By: Dr Mohammad Akram Nadwi
1. Most people most of the time do not intend to do bad things (crimes and sins, like lying, stealing, defrauding, raping, killing, backbiting, etc.).
2. Most people most of the time intend to do good things (or ‘neutral’ things, things whose good or bad value is not known).
3. The Shaytan would be wasting much of his energy if he expended it trying to persuade most of the people most of the time to switch from intending and doing good things to intending and doing bad things. And the Shaytan is not at all foolish, and wasteful of his God-given permission to draw humankind away from the Garden toward the Fire.
4. Therefore he uses distraction (which is the basis of all sin), to move people away from the good thing they intend doing (that they may already be in the middle of doing), and cause them to think about some other good thing instead (perhaps more good, perhaps less good, but which they were not intending and were not doing).
For example, if you are intending to read one whole surah of the Qur’an, the Shaytan will first try to see if he can distract you to do less than that: he may say, it is important to concentrate on perfect recitation, or on pondering the meaning, so it would be better for you to aim at less than a whole surah. Then, your attention will wander into working out how much of the surah you could do with really good recitation and how much with careful pondering of the meaning.
Alternatively, the Shaytan may distract you from realising your original intention by suggesting that you do something else good as well, on top of what you are intending and doing (namely reading the surah). For example, he may remind you that you telephoned someone earlier but did not speak to them as kindly and warmly as you should have, and remember it is Ramadan and every good deed is rewarded 70 times over, so you should think about phoning them again and saying the right things with kindness and warmth. As a result of this whispering, you start planning the sort of things you might say to this person, even while you are reciting the Qur’an, which of course is not then done well. Once more, you are distracted from doing the thing you intended and were in the middle of doing. You may still be doing it, but you are doing it much less attentively, with much less focused will to do it well.
5. Human vulnerability to distraction (from the good in hand and being enacted, to the good that does not yet exist and is not being enacted) is greatest, and most commonly occurs, in relation to actions that are repeated. Now, religious rituals and devotional practices are by definition actions that are repeated. The Shaytan’s easiest trick here is to catch you at the very beginning of such actions, and tell you: ‘Well done! now you are doing the right thing, that which pleases God. But do not stop there, as soon as you have done this, turn your mind also to doing x, y, and z.’ The effect of this is as follows: there you are standing for the salah, intending and doing it at the proper time, perhaps with others, perhaps alone, and then as result of the Shaytan’s trickery your mind wanders off to something else. In other words, your intention has replaced the action. So, as for your attendance, it is a success; but as for your attention, it is a fail. You were at prayer; but you were not in prayer.
6. Why does the Shaytan bother with this strategy? Because by doing this he distracts and weakens your capacity to intend and enact a good. If you are praying, you will hear a whisper that this is good but not as good as helping someone with charity or other assistance, so you should be planning these other good deeds. Whichever of those you were doing, you will do it less well. If you are reading a book, you will hear a whisper that there is a better, harder book, or a better, harder author, and your attention to what you are reading will weaken and blur, and you will lose some or all of the benefit of what is there in front of you.
The Shaytan’s purpose is to weaken your capacity to will and do good. By repeatedly distracting you from the good you have in hand, little by little he trains you to enjoy his distractions, to be more content with having had a good intention than with realising that intention. Eventually, you will be satisfied with having good thoughts flit across your mind, without forming any intention in regard to them; so you will become a contemplator of good, not a doer of good. This is any easy pleasure, the pleasure of knowing you think good things, you think the right things. It can become as toxic as any hard drug. It is so much less trouble to have a good opinion of yourself than to risk testing that good opinion by the effort of real actions in the world outside your head.
7. How does this help the Shaytan? Because some of the people some of the time are neither intending nor doing good. But they are happy to think and believe that they are. So, they have the easy pleasure of thinking themselves good people, decent people. Now if such people (whose good and decency has not been tested) intend something, they can readily be persuaded to believe that, precisely because they are basically good, decent people, it cannot be that bad if they do something illegal or unkind or sinful in order to get something that they want.
Often, the Shaytan finds it easy to persuade them that ‘it is just “necessity” that compels them to get to the good deed through the bad deed.’ He will assure them: ‘It is just the way things are; just how the world is; this is what everybody does really, only they hide it from themselves; at least you are honest.’ And there are many other whispers of this kind that run in the head, before, during and after you have used evil means to achieve a good end. It is what God means when He tells us that the evil that men do is made fair-seeming to them: injustice looks like justice; the harmful looks like the beneficial; the poisonous comforts like the nutritious.
Of course God does not trick people: the reality is as it was, it has not changed — what has changed is the sickness of the heart which muddles the appetite and taste; so what you know and remember is good feels boring or impossible; what you know and remember is nutritious has no appeal for you, only what you know and remember is poisonous – only that is attractive, tasty, only that brings relief to what your appetite has become. This is the state of addiction — whether to drugs, or popular media culture, or being ‘noticed’ or ‘liked’ on social media.
8. So, it is not that the Shaytan is a partisan of the good. He is not. He is a partisan of whatever brings evil to humankind, because he is our enemy and he is permitted to be so by God. But he uses our disposition to good (the attraction for us of good) to weaken our will to intend and enact good. Then, when the will has been weakened enough, he can use our disposition to be self-centred (instead of God-oriented) to make the illicit licit, to make the good unpleasant or tasteless to us (e.g., he tries to make us feel that being good is just boring; religion is not fun; etc.).
9. The defence against this devil’s strategy is to give full attention to deciding what you are going to intend and do, and then not permit yourself to be distracted from doing it. The ‘it’ is not necessarily acts of devotion; this applies to any and every intention whose reality and honesty can be tested by action in the world. To defend the strength of your heart and will against the Shaytan, focus on the task in hand — just as you do when you are doing an exam — and reflect on it only after you have finished. Reflect well, and your understanding of where to add or subtract from what you intend is under your control, and safe from the control of the Shaytan.
10. There is no possibility for any human being to keep themselves safe without repeated lapses and failures. So, it is obligatory to put your trust in God, to appeal to Him for help, to invoke His name at the beginning of any good act, and be thankful and pray His forgiveness at the end of any act, whether you have succeeded or failed. Now each of those things (the trusting in God, petitioning Him, etc.) is itself a good act that needs attention and effort to do well.
The Shaytan will be striving to make you satisfied with just mouthing the appropriate words ‘automatically’, without the necessary attention and focus. So again the trouble is there. But console yourself with this thought: when you are God-oriented, when you are turned to Him, even if for the briefest moment, it suffices to draw to you His help. If you can hold this thought and believe it, the Shaytan cannot do you any lasting harm, not to your will, nor to your heart.