Satan and the "Satanic Verses"

Copyright 2003 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in Bangladesh in the November 2, 2003 issue of the daily New Age.
Everyone is familiar with the story of Satan as the rebellious angel and tempter of humanity who caused Adam and Eve to commit the first sin. Interestingly, examination of the Bible show that this was not the original view of Satan; rather it was the result of gradual theological developments. The common Muslim perception of Satan is that his primary role began with disobeying God by refusing to bow to Adam, and then being responsible for Adam's eating of the forbidden fruit and expulsion from paradise. However, the original Biblical account is quite different; there it is the serpent, not Satan, which tricks Adam and Eve into eating the forbidden fruit. Satan is nowhere to be seen in the Biblical book of Genesis, given below.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, "Did God say, 'You shall not eat from any tree in the garden'?" The woman said to the serpent, 'We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'' But the serpent said to the woman, "You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its frouit and ate; and she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate. (Genesis 3:1-6)

As a result of this transgression, all involved are cursed by God; man, woman and snake. For the snake, the curse is interesting:

The woman said, "The serpent tricked me, and I ate." The Lord God said to the serpent, "Because you have done this, cursed are you among all animals, and among the wild creatures; upon your belly you shall go,and dust you shall eat, all the days of your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike you head, and you will strike his heel." (Genesis 3:13-15)

The divine curse upon the snake is that it be a snake; hence it is doomed to crawl upon its belly in the dirt and be forever stepped upon. What this makes very clear is that the passage is not talking about Satan at all, but simply a snake. The snake is explicitly said to be an animal "more crafty than any other wild animal", and not an angel or jinn. So where does the idea of Satan as the rebellious angel who tempted Adam come from? The Biblical book of Genesis does indeed have a story of a "rebellion" of angels, as represented by the unlawful mating between angels and humans before the Flood:

When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives from themselves of all that they chose... Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth. (Genesis 6:1-4)

This apparently sinful mixing of humanity with angels is given as one of the evil circumstances which God decides to cleanse with the Flood. However, until being linked with this vague tradition of lustful rebellion of angels (the term "sons of God" used above simply refers to "divine beings", that is, angels), the figure of Satan does not seem to have been a rebellious figure, but rather an angel whose designated role was to "accuse" men of sinfulness. Angels could be assigned roles like this because the Israelites saw God as being surrounded by a divine court of heavenly beings, much like the king of Israel was surrounded by a court of advisors. One of these divine advisors was Satan (or "the satan", Hebrew for "the accuser"). His function was apparently something like the divine equivalent of a legal prosecutor, who points out people's wrongdoing (and hence "accuses" them of sin). This role is explicitly mentioned in the Biblical book of Zechariah, below:

Then he showed me the high priest Joshua standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him. (Zechariah 3:1)
To further develop Satan's role as an accuser, it was a logical development for him to first accuse people of sinfulness, and then to tempt God to try to get them into sin, thus vindicating his own accusation. This is exactly what transpires in the Biblical book of Job.
The Lord said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job? There is no on like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil." Then Satan answered the Lord, "... But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face." (Job 1:8 and 11)

The outcome of this exchange is that Job's children as well as his cattle, camels and servants are all lost. However, Job retains his faith in the face of these trials. There follows another conversation from the divine court;

The Lord said to Satan, "Have you considered my servant Job?... He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason." (Job 2:3)

So Satan has progressed in Job from simply accusing man of sinfulness to inciting God to tempt people in order that his accusations of sinfulness be shown to be correct. But the figure of Satan as the primary tempter, responsible for the sin of Adam as well as the subsequent tempting of mankind, is nowhere visible thus far in the Bible. It does not occur until an intentional rewriting of the Biblical narrative occurs in order to answer a specific theological question; namely, who is responsible for sin? This occurs in the book of Samuel, which provides a religious history of the earliest days of the Israelites after they followed Moses out of Egypt up to the establishment of their own kingdom, and includes the following passage:

Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, "Go, count the people of Israel and Judah." (2 Samuel 24:1)

