He [Azazil] was told: Bow down! He said, “I will bow to no other.” He was asked, Even if you receive My curse? He said, “It does not matter. I have no way to an other-than-You. I am an abject lover. . . . There can be no distance for me. Nearness and distance are one. . . . A servant of pure heart will bow to no other than You.”
— Mansur al-Hallaj, The TaSin of Before-Time and Ambiguity
1. Al-Qaria (The Catastrophe)
In the beginning, I was a word in his mouth. I slept under his soft, wet tongue. I came out wet, like a human baby, but I was smokeless fire, and I burned his saliva caul away. When the magma slowed and the earth cooled down and mist rose white off the black stopped magma, he pointed and said, That was what you looked like. Only what’s black there was blaze.
I remember he took me riding in the whirlwind once. I was the only angel invited inside it. Its cockpit was a noiseless sphere, see-through. We went around inspecting the underbellies of black holes for signs of light. He said, Here, Azazil, you can steer.
I had my arms crossed over my chest. My knees touched my elbows. I was scared to touch the walls circling me.
Be me, Azazil, and will it left.
The whirlwind banked. I was, like all the angels back then, him.
But I was different from the other angels, though I did not know it yet. Closer.
Jibril asked me, eyeing my wind-mad hair, “What does that mean, ‘Be Me’? We can’t be Him. To say we and He are the same . . . that’s blasphemous.”
The others nodded to either side of him. He was their leader. And that was only right. He was, after all, one of them.
“We don’t will as Him, Azazil. He wills for us. We must have misheard.”
These were distinctions. I did not understand distinctions, in those days. I wasn’t far enough away to see him whole and look down and see me whole and think, those are two different things. Unlike Jibril, I really believed what we recited.
Say: Allah is One. . . .
They saw us as bricks of the same mosque. I saw us as drops of the same wine, and not in the glass, either, but on his tongue, eternally being tasted.
We called our prayer the Unity. They said the Unity to him, and they said it in unison.
All those voices, saying it at the same time: all wrong.
I said the Unity alone. When I said it, one voice said it.
“He can’t possibly have said Be Me, Azazil. That wouldn’t make any sense. The whirlwind’s so loud, it’s not your fault. He must have said something else. Like . . . Obey Me.”
I did not know I was different yet. But he knew.
I was the third living thing he made after light and water. He had not yet decided how far away he wanted angels to stand. So I turned out less . . . less differentiated than the others.
What I mean is, they were servants, I was a limb.
That is why he entrusted me with dawn.
The Greeks tell a story about Sisyphus. He rolls a heavy stone up a hill, and he gets to the top, and it rolls down the other side, and he has to start over. He’s being punished like that.
I did the same thing, but for me it was an honor. I pushed the sun out of the east sea all the way to noon, then let it roll on its own weight into the west. When I got to noon and the sphere started rolling away from me, I would clap my hands with joy and chase it barefoot down the mosque dome sky.
You cannot handle a star from dawn to noon and not get burned. Even if your hands are made of smokeless fire, you can’t.
Allah said to me, The scar tissue webbing your palms is as beautiful to me as your face.
I was a part of him. When he cut me off with an ax called Adam, he bled, and I bled. He cried, and I cried.
A servant could have been sent away and called back. I was a limb, and there was no reattaching me.
How can someone be All-powerful and incomplete at the same time?
I imagine his turning Adam this way and that, pressing different sides of man to the stump where I used to be.
The Catastrophe happened aeons in. He decided water and light were not life enough for earth.
He wanted the dirt it was made of to live, too.
We were fashioned out of his voice. We came out smokeless fire because that is what thought is, and he alone can say thought raw.
Adam he fashioned out of his blood. He mixed his blood with hard dirt, and the dirt slucked and softened under the heels of his hands.
A new emotion, the first other than ishq I had ever felt, interrupted my love like a hiccough.
It wasn’t envy, not at first. It was disgust.
Not even Jibril was comfortable with things. The planets were matter slums, dumps for elements too clunky to disperse or burn. Earth in particular. It wasn’t like some planets, the gaseous ones, that made their own light. Earth was cosmos clutter.
