Last updated: May 13, 2021
The eerie word Shaytan in Islam
- The origin of the words Iblis and Shaytan
- The different meanings of the word Shaytan
- Is Iblis an angel or a Jinn?
- What is “the evil” in the English language?
Shaytan (شَيْطان) is a word which refers to any Jinn (demon) that does not believe and obey Allah. It is rendered as devil, demon. But also as jinn or powerful spirits or evil forces.
The term Shaytān is often used in a broader sense – as a metaphor for every human impulse that is immoral. Satan, as some scholars have put it, fulfils a definite function in Allah’s plan. He is the eternal tempter who enables man to exercise his God given freedom of choice between good and evil, and thus to become a being endowed with a moral free will.
With the definite article, it is rendered as the Devil, Satan or Iblis. In the Qur’an, Shaytān can refer to the group of all Shaytāns in general as well as to ’Iblīs only.
Iblis/Eblees (إِبْلِيسُ) is the name of the first Shaytān who disobeyed Allah’s order to prostrate for Adam. In Islam, ’Iblīs is “just” one of the enemies of the humans and the Jinns.
The origin of the words Iblis and Shaytan
- إِبْلِيسُ occurs 11 times in the Qur’an.
- It is most probably borrowed from Greek diabolos.
- However, some scholars derive it from the Arabic root ب–ل–س denoting to despair. So where is the connection to the evil? It has to do with the word إِبلاس – with the utter despair the Devil had fallen into as a result of the curse Allah put on him following his disobedience.
- Some Arabic linguists have another hypothesis. They say it is perhaps the other way round, that the Greek word diabolos is a Hellenized form of the Arabic name Ibis. As proof for this, they take the Arabic root بَلَسَ which means to be expelled, be dismissed, be driven out. In the Arabic IV-form, the verb أَبْلَسَ means he despaired or became broken in spirit.
- Let’s dig a bit deeper. ’Iblīs’ former name is ‘Azāzīl (عَزازيل or عَزازِل) which is a Hebrew word (עֲזָאזֵל). Azazil is the Devil in Judaism and Christianity. In some narrations, ‘Azāzīl is also the name for a Fallen Angel; in the Bible, ‘Azāzīl is associated with the scapegoat rite. His epithet is ’Abū Kurdūs (أَبُو كُرْدُوس), Kurdūs meaning squadron of horsemen.
Iblis (إِبْلِيسُ) is one of the most important characters in the creation story. ’Iblīs refuses to obey the divine command to bow before Adam, arguing that he himself had been created from fire whereas Adam was created from clay.
He entices Adam to eat from the forbidden tree and has him cast from Heaven. He himself is reprieved until the Day of Judgment, but vows to mislead mankind up to that day. It is this banishment together with his vow to mislead mankind that serves as the context for Allah’s sending messengers and guidance.
Abdel Haleem, a famous contemporary Qur’an expert, states that the Qur’an describes him as a member of the jinns, while he is also classified as having an angelic identity.
- شَيْطان occurs 70 times in the Qur’an.
- Scholars derive the word شَيْطان either from the root ش–ط–ن associated with the basic concepts of fastening tightly; being exceedingly; or audaciously, proud, corrupt, rebellious or insolent. According to Edward Lane’s Lexicon the root denotes he was or became remote (from all good and true). Shaytān (شَيْطان) is of the Arabic measure fay‘āl (فَيْعال) signifying that he was or became distant or remote (from the truth and from the mercy of God).
- But there is also another explanation. It may relate to the root ش–ي–ط associated with the basic concepts of singeing, scorching, burning.
- The word شَيْطان existed in Arabic, Syriac, Aramaic and Ethiopic long before Islam. The term شَيْطان has the same origin as the Hebrew term Satan (שָׂטָן) which is the source of the English Satan. The Hebrew word is derived from a verb meaning primarily to obstruct, oppose.