In the Bible, a counting or census is generally for the purposes of raising an army for war. The act of raising an army for war and bloodbath is included in the prophet's Samuel's warnings of the sins that will be committed by a king if one is appointed over the Israelites:

So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, "These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you; he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots" (1 Samuel 8:10-11)

But a later Biblical author who retold the above historical account in the book of Chronicles realized a theological problem here: how could God be responsible for the sin of David? If the census was truly sinful, then responsibility for the sin must lie with David, not with God. This is the old problem of free will and sinfulness, which forever pops up in a monotheist context; God must ultimately will everything to happen (or it would not), but man must be responsible for his own sin. Modern monotheists genearally accept that no satisfactory resolution to this problem exists; it is one of the places where they generally give up on pure rationalism by simply asserting that humanity has sufficient free will to be responsible for its own actions. But this very theological difficulty ultimately led to the development of Satan as a tempter who leads men (including David) into evil, thus avoiding the difficulty of always having to ascribe evil to God's will. Hence, the same history of David's census is later retold in the book of Chronicles as follows, and this is the only place in the Hebrew Bible where Satan is really given responsibility for human sin:

Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel. (1 Chronicles 21:1)
The gradual development of Satan into the perpetual tempter of mankind brings up an interesting point. Conservative Muslims have generally advocated strict adherence to the traditions of Islam, believing religion to be a static truth with little room for change. However, the above analysis of the history of Satan shows that the religious narratives of Islam, such as that of Satan, were themselves the result of many changes over time. This would tend to support a more dynamic view of religion as a truth which evolves over time, just as the figure of Satan has evolved over time.

Examination of the brief appearances of Satan in the Hebrew Bible show that his full role as the rebellious angel who tempted Adam to sin developed only gradually. In the Jewish Bible, Satan is not identified as the snake of the Adam and Eve story, who is simply a snake. Nor is Satan explicity listed among the lustful angels who impregnated human women before the Flood, which is the only Biblical narrative which could constitute angelic rebellion. For centuries, he was apparently regarded as one of God's loyal servants, fulfilling the role of a prosecutor who pointed out the sins of humanity; hence his title of accuser. It is only later that he evolves from an accusing people of sinfulness to tempting them to sin, a change which clearly happens to exempt God of responsibility for the sinfulness of the Israelite king in the Biblical book of Chronicles.

It is only in post-Biblical Jewish writings that a link is made between the tempting of Adam and Eve and rebellious angels who impregnated human women. Both these crimes are listed amongst the misdeeds of the rebellious angels of the first book of Enoch, though the name Satan is still not used.

The second was named Asb'el; he is the one who gave the children of the holy angels an evil counsel and misled them so that they would defile their bodies by the daughters of the people. The third was named Gader'el; this one is he... who misled Eve (1 Enoch 69:6)
The question remained as to why an angel would mislead Eve; this was solved by the story of Satan's refusal to bow to Adam, which first appears in the post-Biblical Life of Adam and Eve:
The devil replied... "the Lord God said, 'Behold, Adam! I have made you in our image and likeness.' And Michael went out and called all the angels, saying, 'Worship the image of God, Yahweh.' And I answered... 'I will not worship one inferior and subsequent to me... before he was made, I was already made. He ought to worship me.' ... And the Lord God was angry with me and sent me with my angels out from our glory; ... so with deceit I assailed your wife and made you to be expelled... as I have been expelled" (Life of Adam and Eve, 13-16)
Once this was done, it was an easy jump to equate Satan with the tempting serpent of Eden. In the earliest versions of the story, the snake is still simply a snake, and is itself tempted to deceit by Satan.
And the devil spoke to the serpent, saying... "... I hear that you are wiser than all the beasts... Why do you eat of the weeds of Adam and not of the fruits of Paradise? Rise and come and let us make him to be cast out of Paradise through his wife, just as we were cast out through him... become my vessel, and I will speak a word through your mouth by which you will be able to deceive him." (Life of Adam and Eve, 16)

