An Essay On Evil

By Rabia Terri Harris

Presented at “Mayhem in the Middle East: Cultural and Religious Destruction and Persecution of Minorities,” a program of the Al-Khoei Benevolent Foundation, Queens, NY.

July 26, 2014 / 29 Ramadan 1435.

A`udhu biLlahi min ash-shaytan ir-rajim

BismiLlah ir-rahman ir-rahim

as-salamu `alaykum wa rahmatu Llahi wa barakatuhu.


Thank you friends who have gathered here this afternoon, despite the difficulties, for this important moment, and special thanks to the people of the al-Khoei Foundation, one of the great Islamic institutions, who have opened their doors and their hearts to all of us. Whatever our background or religious persuasion, those of us gathered here tonight, and millions like us, are people of common concern. We are taking a stand against evil.

Evil is an unfashionable word, but I would argue that without it, we can make no real sense of the world, nor gather the strength to act, nor gain clarity about how, indeed, we should act. Now, my understanding of evil is an Islamic one, formed by what is, in my estimation, the key parable in the Qur’an. While the Bible begins its consideration of evil with the episode often referred to the Fall of Man, the Qur’an directs our attention to its prequel: the Revolt of Satan.

In several places in the Qur’anic text we are told that the angels were called upon to prostrate themselves to the newly-created human being, but that one member of the high assembly refused to do so. This is Satan, the personification and origin of evil, and the first thing we can learn from this parable about the nature and identifying features of evil is that it refuses to honor the dignity of humanity. When questioned about motives, Satan said, “You have created me of fire, and that of clay. I am better.” So the second thing we learn about identifying evil is that it claims intrinsic superiority to the object of its hate. And the third thing we learn is that is has contempt for clay, for the common ground from which we all are made.

Translated into modern terms, this parable suggests that evil may be diagnosed wherever we find dehumanization, domination, and radical disrespect for the earth. These traits are not in short supply. Neither can we conveniently locate them in the acts of any one group. We are beset from every side.

I use the word “diagnosed” quite intentionally. For the most provocative implication of the Qur’anic parable is that evil is not intrinsic to the human being, something built into us that we can do nothing about. It is more like a spiritual infection, highly contagious, often lethal, that any of us, at any moment, might catch. But there are preventatives for it, and there are even cures, though cure is not easy. It is toward these preventatives, and cures, that all of our spiritual traditions are directed. For people do recover from evil, and it is to that potential recovery that those of us who are wary, who have taqwa, and who are not presently infected, would do well to devote ourselves.

We will never be able to eliminate evil from the earth. But we may be able to rescue our brothers and sisters from its effects, and perhaps even vaccinate against it. In this enterprise, nonviolence is crucial.

One of the commonest weaknesses of the human spiritual immune system that allows evil to enter is the belief that violence can bring about peace and justice. Violence never brings about peace or justice. Violence brings about evil. The best it can accomplish, in the best of cases, is exhaustion, which sometimes allows for the sorts of negotiations that should have been undertaken in the first place. Violence mostly accomplishes forcible silencing – which means the life of lies – bitterness, vengefulness, and simmering resentment which call the curse of God down on any victory attainable through its means. And violence produces the heart of stone, which is the fuel of Hell. If Hell is not our objective, then violence cannot be our road. The Qur’an tells us unequivocally la ikraha fid-deen: there can be no compulsion in religion. Muslims in particular need to be absolutely committed to this divine command.

The other common weakness that betrays us to evil is the terrible need to be right. If we want to be of service in the world, then we must train ourselves in humility. Naturally we all believe that our positions are correct: that is why we hold them. But there is no necessity that other people agree with us! Indeed, it is part of the generosity of God that they do not: according to hadith, differences of opinion in the community are a mercy. The great Sunni legal scholar Abu Hanifa sets a fine example for people of strong views. “I believe my opinions are correct, but I am willing to consider that they might be wrong,” he famously remarked. “I believe my opponent’s opinions are wrong, but I am willing to consider that they might be correct.” If we cannot do this, then the people who differ from us may begin to appear monstrous, rather than human, to us…and this is a symptom showing that we have been infected with monstrosity ourselves.

We are not obligated to be right. God does not demand that we be right, but that we be sincere, and that we seek an ever-closer approach to truth. Rightness belongs to God, not to human beings, and the issue of our actual rightness waits to be settled in the next life: “The return of you all is to Allah,” the Qur’an tells us, “and it is Allah who will inform you about those matters wherein you differed.” This really is – and therefore ought to be! – the last word on the matter.

However, we persist in wanting to demonstrate our own rightness. The Qur’an speaks to this weakness, too. It tells us that the question of who is right can only be answered approximately in this world, and that the measure that counts is, Who is doing the most good? “If Allah had so willed, he would have made you all one community, but He wishes to test you in that which he has given you. So compete with each other in good works.” Violence is not a good work. Cruelty is not a good work. Wanton destruction of what is precious is not a good work. Such acts may be intoxicating, but intoxication means the presence of poison. The human heart knows the difference – and it is upon the heart of flesh and spirit, the seat of God’s grace amidst of the horrors of the world, that we must ultimately rely. The last fatwa, as the hadith goes, belongs to the heart.

I would like to suggest to you that – whoever we are – until we have recognized and neutralized our own propensities toward violence and arrogance, we will be unable to intervene productively in other people’s cases of evil. We will simply contract it ourselves. In this way the cycle goes on. Our whole business – our whole urgent business – is to break that cycle, God willing. It is to breaking that cycle that we are committing ourselves here today.

Allah gives us the advice we need in the Qur’an. (I will leave it to my brothers and sisters of other faiths to locate that advice in their own sources.) We read: “The good deed and the evil deed are not alike. Repel evil with that which is better: then the one between whom and you was hatred will become like an intimate friend.” To set out to win friendship rather than inflict destruction: this is the strategy for transformation, and, I believe, the only way out of the terrible mess we are in.

In closing, I would like to call your attention to the many good deeds, the many acts of friendship, the many refusals of evil, that are already arising among us. And in particular let me point out to you my young colleague Fu`ad AbulAmeer, who fled Baghdad, spent years as a refugee in Syria, and is now, from the United States, turning back with compassion to other young people left behind with his Hamada Initiative. Make sure to take his flyer, and support his effort. It is through supporting each other’s efforts that we will find the way forward.

May Allah accept our best intentions and protect us from the enemy of us all. Amin.

One response to “An Essay On Evil

  1. Very impressive essay! Sad that this can not be spread around the world, for I worry every day about the growing false view that Islam is a religion of violence. I love that this sheds great wisdom exactly contrary to that notion.

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