The Devil You Know, Or Thought You Knew

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

— The Usual Suspects

With Halloween finally behind us (at least for another eleven months), I am reminded of the one article regarding this festival that stood out most to me in the slurry of bickering over its status in the shari’ah. Rather than delving straight into the matter of its permissibility, its roots and origins, or what constitutes ‘imitation’ of disbelieving people, the author, shaykh Abu Eesa Niamatullah, instead asks the reader to contemplate the philosophical underpinnings of Halloween; what it means to trick, to celebrate mischief, and most importantly, how our understanding of evil has changed in the 21st century. As the shaykh himself asks, ‘how did we allow evil to become so sweet?’. [1] 

What left the greatest impression on me from the entire piece was the emphasis on how our understanding of who the shaytan (devil) is has been warped by modernity, and how popular culture has undoubtedly played a major hand in this. 

It would be easy to dismiss this very notion as evangelical fear-mongering, and more often than not this tends to be what it is associated with. However, to deny that satanic imagery is quite commonly used in modern forms of cultural expression, be it in film, music, literature, or even fashion would be disingenuous, to say the least. 

A number of questions then arise as to what the purpose behind all this is; what does the symbol of the devil mean in the secular age? How does it affect our understanding of evil as a concept? Through what paradigm should we engage with popular culture?

The persona of Satan (primarily in the Christian tradition) has been reimagined and reinvented over the past few centuries, and depictions and representations of the devil in Enlightenment literature have had an effect on how we understand him, as well as sin itself, in the modern age. It is important to critically engage with media and reassess our relationship with popular culture.

The Georgian Genesis:

Were there to be a seminal moment in the re-envisioning of Satan in Western pop culture, many scholars and literary critics would point to John Milton’s epic ‘Paradise Lost’ (1667). 

John Milton (1608-1674) was an English poet and civil servant who would go on to be one of the most influential authors in the English language. His ten-volume magnum opus ‘Paradise Lost’ is often paired with Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’ as one of the premier texts in Christian literature. 

The poem tells the story of the descent of Adam and Eve (A.S.) from Heaven, and though Milton himself wrote the poem to ‘justify the ways of God’,[2] its reception gave rise to a radically different interpretation contentious to this day. Though Adam is supposed to be the central figure of the poem, the first volume dedicates itself to establishing the character and focal point of Lucifer and his fall from grace into damnation. 

Part of this stems from his physical portrayal as well as his characteristics. Milton depicts the Devil with a sense of grandeur that strayed radically from the biblical tradition. There is a heavy emphasis placed upon his stature and imposing features even after his descent into Hell, ‘[with] head uplift above the wave, and eyes that sparkling blazed; his other parts besides prone on the flood, extended long and large […] in bulk as huge as whom the fables name of monstrous size…’. Furthermore, he is presented as tremendously bold and charismatic, despite being shunned by God Himself. Among his most famous verses in the entire poem is, ‘Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven’.[2] 

This might not appear as peculiar to many. Charismatic villains or morally ambiguous antagonists are practically a dime a dozen in modern pop-culture, however, one should consider that for the era in which Milton wrote, this characterization not only strayed from theological norms but also from the literary conventions of his time. ‘In certain respects it faithfully observed the conventions of classical epic as Renaissance critics conceived them; in other ways it appeared to disregard them all together…’[3], to write a biblical story in the epic form was already unusual, but to adorn the story’s antagonist with the qualities traditionally associated with epic’s ‘hero’ was an even greater innovation in Narrative. 

Critics have recognized this particular characterisation as a potential cause for the Devil’s reimagining: ‘In the poem, Satan was endowed with certain attributes which are worthy of epic heroes, and which make him a sympathetic, almost tragic character’.[4] 

Milton’s poem was among the texts that would come to popularise the use of the name ‘Lucifer’ in referring to the devil before damnation. The term, translated from Latin as ‘the morning star’, was re-appropriated from the book of Isaiah, in which it was used to refer to the disgraced King of Babylon.[5] The decline of Lucifer into the figure of Satan is dramatized with such conflict and complexity to the extent that he is, more often than not, read through an empathetic lens. Milton’s representation of the ‘Satanic Hero’ was a precursor to the Victorian trope of the gothic protagonist; a hero haunted by the consequence of his or her own hubris.[6]