By the time of the Christian New Testament, Satan is fully established as a tempter:

[Jesus] was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan (Gospel of Mark, 1:13)
The Qur'an, in agreement with the Gospels and post-Biblical Jewish traditions, has a fully developed role for Satan as a rebellious tempter. In it, Satan is referred to by two proper names; Shaytan, an Arabic rendering of the Hebrew word "satan", and Iblis, which is most likely an Arabic contraction of the Greek word for Devil (diabolos), which may have been brought into Arabia by Jews and Christians who used Greek translations of the Bible. We can now look at the verses which portray the Qur'anic view of Satan:
Surely We created man of a clay of mud molded, and the jinn created We before of fire flaming. And when thy Lord said to the angels, 'See, I am creating a mortal of clay of mud molded. When I have shaped him, and breathed My spirit in him, fall you down, bowing before him!' Then the angels bowed themselves all together, save Iblis; he refused to be among those bowing. Said He, 'What ails thee, Iblis, that thou art not among those bowing?' Said he, 'I would neve bow myself before a mortal whom thou hast created of a clay of mud molded.' Said He, 'Then go thou forth hence; thou art accursed. Upon thee shall rest this curse, till the Day of Doom.'... Said he, 'My Lord, for Thy perverting me I shall deck all fair to them in the earth, and I shall pervert them, all together, excepting those Thy servants among them that are devoted.' (Qur'an 15:26-40)
And We said, 'Adam, inherit thou, and thy wife, in the Garden, and eat of where you will, but come not nigh this tree, lest you be of the evildoers.' Then Satan whispered to them, to reveal to them that which was hidden from them of their shameful parts. He said, 'Your Lord has only prohibited you from this tree lest you become angels, or lest you become immortals.' And he swore to them, 'Truly, I am for you a sincere advisor.' So he led them on by delusion; and when they tasted the tree, their shameful parts revealed to them, so they took to stitching upon themselves leaves of the Garden. And their Lord called to them, 'Did I not prohibit you from this tree, and say to you, "Verily Satan is for you a manifest foe"?' (Quran 7:18-23)

When we look at the above historical evolution of Satan, the true motive behind it is clear; Satan developed his current role because sins needed to be explained without blaming God. The mythological figure of Satan was expanded over the centuries until it could take responsibility of sinfulness away from God, and the Qur'an continued this theological approach. The details of this mythological language is the result of a centuries-long development of Jewish traditions which the Qur'an adopts as its own history.

Whereas the story of Adam, Eve and the serpent is from the earliest Biblical narrative source document (called "J" as it uses the ancient Israelite tribal name for God, "JHWH" or Yahweh in Hebrew) and is possibly as old as the emergence of the Israelites as a nation around 1200-1000 BC, the fuller post-Biblical development of Satan occurs in the context of apocalypticism, a religious movement which emerged amongst the Jews around the 2nd century BC. Although a complex movement, apocalypticism can be viewed as the Jewish means of explaining the failure of the Biblical contract between God and Abraham and Moses. The original Israelite covenant with God was a worldly, tribal understanding of religion which asserted that if the Israelites worshipped Yahweh, as a reward he would make them a populous and powerful nation. However, after the conquest of Israel and Judah by the Assyrian and Babylonian empires in the 8th and 6th centuries BC, Israelite independence was never regained, and it was obvious that a new understanding of their relationship with God was required. Apocalypticism proposed a solution; the struggle between the Israelites on the earth against worldly powers was a reflection of a struggle in heaven between God and the rebellious angels, and one could not expect the worldly struggle to be resolved until the angelic one was. Apocalypticism had a need for a rebellious figure who would oppose God, and found it in Satan, who was then made responsible for sins throughout the history of mankind from Adam down.

Apocalypticism also brings about other major changes in Judaism, in particular belief in a "day of judgement" which would mark the end of both the angelic and worldly struggle; as well as afterlife, which is required to reward virtuous Jews if they were not to be rewarded with an independent and prosperous Israelite nation in their lifetimes; but these are different matters.

