Surah Al Baqara (The Cow): Section 4: Adam and Eve
Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
|2:30. Call to mind, when your Lord announced to the angels: I am about to place a vicegerent in the earth. They said: Will You place there someone, who creates disorder and blood shed, while we glorify You with your praise and extol your holiness? Allah admonished them: I know that which you know not.||
وَإِذْ قَالَ رَبُّكَ لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ إِنِّي جَاعِلٌ فِي الْأَرْضِ خَلِيفَةً ۖ قَالُوا أَتَجْعَلُ فِيهَا مَن يُفْسِدُ فِيهَا وَيَسْفِكُ الدِّمَاءَ وَنَحْنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمْدِكَ وَنُقَدِّسُ لَكَ ۖ قَالَ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ مَا لَا تَعْلَمُونَ
|2:31. He taught Adam all the names of things and He showed them to the angels and asked: Tell me the names of these if you truly think you can?||
وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الْأَسْمَاءَ كُلَّهَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَهُمْ عَلَى الْمَلَائِكَةِ فَقَالَ أَنبِئُونِي بِأَسْمَاءِ هَـٰؤُلَاءِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ
|2:32. They said, ‘May You be glorified! We have knowledge only of what you have taught us. You alone are the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.||
قَالُوا سُبْحَانَكَ لَا عِلْمَ لَنَا إِلَّا مَا عَلَّمْتَنَا ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْعَلِيمُ الْحَكِيمُ
|2:33. Then he asked Adam to tell them the names and he did. God said: Did I not tell you that I know what is hidden in the heaven and the earth, and that I know what you reveal and what you conceal?||
قَالَ يَا آدَمُ أَنبِئْهُم بِأَسْمَائِهِمْ ۖ فَلَمَّا أَنبَأَهُم بِأَسْمَائِهِمْ قَالَ أَلَمْ أَقُل لَّكُمْ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ غَيْبَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَأَعْلَمُ مَا تُبْدُونَ وَمَا كُنتُمْ تَكْتُمُونَ
|2.34. Also call to mind, when We told the angels, ‘Bow down before Adam,’ they all bowed. But not Iblis, who refused and was arrogant, he was disobedient.||
وَإِذْ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ اسْجُدُوا لِآدَمَ فَسَجَدُوا إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ أَبَىٰ وَاسْتَكْبَرَ وَكَانَ مِنَ الْكَافِرِينَ
|2.35. We said to Adam, live with your wife in this garden. Both of of you eat freely there as you will, but, do not go near this tree, or you will both become wrongdoers.||
وَقُلْنَا يَا آدَمُ اسْكُنْ أَنتَ وَزَوْجُكَ الْجَنَّةَ وَكُلَا مِنْهَا رَغَدًا حَيْثُ شِئْتُمَا وَلَا تَقْرَبَا هَـٰذِهِ الشَّجَرَةَ فَتَكُونَا مِنَ الظَّالِمِينَ
|2.36. But, Satan made them slip , and removed them from the state they were in. We decreed: Go forth, some of you are enemies of others, and there is for you in the earth a place of abode and provisions for a time.||
فَأَزَلَّهُمَا الشَّيْطَانُ عَنْهَا فَأَخْرَجَهُمَا مِمَّا كَانَا فِيهِ ۖ وَقُلْنَا اهْبِطُوا بَعْضُكُمْ لِبَعْضٍ عَدُوٌّ ۖوَلَكُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ مُسْتَقَرٌّ وَمَتَاعٌ إِلَىٰ حِينٍ
|2.37. Thereafter Adam learnt certain prayers from his Lord and began to repent in the words that were taught to him. So He turned towards him with mercy; surely He is oft-returning with compassion towards His creatures and is Ever Merciful.||
فَتَلَقَّىٰ آدَمُ مِن رَّبِّهِ كَلِمَاتٍ فَتَابَ عَلَيْهِ ۚ إِنَّهُ هُوَ التَّوَّابُ الرَّحِيمُ
|2.38. We decreed, ‘Go forth, all of you, but remember that if there comes to you guidance from Me, then whoso follows My guidance, on them shall come no fear, nor shall they grieve.’||
قُلْنَا اهْبِطُوا مِنْهَا جَمِيعًا ۖ فَإِمَّا يَأْتِيَنَّكُم مِّنِّي هُدًى فَمَن تَبِعَ هُدَايَ فَلَا خَوْفٌ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلَا هُمْ يَحْزَنُونَ
|2:39. ‘But, those who will disbelieve and reject Our Signs as false, they shall be inmates of the Fire, therein shall they abide.’||
وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا وَكَذَّبُوا بِآيَاتِنَا أُولَـٰئِكَ أَصْحَابُ النَّارِ ۖ هُمْ فِيهَا خَالِدُونَ
Commentary of Section 4: Adam and Eve
Did such a literal meeting take place between God, Adam, billions of angels and Iblis (Satan), some where on planet earth, some other planet or in paradise? We are afraid not!
