A psychological phenomenon, which is very prevalent in godless societies is best described in this surah:
And he who turns away from the remembrance of the Gracious God, We appoint for him a satan, who becomes his companion. And surely they hinder them from the way of God, but they think that they are rightly guided; till, when such a one comes to Us, he says to his companion, ‘Would that between me and you were the distance of the East and the West!’ What an evil companion is he! (43:36-38)
For centuries most believers have taken these verses and the understanding of satan literally. But, in this age of information, with our knowledge of psychology and how our brain circuits work, it is becoming increasingly known that those who don’t live a life of religious observance and slack in their prayers and participation of religious rituals, gradually drift away from the paradigm of Personal God and become increasingly agnostic or atheistic. Satan today for all intents and purposes is a metaphorical concept.
In day to day communication now we understand that there is no external satan driving us around, but a gradual drift in our thoughts based on our daily personal and social life, can play havoc with our moral and spiritual lives.
Our brain is made of neurons. It is no wonder that whatever we do or think has, in the final analysis, to do with our neurons or brain cells. They communicate with each other at the junctions that are called synapses, also called neuronal junction, the site of transmission of electric nerve impulses. The synapse, with its neurotransmitter, acts as a physiological valve, directing the conduction of nerve impulses in regular circuits and preventing random or chaotic stimulation of nerves.
At a chemical synapse each ending, or terminal, of a nerve fiber (presynaptic fiber) swells to form a knoblike structure that is separated from the fiber of an adjacent neuron, called a postsynaptic fiber, by a microscopic space called the synaptic cleft. The typical synaptic cleft is about 0.02 micron wide. The arrival of a nerve impulse at the presynaptic terminals causes the movement toward the presynaptic membrane of membrane-bound sacs, or synaptic vesicles, which fuse with the membrane and release a chemical substance called a neurotransmitter. This substance transmits the nerve impulse to the postsynaptic fiber by diffusing across the synaptic cleft and binding to receptor molecules on the postsynaptic membrane. The chemical binding action alters the shape of the receptors, initiating a series of reactions.
Once they have been released and have bound to postsynaptic receptors, neurotransmitter molecules are immediately deactivated by enzymes in the synaptic cleft; they are also taken up by receptors in the presynaptic membrane and recycled. This process causes a series of brief transmission events, each one taking place in only 0.5 to 4.0 milliseconds. If the same neurons get fired over and over again, the connections or synapses between them get facilitated and can be activated easily. This forms the basis of human memory and a lot of other mental activities.
Scientific studies of different addictions like alcohol and gambling have shown that in addicts certain brain cells get facilitated for these negative activities, and their synapses continue to get reinforced. These neurons and synapses get so facilitated that as a result, addicts cannot control themselves against these addictions, as these cells keep firing. In other words whatever neurons repeatedly fire in our brain, end up determining our daily life and destiny.
To overcome negative emotions, thoughts and action we need to replace those with positive ones. We want to charge our brain cells and synapses with Zikr illahi or remembrance of Allah, even in our idle moments and think positive thoughts, facilitating positive synapses and neurons that will determine our fate.
No wonder it is said, “Watch your thoughts, for they become words. Watch your words, for they become actions. Watch your actions, for they become habits. Watch your habits, for they become character. Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
If we facilitate wrong synapses those become our satan and if we facilitate those with the righteous memories and actions, those become our guardian angels. Such understanding of our satans and our angels, also underscores that better understanding of neurology and psychology is absolutely necessary for the right belief, understanding and actions. These modern fields of inquiry and study can no longer be shunned by the devout in the name of religion.
The modern understanding of the concept of satan also suggests that the Quran is a subtle book and its meanings evolve over time and it should be considered more as a personal guide, to be read and preached gently, rather than forced down the throat of others in a public debate, in a legalistic manner with rhetorical tricks played by lawyers in the courts of law.
We hope and pray that our commentary can serve the readers well in the domain of religion and science. To know the God of the Abrahamic faiths, please read our commentary of Surah Fatihah: The Opening.