Updated: Jan 20, 2022
Turkish Siyah Qalam depiction of Iblis, appearing as a dark bearded man wearing a headcover
Iblīs (alternatively Eblis or Ibris) is a figure frequently occurring in the Quran, commonly in relation to the creation of Adam and the command to prostrate himself before him. After he refused, he was cast out of heaven. For many classical scholars, he was an angel, :73 but is regarded as a jinn in most contemporary scholarship.:69 Due to his fall from God’s grace, he is often compared to Satan in Christian traditions. In Islamic tradition, Iblis is often identified with ash-Shaitan (“the Devil”), often known by the epithet ar-Rajīm (‘the Accursed’). However, while Shaitan is used exclusively for an evil force, Iblis himself holds a more ambivalent role in Islamic traditions.
Naming and etymology
The term Iblīs (Arabic: إِبْلِيس) may have been derived from the Arabic verbal root bls ب-ل-س (with the broad meaning of “remain in grief”) or بَلَسَ (balasa, “he despaired”). Furthermore, the name is related to talbis meaning confusion. Another possibility is that it is derived from Ancient Greek διάβολος (diábolos), via a Syriac intermediary, which is also the source of the English word ‘devil’.
Yet another possibility relates this name back to the bene Elohim (Sons of God), who had been identified with fallen angels in the early centuries, but had been singularised under the name of their leader.
However, there is no general agreement on the root of the term. The name itself could not be found before the Quran in Arab literature, but can be found in Kitab al Magall, a Christian apocryphic work written in Arabic.
In Islamic traditions, Iblīs is known by many alternative names or titles, such as Abū Murrah (Arabic: أَبُو مُرَّة, “Father of Bitterness”) as the name stems from the word “murr” – meaning “bitter”, ‘aduww Allāh or ‘aduwallah (Arabic: عُدُوّ الله, “enemy or foe” of God) and Abū Al-Harith (Arabic: أَبُو الْحَارِث, “the father of the plowmen”). He is also known by the nickname “Abū Kardūs”, which may mean “Father who piles up, crams or crowds together”.
Although Iblis is often compared to the devil in Christian theology, Islam rejects the idea that Satan is an opponent of God and the implied struggle between God and the devil. Iblis might either be regarded as the most monotheist or the greatest sinner, but remains only a creature of God. Iblis did not become an unbeliever due to his disobedience, but because of attributing injustice to God; that is, by asserting that the command to prostrate themselves before Adam was inappropriate. There is no sign of angelic revolt in the Quran and no mention of Iblis trying to take God’s throne and Iblis’s sin could be forgiven at any time by God. According to the Quran, Iblis’s disobedience was due to his disdain for humanity, a narrative already occurring in early apocrypha. As a mere creature, Iblis cannot be the cause or creator of evil in the world; in his function as Satan, he is merely seen as a tempter who takes advantage of humanity’s weakness and self-centeredness and leads them away from God’s path.
Iblis is mentioned 11 times in the Quran by name, nine times related to his refusal against God’s command to prostrate himself before Adam. The term Shaitan is more prevalent, although Iblis is sometimes referred to as Shaitan; the terms are not interchangeable. The different fragments of Iblis’ story are scattered across the Quran. In the aggregate, the story can be summarised as follows:
When God created Adam, He ordered all the angels to bow before the new creation. All the angels bowed down, but Iblis refused to do so. He argued that since he himself was created from fire, he is superior to humans, made from Clay-mud, and that he should not prostrate himself before Adam. As punishment for his haughtiness, God banished Iblis from heaven and condemned him to hell. Later, Iblis made a request for the ability to try to mislead Adam and his descendants. God granted his request but also warned him that he will have no power over God’s servants.
Sufism developed another perspective of Iblis’ refusal by regarding Muhammed and Iblis as the two true monotheists. Therefore, some Sufis hold, Iblis refused to bow to Adam because he was devoted to God alone and refused to bow to anyone else. By weakening the evil in the Satanic figure, dualism is also degraded, that corresponds with the Sufi cosmology of unity of existence rejecting dualistic tendencies. The belief in dualism or that evil is caused by something else than God, even if only by one’s own will, is regarded as shirk by some Sufis. For Iblis’ preference to be damned to hell, than prostrating himself before someone else other than the “Beloved” (here referring to God), Iblis also became an example for unrequited love.
