Louis Palme / Nov 14, 2007

Almost 25 years ago, the noted American psychologist Dr. M. Scott Peck wrote a book in which he attempted to characterize human evil.  The book was titled People of the Lie, and it is still available for sale in stores and on-line.  While he made brief allusions to the German Nazis and other extremist ideologies, Dr. Peck did not connect human evil with Islamic doctrine.  However, using his perspectives on human evil, it is easy to see evil in many pronouncements by Muhammad and the Quran.


This essay is an attempt to identify those links between human evil and Islam.  In doing so, the reader must be forewarned that the focus on evil unavoidably skirts the commendable aspects of Islam.  Just as the outlines of animal or human figures associated with stellar constellations do not incorporate all of the visible stars,  this focus on Islamic evil highlights only the “broad outlines” of Islamic doctrine that are relevant,  and so it is not an all-inclusive photograph. 


That said, the principal texts quoted below (left-justified) are from People of the Lie, and the indented texts are primarily from the Quran, Bukhari’s collection of Hadith, and the biographies of Muhammad by Ishaq and al-Tabari.  Quran quotations are from N. J. Dawood’s translation. Other sources are identified as needed. The ellipses are merely to keep the length of the essay as short as possible without distorting the original meaning of the texts. The quotations from Dr. Peck’s book have been re-arranged slightly to keep similar themes together.  It will be left to the reader to assess the relevance and the significance of each quotation relative to tenants of Islam.



Basic Premises Regarding Evil


Evil is in opposition to life. It is that which opposes the life force. It has, in short, to do with killing.  Specifically, it has to do with murder – namely, unnecessary killing, killing that is not required for biological survival.  (p. 42)


Allah has purchased from the faithful their lives and worldly goods and in return has promised them the Garden. They will fight for the cause of Allah, slay and be slain. . . . Rejoice then in the bargain you have made.               (Surah 9:111)


Evil is also that which kills spirit. There are various essential attributes of life – particularly human life – such as sentience, mobility, awareness, growth, autonomy, and will.  It is possible to kill or attempt to kill one of these attributes without actually destroying the body. (p. 42)


Say, “I was commanded to be the first to submit. . .”  Say, “I will never disobey my Lord, for I fear the torment of a fateful day.”  . .If Allah afflicts you with evil, none can remove it but He. . . He reigns supreme over His servants [Pickthall: ‘slaves’].       (Surah 6:15-18)


Evil, then, for the moment, is that force, residing either inside or outside of human beings, that seeks to kill life or liveliness. And goodness is its opposite. Goodness is that which promotes life and liveliness. (p. 43)


[E]vil human beings are quite common and usually appear quite ordinary to the superficial observer. (p. 47)


If one wants to seek out evil people, the simplest way to do so is to trace them from their victims (p. 107 n.)


Muslims were the first victims of Islam. Many times I have observed in my travels that fanaticism comes from a small number of dangerous men who maintain others in the practice of this religion by terror. To liberate the Muslim from his religion is the best service that one can render him.

 (French philosopher Ernest Renan, 1823 – 1892)


The feeling that a healthy person often experiences in relationship with evil is revulsion. The feeling of revulsion may be almost instant if the evil encountered is blatant. . . Evil is revolting because it is dangerous.  It will contaminate or otherwise destroy a person who remains too long in its presence. (p. 65)


Fighting is obligatory for you, much as you dislike it. But you may hate a thing although it is good for you, and love a thing although it is bad for you. Allah knows, but you know not. (Surah 2:216)


The basic premise of this school of thought is that the good of the acts of those morally responsible is what the Lawgiver (syn. Allah or his Messenger) has indicated is good by permitting it or asking it be done. And the bad is what the Lawgiver has indicated is bad by asking it not be done. The good is not what reason considers good, nor the bad what reason considers bad. The measure of good and bad, according to this school of thought, is the Sacred Law, not reason.  (al-Misri, Reliance of the Traveler, A Classic Manual of Islamic Sacred Law, para. a1.4)


An illness or disease is [defined as] any defect in the structure of our bodies or personalities that prevents us from fulfilling our potential as human beings.  For the label of disease implies that the disorder is not inevitable, that healing should be possible, that it should be studied scientifically and methods of treatment should be sought. The designation of evil as a disease also obligates us to approach the evil with compassion. . . Evil is distinguished by:

            a) consistent destructive, scapegoating behavior, which may often be quite subtle.

b) excessive, albeit usually covert, intolerance to criticism . . .

c) pronounced concern with a public image and self-image of respectability . .

