Five groups of Islamic militants spoke out against Iraq’s parliamentary elections on Monday, calling them a “satanic project” that violates “the legitimate policy approved by God.” For years, hard-liners in Iran and elsewhere in the Muslim world have called the United States “the Great Satan” and Israel “the Lesser Satan.” What’s the story with the Muslim Satan?
He’s a lot like the Christian Satan. According to sacred Islamic texts, a supernatural being named Azazel was cast down to Earth for refusing to bow down to God’s creation, Adam. Once demoted, Azazel—whose name then became Iblis—collaborated with a serpent (and in some stories, a peacock) to tempt Adam and Eve with forbidden fruit (or in some versions, wheat).
For the most part, the Quran uses two interchangeable names for this character. Iblis comes from the Greek diabolos and corresponds to the English “devil.” The other name, Shaitan, comes from the same Hebrew root as the English “Satan.” By the 10th century, the figure of Iblis had taken on special meaning for the Sufi mystics. According to Sufi tradition, Iblis refused to bow to Adam not because Iblis was arrogant (as the original story suggests), but because he was determinedly monotheistic—he refused to bow to anyone other than God.
While Iblis became a more complex character who represented (for the Sufis, at least) piety and sacrifice, Shaitan served as a more general embodiment of evil. Like the Christian Satan, Shaitan spends his time whispering naughty ideas and seducing people into sin. He also lords over the lesser forces of evil—especially his children, the shaitans. But he’s not an all-powerful Antichrist who rules hell and battles God from a throne of fire. In some contexts, he’s described not as a fallen angel but as the most powerful jinni, a form of lesser spirit.
What does he look like? Muslims don’t have a clear iconography for Iblis, and there’s no Shaitanic counterpart to the red-skinned, pitchfork-wielding demon of Christianity. During the hajj, Shaitan is represented by a featureless stone pillar or wall. Pilgrims “stone Satan” by throwing rocks at the wall.
In Iran, where the Ayatollah Khomeini first dubbed the United States “the Great Satan” in the late 1970s, the words might evoke the divs, or devils, of Persian mythology. These were often depicted as gnarly-looking creatures with horns, dark skin, and protruding teeth. (Ancient literature describes the invasion of Persia by a particularly nasty monster called the White Div.) Posters from the Iranian revolution sometimes depicted Jimmy Carter or Uncle Sam in a demonic guise. In this one, a figure representing Israel and America stands over the shah, who is intertwined with a serpent.
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Explainer thanks Peter Awn of Columbia University, William Beeman of Brown University, and Gordon Newby of Emory University.