A famous narration about an encounter between Moses and Iblis on the slopes of Sinai, told by Mansur al-Hallaj, Ruzbihan Baqli and Abū Ḥāmid Ghazzali, emphasizes the nobility of Iblis. Accordingly, Moses asks Iblis why he refused God’s order. Iblis replied that the command was actually a test. Then Moses replied, obviously Iblis was punished by being turned from an angel to a devil. Iblis responds, his form is just temporary and his love towards God remains the same. while for Ahmad Ghazali Iblis was the paragon of lovers in self-sacrifice for refusing to bow down to Adam out of pure devotion to God Ahmad Ghazali’s student Sheikh Adi ibn Musafir was among the Sunni Muslim mystics who defended Iblis, asserted that evil was also God’s creation, Sheikh Adi argued that if evil existed without the will of God then God would be powerless and a powerless can’t be God.
However, not all Sufis are in agreement with a positive depiction of Iblis. Rumi’s viewpoint on Iblis is much more in tune with Islamic orthodoxy. Rumi views Iblis as the manifestation of the great sins of haughtiness and envy. He states: “(Cunning) intelligence is from Iblis, and love from Adam.” For Shah Waliullah Dehlawi Iblis represents the principle of “one-eyed” intellect; he only saw the outward earthly form of Adam, but was blind to the Divine spark hidden in him, using an illicit method of comparison. Hasan of Basra holds that Iblis was the first who used “analogy”, comparing himself to someone else, this causing his sin. Iblis therefore also represents humans’ psyche moving towards sin or shows how love can cause envy and anxiety.
Illustration from an Arabic manuscript of the Annals of al-Tabari showing Iblis refusing to prostrate before the newly created Adam
Angels bow before the newly created Adam, but Iblis (top right on the picture, a dark black naked figure behind the hill) refuses to prostrate
Islamic scholars differ in regard to Iblis’ nature. Scholars such as Tabari, Ash’ari, Al-Tha`labi, Al-Baydawi and Mahmud al-Alusi, regard him as an angel. Tabari argued for an angelic origin of Iblis in his tafsir:
“The reason people held this opinion [that Iblis was not an angel] is that God stated in His Book that He created Iblis from the fire of the Samum (15:27) and from smokeless fire (55:15), but did not state that He created the angels from any like of that. And God states he was of the jinn, so they said that it is not possible that he should be related to that which God does not relate him to; they said that Iblis had progeny and offspring, but the angels do not procreate or have children.
But these reasons only bespeak the weakness of these people’s knowledge, for there is nothing objectionable in that God should have created the categories of His angels from all kinds of things that He had created: He created some of them from light, some of them from fire, and some of them from what He willed apart from that. There is thus nothing in God’s omitting to state what He created His angels from, and in His stating what He created Iblis from, which necessarily implies that Iblis is outside of the meaning of [angel], for it is possible that He created a category of His angels, among whom was Iblis, from fire, and even that Iblis was unique in that He created him, and no other angels of His, from the fire of the Samum. Likewise, he cannot be excluded from being an angel by fact that he had progeny or offspring, because passion and lust, from which the other angels were free, was compounded in him when God willed disobedience in him. As for God’s statement that he was <one of the jinn>, it is not to be rejected that everything which hides itself (ijtanna) from the sight is a ‘jinn’, . . . and Iblis and the angels should then be among them, because they hide themselves from the eyes of mankind.”
On the other hand, the Quranic exegete Ibn Kathir preferred to regard Iblis as a Jinn, an opinion shared by scholars such as Hasan of Basra, Shi’ite Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Ibn Taimiyya and Al-Munajjid, stating in his tafsir:
“When Allah commanded the angels to prostrate before Adam, Iblis was included in this command. Although Iblis was not an angel, he was trying – and pretending – to imitate the angels’ behavior and deeds, and this is why he was also included in the command to the angels to prostrate before Adam. Satan was criticized for defying that command, (. . .)
(So they prostrated themselves except Iblis. He was one of the Jinn;) meaning, his original nature betrayed him. He had been created from smokeless fire, whereas the angels had been created from light, (. . .)
When matters crucial every vessel leaks that which to contains and is betrayed by its true nature. Iblis used to do, what the angels did and resembled them in their devotion and worship, so he was included when they were addressed, but he disobeyed and went what he was told to do. So, Allah points out here that he was one of the Jinn, he was created from fire, as He says elsewhere.”
The common viewpoints about Iblis’ affiliation can be summarized as follows:
Iblis is from a type of angel, who was created from fire
Iblis is a Jinn, a separate creation to angels who created from light.
Once an angel, Iblis turned into a Jinn by his act of disobedience.
Apart from the Quranic narrative Islamic exegesis offers two different accounts of Iblis’ origin: according to one, he was a noble angel, to the other he was an ignoble jinn, who worked his way up to heaven.
