thanks for this excellent blog!

  5. Reblogged this on Critias & Cohen and commented:
    That acco That account leaves me cold! Totalitarian Allah is more evil a thabYahweh,! Muhammad, as with the writers of the Tanakh and the Testament was misogynistic, mean-spirited misanthropist!
    This essay shows part of the dark side of Islam.

  6. Jon says:

    Hi Jessica. A lovely post. Thank you.

    I would like to make reference to part of this work of yours.
    Would you mind sharing some of the sources you used for this piece, or at least just your surname so that I can reference it with your full name. Throughout your blog I can only find your first name.

    Kind Regards

    • Hi Jon! Thanks for the kind words! If you want to cite this post specifically, the format would be “How does Islam address the problem of Evil?” Ask an Islamicist; July 1, 2013. Access (date you accessed the site for the citation). You can also include a URL after the site name if you want (incidentally, that’s an MLA citation, but most citations are roughly the same).

      Unfortunately I don’t have much published work on the subject. Depending what you need to cite, I’d suggest starting with the Encyclopedia of Islam, particular for the Arabic terminology. Gabriel Said Reynold’s most recent book of Quranic interpretation may have some useful stuff on the Muslim conception of the devil, as does Ayoub’ book, The Qur’an and its interpreters. In terms of how the Muslim conception of Evil plays out in public discourse, John Turner Johnson has several books comparing holy war and jihad – however, I always recommend these cautiously; Johnson was a holy war scholar first, and so some of his readings tend to get a bit filtered through that lens, at least in my opinion.

      Hopefully that’s enough to start on – if you can give me an idea of what specifically you’re looking for, I may be able to recommend some other works.

  7. Leila Lively says:

    I would like to cite your blog…can you e-mail me your last name? I have never actually cited a blog post before, so it’s possible I do not need it. But my professor is so crazy that I thought I should at least ask.

    • Thanks! You’re welcome to cite my blog – I actually don’t think blog citations need to include full names (they’re a new enough medium that the ‘correct’ way to cite them is still being established,and loads of people don’t publish online under their real name, for privacy and security reasons). My preferred citation style for this blog is “Title of the Post,” July 1, 2013; Date you accessed it (Place you accessed it from). (And you can point your professor to this comment if they cause a fuss about the citation style – Hi, Leila’s professor!)

      However, on behalf of myself, your professor, and professors everywhere, I strongly caution you against doing so, unless you’re citing it as an example of something. If you’re talking in a paper that “there’s an active online community regarding questions about Islamic theology” (askanislamicist, thewoodturtle, fatalfeminist, etc.), or “many bloggers enjoy using comical footnotes in their writing” (askanislamicist, captain awkward, thebloggess, etc.), that’s fine. But if you’re citing me as a source for something to do with the Islamic conception of good and evil – don’t. This blog is not peer-reviewed, which means that, for academic citations, it ranks below wikipedia as a verified source. If you’re writing on this subject, I’d suggest you check out M. Ayoub’s work on Qur’anic interpretation, and possible also read the Encyclopedia of Islam and Encyclopedia of the Qur’an entries for evil, Gabriel, and the Adam and Eve story (and of course, raid those entries for the relevant Qur’anic citations and bibliography). Trust me, it will make your professor *much happier* than citing something you read off the internet!

      Also, what class has a paper on this subject? This is the only page where I get these requests! 🙂

  8. Kellard says:

    Quick question – why do you not use passages from the Qur’an to support some of your answers? For this particular thread, that would be helpful.

  9. TruthIsIgnored says:

    So far as I’ve discerned, the only evil in Islam is disobedience to the will of Allah. Satan (Shaytan) is evil because he lures people away from obedience to Allah.

    Murder? Rape? Theft? Mutilation? Torture? Genocide? None are evil in themselves, they are acceptable, in fact a duty, if “ordered” by Allah, and only evil if perpetrated against Allah’s believers.

  10. Yaqoob says:

    Iblis is or never was angel. He was and is Jinn(Obedient One) working amongst angels.
    Until he was cast out from service due to his jealousy towards Adam (PBUH).

  11. amine says:

    Thats wrong Iblis was never from the Angels and The Quran makes it clear:

    ”And [mention] when We said to the angels, “Prostrate to Adam,” and they prostrated, except for Iblees. He was of the jinn and departed from the command of his Lord. Then will you take him and his descendants as allies other than Me while they are enemies to you? Wretched it is for the wrongdoers as an exchange.” Quran 18:50

    ” except for Iblees. He was of the jinn….”

    so that is clear enough

  12. Thomas says:

    I appreciate the enlightenment you offer here. I am researching a potential book about evil where I try to find a common understanding of the word. If thee Quran portrays evil as more about what people do than what people are, does it go the further step by giving a definition of what may constitute an evil act or even evil itself?

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