The important realization is that the story of Satan in the Qur'an is the final result of a complex theological development. The story of Adam and Satan and the expulsion from the Garden has a central place in the Qur'anic picture of the world; the fact that this story itself has evolved over time would tend to support the idea of a revelation that changes over time rather than remaining static.

Salman Rushdie's publication of "The Satanic Verses" was one of the biggest Islam-related headlines of the last two decades. But the mass outpouring of anti-Rushdie sentiment that took place was remarkable in that it completely overlooked the most important fact of Rushdie's book; namely, that the tale of the "Satanic verses" (ie. Qur'anic verses which temporarily accepted some of the pagan goddesses of Mecca, but which were later denied as having been inspired by Satan), was completely based on the work of al-Tabari, a Muslim biographer of the Prophet. Analysis of the historical account of al-Tabari makes possible a fuller understanding of both Satan and prophecy in Islam.

Firstly, we should look at the historical account itself, narrated by the famous Muslim historian, al-Tabari:

When the Messenger of God saw how his tribe turned their backs on him and was grieved to see them shunning the message he had brought to them from God, he longed in his soul that something would come to him from God which would reconcile him with his tribe. With his love for his tribe and his eagerness for their welfare it would have delighted him if some of the difficulties which they made for him could have been smoothed out, and he debated with himself and fervently desired such an outcome. Then God revealed: "By the Star when it sets...", and when he came to the words: "Have you considered El-Lat and El-'Uzza and Manat the third, the other?", Satan cast onto his tongue, because of his inner debates, and what he desired to bring to his people, the words, "Those are the high-flying cranes; verily their intercession is accepted with approval"... Then Gabriel came to the Messenger of God and said, "Muhammad, what have you done? You have recited to the people that which I did not bring you from God, and you have said that which was not said to you." Then the Messenger of God was much greived and feared God greatly, but God sent down a revelation to him (Qur'an 22:52), for He was merciful to him... (The History of al-Tabari, translated by W. M. Watt and M. V. McDonald, vol. 6, page 108, 109)

The accuracy of this account is difficult to judge from historical accounts alone. The earliest biography of the Prophet was that of Ibn Ishaq, but it has not survived as an independent manuscript. However, two of the main biographies of the Prophet which do survive, those of Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari, both claim to be based upon copies of Ibn Ishaq's work which the authors had in their posesssion. But while al-Tabari's biography includes the above "Satanic verses" episode, Ibn Hisham's does not. Western scholars have all sided with al-Tabari, believing that it would have been impossible for him to insert such a controversial episode had it not been commonly accepted knowledge at the time; Muslims have sided with Ibn Hisham and denied the whole event, with the notable exception of the famous Pakistani scholar, Fazlur Rahman, whose views will be considered shortly. Now let us look at the verses which al-Tabari cites as having replaced the "Satanic verses":

Have you considered El-Lat and El-'Uzza and Manat the third, the other?... They are naught but names yourselves have named, and your fathers; God has sent down no authority touching them... How many an angel is there in the heavens whose intercession avails not anything, save after that God gives leave to whomsoever He wills, and is well-pleased. Those who do not believe in the world to come name the angels with the names of females. (Qur'an 53:20-29)
So there is no trace left in the Qur'an of any compromise on the three Meccan goddesses. The real issue of this incident is that the Prophet gave in to temptation and altered the original verses himself to arrive at a version acceptable to the Meccans. The episode is fundamentally about the Prophet's moral failure, and Satan enters the picture only later, by way of a Qur'anic revelation which seems to be tailored to address the "Satanic verses" episode, and which thus provides more evidence for the truth of Tabari's account:
We sent not ever any Messenger or Prophet before thee, but that Satan cast into his fancy, when he was fancying; but God annuls what Satan casts, then God confirms His signs - surely, God is All-knowing, All-wise - that He may make what Satan casts a trial for those in whose hearts is sickness... (Qur'an 22:52)

The Qur'an provides even more evidence to back up al-Tabari's narrative if we consider that verses dealing with "abrogation" of verses by others may in fact be dealing with the "Satanic verses" episode.