And there Allah was — kneeling in it, forearms flecked with it.
“These species you are making,” Jibril worried, “they are going to shed each other’s blood someday. And the blood they shed will be your own.”
Allah said nothing, busy kneading flesh.
I said nothing. I trusted him, back then.
He brought me there and showed me by moonlight.
I call this species Man.
“Have you named him yet?”
“What are you going to name him?”
I want you to name him, Azazil.
I climbed into his lap and thought about it.
I like that name. Adam he is.
Go closer to him. I brought you here so you get to be the first, Azazil.
“The first to touch him?”
Not yet — he’s still cooling.
“The first to do what, then?”
Bow to him.
Denying him exhilarated me in a way bliss didn’t.
I had known the word “no” till then only from prayers affirming his Oneness. The same word made us two now.
How odd it felt to use that word in isolation! I took the Unity apart and found blasphemy in one of its components. No.
I was his limb — paralyzed at his side.
We were obedience and ishq, only more ishq. Adam? All obedience. Only through grace, verse, or drugs could that creature ever work himself up into ishq. Ishq even then a feeling, momentary. Not a state.
“Obedience to this command,” pronounced Jibril, “is the only way we can stay in favor.”
This was before the War. We argued in earshot of the perplexed angels.
“We have to acknowledge two masters now, Azazil.”
“That’s sacrilege,” I declared. I got a few nods.
“Not in this case.” Jibril was always the academician. “Really it’s only one master: When we bow to Allah’s khalif, we are really bowing to Allah, albeit through a thin pane of glass.”
“It’s not a window, it’s a wall. Not glass, either. Mud. And why erect something between him and us in the first place?”
It was easy for the others. Jibril, too, already had someone between him and Allah.
Adam and me or just me, the distance was infinite or twice infinite. But I was flush. Interposing Adam required severing Azazil.
“If we don’t bow, we’ll be exiles in our own bodies.”
“Do you really believe he values obedience over ishq?”
Jibril sounded surprised; so did I: “How can you think such a thing, Jibril?”
“I’m not. . . . He’s thinking it for me.”
Allah projected, on the bare white walls of their minds, bulletins, calming images, orders of the day.
There is no God but me.
Everything depends on me.
I stared at my mind and saw my own desires streaked there in childish crayon, the receptive purity defaced.
He’s thinking it for me.
That is one definition of blessedness: being thought for.
Which would make damnation having to think for yourself. To steer, to generate, to choose. To pour perceptions into a mind with a hole in its memory. To will.
If willing is suffering, who wills all? Who was first in the universe ever to will? Who was damned before Azazil?
I joined him.
How we warred:
Two black bees in a bobbing sunflower.
In the North, the aurora borealis.
On the plains, brushfires; ignis fatuus over water.
Swallows, mated for life, pecking a hawk back into the clouds. Leave our young alone.
Underwater, in chariots drawn by teams of leviathans.
As scorpions in a ring, tails high, circling.
Hemorrhage of ishq and ichor.
Wind passing wind, catching; abruptly torqued. We drilled into the ground as one tornado.
In a sky crosshatched with threads of flash.
Biceps and triceps that pulled at the same elbow.
Panting, wings flaccid, against facing asteroids.
Allahu akbar their war cry, our war cry Allahu akbar. Allah listened in and corrected neither side.
Dog barking at dog across a light year.
A bruise, spreading its blue faith.
In the South, migrations; massacres in the East.
Two stags locked and skidding dustily down a raw-rock mountainside.
Octopi, knotted. Leeches mouth to mouth, sealed.
Eventually he intervened. He had to; I was winning.
I kept a staff of angels to track all the comets in the universe. They broadcast the warning to my forces in the field: new comets, over twenty of them.
Bright boils swelled on the skin of space and ruptured into speed. Hatched, the comets flew in a V for earth.
Except one. The largest broke off and steered for the asteroid where I had pinned Jibril.
The comets were not sentient fire, as we angels were. They were drones.
Did He love them, too?
When I was hit, Jibril was choking words of pity past my thumbs on his throat.
“He says you’re infected. And you’re infecting the others. He can heal you.”