Another factor that contributed to Satan’s reimagining in popular culture was the political climate of the West in the century following Milton’s death in 1674. The artists of the Georgian era found their muse in the radical politics and revolutions that shaped the western world at the time, the most notable being the French and American revolutions. Rebellion and resistance to authority was sensationalized among the proto-liberal middle class and elite, with the growing mistrust towards institutions such as the church and monarchy. As such, this particular reading of Satan’s arc in Paradise Lost can be understood as an affirmation of his rebellion, as ‘[the] misinterpretation arises from the tendency in human nature to romanticize the rebel and the fighter against odds’.[4]

Despite his loss in the cosmic sense (i.e. eternity in Hell), his personal vendetta is fulfilled in such a way that is presented in an almost admirable fashion. Irrespective of his moral standpoint, the reader can easily identify with or empathise with the devil’s mission on the basis of him rebelling against a figure of authority. 

The artists and critics who took to this understanding of the Miltonic Satan were many. It could be argued, however, that the one most influenced by this figure, who would go on to develop this reading of the devil as a political allegory and weave it into his own new mythology, was the man who described Milton as being ‘of the Devil’s party without knowing it’.[7] That man was William Blake. 

Blake, Urizen and Orc:

William Blake was born in 1757 and worked as a copy engraver and illustrator for most of his adult life. Unlike many of his contemporaries (Percy Shelley, George Byron), he was known more for his illustrations and paintings in his life than for his poetry, which would only gain more cultural traction after his death. Poems such as ‘The Tyger’ and ‘Jerusalem’ which were largely neglected in his life, are now canonical in the pantheon of British Literature.

Unlike Milton, whose adherence to an established school of Christian theology was apparent, William Blake’s own religious convictions are a lot harder to pin down. Blake claimed to receive visions of angels from the age of 9, and throughout his life would develop a prophetic image of himself.[8] It is clear that Blake, like other radicals of his time, was staunchly opposed to established or organised religion. It could be said that Blake’s own cosmology was a perennial one, expressed in the principles laid out in his work ‘All Religions are One’, wherein he states, ‘Thus all sects of Philosophy are from the Poetic Genius, adapted to the weakness of every individual’. He expands upon this in his 7th principle, ‘As all men are alike […], So all Religions & all similars have one source’.[9] What appears as even more of a radical departure from orthodoxy was his conception of sin and vice. He described the seven deadly sins as an invention of the devil in ‘The Bard’s Song’ as a force to ‘pervert the Divine voice’, and thus rejected it conceptually.[10] Furthermore, in ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’ he outlined his understanding of the nature of piety in terms of the restraining of desire, where he wrote, ‘Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained’.[7]

Blake went on to develop his own mythology as a means to articulate his moral and political vision, a mythology that revolved around a host of characters and archetypes. Two of these characters and the relationships between them are of particular importance . The first is Urizen, Blake’s stand-in for the God of the Old Testament, and the second is Orc, Urizen’s adversary and the ‘spirit of revolution’. 

Though Orc is in direct conflict with the figure of ‘God’ in Blake’s mythology, he is not a representation of the devil himself (as his origins complicate that matter); there is no doubt that he poses qualities and traits that are intentionally demonic in nature (as will be discussed) and hence can be taken as a satanic figure.

The conflict between the two is established most explicitly in Blake’s poem ‘America: A prophecy’, wherein Blake depicts the American Revolution as a battle of Washington and the founding fathers against the prince of Albion (representing Britain). The revolution is displaced into the grand conflict of the angel and demon, as Orc meets Albion’s Angel (the ambassador of Urizen). The angel curses Orc when they proclaim, ‘Blasphemous Demon, Antichrist, hater of Dignities, Lover of wild rebellion, and transgressor of God’s Law, Why dost thou come to Angel’s eyes in this terrific form?’ To which Orc replies, in the same vanity of Milton’s Satan:

I am Orc, wreath’d round the accursèd tree: The times are ended; shadows pass, the morning ‘gins to break; The fiery joy, that Urizen perverted to ten commands, […] That stony Law I stamp to dust; and scatter Religion abroad To the four winds…[11]

In a boastful monologue, Orc likens this revolution (of which he is the instigator) to the breaking of Divine Law, which Blake deems a perversion of an inherently pure, natural disposition. This all culminates in the destruction of the ‘heavenly throne’ of Albion as the rest of Europe watched in terror:

They slow advance to shut the five gates of their law−built Heaven, Fillèd with blasting fancies and with mildews of despair, With fierce disease and lust, unable to stem the fires of Orc, But the five gates were consum’d, and their bolts and hinges melted; And the fierce flames burnt round the heavens, and round the abodes of men.[11]

The utilisation of the devil and demonic imagery as symbols of rebellion and of resisting authority is possibly one of the biggest factors that contribute to its continuous use in popular media. 

