THE HOLY QUR’AN MANDATES that: When you recite the Qur’an seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Devil. [Q.16:98] Hence Muslims will commence their recitation of the Qur’an with the words of isti‘adhah, or “seeking protection”:
أَعُوذُ بِاللَّهِ مِنَ الشَّيْطَانِ الرَّجِيمِ
I seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Devil.
Due to the above verse, the practice of isti‘adhah is considered an obligation according to some: the majority of scholars, however, hold it to be recommended. The key here is that such words should be uttered with understanding (fahm) and presence of heart (hudur al-qalb), rather than as a heedless sacrament or empty ritual.
So what is it that we are to apprehend, and bring into our heart, when seeking sanctuary and refuge from Satan the outcast?
If we recall that the word Satan (shaytan) is derived from the Arabic word shatana – ‘to be far” or “made distant” from God; then just as Satan, through his arrogance and contempt, was repudiated and made an outcast from Allah’s grace, honour and heaven, that is what he wants for everyone else too: especially Man. After his banishment, in his spite; malice; and jealous rage, he set himself in opposition to Allah, and to the utter ruin of humanity. Hence the Qur’an frequently describes him as ‘aduwwun mubin – “a clear enemy” to us. In fact, he is “the Enemy”.
Satan is evil and devilry personified. He and his entourage are not the civil, though utterly conniving creatures so cleverly depicted in C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letter. His hatred, malevolence and demonic designs against mankind – that have lasted for uncounted ages and will continue till God gives him respite no more – can never be underestimated. That he is long-lived, cunning and unseen, and who whispers into the breasts of men [Q.114:5] makes him an enemy that we by ourselves can never hope to defeat. Hence it is with this recognition of our inability, and of our neediness in Allah’s might and mercy, that we seek refuge in Allah from the accursed Devil. And it is because Allah alone is All-Poweful, All-Invincible, All-Knowing, and He cares for our welfare, that we direct our broken pleas of protection to Him, and none other. And once Allah brings home to the believer his or her inability, and inspires them to sincerely seek refuge in Him when intending to recite the Qur’an, the believer is under divine protection and is gifted the halawah al-tilawah – “the sweetness of recitation [and reflection]”.
One hadith informs us that: ‘Indeed, Satan runs through the son of Adam as does blood.’ [Muslim, no.2174] These devilish whisperings that circulate in us, and influence our heart and thoughts, have an end desire: to make us slide into disbelief (kufr) by causing doubts about God or the core articles of faith; if not, then to tempt us into sin and away from acts of obedience to God; and if even that is not possible, then to corrupt our worship or good deeds through ostentation (riya’) or self-conceit (‘ujb).
Our spiritual masters teach us that there are four main qawati‘, or things which cut us off from Allah (or obstacles that impede us from drawing closer to Him): the devil (shaytan), the ego (nafs), worldliness (dunya), and people (khalq). The cure from the Devil and his subtle whisperings is to seek refuge in Allah from him, and oppose his insinuations. The cure for the ego lies in taming it and training it. The cure for worldliness is to nurture a sense of zuhd, or worldly detachment in our hearts and lives, aspiring more to Allah and the Afterlife. And the cure for people lies in not socialising too much with them, allowing one to have regular periods of spiritual seclusion (‘uzlah) wherein the heart’s gaze can be focused on God.
Wa’Llahu wali al-tawfiq.