Rumi's View of Evil (Iblis)

Rumi's View of Evil (Iblis)
by Zailan Moris

The problem of evil is an old religious and philosophical one, which has baffled man since antiquity. The core of the problem is that the existence of evil in this world seems to be contradictory to the religious belief that an Omnipotent, Omniscient and Perfectly Good God exists. From the rational viewpoint, the existence of evil seems to contradict the belief in die existence of God with His attributes of Omnipotence, Omniscience and Sovereign Good.

The atheists have always maintained that the theist has to prove that the belief in the existence of an All-Knowing, All-Powerful and Perfectly Good God is consistent or compatible with the fact that evil exists in the world. Otherwise, either one has to conclude that the religious belief is false or that the divine attributes of Omnipotence, Omniscience and Wholly Good have to be understood differently than they are thought to be (Mackie 1973, pp. 206-216). In other words, the existence of evil in this world is viewed as evidence of either the non-existence of God or a lack of perfection in God's Knowledge, Power and Goodness.

The following classic formulation of the problem by the Greek philosopher, Epicurus, in the third century BC expresses succinctly the issues involved:

Is God willing to prevent evil,
but not able to?
Then is He impotent? Is he able,
but not willing?
Then is He malevolent?
Is He both able and willing?
Whence then is evil?
(Pojman 1991, p. 209)

This essay attempts to present the famous Sufi master and poet, Jalal al-Din Rumi's (604-672 A.H./1207-1273 AD.) view of evil. Rumi's view of evil reconciles the apparent logical problem mentioned earlier. Consistent with the Islamic belief that "All things come from God and all things return to Him" (Koran 21: 93), Rumi states that evil is a creation of God which He permits to exist in this world and in man for certain purposes. Contrary to the view that the existence of evil demonstrates the lack of perfection in God, Rumi explains that the existence of evil manifests the perfection of God's infinite Power, Knowledge and Goodness. In this essay, selections from Rumi's two major works, the Mathnawi and the Fihi ma fihi, are chosen to support my exposition of Rumi's view of evil.

A hadith qudsi (sacred tradition) states: "I (God) was a Hidden Treasure and I desired to be known. Therefore, I created creation in order that I might be known". Thus, all of God's creation is a manifestation of His infinite creative power and desire for self-revelation. Every creature in its form (surat) and essence (ma'na) manifests God to Himself, regardless of whether it is aware or unaware of itself being a locus of divine manifestation.

The creation of these creatures of the world is for the purpose of manifestation, to the end that the treasure of (Divine) providences may not remain hidden. He (God) said: 'I was a Hidden Treasure': Hearken! Do not let thy (spiritual) substance be lost: Become Manifest! (Rumi 1982, IV 3028-29)

So all men clay and night are forever revealing God; except that some are aware and know that they are revealing Him, whilst some are unaware. Whichever the case may be, the revelation of God is certain. (Rumi 1961, p. 185)

In Islamic theological thought, a distinction is always made between the divine Essence (dhat) and the divine Attributes (sifat).1 The divine Essence is what God is in Himself which only God alone knows. The divine Attributes are the Names (asma') of God revealed in creation and in revelation (wahy) or the Holy Koran. The Koran refers to its verses, phenomena in nature and events within the human soul, as the ayat or 'signs' of God. 2 The natural ayat and the Koranic ayat complement and enhance each other in their function of manifesting the Truth; all of which can lead the discerning man back to God. 3

The divine Attributes are divided into two categories: Attributes of the Essence and Attributes of the Acts. The Attributes of the Essence are all the Names (asma') whose opposites are not applicable to God, for example, God is the Living (al-Hayy), the Knowing (al-'Alim) and the Holy (al-Quddus). As for the Attributes of the Acts, both the Names and their opposites are applicable, for example, God as the Exalter (al-Rafi ) and the Abaser (al-Khafid), the Life-Giver (al-Muhyi) and the Slayer (al-Mumit). In Rumi's view, the positive qualities denote God's Gentleness (lutf) and their opposites, God's Severity (qahr). Gentleness (lutf) is equivalent to the divine Mercy (rahmah) and Severity (qahr) to divine Wrath (ghadab) (Chittick 1983, p. 45).