Hell’s Highway:

In a secular age, the symbols of theology are hollow and thus made easy to re-appropriate. It would appear that the ‘Blakian’ model for the satanic figure – that of a misunderstood rebel – has been exhausted in the 20th and 21st centuries. 

The applications across all forms of media are practically innumerable, as are the subsections of western culture that have been shaped and influenced by satanic imagery. In 20th century America, these images were (and arguably still are) used by disenfranchised groups to offend the sensibilities of the largely Christian populous. ‘Anything deemed subversive to the God-feared norm was often considered a direct display of Devil worship. Rebel music – that which is performed by the oppressed or disaffected – was seen as dangerous and unholy’.[12] Rock, and many of its sub-genres, very openly and unapologetically adopted the symbols associated with LaVey’s ‘Church of Satan’ to bolster the movement’s conception of liberty and sexual freedom.[12] In other forms of media, particularly narrative-based forms, the iterations of Satan range from drama to satire. Likewise, as mentioned previously, the conventions of what constitutes heroism and villainy have also been challenged by the Miltonic and Blakian expressions of satanic figures. For a hero to be morally pure or for a villain to be absolutely amoral is deemed lazy in post-modernism.

From Mick Jagger to Billie Eilish, from Rosemary’s Baby to Disney, the devil’s face has found itself across many dimensions of media. As with the myriad of vices and taboos of various traditions that we’ve been desensitised to; sexual promiscuity, obscenity, etc. We have also been desensitized to the figure of Satan. He remains a spectre of the devil we once knew, and that is something that, as Muslims, we need to be aware of.

Does this mean we should take an evangelical stance towards pop culture at large? Should we be boycotting every horror film from now till the end of time? Calling the police whenever a Heavy Metal concert rolls into town? Should we follow the example of some Catholic priests in burning copies of Harry Potter books for teaching the Dark Arts? 

These are questions for our ulema to tackle.

The purpose of this piece is to illustrate:

 1) The importance of being critical of the media we consume.

 2) That nothing should be taken as absolutely trivial in the context of storytelling.

 3) That we need to come to terms with something that we all know, that we’ve all learned and that we all pay little heed to:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا ادْخُلُوا فِي السِّلْمِ كَافَّةً وَلَا تَتَّبِعُوا خُطُوَاتِ الشَّيْطَانِ ۚ إِنَّهُ لَكُمْ عَدُوٌّ مُّبِينٌ

O you who have believed, enter into Islam completely [and perfectly] and do not follow the footsteps of Satan. Indeed, he is to you a clear enemy.

— Qur’an, 2:208

Part of our failure to fully appreciate what Allah has revealed is our inability, by His Divine decree, to see or understand the unseen. We take the reality of shaytan lightly, as though he is our enemy in only some abstract sense. 

A teacher once gave an example to illustrate this. To paraphrase, were I to list off the names of every fascist, mass murderer, dictator and rapist from the past 100 years alone, and then say that the shaytan is worse, one might find that hard to stomach, despite the fact that they know it to be true. It is paramount that we understand that whatever suffering and torment the worst of our tyrants inflict, shaytan’s aim is to ensure that we suffer to a worse degree for eternity, and his entire mission is to guarantee that for all of humanity.

There is a reason why Allah ﷻ reminds us of what our relationship with the devil should be, not only in this verse but throughout the Qur’an. There is a reason why the ahadith of our Beloved () that warn us about the devil could fill volumes. There is a reason why we begin every recitation of Allah’s word with the isti’aadha, seeking refuge in Him from the devil’s influence.  

