Photo credit: thehobbit.com official movie website.
By Haroon Moghul
Part 4 in an ongoing series.
Adam and Eve aren’t the first people to pop up in the Qur’an just because they’re the first people. It’s a warning. And a mercy. Iblis’ great piety didn’t make it into the last revelation. His rebellion did. So what’s to say the same doesn’t or won’t apply to us? Do we think Islam will save us? It didn’t save him.
Every belief has good and bad, or rather produces good and bad, because beliefs do not exist abstractly. They’re embodied, in humans and jinn, who are neither fully saintly nor entirely demonic. Religion can improve persons and peoples, or suffocate them. And every religion’s strength is its weakness.
Islam reveres texts, and so regularly suffers extremists who reduce texts to singular meanings (and worse, imposes them). As long as Islam is around, this attitude will be too. You can’t change that fact, unless you want to change human nature, in which case you are the greater threat. (The creepily deeply dystopian nature of ‘counter-radicalism’.)
But that doesn’t mean we’re helpless. Islamic civilization established its own historic defense mechanisms; classical Sunni and Shia Islam, for example, rejected monopolies (not just bad for economies) and epistemic free-for-alls. We emphasized a reasonable and rational scholastic pluralism, embodied in scholarship. Sincere study of scripture, the great imams realized, ineluctably produced differences of opinion. How did we deal with them?
By celebrating them. In honor of that great legacy, arguably our civilization’s greatest achievement, and the one must under threat today, let’s go back to Islam’s Genesis and produce a different lesson, no less valid than last week’s. Because no story has only one lesson. You cannot step in the same river twice.
The river changes, but so do you.
God had ordered the angels to bow to Adam, which they all did. All of them, at least, minus Iblis, a.k.a. Shaytan, a.k.a. Satan, a.k.a. the Devil. (Bad guys always have multiple aliases. And multiple passports.) Iblis wanted to be Caliph, and was especially upset that he got passed over, not even for another jinn like him, but an entirely new species.
The jinn—we know them in English as ‘genie’ and no, they’re not blue, voiced by Robin Williams or indigenous to lamps—receive their name from an Arabic root, J-N-N, which also produces the word ‘jannah’ and ‘majnun,’ meaning a garden (as in paradise) and madness (as in lunacy). A garden is walled off or shaded; the mad have their reason covered. There’s the common thread.
Jinn, sentient, rational, and morally autonomous like humankind, are nevertheless imperceptible to human faculties. They’re like ghosts, whispers in the wind, made from ‘smokeless fire’. Whereas humanity was made from lowly ‘earth’. Hence Iblis’ conviction in his superiority. This has been called racism, but I don’t agree. One wasn’t black and the other wasn’t white.
Given what we know about human origins, Adam and Eve were almost certainly black. (And no, that doesn’t mean the devil was white.) Racism is about the incorrect assumption of superiority, whereas Iblis is at least clearly physically superior to humanity. Jinn have abilities humans do not, least of which is their ability to see us versus our inability to see them. (The jinn story was Islam’s first alarm clock. See also how to keep your kids up until fajr time.)
They’re stronger, faster, better. That’s not racism. That’s reality. But, of course, physical advantage is not the only advantage.
It’s a truth, however, that pop culture finds hard to believe, which might suggest why we find the devil hard to believe in too. But deep, rich religious myth—art rooted in a religious worldview, because the artist knows the truth about herself and the world—understands instinctively. The Lord of the Rings and Captain America were written during the same time period, and present dramatically different lessons.
The Nazis, Captain America’s opponents, practiced eugenics, carrying Western race theory and white supremacy to its inevitable end. How did Marvel’s predecessor, Timely Comics, propose we fight National Socialism? With our own master race, white and muscled! Steve Rogers had to be turned into Captain America, whereas a far more serious storyteller would let the gangly, eternally virginal teenager remain fully and only himself. And then fight evil.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Sauron is the enemy, but Sauron was the apprentice of a greater power, Morgoth (who is the Devil). To fully realize his power in the world, however, Sauron must take back the ring of power. Except where is it? Turns out it’s not with the heir to the throne of Gondor, Aragorn, or the Elven King Thranduil, or Lord Elrond, or Gandalf, or Galadriel.