For God most High declares, 'I was a hidden Treasure, and I desired to be known': that is to say, 'I created all the world, and the object of all that was to reveal Myself, now gracious, now vengeful.' God is not the kind of king for whom one herald is sufficient. If every atom in the world should become a herald, they would be yet incapable of proclaiming His qualities adequately. (Rumi 1961, p. 185)

On the basis of the hadith, 'My Mercy is prior to My Wrath', Rumi as serts that the Gentle Names of God take ontological precedence over the Severe Names. For Rumi, the ontological precedence of divine Mercy over divine Wrath means that: one, the Severe Names function merely to contrast the Gentle Names in order to enhance the divine Mercy and two, the divine Mercy, ultimately annuls the divine Wrath:

The fire (of Hell) in sooth is (only) an atom of God's Wrath; it is (only) a whip to threaten the base. Notwithstanding such a Wrath, which is mighty and surpassing all, observe that the coolness of His Clemency is prior to it. (Rumi 1982, IV 3742)

It (the Wrath of God) is mighty, mighty; but when you begin to tremble, that mighty (wrath) becomes assuaged and equable, because the mighty shape is for (terrifying) the unbelievers. When you have become helpless, it is Mercy and Kindness. (Rumi 1982, IV 3754)

The interplay between the Gentle and Severe Names of God manifests itself in creation in the principle of opposition of phenomena. This cosmic principle which is built into the structure of the universe is one of the central ideas operative in Rumi's writings. Rumi asserts, "by their contrast are things made clear" (ibid., IV 1343). Everything in creation needs an opposite to make itself clear and manifest. "Behind every nothingness, the possibility of existence is concealed; in the midst of Wrath, Mercy is hidden like the priceless cornelian in the midst of dirt" (ibid., V 1665). Without the two seemingly contrasting divine aspects of Mercy and Wrath, nothing can come into existence:4

This (divine) Maker is He who abaseth and exalteth: without these two (attributes) no work is accomplished. Consider the low-ness of the earth and the loftiness of the sky: without these two (attributes) the sky's revolution is not possible... Know that even so are all the changing conditions of the world-famine and drought, peace and war-(which arise) from Divine probation. By means of these two wings this world is (kept up like a bird) in the air; by means of these twain (all) souls are habitations of fear and hope. (ibid., IV 1847-54)

In the Mathnawi, Rumi writes: "A Wrath and a Mercy were wedded to one another: from these two twain was born the world of good and evil" (ibid., II 2680).

Like all phenomena, good cannot be distinguished if its counterpart does not exist. The counterpart of good is evil:

Thou does not know evil till thou knowst good: (only) from (one) contrary is it possible to discern (the other) contrary, 0 youth! (Ibid., IV 1345)

Thus, evil as the contrasting manifestation of good helps man to discern the good and therefore, to understand more fully die nature of the latter. In this respect, evil indirectly collaborates to the realization of good.

Contrary to the atheist's view that evil demonstrates a defect in God's perfection, Rumi considers the existence of evil in creation as a demonstration of God's true greatness. In the Mathnawi, Rumi likens God to a masterful painter who demonstrates His infinite creative power in both beautiful and ugly paintings:

And if you say that evil too are from Him (that is true), but how is it a defect in His Grace: His bestowing this evil is even His perfection... Both kinds of pictures (beautiful pictures and pictures devoid of beauty) are evidence of His mastery: those ugly ones are not evidence of His ugliness, they are evidence of His bounty. In order that the perfection of His skill may be displayed (and that) the denier of his mastery may be put to shame. (Ibid., II 2535-43)

With regard to the doctrine that God is the creator of both good and evil, Frithjof Schuon, an authority on Sufism, explains that God as "the Sovereign Good, tends by this very fact to radiate and therefore to communicate itself; to project and to make ex plicit all 'the possibilities of the Possible'" (Schuon 1981, p. 138). Thus, viewed in this way, "evil is 'the possibility of the impossible' and this paradoxical possibility is an ontologically necessary manifestation of the unlim-itedness of all-Possibility, which cannot exclude even nothingness" (ibid, pp. 140-141).

