The Evil in this World: It All Started with a Forbidden Fruit
Commentary by Maimoona Harrington
The origin of evil as described in Islam goes back to the early times when Allah, SWT (God), created Adam from clay. He then asked his other creations, angels and jinn, to prostrate to Adam. All did except “Iblis.” Iblis was a jinn and believed that since he was created from fire, an element superior to clay, why should he, then, prostrate to someone who is created from mere clay.
This is when evil appeared in its first form — the evil of arrogance and superiority. This is when Iblis got the title of Satan — Shaitan — devil, demon or evil spirit.
The word Satan — Shaitan — is mentioned approximately 88 times in the Quran.
Shaitan, or Satan, is an adjective and a title. Iblis was not created evil — indeed nothing is — but at that time, his ‘Nafs al-Ammara Bissu’ — the Nafs that urge evil, took over him.
Nafs is an Arabic word and lexically it means soul, the ego, the psyche, self, heart or mind.
The Quran narrates a dialogue between God and Satan. Below are the verses from one of those dialogues from chapter 15 called “Al-Hijr.”
God said, ‘Iblis, why did you not bow down like the others?’ and he answered, ‘I will not bow to a mortal You created from dried clay, formed from dark mud.’ ‘Get out of here!’ said God. ‘You are an outcast, rejected until the Day of Judgment.’ Iblis said, ‘My Lord, give me respite until the Day when they are raised from the dead.’ ‘You have respite.’ said God, ‘until the Day of the Appointed Time.’ Iblis then said to God, ‘Because You have put me in the wrong, I will lure mankind on earth and put them in the wrong, all except Your devoted servants.Quran (Chapter 15, Verse 32-40)
Iblis in his determination lured Eve to disobey Allah’s order to not eat the forbidden fruit. She did and convinced Adam to do same. As soon as they did this and went against Allah’s, SWT’s, order, they realized the mistake they made. Adam and Eve were both without the inclination of evil. However, Iblis tempted them to commit evil. This is when their ‘Nafs,’ that urge toward evil, took over. As the story goes, both Adam and Eve were shameful for what they did and sought forgiveness from Allah, SWT.
Allah, SWT, then sent them to earth.
Since then, as Iblis vowed, he has been coming into many forms of evil and demons to steer humanity away from good. He continues to tempt us through our “Nafs.”
There are three main stages of our Nafs. A Nafs that urges us to do evil, a Nafs that blames us and makes us feel guilty and, then, a Nafs that is content and is at peace and does not get attracted to sin and does not want to commit any evil — a satisfied and a self-controlled Nafs, a Nafs at peace.
The only thing Satan has is to lure and mislead man through his devilish insinuations to commit evil. The man, in return, also has an intellect, a conscious and a free will to make choices between right and wrong. Through will power and intellect, conscious man can overcome Satan’s lures.
“Children of Adam, We have given you garments to cover your nakedness and as adornment for you; the garment of God — consciousness is the best of all garments — this is one of God’s sign, so that people may take heed.”Quran (Chapter 7, Verse 27)
We are the noblest of Allah’s, SWT, creation, and we are equipped to fight evil within us and around us. Yet, as humans we also lose control, which is quite natural and understandable. Besides all our temptations, and instincts, we do have a way to come clean and never to commit evil again, and that’s through repentance. Just like Adam and Eve did when they asked their Lord for repentance.
“They replied, ‘Our Lord, we have wronged our souls: if You don’t forgive us and have mercy, we shall be lost.‘”Quran (Chapter 7, Verse 23)
We can seek repentance for all our intentional or unintentional, big or small sins. One of the attributes of Allah, SWT, is that he is the most forgiving!
“Say, ‘[God says], My servants who have harmed yourselves by your own excess, do not despair of God’s mercy. God Forgives all sins: He is truly the Most Forgiving, the Most Merciful.’”Quran (Chapter 39, Verse 53)
I have no shame in admitting that I have sinned during my lifetime. In times of despair, I have been weak in my resolution to fight evil and temptations. My ‘Nafs al-lawwāmah’ (the Nafs that blames) gave me the ability to realize that I have committed a sin, so I repented. It was my guilt and remorse that stopped me from committing the same mistake again. In the end, it is my faith that holds me and brings me peace.