Not with any of Middle Earth’s superheroes.
Tolkien had Frodo, a lowly Hobbit, carry the ring to Mordor, to destroy it, because despite his physical smallness, only his stout heart could resist its evil. Or perhaps because of it. Had Frodo been stronger, he might’ve been more evil. With great power, Spider-Man, comes greater danger (and less likelihood of responsibility–please.) Tolkien knew how evil functions, too. That’s why his story compels.
Sauron would never suspect the ring would be given to a Hobbit. The difference between a younger American culture and a wiser British culture. Tolkien did not have the Elves, or Gandalf, or anyone else, turn Frodo into some kind of roid raging superhero, with spandex uniform and spidey-sense. The Hobbits are inferior, individually and collectively, in many respects. They pretty much stay that way.
They do not have the physical strength of elves, nor their legendary craftsmanship and capability. They have no great cities, no empires, no fancy armor or stirring ballads. They are a simple, humble folk, close to the ground—they are nearer to prostration, in every way—and so they are overlooked. To Sauron’s doom. ‘I am better than him,’ Sauron would’ve cried, ‘a power on earth. What the hell is Frodo?’
We see these characters, and something in us finds them familiar. Because we know these stories, not just in that we have heard them. We are them. We’re down here because of them. We fight the devil, though he appears in every respect to be superior to us. But is he? That’s the tragedy of Iblis, and I say tragedy intentionally.
He was a worshipper just like us. Let the believer beware. The Qur’an is deliberately, correctly, insistently vague on many even important details. Or perhaps these are more important than details.
Was the Devil ever really good? Was he the same ‘person’, before and after Adam? Was the evil always in him, waiting to come out? Was he only ever acting? We can never know the full answer to these questions, and that is a good thing. Only God does. Throughout the Qur’an we find stories rising to the surface and then suddenly, abruptly falling away. Pay more attention.
Sometimes it is not the verse that comes after but the verse that comes before which explains the story on its way. Iblis’ attempt to prove himself better than Adam instead proved Adam better than Iblis.
God knew Iblis would rebel.
He knew Iblis’ rebellion would make Adam and Eve fall.
But He also knew Adam and Eve would turn back in genuine repentance.
Faced with error, Eve, Adam and the angels choose humility, and Iblis stubborn pride. Of course, Adam, Eve and Iblis knew none of this in advance, which is how free will and omniscience co-exist. You don’t know, either. None of us do. Faith is lost and found one minute at a time. There’s a reason the story of mankind’s first mistake is attributed to a Prophet–the first Prophet.
It’s not that humans are Caliphs because they are strong, or robust, or upstanding. It’s because we are softer, gentler, a little weaker in the knees, more liable to fall to the ground than turn our noses up.
What two verses precede Adam and Eve? That should tell you something, too. An entire explanation of Islam, the essence of the Caliphate, the moral of the story, the pride of Satan, the summary of verses you haven’t yet read but which are waiting for you right around the corner: ‘How can you deny faith in God? You were not, and He brought you to life; then you will not be, and then to Him you will be returned. He has created all that is on the Earth for you: Then He turned to the heavens, and made them seven skies—of all, of all, He has perfect knowledge’ (The Cow 28-29).
Ramadan Mubarak. Keep reading.
Editor’s Note: Haroon Moghul is the author of “The Order of Light” and “My First Police State.” His memoir, “How to be Muslim”, is due in 2016. He’s a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, formerly a Fellow at the New America Foundation and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, and a member of the Multicultural Audience Development Initiative at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Connect with Haroon on twitter @hsmoghul. The views expressed here are his own.