In Rumi's vision, there exists no absolute good or evil in God's creation. All of creation-good and evil alike-participate in the divine Desire of making the Hidden Treasure manifest. However, in the absolute and infinite Being of God, all the tension and strife involved in the opposition of phenomena, are transcended and come to rest. God is the Absolute Unity, the perfect coincidentia op-positorum (jam'-i addad) (Schimmel 1978, p. 231). Having no opposite or contrast to make Himself clear, He alone transcends all opposition.

Do not now fall into error if thou seest that the letters (K) and (N) are two.5 K and N are pulling like a noose, that they may draw non-existence into great affairs. Hence the noose must be double in (the world of) forms, though these two (letters) are single in effect... Whether the feet be two or four, they traverse one road, like the double shears (which) makes (but) one cut... opposites which seem to be at strife, are of one mind and acting together in agreement. (Rumi 1982, I 3077-84)

However, the divergent aspects of creation which arise from the dramatic interplay between the contrasting divine attributes of Mercy and Wrath, Beauty (jamal) and Majesty (jalal), naturally bewilder and confuse man. For Rumi, reconciliation of the contrasting aspects of the Divine in creation cannot be obtained through reason or discursive thought. For no matter how much Reason "perpetually, night and day, is restless and in commotion, thinking and struggling and striving to comprehend God" (Rumi 1961, p. 47), it cannot arrive at a resolution. God is incomprehensible: "If man were able to comprehend God, that indeed is not God" (ibid., p. 48). The hope for a higher and purer vision which reconciles the contrasting aspects of the divine Attributes of the Acts can only be sought when man draws to God (Schimmel, op. cit., pp. 238-40). Only when man "flees from this phenomenal world" and takes refuge in God in complete submission (islam) and loving devotion (mahabba) to Him, will he be able to be a witness (shahid) to the divine Unity veiled behind the multiplicity of created forms.

In Rumi's view, the manifestation of divine Mercy and Wrath is not only necessary to reveal God's Greatness and Perfection, but also necessary for the spiritual development of man. Man, according to Rumi, is a being who is held "between two fingers of the Merciful". He is a rare combination of angel and animal, intellect ('aql) and sensuality (nafs), spirit (ruh) and matter (jism).

There are three kinds of creatures. First there are the angels who are pure intelligence. Worship and service and the remembrance of God are their nature and their food. If they obey God's will, that is not obedience, for that is his nature and they cannot be otherwise. Secondly, there are the poor beasts who are pure lust having no intelligence to prohibit them. They are under no burden of obligation. Finally, there remains poor man who is a compound of intelligence and lust. He is half angel, half animal... He is forever in tumult and battle. He whose intelligence overcomes his lust is higher than the angels: he whose lust overcomes his intelligence is lower than the beasts.

The angel is saved by knowledge, The beast by brute ignorance;
Midway between and struggling Such a predicament is man's! (Rumi 1961, pp. 89-90)

In man's being are reflected the archetypes of all of existence. He is the microcosm, the mirror in which all the divine Names and Qualities are reflected:

Adam is the astrolabe of the attributes of Exaltation, his descrip tion the locus of manifestation for God's signs. Whatever appears within him is His reflection, like the moon in a stream. (Rumi 1982, VI 3138-39)
What the Heart Knows

"What the mind knows -
drunken ruffians
on a skimpy raft
noisily at odds with
hammer, nail, each other.
What the heart knows -
deep, deep and quiet.
That patient water

- Jeni Couzyn

The Koran testifies that man imbued with the divine Spirit is created in the image of God: "So when I (God) have made him (man) and have breathed unto him of My Spirit..." (15:29). Although man is the last to enter into existence, he nevertheless, is the goal and crown of creation. And since as proclaimed by a hadith that neither the earth nor the heavens contain God but the heart of the faithful servant (man) contains Him, all of creation serves man towards the attainment of his spiritual deliverance and perfection. The perfected man (al-insan al-kamil) is the central theophany (tajalli) of the divine Names and Qualities.