I assure you it has not been an easy journey, and this will go on while I breathe. I will have to battle the evil within myself, but the good part is that I have found strength through my faith to fight evil.
We should not let the evil win but work on ourselves to make us better human beings. And repent, as repentance brings our soul peace and our “Nafs,” our consciousnesses and temptations, under our control.
While Satan has his powers to mislead and lure us into committing evil, our God has also equipped and well-armed us with the capabilities and resolution to fight him back. Our Creator has an absolute confidence in our abilities to fight evil off and live our lives with Nafs al Mutmaʿinna (the Nafs at Peace). This is the stage that brings us peace and contentment.
Maimoona Harrington was born and raised in Pakistan and moved to the United States with her family in 2008. She is married and a mother of two sons. She has a bachelor’s degree in Islamic studies and sociology from Pakistan and a bachelor’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies from United States. Along with her career as an interpreter, translator and monitor, she is also an Islamic and Pakistani Culture Adviser. As a practicing Muslim with extensive world travel and living in the West, she has devoted herself to spread awareness of Islam as a goodwill gesture. In an effort to do this, she started writing from her own personal experiences with religion, beliefs and life in a different culture. She also has special interest in all the religions and how and why they are all important to its followers. Her primary focus is on the co-existence and harmony between all human beings. Her message is to spread peace not division. She strongly believes that if you want to be closer to your creator then love His creation unconditionally and expect nothing in return for He loves us unconditionally and forgives us no matter how sinful we are!
As a practicing Muslim with the extensive world travel and living in the West, she has devoted herself to spread awareness of Islam as a goodwill gesture. In an effort to do this she started writing from her own personal experiences with religion, beliefs and life in a different culture. She also has special interest in all the religions and how and why they are all important to its followers. Her primary focus is on the co-existence and harmony between all human beings. Her message is to spread peace not division. She strongly believes that if you want to be closer to your creator then love His creation unconditionally and expect nothing in return for He loves us unconditionally and forgives us no matter how sinful we are!
For thousands of years, the identity of the forbidden fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden story has been unknown. If the fruit is the traditionally believed apple, or another literal fruit, it would simply be called by its literal name, and not the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Because eating a piece of this literal fruit would give only knowledge of the literal fruit’s taste, not knowledge of good and evil. So…
If literal fruit is not the fruit in the world’s oldest and greatest mystery story, then what is the fruit? Why are the two super secret trees assigned the mystical names “tree of life” and “tree of knowledge of good and evil?” Is the talking snake Evil Angel speaking words, or does the talk represent something more subtle? Could two men have yielded to Adam and Eve’s temptation? Why would a smart man and woman eat from a forbidden fruit tree, instead of from one that is NOT forbidden, especially when both “trees” are right next to each other in the center of the Garden? How is the couple’s disobedience of the very first commandment to be fruitful and multiply while in the Garden linked to their decision to make only fig leaf aprons, instead of complete clothing, in this incomprehensible narrative, with its guesswork of interpretations and its hints of sexual behavior?
A lone exegesis combines all six questions for one answer, using only evidence in the dreamlike Bible chronicle, for an intelligent and sensible explanation of the world’s oldest and greatest fruit mystery. This evidence in the Genesis 2 and 3 Bible story identifies the fruit as carnal pleasure. The solid evidence offers no support for historical fruit identity opinions. But, even with the evidence, is this unique exegesis the correct exegesis?
Bad Day in the Garden
They eat the fruit, but what do they eat?
We lift the veil, for a wary peek.
Through a forest of mystery hiding it all,
We see a body, naked and weak.
“The Random House Dictionary of the English Language” defines allegory as “a representation of an abstract, or spiritual meaning through concrete, or material forms; figurative treatment of one subject under the guise of another.” It’s difficult to imagine a better definition than this one. But it’s even more difficult to imagine anyone making any sense of the second and third chapters of Genesis by taking everything in the two chapters literally. When was the last time someone went into a grocery store and bought some knowledge of good and evil fruit?