The whole of this section of the surah, we believe is a metaphor or a parable. What does that mean?
The holy Quran declares that there are two types of verses, those that are fundamental and very clearly understood and those that are allegorical, whose meaning is known to only to Allah and a few men who are gifted with understanding.
هُوَ الَّذِي أَنزَلَ عَلَيْكَ الْكِتَابَ مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ ۖ فَأَمَّا الَّذِينَ فِي قُلُوبِهِمْ زَيْغٌ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ مَا تَشَابَهَ مِنْهُ ابْتِغَاءَ الْفِتْنَةِ وَابْتِغَاءَ تَأْوِيلِهِ ۗ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ تَأْوِيلَهُ إِلَّا اللَّـهُ ۗوَالرَّاسِخُونَ فِي الْعِلْمِ يَقُولُونَ آمَنَّا بِهِ كُلٌّ مِّنْ عِندِ رَبِّنَا ۗ وَمَا يَذَّكَّرُ إِلَّا أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ
3:7 “He it is Who has sent down to you (Muhammad) the Book; in it there are verses that are fundamental, they are the basis of the book and there are others which are allegoric. As a result, those who have an axe to grind pursue such that are allegoric, seeking to create confusion and pervert their meaning, and none knows of their meaning except Allah and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge; these last affirm: We believe in it, all of it is from our Lord and none take heed except those gifted with understanding.”
This verse not only means that one should not interpret allegoric verses with meanings opposed to what is fundamental in the Quran, but, also not against any clearly known facts of history or science. What is well known, fundamental and clear should always explain what is ambiguous, allegoric or potent with multiple meanings.
The Quran says that only men of understanding know the meaning of the allegoric verses. Everyone who endeavors to present a commentary of the Quran would claim to be one of those who have understanding of the verses under discussion. This may however be hollow claim, as humans we have little choice except to wait for the verdict of history or the verdict of All-Knowing Allah on the Day of Judgment.
The Quran should never be interpreted against the laws of nature. So in the interpretation of this section we want to share a few well known facts of science about human evolution and language first and explain these verses with that background.
Many commentators give a physical account of this section of surah Baqarah, which raises countless questions, which we will bring out under a specific heading below. Other commentators mix and match physical and metaphorical. Similar criticism applies to them as well. We believe that this section is best understood only as a metaphor, even if some component of the story were physically true! The prophet Adam may have been given an elaborate dream or some other revelation of this moral and spiritual paradigm that God wanted to establish for the nascent humanity as framework, as he embarked on a spiritual relationship, some 6000 years ago, with its Creator, having evolved from the apes over the previous 6 million years. The modern humans have existed for some 200,000 years.
