M. Fethullah Gulen
What Satan is and why he was created?
Satan was, like the jinn with whom he mostly kept company, was also created from ‘fire’. Before he was put to the test of obedience and sincerity through Adam, he had been in the company of angels; acting and worshipping as they did. Unlike the angels who do whatever they are commanded and never rebel against God (al-Mulk, 66.6), Satan (called Iblis prior to his disobedience to God’s command to fall prostrate before Adam) has free will to choose his own path of conduct. When God tested him together with the angels and commanded him to fall prostrate before Adam (i.e. before man), the seeds of self-conceit and disobedience in his nature burst up to swallow him, and he responded in his vanity: ‘I am better than him. You created me from fire, whilst him you did create of clay’(Sad, 38.76).
Satan was created for important purposes. For, first of all, had it not been for Satan who continually tries to seduce man, the creation of man would have been meaningless and futile. God has innumerable servants who, like angels, have no capacity to rebel and therefore do whatever they are commanded. In fact, the existence of an absolute Divine Being Who has many beautiful Names and Attributes (the Creator, the All-Merciful, the All- Providing, the All-Living and Giver of Life, the All- Beautiful and the All-Powerful, etc.) requires, not by way of any external necessity which is inconceivable, but due to the essential nature of his Names, that His Names be manifest. And it is only through man that He manifested all of those Names. Since He has freewill, He also bestowed on man free will. Having free will means to always make a choice between two alternatives. In addition, God has endowed man with great potentials. It is both to develop those potentials and make the necessary choice between the alternatives appearing before him, that man continually experiences a struggle both within him and in the outer world. Just as God sends hawks upon sparrows so that the latter can develop their potential to escape, He created Satan and allowed him to tempt man so that man, by trying to escape his temptations, can rise spiritually and strengthen his will power. As hunger stimulates man or animals to further exertions and discovery of new ways to be satisfied, and fear inspires in them new ways of defence, the temptations of Satan cause man to develop his potentials and to always be alert against sins.
Angels do not rise to the higher spiritual ranks because Satan cannot try to tempt them and cause them to deviate; the animals also have fixed stations- they neither attain to a higher station nor are abased to a lower one. But in the domain of mankind the number of ranks or stations is infinite; a man can rise to the highest of the high, just as he can fall down to the lowest of the low. There is an infinitely long line of spiritual evolution between the ranks of the greatest of the Prophets and saints down to those of men like Pharaoh and Nimrod. Therefore, it cannot be claimed that the creation of Satan is an evil. Although Satan himself is an evil creature, besides the important purposes for his creation which have just been discussed, God’s creation involves the whole universe, and should be understood in relation to the results, not only with respect to the acts themselves. Whatever God does or creates is good and beautiful either in itself or in its effects. For example, rain produces many effects, almost all useful to mankind. Likewise, fire has many uses for man. If some suffer harm because of water or fire owing to their misuse of them, it cannot be claimed that the creation of fire or water is not wholly good. Similarly, the main purpose for the creation of Satan is to enable man to develop his potentials, strengthen his will power by resistance to his temptations and to rise to higher spiritual ranks. If it is still argued that many people-even more than the good ones-fall into unbelief and therefore earn the punishment of Hell through the temptation of Satan, my answer would be as follows:
Although Satan was created for many good, universal purposes some of which have just been discussed, a lot of people may unfortunately be deceived by him. But Satan only whispers and suggests, he has no ability, nor power, to force man to commit some wrong or sinful action. If a man is so weak as to be deceived into Satan’s false promises and allows himself to be dragged down following his footsteps, then it is by his own fault that he earns the punishment of Hell by misusing an important faculty on which God conferred existence so that man can develop his potentials and be elevated to the highest of the high. What a man must do is to use his free will, on which his humanity mostly rests, and by which man has been given the highest position in creation, properly and in the direction of his intellectual and spiritual evolution. Otherwise, he must complain about being honoured with free will and therefore complain about his humanity.
Secondly, quality is much more important than quantity, so, rather than quantitative values, we should take qualitative values into consideration in our judgement. For example, a hundred date stones are only one hundred pence in value as long as they remain as seeds and are not buried under the soil to grow through certain biochemical processes into palm trees. But even if only twenty out of the hundred grow into twenty trees as the result of germination under the soil while the rest rot because of over-watering, can one argue that it is an evil to plant and water them? Every sensible person will certainly agree that it is wholly good to have twenty trees in exchange for twenty stones, since twenty trees will give twenty thousand stones.