Although most elements in Genesis 2 and 3 represent something else, there are a number of facts in the story that can be taken at face value.
1. Adam and Eve have real human bodies.
2. Adam and Eve are not wearing any clothes.
3. God has forbidden them to do something.
4. They have disobeyed God.
5. God has punished them both for their disobedience.
The above five facts form the basis for the religious beliefs of many people who are not interested in allegories, and of many who are. But there is an all-important sixth fact, the knowledge of which would do no harm to anyone’s religious beliefs.
This BODY is the Garden in whose center grow
The two famous trees, but nowhere a weevil.
Here is the tree of life and the one
Of knowledge of good and knowledge of evil.
This sixth fact is the key that unlocks the door, opens it, and solves the mystery: both trees are in the center of the garden. This fact is so important that it is mentioned, not just once, but twice: Genesis 2:9 and Genesis 3:3. (In Genesis 3:3 the tree of life is not specifically mentioned, but we know it is there, because we were told it is there in Genesis 2:9.) Technically, both trees could not occupy the center of the garden at the same time, unless they were entwined. But, there is no evidence for entwinement here. What these two verses tell us, is that both trees are very close to each other.
Because the two trees are right next to each other
Care must be taken to avoid the one bad.
For the fruit of both trees is pleasure,
So the pleasure is there to be had.
To be fruitful and multiply eat from the first.
But eat from the second and no one conceives.
So here we go now: one, two, three–
Pleasure, shame, fig tree leaves.
God’s first commandment to Adam and Eve was to be fruitful and multiply. To be fruitful and multiply, eat from the first. But eat from the second and no one conceives. Adam and Eve eat from the forbidden second tree, and as a result, produce no children while in the Garden of Eden. Instead of engaging in the procreative process as commanded, they use, as a procreative organ, a delivery system designed for delivery, but not for delivery of children.
This material is not just a brain teaser, nor hopefully is it an example of sophomoric cleverness. It’s really quite simple: explanations of certain fearful mysteries buried in the story for thousands of years, have been exhumed by using verse, rather than prose, to more easily reveal these explanations. The quality of the verse is both irrelevant and unimportant.
Please note: some parts of the story are totally acceptable as both symbolic and literal narrative, at least up to a point. For example, the symbolic garden can be juxtaposed with a literal garden, complete with fruit trees. Other sections can be taken as literal accounts, extra material such as Genesis 3:20-21, in which Adam gives Eve her name and God shows compassion for the pair by clothing them in animal skins for warmth, before evicting them from the garden, symbolic and literal, into the graceless and cold outside world where they forfeit their gift of eternal life they would have had if they had eaten only from the tree of life. (Genesis 3:22)
The Genesis story tells us in Genesis 2:9 and 3:3 both trees are in the center of the Garden. So the forbidden Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil is right next to the allowed tree, the Tree of Life, and its fruit. If the forbidden fruit from the forbidden tree is literal fruit, the eating of this fruit would give only knowledge of the fruit’s taste, not knowledge of good and evil. But the covering of the genitals with fig leaf aprons following the eating of the “fruit” does indicate sudden acquisition of knowledge of good and evil, a knowledge that results in a certain type of shame. It is difficult to understand how eating literal fruit results in this type of shame. And it is difficult to understand how normal and necessary physical relations between Adam and Eve result in this type of shame, since the first and only specified commandment to them is to “Be fruitful and multiply” in the Garden, a commandment they disobey, because no children are produced until after the eviction from Eden, and after they have normal and necessary physical relations for the first time in Genesis 4:1. But their obedience is too late: guardian cherubim and a flaming sword prevent reentry into the Garden.
Adam and Eve execute a double disobedience when they eat of the forbidden fruit–they fail to procreate, by doing what they are forbidden to do. And they fail to procreate, by not doing what they are commanded to do. Both failures occur simultaneously. The fruit in the Garden of Eden is not forbidden carnal pleasure, but forbidden nonprocreative carnal pleasure–nonprocreative carnal pleasure derived from a specific forbidden physical act.
