Shaitan or Shayṭān (شَيْطٰان), plural: Shayāṭīn (شياطين; devils or demons), are evil spirits in Islamic belief, inciting humans to sin by whispering to the heart (قَلْب, qalb) via waswasaħ (وَسْوَسَة, “whispering”). As such, they always try to lead humans astray. Although demons are usually spoken of in abstract terms, and more often described by their evil influences only, they are depicted as ugly and grotesque creatures of hell-fire.
Etymology and terminology
The word Šayṭān (شَيْطَان) originates from the Hebrew שָׂטָן (Śāṭān) “accuser, adversary” (which is the source of the English Satan). However Arabic etymology relates the word to the root š-ṭ-n (“distant, astray”) taking a theological connotation designating a creature distant from the divine mercy. In pre-Islamic Arabia, this term was used to designate an evil spirit but only used by poets who were in contact with Jews and Christians. With the emergence of Islam, the meaning of shayatin moved closer to the Christian concept of devils. The term shayatin appears in a similar way in the Book of Enoch; denoting the hosts of the devil. Taken from Islamic sources, “shaitan” may either be translated as “demon” or as “devil”. Among Muslim authors, the term can also apply to evil supernatural entities in general as to evil jinn, fallen angels or Tawaghit. In a broader sense, the term is used to designate everything from an ontological perspective, that is a manifestation of evil.
Mentioned 88 times, the Shayatin together with the angels, are the most frequently mentioned spirits in the Quran. In the story of Adam and Eve, a shaitan tempts Adam to eat from the forbidden tree, arguing, God only prohibited its fruit, so they shall not become immortal, as narrated in Quran 7:20. According to Quran 15:16-18 shayatin rise against heaven in attempt to steal its secrets, but are chased by meteorites, however, unlike the jinn, may partly succeed, snapping some information. 2:102 mentions the shayatin as the teachers of sorcery. Quran 37:62–68 describes the fruits of Zaqqum, the tree of hell, as heads of shayatin. Surah 6:112 mentions shayatin among Ins (humans) and jinn (jinn). According to some exegetes, the term is used as an epithet to describe rebellious men and jinn, but to others, referring to shayatin who tempt among the jinn, and whose, who tempt among humans.
The hadith literature depicts the shayatin as malevolent forces closely bound to humans and points to the presence of a Muslim’s everyday life. A shaitan is assigned to every human (with Jesus as an exception), and shayatin are said to move through the blood of human. Sahih Muslim mentions among the shayatin five sons of Iblis, who bring everyday calamities: Tir, “who brings about calamities, loses, and injuries; Al-A’war, who encourages debauchery; Sut, who suggests lies; Dasim, who causes hatred between man and wife; Zalambur, who presides over places of traffic.” Shayatin try to disrupt the prayer or the ablution. Further they might appear in dreams, and terrorize people. When someone yawns, the mouth should be covered, since the shayatin might enter the body. The sun is said to set and rise between the horns of a shaitan when prayers should cease, since this is the moment the doors of hell opened. Sahih al-Bukhari and Jami` at-Tirmidhi state that the shayatin can not harm the believers during the month of Ramadan, since they are chained in Jahannam (Gehenna (hellfire)).
The shayatin make up one of three classes of supernatural creatures in Islamic theology. But since they share, like jinn the characteristics of invisibility, some scholars put them merely under one category of the supernatural. However the prevailing opinion among the mufassirs distinguish between the jinn and shayatin as following:
- While among the jinn, there are different types of believers (Muslims, Christians, Jewish, polytheists, etc.), the shayatin are exclusively evil.
- The jinn are mortals and die, while the shayatin only die when their leader ceases to exist. The father of the jinn is Al-Jann and the father of the shayatin is Iblis.
The shayatin are spirits of the hell-fire, and although their origin is, like that of the angels, not mentioned in the Quran, Islamic scholars repeatedly asserted the idea, that the shayatin have been created from either smoke or the hell-fire itself. Comparable to demons or devils in Christian theology, shayatin are incapable of good and limited to “evil”. Abu Mufti writes in his commentary of Abu Hanifa’s al-Fiqh al-absat, that all angels, except with Harut and Marut, are obedient but all shayatin, except Ham ibn Him Ibn Laqis Ibn Iblis, are created evil. Only humans and jinn are created with Fitra, that means, both angels and shayatin lack free-will and are settled in opposition.
Some Sufi writers connect the descriptions of shayatin mentioned in hadith to human psychological conditions. Based on the notion that the shayatin reproduce by laying eggs into the heart of humans, Ghazali linked them to inner spiritual development. Accordingly, from the eggs laid on the heart, the offspring of Iblis grew and unite with the person, causing the sin the shaitan is responsible for. He further explains the difference between divine inspiration and the devilish temptations of the shayatin, by asserting, one should test the inspiration by two criteria: The first tests the piety, the second, whether or not the suggestion is in accordance with sharia. He further elaborates an esoteric cosmology, visualizing human’s heart as the capital of the body, which is in constant struggle between the powers of carnal desires invoked by the shayatin, and the powers of reason (‘aql). Ali Hujwiri similarly describes the shayatin and angels mirroring the human psychological condition, the shayatin and carnal desires (nafs) on one side, and the spirit (ruh) and the angels on the other.
Islamic philosophical cosmology divides living beings into four categories: Animals, humans, angels and devils. Al-Farabi (c. 872 – 950/951) defines angels as reasonable and immortal beings, humans as reasonable and mortal beings, animals as unreasonable and mortal beings, and devils as unreasonable and immortal beings. He supports his claim by the Quranic verse in which God grants Iblis respite until the day of resurrection.
Likewise, al-Ghazali (c. 1058 – 19 December 1111) divides human nature into four domains, each representing another type of creature: Animals, beasts, devils and angels. Traits human share with bodily creatures are animals, which exist to regulate ingestion and procreation and the beasts, used for predatory actions like hunting. The other traits humans share with the jinn and root in the realm of the unseen. These faculties are of two kinds: That of angels and of the devils. While the angels endow the human mind with reason, advises virtues, and lead to worship God, the devil perverts the mind and tempts to committing lies, betrayals and deceits, thus abusing the spiritual gift. The angelic natures instructs how to use the animalistic body properly, while the devil perverts it. In this regard, the plane of a human is, unlike who’s of the jinn and animals, not pre-determined. Humans are potentially both angels and devils, depending on whether the sensual soul or the rational soul develop.
The Brethren of Purity understand devils as ontological forces, manifesting in everything evil.
Following the cosmology of Wahdat al-Wujud, Haydar Amuli specifies that angels reflect God’s names of light and beauty, while the devils God’s attributes of “Majesty”, “The Haughty” and “Domineering”. Ibn Arabi, to whom Haydar Amuli’s cosmology is attributed to, although making a clear distinction between the devils and the angels, interpreted devils as beings of a similar function to that of angels, as sent and predescribed by God, in his Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya.
Shayatin are assumed to visit filthy or desacralized places. They tempt humans into sin and to everything that is disapproved by society, by their whisperings. It is commonly believed, that saying bismillah, reciting a certain du’a (supplication), like “A’uzu Billahi Minesh shaitanir Rajiim” or the Suras “An-Naas” or “Al-Falaq” could ward off attacks of shayatin. Although it is impossible to gather all depictions of local traditions on folk Islam, these characteristics appear frequently. Since the Quran states in 2:102 that it was not Solomon who practised witchcraft but rather the shayatin, Witchcraft is also traced back to the shayatin (compare with the Christian understanding).