Who Is Iblis?

Iblis (Iblīs or Eblis) 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 but regarded as a jinn in most contemporary scholarship. 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 Al-Shaitan (“the Devil“). However, while Shaitan is used exclusively as an evil force, Iblis himself holds a more ambivalent role in Islamic traditions.

Naming and etymology

The term Iblīs (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 to the bene Elohim (Sons of God), who had been identified with fallen angels in the early centuries but had been singularized 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 apocryphal work written in Arabic.

In Islamic traditions, Iblīs is known by many alternative names or titles, such as Abū Murrah (أَبُو مُرَّة, “Father of Bitterness”) as the name stems from the word “murr” – meaning “bitter”, ‘aduww Allāh or ‘aduwallah (عُدُوّ الله, “enemy or foe” of God) and Abū Al-Harith (أَبُو الْحَارِث, “the father of the plowmen”). He is also known by the nickname “Abū Kardūs” (أَبُو كَرْدُوس), which may mean “Father who piles up, crams or crowds together”.


Although Iblis is often compared to the devil in Christian theology, Iblis might either be regarded as the most monotheistic or the greatest sinner, but remains only a creature of God. Into the realm of smokeless fire: (Qur’an 55:14): A critical translation of al-Damiri’s article on the jinn from “Hayat al-Hayawan al-Kubra 1953 The University of Arizona download date: 15/03/2020</ref> 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 anytime by God. According to the Quran, Iblis’s disobedience was due to his disdain for humanity, a narrative already occurring in early apocrypha.

According to scholars, Iblis is a mere creature and thus cannot be the cause or creator of evil in the world; in his function as Satan, he is seen only as a tempter who takes advantage of humanity’s weaknesses and self-centeredness and leads them away from God’s path. The existence of evil has been created by God himself. Iblis only operates within the God-given framework: as an angel, functioning as God’s instrument of misleading and destruction – and as a jinn, just another sinner who has been led astray by God’s judgment.

Most sources agree that Iblis is chained in the lowest layer of the underworld; hell. From this place he sends demons to the surface. Sometimes he is released for an undefined period of time by God, thus leading to several encounters between people and prophets with Iblis himself.


Iblis, Devil


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’s 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 of the angels bowed down, but Iblis refused to do so. He argued that since he was created from fire, he is superior to humans, who were 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 requested the ability to try to mislead Adam and his descendants. God granted his request but also warned him that he would 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 rather 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.

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

In Sufism, Iblis rules the material world in a manner that resembles the Gnostic Demiurge.

Apart from the Quranic narrative Islamic exegesis offers two different accounts of Iblis’s origin: according to one, he was a noble angel, to the other he was an ignoble jinn, who worked his way up to heaven. Some also consider him to be merely the ancestor of Jinn, who was created in heaven, but fell due to his disobedience, as Adam slipped from paradise when he sinned. It might be this moment, Iblis turned into a jinn, but has been an angel created from fire before.

Tabari Ash’ari, Al-Tha`labi, Al-Baydawi and Mahmud al-Alusi are known to regard Iblis as an angel in origin. Tabari argued against the idea that Iblis was a jinn and for an angelic origin of Iblis in his tafsir:

“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’, as stated before, and Iblis and the angels should then be among them because they hide themselves from the eyes of the sons of Adam.”

A contrary opinion was reported from Hasan of Basra, Shi’ite Imam Ja’far al-Sadiq, Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, Ibn Taimiyya and Ibn Kathir, who rejected the idea what Iblis had been once an angel or a unique creature, regarding Iblis to be a jinn instead. Among contemporary scholars this view is also shared by Muhammad Al-Munajjid, who promulgated his view on IslamQA.info and Umar Sulaiman Al-Ashqar, well known for rejecting much of earlier exegtical traditions, in his famous Islamic Creed Series, Ibn Kathir explained Iblis’ refusal as a jinn in his tafsir as follows:

“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.”

As an angel

See also: Azazil

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 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 humans 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 requested to prove that he is 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 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.