The first commentator of the holy Quran is the Quran itself. (39:23) Therefore, first of all, we have pooled all the verses of the Quran about Adam and pondered over them in unison. References to Adam or similar creation story are contained in 2:30-39; 3:59; 7:11-25; 15:28-44; 17:61-65; 18:50; 20:115-124 and last but not the least 38:71-85.
How long have the humans existed? Do humans have common ancestors with the chimpanzees and gorillas? Is there such a person as the first human? How did language evolve, was it revealed? How did human conscience evolve? Is there such a thing as labeled as ‘Id’ by Sigmund Freud? When did prophet Adam live? Have humans or Adam and Eve ever lived in a place other than planet earth? Is Satan a physical being or each person has his / her own Satan, which will then be called ‘Id’ in the modern language of psychology? Is the concept of angels, compatible or equivalent to the ‘Laws of Nature?’ What is the biological nature of revelation? The last question will be discussed in detail in surah Yousuf (Joseph).
We will examine some of these questions here and others are only alluded to here and discussed in greater detail else where. For example, the question of angels is examined in an essay: Quantum Physics: The Divine Prescription for Our Free Will and God’s Providence. Origin of human languages is examined in surah Rum. The question of human conscience is examined in Surah Al Shams – The Sun: Evolution of the Human Conscience.
As the reader answers these questions in light of science and history, it becomes abundantly clear that once we collect all the references to Adam and Eve in the Quran to understand the Quranic story, we realize that there is no way it can be understood in physical terms. It is a metaphor or a parable with deep moral and spiritual insights; like the Covenants with all humans or the Covenant of the Prophets, mentioned in the holy Quran. It can also be taken as a wonderful spiritual experience of the prophet Adam, just like Mirage was the spiritual experience of the prophet Muhammad, may peace be on him, on the night that he went to the heavens and met previous prophets and visited the paradise to be, in the hereafter.
The traditional commentators did not have the benefit of much of the scientific information that is available today. So, the responsibility of willy nilly rejecting the clear case for biological evolution, presented below does not lie with them. However, if the modern reader adamantly refuses the truth, and clear and lucid new information, insisting on old ideas unnecessarily without merit, he or she would be ignoring the Quranic advice to those who are recipients of new paradigms: “They say: ‘Nay, we will follow that wherein we found our fathers.’ What! even if their fathers had no sense at all and no guidance (on the issue)?” (2:170) The theme is repeated in 5:104; 23:24; 28:36; 31:21; 34:43; and 43:22-25 among other places. So, the Quranic stress is on reason and rationality rather than on tradition and conservatism.
Therefore, in the words of Sir Francis Bacon’s advice, please, “Read not to contradict … but to weigh and consider.”
How long have the humans existed?
Here is the latest discovery as reported in CNN, in June of 2017:
The oldest fossil remains of Homo sapiens, dating back to 300,000 years, have been found at a site in Jebel Irhoud, Morocco. This is 100,000 years older than previously discovered fossils of Homo sapiens that have been securely dated. The discovery was presented in a study in the journal Nature on Wednesday.
This marks the first discovery of such fossils in north Africa, and widens the “cradle of mankind” to encompass all of Africa, the researchers said. Previous finds were in south or east Africa. The fossils, including a partial skull and a lower jaw, belong to five different individuals including three young adults, an adolescent and a child estimated to be 8 years old. Stone tools, animal bones and evidence of fire were also found within the same layer at the site.
But what the researchers found to be most remarkable about these fossils is that they capture a moment in time of evolution. The facial features of the skull look like a modern human, but the brain case is very elongated and archaically characteristic of early humans.
There has been increasing evidence that the modern human lineage diverged from Neanderthals and Denisovans 500,000 years ago, making us close relatives rather than direct descendants. Before this discovery, it was believed that the early modern humans we evolved from were in Africa 200,000 years ago and looked very similar to modern humans. But what happened in between that time?
This is still unknown, although the researchers suggest the possibility that there were multiple groups of hominins, or human ancestors, overlapping and having complex relationships.