“Infected?” I did not ease up. And yet — infection — something outside me, acting on me — it would explain everything. “Infected with what?”
I was light years toward hell when I came to. My spine draped like a streamer over the nose of the comet.
I turned in a fitful coma before I finally awoke. So my face burned, too.
The scar tissue webbing your palms, He once told me, is as beautiful to me as your face.
I wonder if that is still true.
Worst burned were my wings and back. They healed as one ridged mound. I went from winged dawn to hunchback.
I had my fellow exiles chip ice scalpels off a lake. It took three days’ surgery to free my wingbone fans. Ashen rubber clung between their storm-snapped umbrella prongs.
I was as landbound as Adam.
Blinded soldiers wandered the snow. Some begged me to cut the weights from their ankles. There were no weights, of course, no ball and chain. Just gravity.
We were not used to gravity. The ground was covered with its sticky, invisible web. We were caught in it. It pulled at every arm and leg, spiderspit.
I wasn’t born knowing how to fly. No bird is.
He held me over his head, hands around my waist, and said, Move your wings up and down. Good.
Held me like a father teaching his son to swim, the son shivering and scared but trusting him as he’s carried from the pool wall.
He walked me out over an abyss, still holding me.
I kept moving my wings.
He let go, and I stayed where he had held me. I was not sure whether my wings suspended me or his proud gaze.
What do you mean you won’t bow? Are you too proud to bow where your Lord tells you?
Seeing was not much different from not seeing, the darkness was so thick. If you stuck your arm out, your hand disappeared. It was like dunking a torch underwater.
You could be standing in a crowd and never know it. That was how he wanted things. Unity was heaven’s principle, atomization, hell’s.
We had joined against him. Now, to punish us, he kept us apart — from each other, and from him.
For the first weeks no one said anything.
No stirring addresses out of me, no great monologues, no exhortations. The last thing devastation does is speechify. That would be action.
Despair, at its purest, shuts the body down. That’s why people don’t commit suicide until the upswing. Suicidal is the floor above hell.
We survived by tonguing Qur’ans into the snow, that we might read the text if a sun should rise someday.
We survived in contemplation. In regret.
By burning ourselves anew to sculpt our own scar tissue. By base jumping in the hope our wings might snag the air.
We clawed holes in the snow to find ground. When we found ground, we clawed farther, but our world’s core had gone cold.
In cartography. In deriving a whole astronomy from the starlessness over our heads.
We splashed the shallow puddles that melted at our feet. Lift one foot and it flash froze around the other ankle.
Ishq I had in abundance. On ishq we survived. We survived on a ration of five prayers and a thousand tears a day.
I had seen Adam up close. I had seen the hairs that grew out of him — a whole body colonized with black grass. The skin wrinkled at his knuckles, the fingers’ flesh sleeves too long, bunching when they straightened. When he turned in his sleep, the dirt kept a print in his shape.
This was the ugliest thing about him, to an angel. His solidity. How he blocked light instead of intensifying it. How the ground recorded him, and the air swirled in and out of him. He was a bone stuck in the throat of dissolution.
I could tell you this story in the voice of the archangel I was, and you would call it iambic bombast, overblown.
But I’m a demotic demon. I talk so you understand. That’s how you know what I say is true.
Everyone knows the big truths are simple. Prose is for truth. Verse is for lies. Poets that use big words, they’re trying to pull one over on you. Me you can trust.
Listen to me.
I never said I will not bow. I said I cannot bow.
He wouldn’t ask Adam to violate a law of physics, would he? Yet he asked me to violate a law of metaphysics, and raged when I couldn’t. Acted like it was my choice not to bow in two directions, when it’s the equivalent of standing in two places at the same time.
The loyal angels (called “loyal” — for promiscuity of reverence) waited outside Eden for Adam’s premiere. I ran up and down the line, waving my arms. They had heard of my refusal and wouldn’t look at me.
They were genteel, proper, they whispered to one another to ignore him, don’t look at him.
I was loud, homeless, I barked Apocalypse in temperate April.
“Just hear me out! When you bow to Adam, you aren’t bowing to Allah! Even if it’s a moment — even if only once — it’s someone else! Don’t you get it? You’re being unfaithful!”
