The worst and the lowest of human effort is the effort of those who seek out fellow-human beings in desperate need – it may be grave sickness, dire poverty or ignorance – and exploit that need to extort money from them and enjoy dominance over them. Moreover, many who do this do it with the pretence that they are helping those whom no one else will help. If they believe this pretence, if they believe that they are good and intend good, then they are deluded. A clear, common example of this is the practice of loan-sharks who lend desperate people money at cruelly high rates of interest and claim to be providing a valuable social service. Even among Muslims there are people who do this though they well know that God has condemned lending in this manner: it is against the law of God to charge rent for the use of money, as if it were just a simple commodity like land or buildings or tools or other property of the kind that can be lawfully rented out. Nevertheless, the loan-sharks claim to be doing normal business, seeking an honest profit by renting out their property and carrying a business risk. This is a lie. If they really do believe this lie, it is as God has said (Surat al-Baqarah, 2:274): they have been so disoriented by the touch of Satan that evil appears to them as good, and goodness appears to them as foolishness: ‘Those who live on usury shall be raised before God like men whom Satan has maddened by his touch.
Satan and the evil jinn who obey him have no power to dispossess human beings of their will, but they do have power to course through their veins, to whisper suggestions into their hearts and minds. Thus the jinn can tempt and torment human beings but they cannot compel them. If a Muslim intends a good deed, the jinn cannot erect a physical barrier to his carrying out that intention, still less take possession of his will and make him commit an evil deed instead, or postpone or not do the good deed. What the jinn can do is, by their whispering, distract the Muslim from what he intends so that he does something else, or make him doubt his capacity to do the good he intends, or make him suspect his sincerity in what he intends. All that I have just said of what the jinn can do by way of ambushing human beings and urging them to deviate from doing the good they intend, human beings can also do – they too can do the work of the evil jinn. And yet, no one has ever claimed that one human being can ‘possess’ another human being, that is, control them from within so that they are no longer themselves.
In the Qur’an and Sunnah there is strong emphasis on Muslims encouraging one another in good deeds, and on preferring the company and the lifestyle of believers whose behaviour is consistent with their belief, who steadfastly preserve their religion through both teaching and practice. It hardly needs saying that when sickness of body or mind, or some disaster or grief, causes someone to lose their self-command, the duty of those around them is to offer comfort and kindness, to stand by and help them, to act for them until they regain their dignity and self-command as human beings. Through the whole of the way of life of Islam, private, individual acts of kindness or worship have a counterpart in public, collective acts of kindness or worship. The latter are mandatory, the former voluntary, and the pairing is mutually supportive – zakah and sadaqah, to give just one example. As Muslims we are not answerable only for our private thoughts, intentions and actions, but also for the culture and ethos in which our thoughts, intentions and actions have some influence. What we think and do informs what others think or do. If a person takes intoxicants (which is forbidden to Muslims) but never to the point of becoming intoxicated himself, he nevertheless contributes to the tolerance of intoxication in the culture around him, and is party to the consequences of intoxication in the lives of others.
It is fundamental to a sound conception of God to know that He is essentially and always good. It follows necessarily that His creation of life, especially human life, is also essentially and always good, even when that life is subjected to severe trial, and indeed every life is subject to its unique burden of trial and proof. It does not follow that trials and sufferings are in themselves desirable. They cannot be. But they are eventually good in that they bring out the best in human qualities of endurance, co-operative effort, ingenuity, and adaptiveness. God has endowed human beings collectively with quite extraordinary capacities and powers, enough to colonise every kind of environment on this planet, which indeed He created in such a way that it is hospitable to the exercise and development of those human capacities and powers. We are the only species that can survive well in extreme climates like arid deserts and ice-bound lands where vegetation disappears for most of the year. This versatility is made possible by the gift of language by which God distinguished properly and fully human beings from any others like them before.