Do humans have common ancestors with the chimpanzees and gorillas?
The recent commentators that we have focused on as listed in our About us page, most of them have denied biological evolution and those who have recognized biological evolution has proposed, separate evolution for the humans different from the rest of the animals. A proposition equally difficult to sustain from the study of biology, as it exists today, more than 150 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s famous book, On the Origin of Species in 1861.
So, our commentary is bringing a clear scientific understanding to the commentary of the holy Quran and in that respect is distinct from what has gone before.
We, however, don’t embrace all aspects of Darwinian evolution as it is often proposed these days; as one aspect of it is anti-thesis to any Abrahamic faith, including Islam.
The theory of evolution has different aspects to it. Firstly, do all life forms have common ancestry? 2. Is evolution blind or guided? 3. What are the mechanisms leading to evolution?
We will deal with the first question here only. The answer to that is a resounding yes. The humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor some 5-6 million years ago. The field of molecular biology has provided fool proof evidence for our common ancestry.
Here we quote from Encyclopedia Britannica:
The field of molecular biology provides the most detailed and convincing evidence available for biological evolution. In its unveiling of the nature of DNA and the workings of organisms at the level of enzymes and other protein molecules, it has shown that these molecules hold information about an organism’s ancestry. This has made it possible to reconstruct evolutionary events that were previously unknown and to confirm and adjust the view of events already known. The precision with which these events can be reconstructed is one reason the evidence from molecular biology is so compelling. Another reason is that molecular evolution has shown all living organisms, from bacteria to humans, to be related by descent from common ancestors.
A remarkable uniformity exists in the molecular components of organisms—in the nature of the components as well as in the ways in which they are assembled and used. In all bacteria, plants, animals, and humans, the DNA comprises a different sequence of the same four component nucleotides, and all the various proteins are synthesized from different combinations and sequences of the same 20 amino acids, although several hundred other amino acids do exist. The genetic code by which the information contained in the DNA of the cell nucleus is passed on to proteins is virtually everywhere the same. Similar metabolic pathways—sequences of biochemical reactions (see metabolism)—are used by the most diverse organisms to produce energy and to make up the cell components.
This unity reveals the genetic continuity and common ancestry of all organisms. There is no other rational way to account for their molecular uniformity when numerous alternative structures are equally likely. The genetic code serves as an example. Each particular sequence of three nucleotides in the nuclear DNA acts as a pattern for the production of exactly the same amino acid in all organisms. This is no more necessary than it is for a language to use a particular combination of letters to represent a particular object. If it is found that certain sequences of letters—planet, tree, woman—are used with identical meanings in a number of different books, one can be sure that the languages used in those books are of common origin.
Genes and proteins are long molecules that contain information in the sequence of their components in much the same way as sentences of the English language contain information in the sequence of their letters and words. The sequences that make up the genes are passed on from parents to offspring and are identical except for occasional changes introduced by mutations. As an illustration, one may assume that two books are being compared. Both books are 200 pages long and contain the same number of chapters. Closer examination reveals that the two books are identical page for page and word for word, except that an occasional word—say, one in 100—is different. The two books cannot have been written independently; either one has been copied from the other, or both have been copied, directly or indirectly, from the same original book. Similarly, if each component nucleotide of DNA is represented by one letter, the complete sequence of nucleotides in the DNA of a higher organism would require several hundred books of hundreds of pages, with several thousand letters on each page. When the “pages” (or sequences of nucleotides) in these “books” (organisms) are examined one by one, the correspondence in the “letters” (nucleotides) gives unmistakable evidence of common origin.
The two arguments presented above are based on different grounds, although both attest to evolution. Using the alphabet analogy, the first argument says that languages that use the same dictionary—the same genetic code and the same 20 amino acids—cannot be of independent origin. The second argument, concerning similarity in the sequence of nucleotides in the DNA (and thus the sequence of amino acids in the proteins), says that books with very similar texts cannot be of independent origin.
