On Saturday, an 8 ½-foot bronze statue of Satan was unveiled privately in Detroit to much condemnation by religious groups. Naturally, the conflict turned into a discussion focused on the freedom of expression. However, I believe discussing the devil’s role in our lives would have been a much more enlightening enterprise.
Without a doubt, if there was ever a symbol of evil in Western society, it would be Satan, as mentioned in the Bible, or ha-Satan and Iblis in Judaic and Islamic scripture, respectively. In Abrahamic religions, the story within Scripture tells of the story of an angel who falls from grace for defying God. After being cast out of heaven, Satan vows to corrupt man.
To much of the world, religious or not, this story successfully establishes the dichotomy of good and evil, as well as cultivate the idea that as humans, we can never truly rid ourselves of the devil and everything he represents. No matter how much we try, salvation is not within our capabilities. The problem with maintaining this axiom, though, is that it has made us helpless creatures, always caught in the tug of war between ourselves and the devil within.
Indeed, victimizing ourselves to chthonic forces perfectly explains our extraordinary ability to accept the perpetuation of morally reprehensible acts.
It is much easier to stomach decades worth of displacing and slaughtering Native Americans when one is convinced that in order for the many to prosper, we must first be resigned to do the “devil’s work” and sacrifice a few. Even today, our politicians defend grotesque acts of torture, murdering innocent civilians and violating human rights as “necessary evils” in the combat against terrorism and in the name of our national security.
Herein lies the issue of a society taught to recognize a hegemon of evil. It provides the source of power for us to perform unspeakable acts while conveniently turning the blame away from us.
What good then is the lesson of Satan when it has caused us to attribute our personal moral failings to anyone and anything except ourselves? How can human suffering ever cease if we refuse to view acts of evil as works of our own?
To some religions though, especially Sufism, which is a small sect of Islam, God’s banishment of Satan from heaven is not seen as a clear triumph of good over evil, although shocking and controversial, it is these interpretations of scripture that can be most enlightening and pertinent to our purposes.
In the Quran, the fall of Satan, or Iblis, as he is referred to, occurred when God made Adam and commanded all the angels prostrate to him, “but not so Iblis, he refused to be of those who prostrate,” saying to God, “I am better than [Adam].” As such, God expelled Iblis from heaven.
To Mansur Al-Hallaj, a prominent 10th century Sufi and writer, he extrapolates nuance and moral ambiguity from this story when others believe in its moral absolutism. In the book Early Islamic Mysticism, by University of Chicago professor Michael Sells, he translates the story of Al-Hallaj, who interprets Iblis’ defiance as not from hatred but from his love for God. According to Sells, when Iblis spoke to Moses about bowing to Adam, Iblis said, “Even if [God] torments me with his fire forever and beyond, I will not bow to any other than [God] … My proclamation is … to those who are sincere, and in love I am triumphant.”
Here is the Satan we can all learn from.
Faced with disobeying the God he loved but not wanting to betray his sole worship, Iblis, in the end, sacrificed neither but stayed true to himself and took not the path that was convenient, but the path that he believed was right. Iblis could have easily buckled under his inner tension and bowed to Adam like the other angels as God commanded, but his conviction of the immorality of the act forbade him, even if it meant he could save himself. Faced with eternal damnation, Iblis proudly stood by his choice, for he understood that the act of morality is itself salvation.
Because too often sacrifices must be made for progress in our world, it is not surprising that we often externalize responsibility to the devil or God. Exaggerating a choice between the lesser of two evils into one between absolute good and evil conveniently validates any immoral acts to achieve the desired results. Perhaps this is why wars involving religion are some of the most bloodiest but also ones that find the most support.
In the end, we may still be trapped in the eternal tug of war between ourselves and the devil. We always will when we strive towards the “greater good” but are willing to accept casualties along the way. The devil’s work however is not accomplished when our world suffers-that is entirely our doing. The devil’s work only prevails when we surrender our morals to him in the midst of making difficult decisions.
In reality, the devil should not be objectified, nor should it exclusively be a religious construct; this exercise will not benefit us morally. The real devil is indifference; it is to neglect responsibility; to surrender and take the easy way out; it is the choice to do right only when it benefits us. We succumb to the devil only when we accept that evil is an inevitable part of life.
This is the way the devil finds its destructive power, and it is this devil in which we must all individually conquer.
Patrick An is a senior physiology and neurobiology major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.