d) intellectual deviousness . .    (p. 126-129)


How can they be evil and not designated as criminals?  . . . They are criminals in that they commit “crimes” against life and liveliness. But except in rare instances – such as the case of a Hitler [and Muhammad] – when they might achieve extraordinary degrees of political power that remove them from ordinary restraints, their “crimes” are so subtle and covert that that they cannot clearly be designated as crimes.  (p. 69)



Consistent Destructive Behavior


If the devil is lurking around, as some suggest, looking for souls who’ll sell out to him, I’m damn sure he’s focusing all his attention on those people who are suffering some kind of duress. (p. 32)



Erich Fromm . . broadened his definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others – to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line.  [The aim of a necrophilic character type ] is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity. (p. 43)


If anyone introduces an innovation or gives shelter to a man who introduces an innovation (in religion), he is cursed by Allah, by His angels, and by all the people.  (A quotation of Muhammad narrated by Ali ibn Abu Talib in the hadith collection of Abu Dawud)


The best speech is that embodied in the Book of Allah, and the best guidance is the guidance given by Muhammad. The most evil affairs are their innovations; and every innovation is an error. (A quotation of Muhammad narrated by Jabir ibn Abdullah in the hadith collection of Muslim)



It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people; rather, it is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins.  This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it. (p. 69)


Prophet, We have made lawful to you the wives to whom you have granted dowries and the slave-girls whom Allah has given you as booty; the daughters of your paternal and maternal uncles and of your paternal and maternal aunts who fled with you; and any believing woman who gives herself to the Prophet and whom the Prophet wishes to take in marriage. This privilege is yours alone, being granted to no other believer . . .We grant you this privilege so that none may blame you.  (Surah 33:50-51)

[Note: Muhammad is reported to have had 20 wives and a number of captured concubines.]


If evil people cannot be defined by the illegality of their deeds or the magnitude of their sins, then how are we to define them?  The answer is by the consistency of their sins. While usually subtle, their destructiveness is remarkably consistent.  This is because those who have “crossed the line” are characterized by their absolute refusal to tolerate the sense of their own sinfulness. (p. 71)


And when Zayd [Muhammad’s adopted son] divorced his wife [after Muhammad envied her] We [Allah] gave her to you [Muhammad] in marriage, so that it should become legitimate for true believers to wed the wives of their adopted sons if they divorced them.  Allah’s will must needs be done. No blame shall be attached to the Prophet for doing what is sanctioned for him by Allah.  (Surah 33:37-38)


Had there not been a previous sanction from Allah, you would have been sternly punished for what you have taken [in spoils]. Enjoy therefore the good and lawful things which you have gained in war, and fear Allah.  (Surah 8:69)


The reader will be struck by the extraordinary willfulness of evil people. . . There is a remarkable power in the manner in which they attempt to control others. . . Perhaps the evil are born so inherently strong-willed that it is impossible for them to ever to submit their will.  (p. 78-79)


 In the name of Allah, the Merciful and Compassionate. From Muhammad, the Messenger of Allah, to Kisra [Greek: Chosroes] the ruler of Persia.  Peace be upon whoever follows right guidance, believes in Allah and His Messenger, and testifies that there is no god but Allah alone, Who has no partner, and that Muhammad is His servant and His messenger. I summon you with the Summons of Allah; for I am the Messenger of Allah to all mankind, to warn whoever is alive, and that the word may be fulfilled against the unbelievers.  Submit yourself, and you shall be safe.  If you refuse, the sin of the Magians [Zoroastrians who were conquered] will be upon you. (Letter from Muhammad. Later, when Muhammad learned that Kisra tore up the letter in defiance, Muhammad said, “His kingdom has been torn up.”  -- from Al-Tabari, Vol. VIII, No. 1573)


The evil in this world is committed by the spiritual fat cats, by the Pharisees of our own day, the self-righteous who think they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination. . . . They are remarkably greedy people.  [T]he most basic sin is laziness.  [I]t may be pride – because all sins are repairable except the sin of believing one is without sin. (p. 72)


Allah’s Apostle said, “I have been given five things which were not given to any amongst the Prophets before me. These are: 1) Allah made me victorious by awe (by His frightening my enemies) for a distance of one month’s journey; 2) The earth has been made for me (and for my followers) a place for praying and a thing to perform tayammum (purification with dirt when water isn’t available). Therefore my followers can pray wherever the time of a prayer is due; 3) The booty has been made halal (lawful) for me (and was not made so for anyone else); 4) Every Prophet used to be sent to his nation exclusively but I have been sent to all mankind; and 5) I have been given the right of intercession (on the Day of Resurrection).”  (Bukhari Vol. 1, No. 429)


