Whistling Past the Devil

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader from a very traditionalist Muslim family has a colorful story of personal religious choice:

Iblis, aka Shaitan, aka Satan (Wikimedia)

I was born into a long line of imams of a Sufi order. My father is an imam, all my paternal uncles were imams, and my six brothers and I are supposed to be imams. My father studied religion, as his ancestors did, by going from village to village, master to master, until he was “ordained.” My mother is illiterate, but she has a vivid imagination and took on the task of scaring her children straight with colorful stories of hell and, less often, of heaven, while my father took on the task of teaching us the Koran.

One my mother’s favorite theme was that of Shaitan (Satan) and his habit of influencing youths to veer them off the righteous path. One of these ways, she would tell us, was that if we whistled, Satan would appear in some guise to convert us and pervert us, be it the form of a cockroach, a goat, a snake, or even—gasp—an attractive woman. (This one would cause me to whistle frequently as a boy, to the point where I am now an expert at various methods of whistling).

When I was about 9 years old, I went on a week-long field trip.

One evening I found myself walking alone between the gym and the camp, whistling absentmindedly and happily, now that I was away from home. Then I realized my mistake: I was all alone, in the dark, calling Shaitan! I froze in my tracks, stopped my song, and waited for Him to appear—hoping for a cockroach rather than a sexy maiden.

Nothing appeared. Doubt started to creep into me. So I whistled again, this time loudly, while standing in the dark street, daring him to show up. Nothing. I continued to call Shaitan—not even a cameo. That’s when it hit me: Shaitan does not exist.

I whistled and continued on my way, but a realization was nagging at my young mind: If Shaitan does not exist, then his counterpart does not either; there can be no Good if there is no Evil. No Shaitan, no Allah.

Before I got to my cot and went to sleep, I had lost the religion of my forebears and would never pick up the mantle of my father’s lineage, all thanks to my mother’s stories. I am nearing 40 years old now and have never looked back to either God or Satan ... though I still wonder how nice it would be to summon an attractive companion by simply whistling.

(As a side note, I think my mother invented, or maybe perpetuated that myth of whistling, as a way to have peace and quiet in our small home where she was trying to raise 11 children. She did not want to be the conductor of a symphony of whistling adolescents. Also, if she were to find out that SHE is the cause of one of her sons straying from the righteous path, she would have a heart attack on the spot. So thanks for letting me share this, but please don’t publish my name if you publish my story ... I do not want my mother to die yet!)