Question: The Qur’an relates the example of an unfortunate man whom God made well-informed of His signs and Revelations, but the man cast them aside, and Satan overtook him. He then became of those who went astray, following his carnal desires and Satan (al-A’raf 7:175). What are the reasons that cause one to go astray so gravely while trying to walk on the righteous path?
Answer: The foremost reason for such deviations is forgetting the fact that this life is a testing ground and everything, at every moment, is a component of that test. Those who go astray forget this fact and fall for the deceptions of the carnal soul and Satan. Indeed, man is always faced with both the internal mechanism of the carnal soul and Satan who can never be known when, where and how he will approach and play new tricks on him. These two archenemies usually approach us with a friendly face and try to misguide us by making right seem wrong and vice versa. One needs to always be alert against these tricks. Otherwise, a momentary heedlessness can take one to deceptions that are difficult or even impossible to overcome. In terms of their appeal to our carnal soul and physicality, you can see the temptations of this world as tools of illusion used by Satan, the relentless deceiver. At unexpected moments he makes certain things seem unpredictably very inviting. However, those things that are seemingly pleasant may have disastrous consequences as pointed out in the verse (which means): “It may well be that you dislike a thing but it is good for you, and it may well be that you like a thing but it is bad for you. God knows, and you do not know” (al-Baqarah 2:216). In other words, poisonous honey that you initially enjoy might soon trouble your stomach severely. In the same way, there are certain things people face that they seem bitter and bothersome outwardly, but by putting up with their trouble you can take wing to felicity. For example, Satan wants to make a river in front of your home appear to you as a deep and sinister torrent. However, when you evaluate the issue with sound reason, common sense, and a pure heart and thus gain insight into the issue, this helps to purify you. You see that the river that you feared does not even reach your ankle and furthermore has a purifying quality. As Satan tries to get you into negativities by his illusion, he tries to avert you from doing good by his positive-illusion on the other hand. As the Qur’an states, he is the one that deceives and embellishes; he decks the ugly sins to be appealing.
Satan, the archenemy of humanity, relentlessly watches for our weak moments, figuring out the best time to attack. He takes advantage of weaknesses such as lust, fear, comfort, love for position, or seeking benefit, and topples a person over when he finds the chance.
The Qur’an describes Satan’s grudge against humanity: “Now that You have allowed me to rebel and go astray, I will surely lie in wait for them on Your Straight Path (to lure them from it). Then I will come upon them from before them and from behind them, and from their right and from their left. And You will not find most of them thankful” (al-A’raf 7:16–17). Other verses also describe this unappeasable enemy (translated as): “Then (I swear) by Your Glory, I will certainly cause them all to rebel and go astray” (as-Sa’d 38:82). Taking into consideration these and other verses in the Qur’an, we can say that what lies behind all of people’s misguidance, transgressions, rebellion against God, and heedless indulgences are the goadings and whisperings of Satan.
Who Suffices with What Is in Hand Is a Deceived One
Undoubtedly, what befalls us in the face of such a relentless enemy is not standing somewhere in the middle but adopting a resolved stance and verifying all the values one believes in with reasoning, judgment, and following the established principles in the Qur’an and Sunnah. That is, one needs to have sound faith and due reliance on God in order to be saved from Satan’s evil: “Surely he has no power over those who believe and put their trust in their Lord” (an-Nahl 16:99). It is not possible to be saved from Satan and his traps for those who may content themselves only with the acculturation they received from the environment in which they grew up without deepening their faith through reflection and investigation or trying to internalize the values they believe in.
The Situation of a Person Straddling the Fence
As mentioned in the question, the Qur’an gives the example of a person who does not adopt a clear position with respect to faith and following Divine commands: “Tell them (based on Our Revelation) the story of him whom We made well-informed of Our signs and Revelations, but he cast them off, and Satan overtook him, and he became of those (followers of Satan) who rebel (against God’s way) and go astray” (al-A’raf 7:175).
The Qur’an relates this story to teach us a lesson. That man witnessed manifest signs and had evident works of wonders—to guide him to truth, which would make him see and hear correctly, which would guide his heart to wisdom, but he ignored all this and left everything behind. So it seems this poor man, in spite of being granted certain blessings, failed to define a clear position and take a sound stance; he could not save himself straddling the fence. In other words, although he lived in a suitable environment for practicing faith, he failed to ingrain in himself the truths he had learned from the culture he was raised in. That poor man did not show any personal effort to verify what he inherited, did not ponder it, nor try to rebuild the world of his feelings, thoughts, and beliefs by giving his willpower its due; ultimately, he became a loser. According to the statements of some interpreters of the Qur’an, his knowing the Ism al-Azam (greatest Divine Name) and Divine secrets did not do him any good; he did not make them an integral part of his character or nature, and thus they did not belong to him. In this respect, if people do not restore the thoughts they inherit from their ancestry and have an unshakeable faith by verifying and internalizing every piece of the information they possess, then Satan can cast doubts and hesitations into them, polluting their hearts and minds.
Talk of the Beloved All the Time
The verse continues by stating, “If We had willed (to impede the way he chose by his free will), We could indeed have lifted him (towards the heaven of perfections enabled by faith) through those signs and Revelations, but (by his own free choice) he clung to the earth and followed his desires” (al-A’raf 7:176). That is, he was taken by comfort, physicality, fame, imitation, praises, fancies, and desires, and thus forgot that the bestowals he enjoyed essentially belong to God. When he became oblivious of this fact, God left him to oblivion. The verse then states (translated as): “So (in his being surrendered to greed), his likeness is that of a dog: if you move to drive it away, it pants with its tongue lolling out (still hoping to be fed more), or if you leave it, it pants with its tongue lolling out” (al-A’raf 7:176). And a few verses later, the situation of such people is described as: “They are like cattle (following only their instincts)—rather, even more astray” (al-A’raf 7:179). Due to their carnal, animalistic desires, they fall down to a status lower than the lowliest creatures.
Humanity is indeed honored with the best pattern of creation, as candidates for exaltedness. Although human essence is potentially even superior to angels, their downfall does not take them to ground zero but to a deep pit much lower than that. That is, a man who has become a slave to his desires and fancies, he cannot even keep the level of an ordinary man but falls to a level below animals. While describing the situation of such a person—owing to the gravity of the matter—the style of the Word of God changes here significantly and the conduct of the person in question is likened to animal behavior. To conclude, if a person is not walking determinedly, not improving his abilities to comply with the needs of walking on this righteous path, and lacking the resolution for constant self-renewal, if he is not upholding the truth of the Prophetic statement, “Renew your faith by La ilaha illa’llah,”1 it is always possible for him to be stopped by one of these obstacles. In order to overcome all of these obstacles and reach their target, individuals must concentrate their powers on retaining their faith; they should build insurmountable walls around it and continuously feed their heart and spirit with good, righteous deeds and attending religious talks.
1. Al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi, Nawadiru’l-Usul, 2/204
This text is the translation of “Nefis, Şeytan ve A’raftakiler.”