If one were to make a list of the most critical messages in the Qur’an for guiding and informing Muslim life, chief among them would undoubtedly be the idea of taqwā (being on guard against moral danger) or as it is commonly translated “fear of God.” In a pluralistic, non-Muslim context, it might be easy for an inexperienced reader to conduct a rough survey of the portraits of Iblīs, Satan, and evil in the Qur’an and come away lacking any distinctly Muslim realizations regarding morality when contrasted with Judaism, Christianity, or even superficially some secular ethics.
But in the idea of taqwā, what Fazlur Rahman calls possibly the most important term in the Qur’an, there are the broader outlines of a unique Muslim moral psychology that undergirds Muslim life both at the levels of the individual and society. This particular Muslim moral psychology is constructed upon Rahman’s treatment of “Man as Individual” and “Satan and Evil.” This moral psychology is not only essential for the faithful Muslim living today but also factors heavily into the ways in which much larger ethical, political and theological concerns of Islam are understood and treated as a whole.
One of the most important points of divergence between Muslim conceptions of morality and human nature and Judeo-Christian ones can be seen at the very instant that Satan distinctly and recognizably becomes Satan in the Qur’an, namely when he becomes the stealthy “whisperer who deceives.” While Satan existed before Adam either as a jinni or as an angel, regardless of this pre-existence, Satan is, nonetheless, inextricably tied to and dependent upon humanity for both his identity as deceiver and his potency to lead humans astray. It is Satan’s refusal to prostrate himself before Adam that gives rise to Satan’s role as the stealthy whisperer who causes men to stray, but even more than this, without humans to act upon, Satan would be entirely impotent.
In contrast with Islam, Judeo-Christian theology holds that Satan is first and foremost understood as the adversary of God, God’s opponent in a divine, cosmic battle between good and evil. But in Islam, as Rahman writes, “the struggle between good and evil is reality for man and man alone…The Qur’an…portrays Satan as a …rival and enemy of man rather than God, since God is beyond where the devil can touch him… it is man who can either conquer him or be vanquished by him.” Whereas within the Judeo-Christian theological frame, Satan is chiefly God’s concern or said another way, acts and moves on and in the plane of God and the divine, for Islam, Satan is first and foremost humanity’s concern.
Within Islam, the human person is the site of the clash between good and evil, and this conflict is as much a conflict of blood and bones as it is anything else. “Spiritual Warfare” takes on a different meaning within Islam in that the responsibility and impetus to struggle with evil are squarely placed on the shoulders of humanity in a way that simply has no analog in the Jewish and Christian faiths. As Rahman critically points out: God’s creation of humanity is not flippant or done in jest. “And We did not create Heaven and earth and whatsoever is between them in vain; that is the conjecture of those who disbelieve…” Both God and humanity take a great risk in the Islamic project. The stakes are grave, for the very proliferation of evil amongst all of humanity and the subsequent destruction of the world hang in the balance.
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