The different meanings of the word Shaytan
1: Devil, demon
Sura 4:117: They call upon instead of Him none but female [deities], and they [actually] call upon none but a rebellious Satan. (إِن يَدْعُونَ مِن دُونِهِ إِلَّا إِنَاثًا وَإِن يَدْعُونَ إِلَّا شَيْطَانًا مَّرِيدًا )
2: Devilish, evil impulse or company
Sura 43:36: And whoever is blinded from remembrance of the Most Merciful – We appoint for him a devil, and he is to him a companion. (وَمَن يَعْشُ عَن ذِكْرِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ نُقَيِّضْ لَهُ شَيْطَانًا فَهُوَ لَهُ قَرِينٌ)
3: Jinn, powerful spirits
Sura 21:82: And of the devils were those who dived for him and did work other than that. And We were of them a guardian. (وَمِنَ الشَّيَاطِينِ مَن يَغُوصُونَ لَهُ وَيَعْمَلُونَ عَمَلًا دُونَ ذَٰلِكَ ۖ وَكُنَّا لَهُمْ حَافِظِينَ)
4: Devilish beings, friends, evil forces
Sura 6:112: And thus We have made for every prophet an enemy – devils from mankind and jinn, inspiring to one another decorative speech in delusion. But if your Lord had willed, they would not have done it, so leave them and that which they invent. ( وَكَذَٰلِكَ جَعَلْنَا لِكُلِّ نَبِيٍّ عَدُوًّا شَيَاطِينَ الْإِنسِ وَالْجِنِّ يُوحِي بَعْضُهُمْ إِلَىٰ بَعْضٍ زُخْرُفَ الْقَوْلِ غُرُورًا ۚ وَلَوْ شَاءَ رَبُّكَ مَا فَعَلُوهُ ۖ فَذَرْهُمْ وَمَا يَفْتَرُونَ)
5: With the definite article: the Devil, Satan, Iblis
Sura 19:44: O my father, do not worship Satan. Indeed Satan has ever been, to the Most Merciful, disobedient. (يَا أَبَتِ لَا تَعْبُدِ الشَّيْطَانَ ۖ إِنَّ الشَّيْطَانَ كَانَ لِلرَّحْمَٰنِ عَصِيًّا )
Now, what about this question:
Is Iblis an angel or a Jinn?
’Iblīs, as most scholars suggest, is a Jinn.
Ibn Kathīr, in his commentary, quoted al-Hasan al-Basrī (الْحَسَن الْبَصْرِيّ): “’Iblīs was not one of the angels, not even for a single moment.” (مَا كَانَ إِبْلِيس مِنْ الْمَلَائِكَة طَرْفَة عَيْن قَطُّ وَإِنَّهُ لَأَصْل الْجِنّ كَمَا أَنَّ آدَم أَصْل الْبَشَر) – source: al-Tabarī 89/3.
Muslims believe that ’Iblīs is still among humans until the Day of Judgement, and because of that, the present tense is generally used when talking about him.
Let’s look at the Islamic sources and check why ’Iblīs is a Jinn. According to Islam, angels never disobey Allah when he commands them to do something. Since ’Iblīs is not one of the angels, he is not forced to obey Allah. He enjoys freedom of will like human beings.
Furthermore, one of the attributes of angels is that they were created from light whereas Jinns were created from fire. The Qur’an says that ’Iblīs was created from fire. In the view of the Devil, fire is superior to the clay out of which man has been created.
’Iblīs himself said so in a verse when Allah asked him why he refused to prostrate before Adam when Allah ordered him to do so. This is told in sura 7 The Heights (سُورة الْأَعْراف).
Verse 7:12 goes as follows: “God said, ‘What prevented you from bowing down as I commanded you?’ and he said, ‘I am better than him: You created me from fire and him from clay.'” (قَالَ مَا مَنَعَكَ أَلَّا تَسْجُدَ إِذْ أَمَرْتُكَ قَالَ أَنَا خَيْرٌ مِّنْهُ خَلَقْتَنِي مِن نَّارٍ وَخَلَقْتَهُ مِن طِينٍ)
Contrary to this, some scholars interpret the episode of the Qur’an differently. ’Iblīs’ refused to obey; this perhaps indicates that at the time of the command, ’Iblīs was indeed one of the heavenly hosts, an angle.