Man is the substance and the celestial sphere is his accident. All things are (like) a branch or the step of a ladder: he is the object. (Ibid., V 3575)

The Koran recounts when Adam, the first man and prophet was created, God commanded the angels to prostrate before Adam, thus indicating the exalted station of man among God's creation. All the angels prostrated before Adam except Iblis. Iblis disobeyed the divine Command because he believed Adam to be less than himself since Adam was created from clay (tin) and he from fire (7: 11-12). In Rumi's view, Iblis 's disobedience stems essentially from spiritual blindness which is the inability to see essence (ma'na) from form (surat).

Of Adam, who was peerless but unequaled, the eye of Iblis saw naught but clay. (Ibid., Ill 2759)

When Iblis was expelled from Heaven by God, he was not repentant over his act of disobedience. Instead, he challenged God to lead as many of Adam's progeny away from the path of worship and remembrance of Him (7: 13-16). Thus, Iblis, as the Koran asserts, unequivocally is man's "declared enemy" of whom he must be wary. Iblis becomes for man the symbol of the despicable qualities of arrogance, pride, envy, disobedience and spiritual blindness which are the source of evil.

If Iblis is the human enemy and symbol of evil from without, then man's sensuality or ego (nafs) is the enemy or evil from within. It is through his nafs or sensual self that Iblis finds access to lure man away from the path of God and to commit evil deeds instead. According to Rumi, both the nafs and Iblis are one in substance and are identified with the realm of Hell (Chittick, op. cit., p. 89) which the Koran proclaims is fed by unbelief (kufr) born of willful rejection of the 'signs' of God and defianceof the divine Decree or Command .

The flesh (nafs) and the Devil (Iblis) have been (essentially) one from the first, and have been an enemy and envier of Adam. (Rumi 1982, III 3197)

Given that every created thing has an opposite or a contrast to make itself clear and manifest, the opposite of the sensual self (nafs) is the intellect ('aql). The intellect is the angelic part of man and it is identified with light (nur) and the realm of Heaven which flourishes on the worship and adoration of God and the accomplishment and realization of the good.

For as much as the angel is one in origin with intelligence (and) they have (only) become two (different) forms for the sake of the divine Wisdom... The angel assumed wings and pinious like a bird, while the intelligence left wings (behind) and assumed (immaterial) splendor. (Ibid., Ill 3192-94)

In Rumi's view, it is only by means of the 'eye ('ayn) of the intellect' which is awakened through spiritual purification that man becomes enlightened and able to participate in the divine vision of creation. It is only the illumined eye of the intellect which can see the divine Unity veiled behind the constant interplay between Mercy and Wrath, Beauty and Majesty.

However, before man can be a witness (shahid) to the Divine Unity and hence fulfill the 'covenant of alast (7:172), he has to first free his intellect from the domination of his sensual self or the enemy from within.

God most High answers them, As I have said, the animal soul in you is your enemy and My enemy; 'Take not My 'enemy and your enemy for friends'. Strive always against this enemy in prison; for when he is in prison and calamity and pain, then your deliverance appears and gathers strength. (Rumi 1961, p. 72)

Human perfection can only be attained after long periods of time when the soul patiently undergoes a painful process of painful alchemy ortransformation. The soul like the base metal, lead, has to be transmuted to become gold; that is, "the soul has to be purified, dissolved and crystallized anew to achieve its 'golden nature';which is immutable purity and luminosity" (Burckhardt 1970, p. 24). Only a self which has purged itself of vices and base qualities arising from the dominance of the nafs and adorned itself instead with virtues (fada 'il) and attributes of God, is perfect; and consequently, attains the utmost limits of the innate potential of the human state. Thus, to be a witness to the divine Unity, man has to 'die unto himself; "What is Tawhid? To burn one's self before the One" (Rumi 1982, I 3008).