As a Jinn

See also: What is Jinn?, What is Jinni?, Jinn And Their Functions, and What Are The Characteristics of 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 them 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 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.


Further information: Angels in art § Islamic art

Depiction of Iblis with turban, refusing to prostrate

Depiction of Iblis with turban, refusing to prostrate

Iblis is perhaps one of the most well-known individual supernatural entities and was depicted in multiple visual representations like the Quran and Manuscripts of Bal‘ami’s ‘Tarjamah-i Tarikh-i Tabari. Iblis was a unique individual, described as both a pious jinn and at times an angel before he fell from God’s grace when he refused to bow before the prophet Adam. After this incident, Iblis turned into a shaytan. In visual appearance, Iblis was depicted in On the Monstrous in the Islamic Visual Tradition by Francesca Leoni as a being with a human-like body with flaming eyes, a tail, claws, and large horns on a grossly disproportionate large head.

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 a special head covering, 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 with his wings burned, to the envious countenance of a devil. Iblis and his cohorts (div or shayatin) are often portrayed in Turko-Persian art as bangled creatures with flaming eyes, only covered by a short skirt. Similar to European arts, who took traits of pagan deities to depict devils, they depicted such demons often in a similar fashion to that of Hindu-deities.

Disputed essence

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, it is said he was from the jinn in Surah 18:50, whose exact meaning is debated by both Western academics and Islamic scholars.

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 intended to be an angel. Jacques Waardenburg argues, that Iblis’ identification with the jinn in later Surahs, is a result of the 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 have 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 influence by the 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 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 source 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 studies scholar Fritz Meier also insists, that the Islamic Iblis can not be held as an angel, since angels have no progeny by definition. On the other hand, 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 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 the 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

A question arises about the meaning of the term jinni. The suffix -i might indicate his original relation to jannah, of which he was a guardian and was of 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, as evident from the Miraj literature. Reason for that might be the phonetical similarity between fire (nar) and light (nur). Some scholars argued that fire and light are of the same essence but to a different degree.

On the other hand, scholars arguing that the term jinni refers to jinn, and not a category of angels. They on the other hand need to explain Iblis’ stay among the angels. Ibn Kathir stated that 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 deal with explanations for a reason behind his abode among the angels, by extension of a special narrative. Instead, they argue, Iblis’, depicted as the first of the 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 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 and this argument does not apply to Iblis at all. 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, who have genders just like humans. Yet, there are traditions that report Iblis as having a wife. Al-Suyuti names Iblis’ wife Samum. Following Hasan Al Basra’s account, they are said to be the primogenitor of the Jinn race.

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 jinn, however, Iblis could be given the ability to choose to obey or disobey. Scholars who regard Iblis as an angel, agree to some extent with this but do not see Iblis’ refusal as an act of sin in the same way that advocates for “a Jinn nature” do. Many interpret Iblis’ disobedience 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 to other angels are endowed with tasks corresponding to their 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 chooses 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, the 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

Although in the Quran, Iblis appears only with his fall and intention to mislead God’s creation, another role, as the gatekeeper of the divine essence, developed, probably based on the oral reports of the Sahaba. 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 a 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.

In literature

In the Stories of the Prophets, the added biblical serpent appears, although not mentioned in the Quran. Probably known from Gnostic and Jewish oral traditions 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.

Iblis is mentioned in the Shahnameh by Ferdowsi. Although the Persian principle of evil is not absent, it is Iblis, instead of Ahriman, who tempts Zahhak to usurp his father. Iblis kisses the shoulders of Zahhak, whereupon serpents grew from this spot. This narration roots in ancient Avesta and Iblis can be seen as a substitute for Ahriman in this place.

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, which caused his 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, which leads to his 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 afterward visits the grand mufti of Al-Azhar Mosque, telling him he wants to embrace Islam. The grand mufti, however, rejects Iblis as well, realizing the necessity of Iblis’ evilness. Regarding the absence of Iblis’ evil, as causing most of the Quran to be obsolete. 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 several 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”.

See also

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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