Allah’s Apostle said, “I have been sent with the shortest expressions bearing the widest meanings, and I have been made victorious with terror, and while I was sleeping, the keys of the treasures of the world were brought to me and put in my hand.”  (Bukhari, Vol. 4, No. 220)



Because their willfulness is so extraordinary – and always accompanied by a lust for power – I suspect that the evil are more likely than most to politically aggrandize themselves.  Yet at the same time, being unsubmitted, their extreme willfulness is likely to lead them to political debacles. (p. 177)


[When Muhammad was on his deathbed, he had made no provision for his successor.  He died midday on Monday. Rather than bury him immediately, as was the custom, his noble companions debated the succession issue, which was basically between Abu Bakr his father-in-law and Ali, his son-in-law. They also disputed the burial site. Finally, in the middle of the night on Wednesday, Muhammad was secretly buried by Ali right below his bed. Abu Bakr hadn’t even been told.  Abu Bakr’s faction believed that successors should be chosen by the community and is called Sunni, and Ali’s faction believed succession should follow the family line is called Shi’ite (partisans to Ali). This “political” dispute was never satisfactorily resolved, and it festers to this day often in bloody confrontations.  (See Ishaq, pp. 682-688)]



Scapegoating – Projecting Evil Onto Others


A predominant characteristic, however, of the behavior of those I call evil is scapegoating. Because in their hearts they consider themselves above reproach, they must lash out at anyone who does reproach them.  They sacrifice others to preserve their self-image of  perfection. . . Scapegoating works through a mechanism psychiatrists call projection. . .  Since they must deny their own evil, they must perceive others as bad. They project their own evil onto the world.  They never think of themselves as evil; on the other hand, they consequently see much evil in others. (p. 73-74)


Believers, take neither Jews nor Christians for your friends. They are friends with one another. Whoever of you seeks their friendship shall become one of their number. (Surah 5:51)


Say: ‘People of the Book [Jews], is it not that you hate us only because we believe in Allah and in what has been revealed to us and to others before, and because  most of  you are evil doers?’

Say: ‘Shall I tell you who will receive a worse reward from Allah? Those whom Allah has cursed and with whom He has been angry, transforming them into apes and swine, and those who serve the devil. (Surah 5:59)


As has been noted, it is characteristic of those who are evil to judge others as evil.  Unable to acknowledge their own imperfections, they must explain away their flaws by blaming others.  And, if necessary, they will even destroy others in the name of righteousness. (p. 255)


When the sacred months are over slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them. . . . For the idolaters are ignorant men.  Allah and His apostle repose no trust in idolaters . . .How can you trust them?. . . Most of them are evil-doers. . . Evil is what they do. . . .They were the first to attack you.  (Surah 9:5-13)


Never have We sent a single prophet or apostle before with whose wishes Satan did not tamper. But Allah abrogates the interjections of Satan and confirms His own revelations.  Allah is all-knowing and wise. He makes Satan’s interjections a temptation for those whose hearts are diseased and hardened . . . (Surah 22:47) [Note: this statement is in reference to the mention of the Arab pagan godesses Al-Lat, Al-Uzza, and Manat in Surah 53:20 (actually preceding Surah 22 chronologically), for which Muhammad was widely criticized.]


Concern Over Public Image and Respectability


Utterly dedicated to preserving their self-image of perfection, [the evil] are unceasingly engaged in the effort to maintain the appearance of moral purity. They worry about this a great deal. They are acutely sensitive to social norms and what others might think of them. . . While they seem to lack any motivation to be good, they intensely desire to appear good. Their “goodness” is all on a level of pretense. It is, in effect, a lie. This is why they are the “people of the lie.”  Yet the self-deceit would be unnecessary if the evil had no sense of right and wrong. We lie only when we are attempting to cover up something we know to be illicit.  (p. 75-76) 


Allah has now revealed the best of scriptures, a Book uniform in style proclaiming promises and warnings. . .  A Quran in the Arabic tongue, free from any flaw, that they may guard themselves against evil. (Surah 39:22-27)


If We abrogate a verse or cause it to be forgotten, We will replace it by a better one or one similar. Did you not know that Allah has power over all things?  (Surah 2:106)