As an angel
As an angel, Iblis is described as an archangel, the leader and teacher of the other angels, and a keeper of heaven. At the same time, he was the closest to the Throne of God. God gave him authority over the lower heavens and the earth. Iblis is also considered as the leader of those angels who battled the earthly jinn. Therefore, Iblis and his army drove the jinn to the edge of the world, Mount Qaf. Knowing about the corruption of the former earthen inhabitants, Iblis protested, when he was instructed to prostrate himself before the new earthen inhabitant, that is Adam. He assumed that the angels who praise God’s glory day and night are superior in contrast to the mud-made human and their bodily flaws. He even regarded himself superior in comparison to the other angels, since he was (one of those) created from fire. However, he was degraded by God for his arrogance. But Iblis made a request to prove that he is actually right, therefore God entrusted him as a tempter for humanity as long as his punishment endures, concurrently giving him a chance to redeem himself. Since Iblis does not act upon free-will, but as an instrument of God, his abode in hell could be a merely temporary place, until the Judgement Day; and after his assignment as a tempter is over, he might return to God as one of the most cherished angels. His final salvation develops from the idea of that Iblis is only an instrument of God’s anger, not due to his meritorious personality. Attar compares Iblis’s damnation and salvation to the situation of Benjamin, since both were accused to show people a greater meaning, but were finally not condemned.
Furthermore, the transformation of Iblis from angelic into demonic is a reminder of God’s capacity to reverse injustice even on an ontological level. It is both a warning and a reminder that the special gifts given by God can also be taken away by Him.:74
As a Jinn
On the other hand, Iblis is commonly placed as one of the jinn, who lived on earth during the battle of the angels. When the angels took prisoners, Iblis was one of them and carried to heaven. Since he, unlike the other jinn, was pious, the angels were impressed by his nobility and Iblis was allowed to join the company of angels and elevated to their rank. However, although he got the outer appearance of an angel, he was still a jinn in essence, thus he was able to choose when the angels and Iblis were commanded to prostrate themselves before Adam. Iblis, abusing his free-will, disobeyed the command of God. Iblis considered himself superior because of his physical nature constituted of fire and not of clay. God sentenced Iblis to hell forever, but granted him a favor for his former worship, that is to take revenge on humans by attempting to mislead them until the Day of Judgment. Here, Iblis’s damnation is clear and he and his host are the first who enter hell to dwell therein forever, when he is not killed in a battle by the Mahdi, an interpretation especially prevalent among Shia Muslims.
Another painting of angels prostrating before Adam with Iblis refusing, here depicted with a headcover
Illustrations of Iblis in Islamic paintings often depict him black-faced, a feature which would later symbolize any Satanic figure or heretic, and with a black body, to symbolize his corrupted nature. Another common depiction of Iblis shows him wearing special headcovering, clearly different from the traditional Islamic turban. In one painting, however, Iblis wears a traditional Islamic head covering. The turban probably refers to a narration of Iblis’ fall: there he wore a turban, then he was sent down from heaven. Many other pictures show and describe Iblis at the moment, when the angels prostrate themselves before Adam. Here, he is usually seen beyond the outcrop, his face transformed from that of an angel created from fire with his wings burned, to the envious countenance of a devil.
Depiction of Iblis in the epic poem Shahnameh
Iblis may either be a fallen angel or a jinni or something entirely unique. This lack of final specification arises from the Quran itself, while Iblis is included into the command addressed to the angels and apparently among them, he is identified as a jinni in Surah 18:50, who are usually seen as a creature apart from the angels in Islamic traditions. Both Western academics and Islamic scholars debated the essence of Iblis.
In academic discourse
In most Surahs, it seems to be implied that Iblis is one of the angels. The motif of prostrating angels with one exception among them, already appeared in early Christian writings and apocalyptic literature. For this reason, one might assume Iblis was intented to be an angel. Jacques Waardenburg argues, that Iblis identification with the jinn in later Surahs, is a result of synthesis of Arabian paganism with Judeo-Christian lore. Accordingly, Muhammad would have demonized the jinn in later Surahs, making Iblis a jinni, whereas he had been an angel before. Otherwise, the theory that the essence of angels differs from that of Satan and his hosts, might originated in the writings of Augustine of Hippo and be introduced by a Christian informant to the early Muslims, and not introduced by Muhammad. Due to the unusual usage of the term jinn in this Surah, some scholars conclude the identification of Iblis with the jinn was merely a temporary one, but not the general opinion or even a later interpolation, added influenced by folkloric perception of jinn as evil creatures, but was not part of the original text. This idea was supported by the peculiar description of Iblis as created from fire, but not with the same features, the fire of from which the jinn are created. Further, Iblis is not described as created from fire, when the Quran identifies Iblis with the jinn. Since the Quran itself does not speak of angels as created from another sources than fire, Iblis might also have represented an angel in the sense of Ancient Near Eastern traditions, such as a Seraph. Some scholars objected that the term jinni does not necessarily exclude Iblis from the angels, since it has been suggested that in Pre-Islamic Arabia, the term denoted any type of invisible creature.