The evidence of evolution revealed by molecular biology goes even farther. The degree of similarity in the sequence of nucleotides or of amino acids can be precisely quantified. For example, in humans and chimpanzees, the protein molecule called cytochrome c, which serves a vital function in respiration within cells, consists of the same 104 amino acids in exactly the same order. It differs, however, from the cytochrome c of rhesus monkeys by 1 amino acid, from that of horses by 11 additional amino acids, and from that of tuna by 21 additional amino acids. The degree of similarity reflects the recency of common ancestry. Thus, the inferences from comparative anatomy and other disciplines concerning evolutionary history can be tested in molecular studies of DNA and proteins by examining their sequences of nucleotides and amino acids. (See below DNA and protein as informational macromolecules.)
The authority of this kind of test is overwhelming; each of the thousands of genes and thousands of proteins contained in an organism provides an independent test of that organism’s evolutionary history. Not all possible tests have been performed, but many hundreds have been done, and not one has given evidence contrary to evolution. There is probably no other notion in any field of science that has been as extensively tested and as thoroughly corroborated as the evolutionary origin of living organisms.
There are countless articles, books and videos available about the details of the reasoning above and a little search by the seeker after truth will convince an unbiased seeker of the truth of what we have presented here. We will link a few here over time.
How long have human like species existed?
This question can be easily answered by a visit to the American Museum of Natural History, New York and Natural History Museum, London and their websites. In the specific exhibit to visit is: Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, in American Museum of Natural History.
The Anne and Bernard Spitzer Hall of Human Origins pairs fossils with DNA research to present the remarkable history of human evolution. The hall covers millions of years of human history, from early ancestors who lived more than six million years ago to modern Homo sapiens, who evolved 200,000 to 150,000 years ago.
This innovative exhibition combines discoveries in the fossil record with the latest genomic science to explore the most profound mysteries of humankind: who we are, where we came from, and what is in store for the future of our species. The hall explores human biology and anatomy, traces the path of human evolution, and examines the origins of human creativity.
Featuring four life-sized tableaux of Homo ergaster, Homo erectus, Neanderthals, and Cro-Magnons, the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins shows each species in its habitat, demonstrating the behaviors and capabilities that scientists think it had. Also displayed are a variety of important fossil casts, including the 1.7-million-year-old “Turkana Boy.” The hall also features examples of what are thought to be some of humans’ earliest forms of artistic expression, including an original limestone engraving of a horse carved about 25,000 years ago in southwestern France.
One of the main highlights of the hall is Lucy. “Lucy” is one of the most complete skeletons found to date from the early hominids that flourished between 4 and 2 million years ago. The skeleton consists of bones from a single individual, presumably female, who stood well under 4 feet tall.
Natural History Museum, London opened a gallery about human evolution in 2015. Its introductory page is reproduced below:
Embark on a seven-million-year journey, from the first hominins to the last surviving human species: us.
Investigate what defines a hominin and how much we modern humans have in common with other human species, as well as what sets us apart.
Along the way you will discover the changes in physical characteristics, diet, lifestyles and environments that have shaped modern humans.
‘It’s fantastic to see such extremely good reproductions of important new fossil discoveries like Ardi and Homo floresiensis, as well as the latest groundbreaking research into the ancient human occupation of Britain, embedded in this gallery.’ – Dr Alice Roberts
Star specimens and exhibits in Natural History Museum, London
- 3.5-million-year-old Laetoli canine, the oldest hominin fossil in the Museum’s collection
- Gibraltar 1 skull, the first adult Neanderthal skull ever found
- skull and hand casts of the recently discovered human species, Homo naledi
- scientifically accurate life-size Neanderthal and early Homo sapiens models
- 420,000-year-old Clacton spear, the oldest preserved wooden spear in the world
- Cheddar Man skeleton and fascinating insights into the cultural practices of early modern humans in Britain, including a human skull shaped into a cup
Did Adam and Eve live in ‘a’ Garden or ‘the’ Garden (the paradise)?
Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Associates write in the commentary of 2:35:
The Garden in which Adam and Eve dwelled is indeed paradisal; they would neither hunger therein, nor go naked, . . . neither thirst therein, nor suffer from the heat of the sun (20:118—19), in addition to experiencing the unconstrained enjoyment of the Garden’s fruits, as mentioned in this verse. Eating from the tree, according to Iblis, would have made them angels, or able to live forever (7:20), and in 20:120 he promises them the Tree of Everlastingness and a kingdom that never decays. Among the possibilities offered for the type of tree are grain, grapevine, and ﬁg. …
One view (R) has it that the promise of eternal life mentioned in 7:20 and 20:120 would have had no attraction if Adam were already dwelling in the “Garden of Rewards,” which the Quran promises to believers. The command to get . . . down (v. 36) is the same verb used in v. 61 (Go down to a town . . .), where it does not imply a vertical descent, but a change in location. Moreover, those who enter the Garden will not be expelled therefrom (15:48). Also, if Adam were created from earth, then where is the ascent from earth to Heaven in this account? The commentator al-Qurtubi (who is not of this opinion) also mentions that the Quran says of the Garden, They hear therein neither idle talk nor lying (78:35), and yet Iblis did lie to them, which is indeed how he caused them to be expelled from it. These considerations would seem to indicate that this is a different Garden from the ‘Garden of Rewards.’
The consensus view, though, is that the Garden of Adam and the promised Garden are the very same (R, Q). It is not ‘a’ garden, but ‘the’ Garden (al-jannah), ‘well known’ as the eternal Garden promised to believers. Some respond to the opinion that Iblis could not have lied in the Garden by arguing that he could have whispered to them from somewhere outside the Garden, and that the promise never to be expelled applies only to those granted entry to Paradise after their sojourn on earth as a reward for their good deeds (Ts).
Surveying these options, al-Razi offers this ﬁnal possibility: ‘These are all possible, and the textual proofs are weak and contradictory; so one should cease, and refrain from being categorical. And God knows best.’ On this and similar issues (such as Eve’s creation and entry in the Garden) he takes a similar attitude, that one cannot know for sure, and one does not need to know, as this is not central to the Quranic telling of the account.
Our study of nature and biological sciences in the last two centuries have shown us that human like or hominid species have existed for a few million years, on the planet earth, and modern humans have existed for some 200,000 years. With these findings, it becomes self evident that Adam and Eve lived in ‘a’ garden here and not ‘the’ Garden.
This learning becomes easy and self evident, if we can resign ourselves to the reality that all the traditional and even the recent commentators were humans. They showed excellent scholarship in their times and their sincerity was unimpeachable but they were not infallible. Good science does provide us many wonderful insights to understand the Quran and we can be thankful to the Gracious God that He has blessed humanity with amazing investigative tools that have yielded wonderful fruits in so many spheres of human needs and interests.
Criticism of literal meaning
In this surah it is mentioned that the angels bowed themselves to the prophet Adam, while in surah Sad, it is said that they bowed or prostrated to the whole of humanity. None of us can recall the angels ever having prostrated literally to anyone of us. Therefore, they did not bow literally to humanity at large, at least.
The account in surah Hijr details that all the angels prostrated together. Additionally, the literalists tell us that there are countless angels for almost every phenomenon of nature, from rain, to sunshine to moonlight. Each human carries two angels on his or her shoulders, given the present human population of 7 billion, and imagining that human race may continue for a thousand or more generations, we can postulate at least a trillion angels, simply of this category. From the perspective of Adam, a trillion angels bowing to him, he could hardly tell that there is one dissident, namely Satan, in such a large crowd!