Although God wills both good and evil, it should be noted that He only approves of the good. The divine command to man to do good and the divine prohibition against doing evil are only appropriate or meaningful if there is an ego or aspect of man which desires evil. In the Fihi mafihi, Rumi likens God to the teacher who on the one hand desires the ignorance-ofthe-student in order that he may teach the latter, but does not approve of the student's ignorance. For if he did, then he would not painstakingly teach him:

God most High wills both good and evil, but only approves the good... For commandment to do good and prohibition against evil rightly to apply, one cannot dispense with a soul desiring evil. To will the existence of such a soul is to will evil. But God does not approve of evil, otherwise He would not have commanded the good... Hence it is realized that God wills evil in one way and does not will it another way. ('Rumi 1961, p. 187)

In conclusion, it can be stated that for Rumi, in the Absolute and Perfect Being of God, evil does not exist. However, evil exists in the created order. Creation or manifestation which involves separation from God is based on the fundamental principle of contrast and opposition. Evil arises as a I result of separation from God. If God i is symbolized by light, then evil canbe symbolized by darkness. Darkness is not a reality as light is, rather it arises as a result of the lack or absence of light. The presence of darkness is relative to the existence of light. Unlike light, darkness does not possess an independent reality. Thus, evil exists only in the realm of manifestation or relativity; it does not exist as an absolute or self-subsistent reality in contention with or in opposition to God. While evil is limited and relative in nature, the Being of God is absolute and infinite.

Rumi asserts that in creation evil functions as the contrasting manifestation of good. Without evil, good will not be distinct. All the pain and suffering which man experiences as a result of evil are only preparation for the experience and attainment of joy and contentment of good. Evil is not created or valued for its own sake, rather it is created for the necessary manifestation, realization and accomplishment of good. Hence, at the cosmic plane, evil which is limited and relative in nature contributes to the -realization of the total good.

In man, evil arises from the nafs or ego. Like all Sufis, Rumi believes that the human ego can be overcome and finally annihilated through the process of spiritual alchemy, or the purification of the soul (tazkiyat al-nafs). The process of spiritual alchemy involves the transformation of the nafs through the various stages, beginning from its most base state which is that of the al-nafs al-ammarah or 'the soul which incites to evil' to the highest which is its total extinction in God {fana' fi Allah). When the ego or nafs is extinguished in God, man is no longer separated from Him. At the level of fana' or extinction of the self in God, only the truth of the shahadah: La ilaha ill al-Allah, or, 'There is no god but Allah', remains.

Hence, for Rumi, although man cannot totally eradicate evil from this world, he is capable of removing the source of evil from within himself which also separates him from God. Consequently, he must neither despair over the existence of evil in the world nor lose sight of the real possibility of the removal of evil from within himself which enables him to truly return to God or be reunited with Him.


[1] It should be noted that this distinction is only conceptual. At the ontological level, the divine Essence is not separate or distinct from the divine Attributes. The Essence is One and the Attributes are identical with it. See Chittick (1983), p. 42.
[2] "We (God) shall show them our signs on the horizons and within themselves until it will be manifest unto them that is the Truth" (Koran 41: 53).
[3]For a discussion on this point, see S.H. Nasr, (1979, pp. 54-56.
[4] For an excellent discussion on this point see Annemarie Schimmel (1978), pp. 231-35.
[5] The Koran states: "But His command, when He intendeth a thing, is only that he saith unto it: Be! and it is (kun fa yakun)" (36: 81). In Arabic, the word kdna is used to denote that which has occurred or existed and kawn denotes being or existence.


* Burckhardt, T. 1970. An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine. Wellingborough: Thorstons Publish-Chittick, W. 1983. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany: State University of New York Press.
* Mackie.J.L. 1973. 'Evil and Omnipotence' in W. Rowe and W. Wainright (eds.). Philosophy of Religion. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanov-ich;
* Nasr, S. II. 1979. Ideals and Realities of Islam. London: Alien and Unwin.
* Pojman, L. 1991. Introduction to Philosophy:
* Classical and Contemporary Readings. Bel-mont: Wadsworth Publishing Co.
* Rumi. 1961. The Discourses of Rumi. Translated by A.J. Arberry.
* London: John Mun-ay Publish 1982. The Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi. Translated by R.A. Nicholson. London: Luzac and Co.
* Schimmel, A. 1993. The Triumphal Sun: A Study of the Works of Jalaloddin Rumi. Albany: State University of New York Press.
* Schuon, F. 1981. Suflsm: Veil and Quintessence. Bloomington: World Wisdom Books
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