And for whatever verse We abrogate or cast into oblivion, We bring a better or the like of it; knowest thou not that God is powerful over everything? (Qur'an 2:100)
An interesting thing about al-Tabari's account is his assertion that Satan cast the false verses into the Prophet's mind "because of his inner debates". Such an interpretation of the event is in agreement with an understanding of Satan as a personification of tendencies to sinfulness. The Qur'an provides a further justification for a psychological rather than literal interpretation of Satan by identifying him as a "jinn":
And when We said to the angels, 'Bow yourselves to Adam'; so they bowed themselves, save Iblis; he was one of the jinn, and committed ungodliness against his Lord's command. (Qur'an 18:50).
"Jinn" is in fact a pre-Islamic word for an unseen being which can speak to people and even make them irrational (hence the Arabic word for madness is majnoon, literally "acted upon by jinn"). Satan/Iblis is then the irrational urge which arose out of the Prophet's human weakness and his desperation to compromise with the Meccans, and drove him to insert the "Satanic verses" into the revelation. One of the most eminent of Muslim scholars of the 20th century, Fazlur Rahman, found no difficulty in accepting the truth of the "Satanic verses" incident in the light of the Qur'an's repeated assertion that Messengers were only human, and hence fallible.
But whatever fears or thoughts - or even gestures - of compromise the Prophet might make, they were soon "abrogated" or "erased" by God, as verse 22:52 makes clear. The well-known story that after mentioning the pagan goddesses once (53:19-20), the Prophet described them as "exalted swans whose intercession [with God] is to be hoped for"... only to abrogate these words in 53:21-23, is perfectly intelligible, for this incident occurred at a time of great trial and persecution of his followers, whom he had ordered to emigrate temporarily to Abyssinia. There are other indications that certain verses were replaced by others: 2:106, 13:39, 16:101... For the Qur'an, it is neither strange nor out of tune nor blameworthy for a prophet that he is not always consistent as a human. It is nevertheless as a human that he becomes an example for mankind, for his average level of conduct is still so high that is is a worthy model for mankind... there is abundant evidence in the Qur'an that while the Prophet did at times wish that developments would take a certain turn, God's Revelation went a different way: "Do not move your tongue with [ie., ahead of] the Revelation, hastily anticipating it. It is upon Us to bring it together and to recite it - so that when We recite it, let you follow its recitation." (75:16-19) (Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes in the Qur'an, pages 88-90).
Why have conservative Muslims largely refused to discuss al-Tabari's account of the "Satanic verses"? The simple reason seems to be that it presents a messy picture of the Prophet as fallible, and a Qur'an capable of being temporarily distorted by his human inclinations to win over his tribe. More importantly, the immense body of Islamic Law is based upon the reports (Hadith) of the Prophet's life and teachings. However, if even the Qur'an, which is held to be pure divine revelation, was subject to the fallibility of the Prophet, then the Hadith are even more so, since they are explicitly his words and not God's. The Qur'anic verses regarding abrogation can in fact be seen as a divine guarantee of the revelation; in spite of the fallibility of the prophet, God ensures the correctness of the Qur'an by replacing incorrect verses. However, there is no such guarantee of abrogation for the Hadith. Conservatives find such questioning of the Hadith and Islamic Law to be unacceptable.

So why all the fuss about Rushdie's book? Would al-Tabari himself be eligible for a death sentence if he were alive today, even though in his own time the question never arose? The answer possibly has less to do with al-Tabari and more to do with the injured pride of Ayatollah Khomeini, who proclaimed the death sentence upon Rushdie. Unfortunately, Rushdie's book was banned in most Muslim countries, so most Muslims never got a chance to read his vicious satire of Khomeini as a mullah who literally rides to power seated on the back of the angel Gabriel. If in fact it was simply Khomeini's annoyance at Rushdie's parody that brought on the death sentence, Muslims around the world have been pawns in an unfortunate contest of egos.