Some commentators have tried to make a distinction between Satan and Iblis. Whereas, 2:34 talks about Iblis 2:36 refers to him as Satan. So, there is hardly any clear distinction.
Now, Satan being able to read and influence heart and mind of each one of us and being omni-present, almost takes on divine powers. So, if we dwell deeply, a literal understanding of Satan hardly seems true. Moreover, in surah Hijr, Satan not only knows the present, but is also able to predict the future, as he says: I shall certainly make (evil) seem fair to them on earth, and I shall cause them all to deviate; except those of Your servants from among them, who are the purified ones. Satan with such divine like fore-knowledge hardly seems literally plausible. Additionally, there is a hadith that when the prophet was asked about his Satan, he said that he had overcome it. Implying that Satan is for each individual, in other words in our psyche, what Freud called ‘Id.’
The divine order is given to Adam and Eve only in 2:35 and punishment is given to them and many more in the next very verses, again not compatible with literal understanding.
Angels according to the traditional view don’t have free will.(66:6) How could they then express an opinion contrary to that of God, in the first part of this story?
The story cannot be literally true, for in surah TaHa we read that when Adam and Eve ate of the tree, their nakedness was exposed to them and they began to cover themselves with the adornments of the garden. Their is not such fruit or tree that causes human nakedness and the passage has to be read metaphorically.
Based on the scientific reality, impossibility of a comprehensive literal story and other precedents like the Covenant of the whole of humanity and the Covenant of the Prophets, this section should be read as an elaborate metaphor. For example, we read about the covenant with the whole of humanity:
|7:172. And when your Lord brought forth from the children of Adam, from their loins, their descendants, and made them bear witness about themselves: Am I not your Lord? They replied: Yes; we bear witness. We did this lest you should say on the day of Resurrection: We were unaware of this.||وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِن بَنِي آدَمَ مِن ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَىٰ أَنفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ ۖ قَالُوا بَلَىٰ ۛ شَهِدْنَا ۛ أَن تَقُولُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَـٰذَا غَافِلِينَ|
None of the recent commentators, despite the physical expression, ‘from their loins,’ used in this verse, believe this verse to be literal. It is understood as imprint of God’s existence on human psyche.
Joseph Lumbard writes in his essay, the Quranic view of sacred history and other religions, which is included in the recent commentary of the holy Quran, presented by Seyyed Hossein Nasr and his associates, regarding this pretemporal covenant:
As in the Bible, the Quranic view of human history is one of people being called time and again to observe a covenant with God. ‘The Quran honors the covenant made by God with previous religious communities, though each is seen as but one manifestation of a pre-eternal covenant that God made with all of humanity when they were still in Adam’s loins: Anal when thy Lord took from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their progeny and made them bear witness concerning themselves, ‘Am I not your Lord?’ they said, ‘Yea, we bear witness’ (7:172). Though reminiscent of God’s Promise to the Israelites in Exodus,’ this verse refers to existence before creation, when the spirits of all human beings are said to have been assembled before God. Am I not your Lord? is a rhetorical question whereby God affirms His principal Reality as the Lord of all that is on earth and in Heaven. And the human response is the everlasting afﬁrmation of this covenant. Every covenant made while human beings are on earth is thus a recognition, renewal, and continuation of this pretemporal covenant. From this perspective, the history of religion is a multifaceted series of temporal reassertions of a single pretemporal covenant. The next verses reveal that God has reminded human beings of this pretemporal covenant through the various prophets, so that no human beings can claim that they are not responsible for observing it:
Lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, “Truly of this we were heedless,” or lest you should say, “[It is] only that our fathers ascribed partners unto God aforetime, and we were their progeny after them. Wilt Thou destroy us for that which the falsiﬁers have alone? (7:172—73)
Seen in this light, all of humanity bears the imprint of the pretemporal covenant within. The functions of revelation and prophecy are to reawaken the awareness of this imprint and remind all people that they must observe the covenant with God.