But other scholars argue, that Islam nevertheless distinguishes between angels and other kinds of supernatural creatures. Angels would lack the ability to disobey, and taking their constant loyalty as characteristical for the Islamic angels. Further, since the Quran refers to Iblis’ progeny, Islamic study scholar Fritz Meier also insists, that the Islamic Iblis can not be held as an angel, since angels have no progeny by definition. Otherwise Walther Eickmann argued that the progeny of Iblis does not correspond with “progeny” in a literal sense, but just refers to the cohorts of Iblis. On another place in the Quran, the progeny of Iblis are said to be created, therefore they can not be literal progeny. Regarding the doctrine of infallible angels, one might argue that the motif of fallen angels is nevertheless not absent within Islamic traditions and are therefore, angels are not necessarily always obedient. Although Iblis is described as an infidel (kafir) in the Quran, he did not necessarily sin, since in early Islamic period, supernatural creatures were not expected to understand sin or expiate it. Therefore, Iblis would have been created as a rebellious angel.
Among Muslim scholars
Although the Quran seems to be clear about Iblis’ identification with the jinn in the Quran, scholars in favor for Iblis’ angelic origin argue, that the term jinni with the suffix i refers to guardians of jannah, a sub-category of “fiery angels”. Although angels in Islam are commonly thought to be created from light, angels, or at least the fiercer among them, are also identified as created from fire. Reason for that might be the phonetical similarity between fire (nar) and light (nur) in Islam. Sometimes the term nar is better understood as hot light of the sun instead of fire, contrasted by nur referring to cold light of the moon. On the other hand, scholars arguing that the term refers to jinn, and not a category of angels, tried to explain his stay among the angels. According to a narrative provided by Ibn Kathir, Iblis was once an ordinary jinn on earth, but, due to his piety and constant worship, elevated among the angels. He lived there for thousands of years, until his non-angelic origin was forgotten and only God remembered Iblis’ true identity. When God commanded the angels, Iblis, due to his rank among the angels included, to prostrate himself before Adam, Iblis revealed his true nature. By his refusal his true nature betrayed him, leading to his downfall. Other scholars, such as Hasan of Basra and Ibn Taymiyyah, do not provide an explanation for his abode among the angels, by extension of a special narrative. Instead they argue, Iblis’, depicted as the first of jinn, and not as one of many jinn, stay in heaven is self-explanatory, because every creature is created in heaven first. Here, although created in heaven, Iblis is not regarded as an angel, but the equivalent father of the jinn, compared to what Adam is to humanity. Iblis, as the father of the jinn, was cast out of heaven due to his own sin, just as Adam was banished after his corresponding transgression of God’s order not to eat from the Forbidden Tree.
Those scholars, who argue against Iblis’ angelic origin also refer to his progeny, since angels do not procreate in Islam. Tabari who defended Iblis’ angelic depiction, argues that Iblis did not procreate until he lost his angelic state and became a devil. Therefore, as an angel, Iblis did not procreate. According to some Islamic traditions, Iblis is an asexual entity, just like other angels or a hermaphrodite creature, whose children split from himself, as devils (šayāṭīn) do, but not the jinn. Another central argument to determine Iblis essence discusses Iblis’ ability to disobey. As angels are seen as servants of God, Iblis’ should not be able to disobey. This argument had been essential for the advocates who reject the identification with Iblis with one of the angels. As a jinni however, Iblis could be given the ability to choose to obey or disobey. Scholars who regard Iblis as an angel, do not see Iblis’ refusal as an act of sin, to which angels are incapable of, but as a sign of predestination. Therefore, Iblis has been created, differing from his fellow angels, from fire, thus God installed a rebellious nature in him, to endow him with the task to seduce humans, comparable as other angels are endowed with tasks corresponding to their own nature and created for this purpose from fire differing from the other angels. Thus, Iblis is seen as an instrument of God, not as an entity who freely choose to disobey. Other scholars gave explanations why an angel should choose to disobey and explain that Iblis was, as the teacher of angels, more knowledgeable than the others. Angels might be distinguished by their degree of obedience. Abu Hanifa, founder of the Hanafi schools jurisprudence, is reported as distinguishing between obedient angels, disobedient angels such as Harut and Marut and unbelievers among the angels, like Iblis.