The cultural climate that secularism incubates us in is one where our proximity to spiritual institutions is limited, and as a result, the development of the cultural sphere is divorced from the Divine impetus, and that has ultimately created a new playground for shaytan. That does not, however, suggest that we should become passive in our engagement with the cultural sphere, but rather we should take the opportunity to seize it where we can, and learn how to better navigate it. As one scholar wrote, ‘The cultural marketplace constitutes a “scene” that religious networks may draw on more heavily when traditional arenas for socialization are absent, thus making these networks stronger’.[13] 

Stories, for instance, are where a culture displaces its most intimate ideas and values. Storytelling serves as a tool to disseminate those ideas through metaphor and allegory, in ways people can easily digest. This principle is one that cultures throughout history have recognized, and political entities take advantage of to this very day. The screen quota system, introduced by the UK in 1927 to limit the influence of foreign films in within Britain is evident of this very recognition.[14] For us to ignore the industries that develop these cultural identities is to ignore the society in which we are living. Dr Asim Qureshi of CAGE discussed this topic in an interview earlier this year. To paraphrase:

If you’re a person who is involved in da’wah, and you’re not reading the fiction of the non-muslims in your society, then you have not made the effort to understand the essence of who they are.[15]

As much as we should strive to gain a more critical understanding of media and popular culture in the modern age, we should also make a greater effort to produce content grounded in the Islamic tradition, that expresses the values and principles of haqq in such a way that does not compromise the shari’ah. The growing popularity of Historical Dramas in the Muslim world and the plans by political leaders to produce Muslim centric Media (as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan recently announced on Twitter) suggest that such a movement may not be far over the horizon. 

Investing in such an effort opens for us a new avenue for da’wah. By bringing this tradition back to the ‘cultural marketplace’, we can ultimately encourage and re-establish a culture in reverence of Allah, with His permission. 

This effort would, of course, be fruitless without a healthy and constant re-evaluation of our intentions and methodology (adherence to the Qur’an and sunnah), and without a collective reminder of our purpose as ‘aabidin, slaves of Allah.

May He (subhanahu wa ta’ala) give us tawfiq.

Works cited:

[1] http://ilmsource.com/2015/10/28/are-you-being-tricked-a-treat-halloween-in-islam/
[2] Milton, John, Paradise Lost (1667).
[3] Steadman, John M. The Idea of Satan as the Hero of ‘Paradise Lost.’ Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 120, no. 4, 1976, pp. 253–294.
[4] Nafi’, Jamal, Milton’s Portrayal of Satan in Paradise Lost and the Notion Of Heroism (May 22, 2015). International Journal of Literature and Arts, 2015; 3(3): 22-28.
[5] Caird, George Bradford. The Language and Imagery of the Bible. London: Westminster Press, 1980, p. 225.
[6] Berić, Borislav, Miltonic Influences in Gothic Victorian Literature: https://repozitorij.unios.hr/islandora/object/ffos:2964/preview
[7] Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. London: Camden Hotten, 1868. Print. [8] The Life and Works of William Blake: https://www.skoletorget.no/abb/eng/blake/pdf/life.pdf
[9] Blake, William. All Religions are One (1788).
[10] https://williamblakeandenlightenmentmedia.wordpress.com/tag/original-sin/
[11] Blake, William. America: a Prophecy (1793).
[12] The devil’s chord: A history of Satanism in popular music, Crack Magazine: https://crackmagazine.net/article/long-reads/satan-music/
[13] Dyrendal, Asbjørn. Devilish Consumption: Popular Culture in Satanic Socialization. Numen, vol. 55, no. 1, 2008, pp. 68–98.
[14] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screen_quotas
[15] IHRC Author Evening: Asim Qureshi (2019)-https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULa4XqVnxRY&t=1177s


About the author: Ibraheem Ali is a writer for Traversing Tradition. He is a graduate of English from the UK. His interests include Literature, Film and Islamic History. He is not a fan of twitter.

2 thoughts on “The Devil You Know, Or Thought You Knew

  1. An insightful writing. All those who seek a Divine Being, by their human understanding and petitions for knowledge, face a common enemy, evil. His/its universal commonality is hatred and a desire to injure and kill humans. Thus, when we do this to each other, we ally with Satan, by whatever name we use. And we turn away from mercy and love, our basic understanding of a good God.

    We, who seek peace, must do better, in our societies and cultures.

    Like

  2. There is, I think, an unwitting mistake in the life span of John Milton. It is 1608- 1674, but mistakenly it has been “1608-1874”. See the first line of the second phase of The Georgian Genesis.

    Like

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