[When Muhammad and his followers were driven out of Mecca, they migrated to Medina.  They were destitute, and there was little work for them to support themselves. As was sometimes practiced by the Bedoins of that era, they resorted to robbing merchant caravans that passed through the desert.  Caravans dealt with this menace by having armed escorts.  However, during the religious pilgrimage month, all tribes foreswore violence, so security was relaxed.  On the last day of the sacred month of Rajab in 624, Muhammad’s raiding party came across a Quraysh caravan. They knew that if they didn’t attack it that evening it would pass on into safety by the next day. After conferring among themselves, the raiders decided to attack anyway, killing one Quraysh, capturing two and stealing the shipment of raisins, leather, and other merchandise.  When the raiders returned to Muhammad and reported to him what they had done, his first response was, “I did not order you to fight in the sacred month.” (This was actually the first successful raid by the Muslims.) When the raiders tried to share 20 percent of their booty with Muhammad as was required, he impounded the entire ‘take’ as well as the captives.  Bear in mind that the concern was not about robbing or killing, but rather the scandal of doing it in the sacred month.  Some followers rationalized that perhaps the raiders got the date of their raid wrong. But the temptation of the spoils was too much for Muhammad. Soon, he “received” a message from Allah, Surah 2:217 – “Idolatry is worse than carnage” --, sanctifying the attack.  (From The History of Al-Tabari, Vol. VII, para. 1274-79)] 




Intolerance of Criticism


The evil hate the light – the light of goodness that shows them up, the light of scrutiny that exposes them, the light of truth that penetrates their deception. (p. 77)


[The biographies of Muhammad by Ishaq and al-Tabari contain accounts of several poets in Medina who were murdered because their poems criticizing  Muhammad.  They include Ka’b b. al-Ashraf, Abu Afak (a 120 year old Jew), Asma bint Marwan (a mother of five who was stabbed at night with a child asleep on her breast), and two slave women.]


The evil are “the people of the lie,” deceiving others as they also build layer upon layer of self-deception. [W]hile evil people are still to be feared, they are also to be pitied. Forever fleeing the light of self-exposure and the voice of their own conscience, they are the most frightened of human beings. (p. 66-67)


You must not speak ill of God’s apostle, nor shall you ever wed his wives after him; this would be a grave offense in the sight of Allah. (Surah 33:54)


We can see, then, that their narcissism makes the evil dangerous not only because it motivates them to scapegoat others but also because it deprives them of the restraint that results from empathy or respect for others.  As it gives them the motive for murder, so it also renders them insensitive to the act of killing. (p. 136)


I shall cast terror into the hearts of the infidels. Strike off their heads, strike off the very tips of their fingers!  (Surah 8:12)


Those that make war against Allah and His apostle and spread disorder in the land shall be put to death or crucified or have their hands and feet cut off on alternate sides, or be banished from the country.  . . As for the man or woman who is guilty of theft, cut off their hands to punish them for their crimes. That is the punishment enjoined by Allah.  (Surah 5:33-38)


When the apostle heard what [Asma bint Marwan] has said [criticizing him], he said, “Who will rid me of Marwan’s daughter?” ‘Umar b. ‘Adiy al-Khatmi who was with him heard him, and that very night he went to her house and killed her. In the morning he came to the apostle and told him what he had done and he said, “You have helped Allah and His apostle, O ‘Umayr!”  When he asked if he would have to bear any evil consequences the apostle said, “Two goats won’t butt their heads about her,” so ‘Umayr went back to his his people.    (Ishaq, para 996)


The evil flee both self-examination and any situation in which they might be closely examined by others. (p. 150)


Believers, do not behave presumptuously in the presence of Allah and His apostle. Believers do not raise your voices above the voice of the Prophet, or shout aloud when speaking to him as you do to one another, lest your labors should come to nothing without your knowledge. Those who speak softly in the presence of Allah’s apostle are the men whose hearts Allah has tested for piety. Forgiveness and rich reward await them . . . Believers, if an evil-doer brings you a piece of news inquire first into its truth, lest you should wrong others unwittingly and then regret the action. Know that Allah’s apostle is among you.  If he obeyed you in many matters, you would surely come to grief. . . Believers, avoid immoderate suspicion, for in some cases suspicion is a crime.  (Surah 49:1-12)



Intellectual Deviousness


The evil always hide their motives with lies. (p. 105)


It was not you, but Allah, who slew them.  It was not you who smote them: Allah smote them so that He might richly reward the faithful. (Surah 8:17)


Magical thinking can take on a variety of forms, but basically it is a belief that thoughts in and of themselves may cause events to occur. (p. 36)


