I was reading and I came across this passage:
“But why, Ramsay would ask, do we confine our study to great political and military figures to whom the generality of mankind has attributed extraordinary, almost superhuman qualities, and leave out the whole world of saints, to whom mankind has attributed phenomenal virtue? It is trivial to say that power, or even vice, are more interesting than virtue, and people say so only when they have not troubled to take a look at virtue and see how amazing, and sometimes inhuman and unlikeable, it really is. The saints also belong among the heroes, and the spirit of Ignatius Loyola is not so far from the spirit of Napoleon as uniformed people suppose.” P 358 The Manticore by Roberston Davies.
What struck me about it was characterizing virtue, which we always think of as a good thing, as “inhuman and unlikeable”. If we look carefully at the lives of saints, or political leaders, or political leaders who are considered saints, we often find less than savory sacrifices which are made in the name of the Cause. It isn’t the sacrifices which necessarily bother me, but what I find more unsettling is the single-mindedness of purpose, the unshakable conviction that what they are doing is absolutely right. While I admire focus and concentration and deplore multi-tasking, and I understand that attention to detail and strength of purpose can produce amazing results, I also find the lack of doubt to be very alien to me. I am confused by people who don’t question their own motivations and beliefs. This confusion on my part has led me to today’s khutbah which is called ‘Perplexity of Single-Mindedness”.
My model for single-mindedness of purpose is Iblis. Iblis’ declared purpose is to drive humans off the path to God, to test them and only the ones who are not tempted by Iblis have the possibility of closeness to God. In my previous khutbahs, we have discussed Iblis, his mythic biography as documented in Qur’an, tafsir, hadith, qisas and historical texts in the Islamic tradition as well as the use of the Iblis motif in the Sufi tradition. All Sufis agree that Iblis is a negative force within the spiritual life. However, this didn’t stop Sufis from using the stories of Iblis to engage in discussions of difficult theological topics, such as how one deals with God’s will (irada) and God’s command (amr), particularly when the irada seems at odds with amr; Iblis’ failure to bow before Adam is the classic example of this conundrum. Sufis, such as Rumi, Ibn Ghanim and al-Junayd, who saw Iblis’ primary motivation as unabashed evil (arrogance, power, ignorance, etc) did not see any rehabilitation possibilities and considered Iblis condemned to Hell forever. Iblis as evil and condemned is a primary track of Sufi thought. However, there is a parallel track of thought which sees Iblis in a very different light. This line of reasoning goes back very far, to Husayn ibn Mansur Al-Hallaj (850-922 CE).
Al-Hallaj explored the Iblis motif in his book Kitab al-Tawasin. This book has been preserved in its entirety in the original Arabic and there is also a Persian translation with extensive commentary by the famous Sufi Ruzbihan Al-Baqli (1123-1230 CE). The Arabic is difficult and often obscure, so the Persian translation is helpful that way, but it is also interesting because al-Baqli has a more traditional Sufi outlook and he really struggles with some of al-Hallaj’s paradoxical and unorthodox views of Iblis.
Al-Hallaj teachings use opposites to pull the reader to considering new possibilities. He uses the Zen “shock and awe” method. The 20th century Sufi Idris Shah explained it this way,
“If you clap your hands and observe only the movement of the hands, they appear to oppose one another. You have not seen what is happening. The purpose of the ‘opposition’ of the palms was…to produce the handclap.” P 100 The Magic Monastery
Al-Hallaj’s first ‘shocker’ is to mention Iblis and Prophet Muhammad together when he writes, “The only ones whose preaching was sound are Iblis and Ahmad- may God bless him and grant him peace!” In the heavens Iblis preached to the angels about obedience and the Path to God, while on earth he taught mankind the ways of Evil. However, the opposite poles are complementary if you look at their ultimate purpose:
“Because things are known through their opposites, fine white silk is woven with a backing of coarse black wool. The angel can point out good deeds to someone and say to him as an abstract statement, ‘if you perform these deeds you will be rewarded’. But he who does not know evil in the concrete, cannot know good.” Al-Hallaj, Tawasin #19
Al-Hallaj sees both Iblis and Muhammad as essential characters in the unfolding of God’s divine plan. They carry out God’s will unswervingly, despite the pain each much suffer.
“Iblis was told, “Bow!” and Ahmad was told, “Look!”. But this fellow did not bow and Ahmad did not look. He turned his face neither right nor left.’ Tawasin #2
Al-Hallaj backs up this assertion from a verse from Quran “His Eye turned not aside nor did it wander from its orbit.” (Quran 53:17)
In dealing with God’s amr, Iblis relied on his majestic power and spiritual perfection of centuries of obedient worship, while Muhammad was overcome by his own frail humanity and God’s overwhelming power. Al-Hallaj does not ascribe moral significance to this difference, but his translator Al-Baqli repeats the traditional condemnation of Iblis’ preoccupation with power and his underestimation of Adam’s true nature (since Iblis misjudged Adam’s worth, all that prior obedience and preaching is nullified). But Al-Hallaj is going to create even more problems for his translator.
Al-Hallaj singles out Iblis for two estimable qualities: preaching and single-minded obedience. Al-Hallaj even goes on to say that Iblis is a spiritual model for all Muslims because he, more perfectly than any other created being, witnessed the Unity and Oneness of God even at the expense of self destruction.