This is for example the view of Muhammad Asad who wrote one of the best commentaries and translations of the Qur’an (however, very conservative and traditional Muslims reject some of his views). Muhammad Asad suggests that ’Iblīs is a Fallen Angel. ’Iblīs’ rebellion, as Muhammad Asad concluded, “has a purely symbolic significance and is, in reality, the outcome of a specific function assigned to him by God.”
A Fallen Angel is a rebellious angel that has been kicked out of Paradise. The term Fallen Angel is used in religious contexts although the term itself is not used in the Bible or in the Qur’an. In Christianity, Satan is often described as the leader of the Fallen Angels.
However, most Muslims prefer the view of Ibn Kathīr who wrote that ’Iblīs could not have been an angel. They find proof for this in sura 16 The Bee (سُورة النَّحْل).
Verse 16:49 says: “It is to God that everything in the heavens and earth submits, every beast that moves, even the angels – they are free from arrogance:” (وَلِلَّهِ يَسْجُدُ مَا فِي السَّمَاوَاتِ وَمَا فِي الْأَرْضِ مِن دَابَّةٍ وَالْمَلَائِكَةُ وَهُمْ لَا يَسْتَكْبِرُونَ). And 16:50 says: “they fear their Lord above them, and they do as they are commanded.” ( يَخَافُونَ رَبَّهُم مِّن فَوْقِهِمْ وَيَفْعَلُونَ مَا يُؤْمَرُونَ )
What is “the evil” in the English language?
Satan, Devil, Lucifer, Beelzebub – there are several expressions which basically describe the evil. The Devil as a conceptual figure is found in many cultures but especially in the three Abrahamitic religions.
In Christianity there are many words for Satan. The most common English synonym for Satan is Devil, which descends from Middle English devel, from Old English dēofol – which derives from a Germanic borrowing from the Latin diabolus. This in turn was borrowed from the Greek word diábolos (διάβολος) which means accuser.
In the New Testament, Satan occurs more than thirty times alongside slanderer, etc, which refer to the same person or thing as Satan.
Beelzebub, meaning Lord of Flies, is the scornful name given in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament to a Philistine God whose original name has been reconstructed as probably Ba’al Zabul – meaning Baal the Prince. This wordplay was later used to refer to Satan.
The Book of Revelation refers to the great dragon: “So the great dragon was cast out, that serpent of old, called the Devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world; he was cast to the earth, and his angels were cast out with him” (Revelation 12:9). The Book of Revelation refers also to the deceiver.
There is one more important word which is used in Christianity for describing the evil: Lucifer. Lucifer literally means Light bringer, Light bearer, Bringer of Dawn, Shining One or Morning Star.
It goes probably back to the Hebrew word Heylel (הֵילֵל) which is found one time in the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint – the oldest continuous translation of the Hebrew-Aramaic Bible into the classical (old) Greek language – renders Heylel in Greek as heōsphoros (ἑωσφόρος) – which literally means bringer of dawn, the morning star. This was latinised as Lucifer.
Let’s look at the only Bible passage (Isaiah 14:12) that mentions Lucifer: “How you are fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How you are cut down to the ground, You who weakened the nations!”
Historically and astronomically, the term Morning Star has always been applied to the planet Venus. The image of a morning star fallen from the sky has some parallels in Canaanite mythology as scholars found out.
The Bible does not state that Lucifer is Satan. It was Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) who applied this term to Satan and put Lucifer on the same level with Satan. The Christian theologians connected this term with a saying of Jesus in the gospels of Luke 10:18: “And He said to them: ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.'”
How about Judaism? Lucifer, which in Christianity equates with Satan, does not exist in Judaism.
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