RELG 272 Introduction to the Qur’an
Professor M. Jafar Mahallati
Qur’anic Moral Order: What Good is Evil?
The Qur’an, as word of God, serves the purpose of revealing the right path for all believers of Islam. The book illuminates and designates right from wrong, good deed from sin, piety from blasphemy. However, this is not as straightforward as one might think. Certain designations the Qur’an makes are relativist; others are somewhat unclear. Jurists have dedicated much thought and energy to deciphering and interpreting the word of the Qur’an in hopes of more clearly defining the moral code. In defining the moral code, the jurists have not only had to pay attention to what God decrees to be pious, but also to what acts God decrees to defy sanctity. These acts are often characterized as pernicious – or, in other words, evil. The concept of evil in the Qur’an serves to explain the tendency of humans to make choices that hurt themselves and others.
The Qur’an frequently asserts that there is an obvious distinction between good and evil. Surah 90 states, “Have we not blessed him with two eyes and a tongue, and two lips and guided him on the two ways of right and wrong.” (90:8-10) This surah does not only identify that there are indeed two paths, but it also identifies humanity’s ability to choose. Because humans are able to choose between right and wrong, they are also responsible for the repercussions of their behavior. “And then being among those who believed and advised one another to patience and advised one another to compassion. Those are the companions of the right. But they who disbelieved in Our signs – those are the companions of the left. Over them will be fire closed in.” (90:17-20) The fire referenced in the last line of Surah 90 refers to hellfire – the realm of Satan, the Qur’anic personification of evil. The companions of the right and left have chosen their paths, because of or in spite of the guidance of God, and the consequences of their choices are visited upon them on the Day of Judgment. Does this mean that the companions of the left are evil? Perhaps not, but evil has won out in their choices, and thus they are condemned to hellfire.
Satan, although in some ways an adversary of God, does not play a role equally powerful to God. When Satan challenges God and threatens to lead humanity astray, Surah 17 quotes God as saying, “Go, do whatever you like: As for My servants, no authority shall thou have over them. Allah is sufficient for all manoeuvrings.” (17:6) It is curious that God allows Satan to attempt to misguide humanity. One might interpret it as a way of testing the humans’ faith; one might also interpret God’s decision as God’s faith in humanity. Satan is described as a liar, making false promises, which echoes the Qur’anic emphasis on honesty. Lying is absolutely forbidden – haram – in Islam, so it is unsurprising that Satan would be known for dishonesty. Izutsu explains haram and halal by saying, “With absolute freedom God forbids anything and removes the ban from anything; and anything He has forbidden will be henceforth haram, and the contrary halal.”1 Satan is often characterized with attributes or portrayed acting in ways that are haram. As an entity, Satan serves to provide a Qur’anic antagonist, and is used to represent the manifestation of concepts that perhaps would be more difficult to imagine in practice were there not such a personification of evil. As the Qur’an states, “The devil is but a traitor to man.” (25:29)
In Islam, there is no concept of “original sin.” Rather, sin is borne of humanity’s submission to immoral urges. Imam Amin Ahsan Islahi asserts, “Allah is perfect good. Evil is created through man’s misuse of his own power to act… The devil’s role is no more than evil whispering to misguide him. Allah has not given the devil the power to forcibly misguide.”2 The idea of evil being borne of humanity’s own agency draws a clear distinction between God’s omniscience and omnipotence. While God may be all-knowing, God is also willing to allow humanity a level of independence, or, one might argue, an illusion of independence. One is capable of straying from the God-given path, the righteous path. The ability to commit sin and commit evil is what separates humans from other creations of God. The existence of evil serves the purpose of both setting humans apart as special and highlighting the importance of good and pious behavior.
One might ask why, if God were truly omnipotent, would evil even exist? Evil is a necessary element of the Qur’an that provides a contrast with the idealized behavior of a pious Muslim. Additionally, the existence of evil allows for humanity’s agency. This is all characterized in the role of Satan, who provides the personification of these immoral behaviors in order for followers of Islam to better understand the difference between the wrong and right paths. Evil is a powerful and important part of the Qur’an, despite also being reviled.
- Izutsu, T. Ethico-Religious Concepts in the Quran. Montréal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2014.
- Islahi, Imam Amin Ahsan. “Good and Evil: View of the Quran.” Imam Amin Ahsan Islahi. Accessed March 16, 2018. http://www.al-mawrid.org/index.php/articles/view/good-and-evil-2-view-of-the-quran.