Postscript: Traditional Identity of The Fruit Persists
The widespread belief that the fruit is an apple has its genesis in the 12th century, based on Saint Jerome’s earlier 4th century Vulgate translation, in which he substituted the later corrected “malum,” meaning “apple,” for “malus,” meaning “evil,” to identify the forbidden fruit Adam and Eve ate. And this error remains the apex identity reaching us in the 21st century, still based on no evidence for the existence of a literal fruit. But to end on a positive note, the acceptance of the evidence-based exegesis of the identity of the fruit in the world’s oldest mystery story is at last making headway, as increasing numbers of people manage to set aside the emotions and feelings spinning them in circles, and acknowledge–at least until a better exegesis appears–the evidence in the Bible story of the talking fruit snake. This long-forgotten exegesis explains everything as it superimposes the allegorical Eden Garden upon its literal counterpart. The exegesis offers enlightenment for the untrue and oft repeated, “Only God knows what fruit they ate.” Yes, a Deity would know what “fruit” they “ate,” but the evidence in the Genesis story reveals the Deity’s knowledge of the fruit’s identity to anyone who wishes to know, and has the courage to overcome their emotional resistance and uneasiness resulting from being exposed to this knowledge. Would this exposure be eating forbidden knowledge once again? Would a Deity want us to remain ignorant of the Genesis story’s meaning? No to both questions, because our garden is not their Garden–we are not living in the Garden of Eden’s state of grace. And secondly, the evidence in the story clearly tells us that Adam and Eve did not disobey the “be fruitful and multiply” Genesis 1:28 commandment for the purpose of acquiring knowledge of good and evil. Their acquisition of this knowledge was a byproduct of their disobedient behavior, which was to experience nonprocreative physical pleasure by eating allegorical fruit from the allegorical wrong tree in the center of an allegorical garden, while at the same time quite possibly living in a literal garden with literal fruit trees and literal snakes that do not talk to women.
Just Another Doctrinal Neologism?
Is this exegesis beginning with Genesis 1:28, continuing through Genesis 2 and 3, and concluding with Genesis 4:1 just another neologism? No, it is not. If the exegesis is only another neologism, but not the exhumation and revelation of the original story, then not only do the individuals who first hear the story have absolutely no idea what the story means, but neither does the original storyteller. Imagine the storyteller saying, “Sometimes I just say things. I don’t know what they mean.” It is somewhat difficult to imagine this event happening.
If it does happen, then the original storyteller tells the story while having no understanding of the words being said, unless the storyteller decides to deliberately disguise and beautify the story, to hide its true meaning. This will certainly require complex ability, to intentionally mystify at the very dawn of human consciousness. It will also require the original listeners to not ask the original storyteller any questions about this new story–a story that makes no sense. So, the mystification probably happens later. And, of course, when it does, everyone will know the meaning of the entire story. For a while.
Summary and a Question
They disobey the Genesis 1:28 commandment–the first commandment–to “be fruitful and multiply [in the Garden]” when they become one flesh incorrectly (Genesis 2:24) by eating from the wrong tree in the Garden’s center (Genesis 2:9).
The entire evidence-based exegesis is included in the preceding one-sentence summary you have just read. But why was this confusing allegory, whatever its meaning, constructed in the first place, as the original literal story most certainly came first, a story which confused absolutely no one, unlike the allegory into which it evolved?
Thank you for your detailed response to my column. Your writing is a column in itself. Being a novice writer, I tried to explain how evil’s own existence is explained in Islam. Quran as Islam’s scripture uses many metaphors and analogies to explain primary characteristics and leaves room for interpretation. A fruit apple or orange by some is not a literal fruit but it’s an act. For centuries we are mesmerized with the analogy of this fruit! But again if it was not there then we would have not been here on this world : )
Once again thank you for your thought provoking comment on my article with references and quotes.