Again, a hundred peahen eggs are worth, let’s say, five hundred pence. But if the peahen sits on them and consequently twenty chicks hatch out, with the other eighty spoiled, who will account it an evil to risk eighty eggs being spoiled in return for twenty birds? On the contrary, it is wholly good to have twenty birds at the expense of eighty eggs worth four hundred pence because the twenty birds will not only be worth eighty pounds but some of them also lay more eggs.
It is in just this way that mankind, by fighting against Satan and their evil-commanding selves, have lost worthless members of their race, greater in quantity but poorer in quality, in exchange for thousands of Prophets, thousands of saints and millions of men of wisdom, knowledge, sincerity and good morals, who are the sun, moon and stars of the human world.
Involuntary thoughts and fancies occurring to man
Some evil thoughts and fancies or associations of ideas which occur to a man involuntarily, are usually the result of Satan’s whispering. Like the two poles in a battery, there are two central points or poles in man’s heart (by ‘heart’ we mean the seat or centre of spiritual intellect). One receives angelic inspiration, the other is vulnerable to Satan’s whispering.
When a believer deepens in belief and devotion, and if he is scrupulous and delicate in feeling, Satan attacks him from different directions. Satan does not try to tempt those who follow him voluntarily, who have indulged themselves in passing fancies and bodily pleasures. He usually aims at those sincere, devout believers who are in the course of rising to higher and higher spiritual ranks. He whispers to sinful unbelievers new, original ideas in the name of unbelief and teaches them new ways of struggling with the true religion and devout believers.
The meaning of Satan’s coming upon man from different directions
We read in the Qur’an (al-A ‘raf, 7.17) that when God cursed Satan because of his haughty disobedience, Satan asked God to give him respite until the Day of Judgement and allow him to try to seduce human beings. When God gave him permission to try to seduce man for the reasons we have just discussed, Satan retorted: ‘Then I shall came upon them from before them and from behind them and from their right and from their left, and you will not find most of them grateful’.
The verse means that Satan does everything he can to seduce man. Man is a very complex being: as was pointed out before, God has manifested on him all His Names. The world is an arena of testing for him. He is sent to the world to be trained so that he can be a mirror to God and earn eternal happiness. God has endowed him with innumerable feelings, faculties and potentials, which must be trained and developed. If certain of these feelings and faculties, like intellect, anger, greed, obstinacy and lust, are not trained and directed to lofty goals, and are used in wrong ways for disagreeable purposes, and if man’s natural desires and animal appetites are not restricted and satisfied in lawful ways, they will be perilous for man with respect both to his worldly and his eternal life, causing him to be reduced to ‘the lowest of the low’. Satan approaches man from his left and tries, making use of that animal aspect of his and working on those feelings and faculties of his, to tempt him to commit all kinds of sins and crimes. When he approaches man from before him, he drives him to despair of his future and whispers to him that the Day of Judgement will never come, and whatever religions tell about the Hereafter is mere fiction. He also suggests that religion has long been a thing of the past and therefore no longer has anything to say for the present or the future. When he comes upon man from behind him, he tries to make him deny Prophethood and other essentials of belief, like God’s existence and Unity, Divine Scriptures and angels. Through such whispers and suggestions, Satan tries to cut all the connections of a man with religion and tempt him to all kinds of sinful acts.
Satan cannot be successful in his attempts to seduce a devout, practising believer by coming upon him from behind or before him or from his left. Instead, he tries to approach him from his right and tempt him to display and ostentation and into pride in his virtue and his good deeds. He whispers to him how good a believer he is and gradually throws him to perdition through self-conceit and the desire to be praised by others for his good deeds. For example, if a believer does the supererogatory late night prayer (tahajjud) and then proclaims it everywhere with the desire to be praised by others, and if he attributes to himself his accomplishments and good deeds and criticizes others behind their back, it means that he has fallen under the infulence of Satan. This is perilous for a believer, so a believer must be incessantly alert to Satan’s coming upon him from his right.
Another of Satan’s guiles is that he shows unimportant things as important and vice versa. If a believer disputes with other Muslims in the mosque over a secondary matter such as whether it is permissible to use a rosary when glorifying God after the daily prescribed prayers, while the young in his community are being dragged along ways of unbelief like materialism or are drowning in the swamp of immorality, this too is an indication that Satan has succeeded in his attempts to seduce him.
Satan’s whispering disagreeable thoughts and fancies
If Satan is unsuccessful in all his attempts to seduce a devout believer, then he whispers to him some disagreeable thoughts and fancies. For example, through associations of ideas, he drives him to have some unpleasant conceptions of the Divine Being or to conceive of unbelief or disobedience. If the believer dwells on them, Satan pesters him with such thoughts and conceptions until he falls into doubt about his belief or despairs of a virtuous life.