May the hands of Abu-Lahab [Muhammad’s uncle and one of his staunchest opponents] perish! May he himself perish! Nothing shall his wealth and gains avail him. He shall be burnt in a flaming fire [a pun on Abu-Lahab which means ‘father of flame’], and his wife, laden with firewood, shall have a rope of fibre around her neck!   (Surah 111:1-5)


I know now that one of the characteristics of evil is its desire to confuse.  (p. 179)


[The People of the Book] did not kill [Jesus], nor did they crucify him, but they thought they did (or literally, ‘he was made to resemble another for them’).  Those that disagreed about him were in doubt concerning him; they knew nothing about him that was not sheer conjecture; they did not slay him for certain. God lifted him up to Himself. . .  (Surah 4:157)


The postponement of sacred months is a grossly impious practice, in which the unbelievers are misguided. They allow it one year and forbid it in the next, so that they may make up for the months which Allah has sanctified, thus making lawful what Allah has forbidden. Their foul acts seem fair to them: Allah does not guide the unbelievers.  [This was a condemnation of intercalculation, a needed adjustment to reconcile the 354 day Islamic lunar year with the 365 day solar year.]  (Surah 9:37)



. . .Satan does not understand science. Science is an anti-narcissistic phenomenon. Deceiver of itself as of others, Satan cannot understand why any beings would not want to deceive themselves [with myths of their own making].  (p. 208-209)


Tell how We [Allah] sent you [Muhammad] a band of jinn [intelligent, usually invisible, creatures who can choose between good and evil] who, when they came and listened to the Quran, said to each other: “Hush! Hush!” As soon as it was ended they betook themselves to their people and gave them a warning. “Our people,” they said, “we have just been listening to a scripture revealed since the time of Moses, confirming previous scriptures and directing to the truth and to a straight path. Our people, answer the call of God’s summoner and believe in Him!”   (Surah 46:29)



Conclusion and Action


I have learned nothing in twenty years that would suggest that evil people can be rapidly influenced by any means other than raw power.  They do not respond, at least in the short run, to either gentle kindness or any form of spiritual persuasion with which I am familiar.  (p. 68)


We do not become partners to evil by accident.  As adults we are not forced by fate to become trapped by an evil power; we set the trap ourselves. . . Vast numbers may so easily participate with each other in the most atrocious behavior. (p. 118)


We might therefore think of human good and evil as a kind of continuum. . . [According to Eric Fromm,] Our capacity to choose changes constantly with our practice of life. . .[E]ach act of surrender and cowardice weakens me, opens the path for more acts of surrender, and eventually freedom is lost.  [People] fail because they do not wake up and see when they stand at a fork in the road and have to decide. . . Then with each step along the wrong road it becomes increasingly difficult for them to admit that they are on the wrong road . .[W]e become evil slowly over time through a long series of choices. . . We must ultimately belong either to God or to the devil.  (p. 81-83)


The major threats to our survival no longer stem from nature without but from our own human nature within. . . Unless we can now tame and transmute the potential for evil in the human soul, we shall be lost. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction.  (p. 263-265)


It is vitally necessary that we struggle against evil with all the power at our command.  This idea that Satan (and its works), despite all appearances, is actually on the run offers a possible answer to a major question of mine.  [How does Satan manifest itself?]  It is spirit. . . Satan has no power except in a human body. Satan cannot do evil except through a human body. . . . In fact, the only power that Satan has is through human belief in lies. I know no more accurate epithet for Satan than the Father of Lies. Satan can use any human sin or weakness – greed and pride, for example. . .But its principal weapon is fear. . .  In The Road Less Traveled I defined mental health as “an ongoing process of dedication to reality at all costs.” Satan is utterly dedicated to opposing that process.  In fact, the best definition I have for Satan is that it is a real spirit of unreality. (p. 206-207)


What are we to do with the evil when their masquerade of sanity is so successful, their destructiveness so “normal”?  First, we must stop buying the masquerade and being deceived by the pretense.  . . Know your enemy.  We must not only recognize but study those poor, dull, terrified people.  And attempt to do what we can to either heal or contain them.  . . .I think we can safely study and treat evil only through the methods of love.  (p. 265)


If we kill those who are evil, we will become evil ourselves; we will be killers. If we attempt to deal with evil by destroying it, we will also end up destroying ourselves, spiritually if not physically. Evil can be defeated by goodness.  Evil can be conquered only by love.  We must somehow be both tolerant and intolerant, accepting and demanding, strict and flexible.  An almost godlike compassion is required.  (p. 266-267)

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