Keeper of Paradise
In some interpretations, Iblis is associated with light that misleads people. Hasan of Basra was quoted as saying: “If Iblis were to reveal his light to mankind, they would worship him as god.” Additionally, based on Iblis’ role as keeper of heaven and ruler of earth, Ayn al-Quzat Hamadani stated, Iblis represents the “Dark light” that is the earthen world, standing in opposite to the Muhammadan Light that represents the heavens. Quzat Hamadani traces back his interpretation to Sahl al-Tustari and Shayban Ar-Ra’i who in return claim to derive their opinions from Khidr. Quzat Hamadani relates his interpretation of Iblis’ light to the shahada: Accordingly, people whose service for God is just superficial, are trapped within the circle of la ilah (the first part of shahada meaning “there is no God”) just worshipping their nafs rather than God. Only those who are worthy to leave this circle, can pass Iblis towards the circle of illa Allah the Divine presence.
Painting of the expulsion from “The Garden” by Al-Hakim Nishapuri. The main actors of the narration about Adam’s fall are drawn: Adam, Hawwa (Eve), Iblis, the serpent, the peacock and an Angel, probably Ridwan, who guards paradise.
This painting is from a copy of the Fālnāmeh (Book of Omens) ascribed to Ja´far al-Sādiq. Iblis characteristically depicted black-faced is bottom-left in picture above the Angels.
Although the serpent is not mentioned in the Quran, Quranic commentaries as well as the Stories of the Prophets added the serpent borrowed from Gnostic and Jewish oral tradition circulating in the Arabian Peninsula. Iblis tries to enter the abode of Adam, but the angelic guardian keeps him away. Then Iblis invents a plan to trick the guardian. He approaches a peacock and tells him that all creatures will die and the peacock’s beauty will perish. But if he gets the fruit of eternity, every creature will last forever. Therefore, the serpent convinces the peacock to slip Iblis into the Garden, by carrying him in his mouth. In another, yet similar narration, Iblis is warded off by Riḍwan’s burning sword for 100 years. Then he found the serpent. He says, since he was one of the first cherubim, he will one day return to God’s grace, and promises to show gratitude if the serpent does him a favor. In both narratives, in the Garden, Iblis speaks through the serpent to Adam and Eve, and tricks them into eating from the forbidden tree. Modern Muslims accuse the Yazidis of devil-worship for venerating the peacock.
In Umm al Kitab, an Ismaili work offering a hermeneutic interpretation of the Quran, the peacock and the serpent were born after men mated with demonic women sent by Iblis.
In the Shahnameh by Ferdowsi, Iblis appears as a substitute for Ahriman, the Zoroastrian principle of evil and leader of the malevolent Diws. He supports Zahhak to usurp the throne and kissed his shoulders, whereupon serpents grew from the spot Iblis kissed, a narrative rooted in the ancient Avesta.
In Vathek by the English novelist William Beckford, first composed in French (1782), the protagonists enter the underworld, presented as the domain of Iblis. At the end of their journey, they meet Iblis in person, who is described less in the monstrous image of Dante’s Satan, but more of a young man, whose regular features are tarnished, his eyes showing both pride and despair and his hair resembling whose of an angel of light.
In Muhammad Iqbal’s poetry, Iblis is critical about overstressed obedience, that caused his own downfall. But Iblis is not happy about humanity’s obedience towards himself either; rather he longs for humans who resist him, so he might eventually prostrate himself before the perfect human, that leads to his own salvation.
Egyptian novelist Tawfiq al-Hakim’s al-Shahid (1953) describes the necessity of Iblis’s evil for the world, telling about a fictional story, Iblis seeking repentance. He consults the Pope and the chief Rabbi. Both reject him and he afterwards visits the grand mufti of Al-Azhar Mosque, telling him he wants to embrace Islam. The grant mufti however, reject Iblis as well, realizing the necessity of Iblis’ evilness. Regarding the absence of Iblis’ evil, as causing most of the Quran to be obsolent. After that Iblis goes to heaven to ask Gabriel for intercession. Gabriel too rejects Iblis and explains the necessity for Iblis’s curse. Otherwise God’s light could not be seen on earth. Whereupon Iblis descends from heaven shouting out: “I am a martyr!”. Al-Hakim’s story has been criticized as blasphemous by a number of Islamic scholars. Salafi scholar Abu Ishaq al-Heweny stated: “I swear by God it would never cross the mind, at all, that this absolute kufr reaches this level, and that it gets published as a novel”.