Another kind of Satan’s suggestions is that he drives a good, devout believer into suspicions about the correctness or validity of his religious acts. For example, he causes him to have suspicions about whether he has done his prayer perfectly or washed his hands or face completely in ritual ablution or about how many times he has washed the parts of the body that must be washed.
A believer who is pestered by Satan with this kind of involuntary thoughts and fancies and doubts, should know that they do indeed occur to him involuntarily, that is, without his heart having any part in them. He should also be certain that just as pirates attack ships carrying valuable treasures, and thieves attempt to rob rich people, and world-powers try to take control of rich countries, as a last, desperate attempt to seduce him, Satan attacks a good, practising believer with the weapon of evil suggestions. A believer’s heart is troubled with such thoughts or suggestions. This is like increase in body temperature of a sick person: as is known, antibodies are formed in the blood of a patient to inhibit or destroy harmful bacteria or germs and this causes the body’s temperature to rise. Similarly, a believer’s heart is troubled with the evil suggestions of Satan and takes up the attitude of fighting against them. This shows that such thoughts and suggestions are not generated by the heart, nor does the heart approve or adopt them. So, just as the reflection of something foul in a mirror is not foul and does not make you dirty, and just as the reflection of a snake does not bite, so too conceiving of unbelief does not mean to unbelieve and, for example, imagining cursing is not really cursing. In some sense, it can even be said that the evil suggestions of Satan are beneficial to the believed For the believer always remains alert to Satan’s temptations and continues his struggle against his carnal self and Satan, which causes him to take further and further steps toward the highest of the high.
The real nature of Satan’s whisperings and how one can keep free of his evil suggestions
In fact, in the words of the Qur’an, the guile of Satan is ever feeble (al-Nisa’, 4.76). It is like a cobweb appearing before you while you are walking between two walls. Just as you do not hold back from going on because of that cobweb, you should not also give much importance to Satan’s guiles. He only suggests or whispers; he gilds sinful acts and presents them in ‘falsely ornamented wrappers’, so a believer must never be deceived into accepting his invitations. When he attempts to whisper evil thoughts as a last resort a believer should be certain that this is the weakest of his strategies and never dwell on them. If he dwells on them and blows them up, then he may be defeated by Satan. Like a commander who, deceived by hallucinations due to fear, dispatches his army to the two wings and leaves the centre exposed to the attack of the enemy, he exhausts his power of perseverance and resolve in fighting against Satan and his carnal self on resisting unintentional fancies or scruples whispered by Satan, and in the end, he becomes too weak to fight against the real temptations of Satan and of his carnal self.
In order to keep free from the evil suggestions of Satan, one should be distant from the attractive field of Satan and sins. Heedlessness and neglect of worship are like an invitation to the ‘arrows’ of Satan. The Qur’an declares:
Whose sight is dim to the remembrance of the All- Merciful, We assign unto him a devil who becomes his comrade. (al-Zukhruf, 43.36)
Remembrance of the All- Merciful, noble or sacred phenomena and a regular, religious life protect a man from being defence- less against Satan’s attacks. Again, the Qur’an advises:
If a suggestion from Satan occurs to you, then seek refuge in God. He is All- Hearing, All-Knowing. Those who fear God and ward off (evil), when a passing notion from Satan troubles them, they remember, and behold! they see! (al-A ‘raf, 7.200-1)
God’s Messenger, upon him be peace and blessings, advised:
When you are angry, if you are standing, sit down; if you are sitting, lie down or stand up and do wudu. On the way back from a mittary expedition, the Prophet called a halt to rest at a certain place. They were so tired that they failed to wake up before sunrise to do the dawn prayer in time. When they woke up, the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, commanded: Leave here at once. Satan rules here. The Prophet also says that Satan flees the call to prayer (adhan).
Satan sometimes tries to tempt one through association of obscene scenes. He obsesses one with suggestions of or calls to illicit pleasures. On such occasions, a man should try to persuade himself that any illicit pleasure will certainly result in fits of remorse and may endanger his afterlife, or even his mortal life. He should know that, as the Qur’an states, the life of the world is but a passing plaything and comfort of illusion and the real or true life is the life of the Hereafter. When some showed reluctance in taking part in the expedition to Tabuk, in the time of the Prophet, because of the scorching heat of summer, God warned them: The heat of Hell is much more intense, if they would but understand (al-Tawba, 9.81)