“There was no monotheist like Iblis among the inhabitants of the heavens. When the essence revealed itself to him in stunning glory, he renounced even a glance at it and worshipped God in ascetic isolation…God said to him “Bow!” He replied, “To no other!” He said to him “Even if My curse be upon you?” He cried out “To no other!” My refusal is the cry, “Holy are you!” my reason is madness, madness for You. What is Adam, other than You? And who is Iblis to set apart one from the other?” Tawasin #6-7
Iblis as the perfect monotheist? Al-Hallaj takes it even further, he uses Iblis and Pharaoh for models of spiritual life because they share the virtue of futuwa, noble and chivalrous qualities of a Muslim knight since both Iblis and Pharaoh demonstrate fidelity and dedication to duty. In the words of Richard Roeper in the TV series “The Night Manager”, “You make a decision. And then you commit.” Iblis and Pharaoh are fully committed to the decisions they make.
Most people, then and now, are not willing to accept these two anti-heroes as spiritual guides. Al-Baqli took Al-Hallaj’s futuwa designation and reduced by acknowledging their extraordinary but misguided courage. Al-Baqli says any act of bravery is a laudable deed but the morality of the deeds must also be taken into account. He blames Iblis and Pharaoh’s perverted futuwa on going overboard in the ecstatic religious experience, the sin of “I”. This was Al-Hallaj’s problem when he said “I am the Divine Truth’ “Ana al-Haqq”- he failed to differentiate between himself and God. He saw only the “I” when he should have seen that he only reflects traces of the divine, creative spirit. God’s breathing into Adam did not make Adam divine but allows him to shine forth the spirit of God.
Muslims who idolize reason have a hard time dealing with the paradoxical teaching of Al-Hallaj because instead of ascribing moral blame to Iblis (his pride, arrogance, love of power), Al-Hallaj portrays Iblis as a tragic, martyr figure who, despite his dedicated preaching, perfect monotheism, and eternal loyalty, suffers destruction by the God he lovingly worships. In Al-Hallaj’s Tawasin, Iblis is an example of the power of the mystic contemplation to carry the soul beyond the paradoxes and logical contradictions that permeate everyday experience of materiality and individuality. Perfection of this single-minded mystic contemplation leads to an experience of annihilation in the Beloved.
From the Qur’an, we know that Prophet Moses had an encounter with God on Mount Sinai. The exchange is recorded as;
“And when Moses came to Our appointed tryst and his Lord had spoken unto him, he said: My Lord! Show me (Thy Self), that I may gaze upon Thee. He said: Thou wilt not see Me, but gaze upon the mountain! If it stand still in its place, then thou wilt see Me. And when his Lord revealed (His) glory to the mountain He sent it crashing down. And Moses fell down senseless. And when he woke he said: Glory unto Thee! I turn unto Thee repentant, and I am the first of (true) believers.” Qur’an 7:143
A common Sufi teaching story is Moses encountering Iblis on his way down from Mount Sinai after the crumbling mountain incident. We find this story in Ibn Ghanim, in Ahmad Al-Ghazali (brother of Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali), Farid ud-Din Attar (contemporary of Al-Baqli), and in al-Hallaj’s Tawasin.
In al-Hallaj’s version, Iblis scolds Moses for gazing on the mountain instead of focusing on God alone. Then Moses asks Iblis if he remembers God. Iblis answers,
“O Moses! His remembrance is my remembrance, and my remembrance is His remembrance: can it be that those who are remembering be anything but united together? My service is now purer, my moments freer, and my dhikr clearer. For I used to serve Him for the sake of my own prosperity; now I serve Him for His. …. He refused me access to others because of my jealous ardor. He deformed me because of my bewilderment; He bewildered me because of my exile. He exiled me because of my service; He made me a pariah because of my companionship; He reviled me because of my praise…He separated me because of my unveiling of Him; He unveiled me because of my attainment of union. He brought me to union because of my being cut off. …If He should torment me with His fire for eternities on end, I would not bow to anyone. Nor would I grovel before any person or physical body, for I know of no adversary to Him, nor any child begotten of Him. My preaching is the preaching of truthful men, and I am a sincere lover.”- Al-Hallaj Tawasin #14-17
We have two distinct, parallel tracks of the Iblis narrative in the Muslim tradition
1) All visions of Iblis are the products of his power of evil deception, despite the emotional quality of his words and the tragedy of his separation
2) Iblis is a complex and tragic personality who serves as an exemplar of loving self-sacrifice and unquestioning faith to the point where he defies God to serve God.
But both narratives of Iblis have one notion in common: Iblis’ downfall was due to his single-mindedness and blind conviction. In the narrative of Iblis as purely “evil”, he is convinced that he knows man’s fate and man’s flaws and that this gives him the right to not bow down to Adam. In the Sufi narrative of Iblis as a complex and tragic personality, he again is convinced that defying God is the best way to worship and serve God.
What can we learn from this? We are often told by scripture and tradition that we should not follow in the footsteps of Iblis. The PG interpretation of this commandment which our Sunday Schools provide to our children is that Muslims should always obey God. Here is a different – TV-MA rated -interpretation: Avoid the trap of blind zeal. We may think we have it all figured out and we may want to pursue our goals unquestioningly because we are convinced we are righteous. But this was Iblis’ downfall. He forgot to doubt himself. Let us pray that we never forget to doubt ourselves.
The Manticore from The Deptford Trilogy by Robertson Davies (Penguin Books) 1983 p 358
The Magic Monastery by Idries Shah (Octagon Press: London) 1981 p 100
The Night Manager by John Le Carre and David Farr (BBC miniseries) 2016
Meaning of the Glorious Qur’an translation by Marmaduke Pickthall 1930
Kitab at-tawasin by Husayn ibn Mansur Al-Hallaj, edited by Louis Massignon (Paris: Paul Geuthner) 1913