The concept or person of satan is an interesting one. Recently in a conversation I was having with a non-Muslim friend of mine, I began to think about the concept of satan a little bit more. I was wondering if you could elaborate on the concept of satan in the Qur’an. First, I was wondering whether satan is one entity? If so then how can satan effect the entire world? The same goes for angels etc.? If they are one entity then can they only be in one place at one time? If satan is whispering in my ear then can he whisper in any one else’s ear? What distinguishes humans from angels and jinn? Is it reason? If so then how did satan reason that his creation from fire was greater than Adam’s creation from clay?
The Qur’an does not comprehensively introduce the physical nature of angels or jinns. In view of this fact, it is not possible for me to comment on the physical limits of these creatures of God. But as far as the question that whether satan is a particular entity or not is concerned, it should be remembered that the Arabic word “Shaitaan“, normally translated as “Satan” is basically an attributive word, implying “the extremely rebellious”. Although the word has been used in the Qur’an for Iblis, but its usage is not restricted to him. The word has also been used for those who are rebellious toward God and His commands. These rebellious beings may be from among the jinns or even the humans. Those, whether from among the jinns or the humans, who adopt the path of disobedience towards God are Shaitaan, the followers of the tradition of Iblis.
Keeping this clarification in perspective lets us now look at your questions one by one:
Your first question is, “whether satan is one entity?”. The word satan is used for Iblis as well as those who are extremely rebellious towards God. In the first sense, satan does imply a specific entity, while in the second sense it does not.
Your second question is, “how can satan effect the entire world?”. Satan effects people by instigating in them wrong and evil ideas and by encouraging them to follow the path of desire and worldly pleasures. Iblis may himself instigate and encourage humans to this path of rebellion towards God or the followers of his tradition among humans and jinns may do this.
As far as the working of the angels is concerned, as stated earlier, we do not have any basis of determining this style of working and are therefore not in a position to comment on it.
Your next question is, “if they [angels] are one entity, then can they only be in one place at one time?”. This again is a question that can only be answered if either we had seen the angels in their real form or if the Qur’an had provided adequate information regarding their physical qualities. Under the present circumstances, we are not in a position to give any answer to this question.
Your next question is, “If satan is whispering in my ear then can he whisper in any one else’s ear?”. This again is a question the answer of which cannot be provided with the information that we have about jinns [Iblis being a jinn]. But one thing that can be stated with certainty is that Iblis is not operating alone in this world. He has innumerable agents – in humans as well as jinns – who assist him in his mission.
Your next question is, “What distinguishes humans from angels and jinn? Is it reason? If so then how did satan reason that his creation from fire was greater than Adam’s creation from clay?”. The points of distinction between humans, angels and jinns mentioned directly or indirectly in the Qur’an do not include “reasoning power” or “rationality”: The basic distinction between humans and jinns, mentioned in the Qur’an is the matter from which the two were created. While one of the distinctions between humans and angels, besides the matter from which the two were created, is that because of their being constantly conscious of the presence of God, they do not disobey Him, in any matter and carry out all that He commands them to do. But this does not imply that these are the only distinctions between humans and the jinns and the angels. It only means that these are the only distinctions that the Qur’an has informed us about.
17th May 1999