Some angels looked up at me. Some angels were listening. Then their eyes flicked behind me, and I lost them.
Jibril, first in line, had flashed his wings open. He was gliding to the Garden.
After he had done it, he came up brighter. There was an afterglow of obedience on his face. And satisfaction.
He was first in heaven now.
High enough up so the whole line could see, he lifted his robe over his right knee. There it was, on his knee, specks of it, like gnats clinging to the sun. Dirt.
I pled with the next angel, and the next, all the way down to the treetops. Then Mika’il arrived with an escort of four guards.
They lifted me off the premises, elbows hooked in mine. They had brought a muzzle for me but I snapped at their hands. “I am the Dawn!” I howled at the crowd. “I am the Dawn!”
I wasn’t, of course. Not anymore. I didn’t notice in my anguish that sunrise had happened without me. I remembered as we passed Saturn.
“Responsibility for solar motion,” Mika’il explained slowly, “has been transferred, temporarily, to the military — ”
“Why? I can do it! I’ve done it for aeons!”
“Rest,” Mika’il whispered. There was so much pity in his eyes he would have stroked my head, had I been tamer. “Rest, Azazil. Allah will find a cure for this.”
“He didn’t even tell me? Laid me off, Mika’il, just like that?”
“Rest. . . .”
“Where are you taking me?”
“We’ll tell you when we get closer.”
I was so used to obedience I let them fly me out. A few hours into it, though, I had an idea.
What if I — didn’t — let them?
They were acting out Allah’s will, yes, but I had defied that will once already. And it had been a rush.
What if I just snatched my arms back from these soldiers? They were my arms anyway. What if I smashed the soldiers on the next asteroid we passed? Would the others even know how to react?
I smiled into the emptiness. Actions were spread out as on a table for me. Mine to dismiss or choose. I sensed the infinite futures spoking out from every point in time.
None of this had to happen. Will could knock the whole mechanism off at any time.
Allah was making things up as he went along.
“Hey. Mika’il. Slow down. We love fives, don’t we? It’s the next holiest number, after one.”
“What do you mean?”
“Five of you have come for me. Five is too many. One trumps five.”
“Allah is One.”
“So is Azazil. One with Allah.”
“What’s your point?”
“If I could defy one, what makes you think I can’t defy five?”
“Azazil — ”
If you had will, you could extemporize what happened. I came up with these roles: escaped slave, lover, mystic. Musician, muezzin. Guerilla was not one of these.
My first recruits sought me out. I was disheveled, catatonic, ecstatic, at One.
“Adam is filth,” they spat. “Lead us, Azazil.”
“Adam is Allah’s blood,” I whispered. “If he tells me Adam is beautiful, I believe him. But I cannot bow.”
They came back I don’t know how long afterward, more numerous.
“Adam is a usurper,” they groaned. “Restore us to our places, Azazil.”
“Adam is the khalif of Allah,” I whispered. “If you were inside Allah as I am, you’d be outside that hierarchy. I cannot bow.”
The third time they were already an army.
“We want to be One again,” they wept. “Help us, Azazil.”
“Allah is One,” I recited. I opened my eyes for the first time. “Bring me weapons.”
When I was young, the rain had a tabla player’s fingertips: too fast to follow, but every landing justified to the ear.
Then I listened more closely. Allah was making the rhythm up as he went along.
As long as there was no other will in the universe, as long as his will was the only will, he controlled everything. All the variables. Every last combustion reaction.
He never expected a second. All-powerful, yes, but not the only power. All-knowing, but not above surprise.
We lost the War. Granted. But starting a War where there had been no War scheduled — that was our first victory.
If he had known what I would make of Adam, if he had guessed I would cough my infection all over obedient Eden, would he have slit his wrist and bled into the ditch? Would he have scooped those hundred and fifty pounds of slop and shaped them?
If he had known what I would become, would he have swallowed me before I was born?
“Azazil” was published serially in the Fall 2009, Spring 2010, and Summer 2010 issues of The Kenyon Review. You have just read part 1 published in Fall 2009. To read the rest of this story, please click here.