Likewise, the verse pertaining to the Covenant of the Prophets below is not taken literally:
|3:81. And remember the time when Allah took a covenant from the Prophets, saying: ‘Whatever I give you of the Book and Wisdom and then there comes to you a Messenger, fulfilling that which is with you, you shall believe in him and help him.’ And He said: ‘Do you agree, and do you accept the responsibility which I lay upon you in this matter?’ They said, ‘We agree;’ He said, ‘Then bear witness, and I am with you among the witnesses.’||وَإِذْ أَخَذَ اللَّـهُ مِيثَاقَ النَّبِيِّينَ لَمَا آتَيْتُكُم مِّن كِتَابٍ وَحِكْمَةٍ ثُمَّ جَاءَكُمْ رَسُولٌ مُّصَدِّقٌ لِّمَا مَعَكُمْ لَتُؤْمِنُنَّ بِهِ وَلَتَنصُرُنَّهُ ۚ قَالَ أَأَقْرَرْتُمْ وَأَخَذْتُمْ عَلَىٰ ذَٰلِكُمْ إِصْرِي ۖ قَالُوا أَقْرَرْنَا ۚ قَالَ فَاشْهَدُوا وَأَنَا مَعَكُم مِّنَ الشَّاهِدِينَ|
According to the conventional Islamic belief, there have been 124,000 prophets over time in different parts of the world. We can, however, agree that there was never a joint session between them and God Almighty. This verse is a metaphor to communicate their co-operative psyche to their followers.
Metaphorical understanding of the verses in this section
In surah A’raf, we read a partial repetition of what is mentioned in this section, but there are some additions, there is a subtle reference to evolution process leading to humanity in the verse eleven:
|7:11. We created you then we gave you shape and then we told the angels to prostrate to Adam and they did. But Iblis, he was not one of those who prostrated.||وَلَقَدْ خَلَقْنَاكُمْ ثُمَّ صَوَّرْنَاكُمْ ثُمَّ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ اسْجُدُوا لِآدَمَ فَسَجَدُوا إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ لَمْ يَكُن مِّنَ السَّاجِدِينَ|
A similar theme of creation by stages is mentioned in the first three verses of Surah Aala.
When Allah decided to create the multiverse, according to Surah Yasin, all He had to say is, ‘Be – and it is!’ But, we all know from science classes that it took 13 billion years. The specific verse is:
|36:82. His power is such that when He intends a thing He says, ‘Be’ – and it is!||إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُ إِذَا أَرَادَ شَيْئًا أَن يَقُولَ لَهُ كُن فَيَكُونُ|
Allah is capable of instantaneous creation, but, His wisdom requires a paradigm for creation that has allowed the scientific study of nature possible.
Likewise, the whole of evolution of life, as described in 7:11 above, did spread over 4 billion years on planet earth, which He chose to depict with the three words: خَلَقْنَاكُمْ ثُمَّ صَوَّرْنَاكُمْ I first created you and then gave you shape or polished you. This suggests that I fashioned you from the early life forms over time through an evolutionary track. Now, if an All-Powerful and All-Knowing God was spontaneously creating humans, unlike us, He did not have to go through multiple iterations to the finished product on a particular day like a human artist. The Arabic words in the divine context خَلَقْنَاكُمْ ثُمَّ صَوَّرْنَاكُمْ can only mean a staged process like Darwinian evolution.
The prostration of the angels to the prophet Adam or to the whole of humanity, is a symbol of the humans being given a dominion over the forces of nature and an ability to study nature for their benefit. The benefit of this becomes self evident as we study the history of science over the last thousand years. On the other hand if angels as spiritual beings prostrated once to Adam literally, it will not have any lasting utility. Just some symbolism; again directing us to metaphorical understanding of the verses.
This becomes more understandable, when we understand that angels are a symbolic language, for the seventh century reader to understand that the Transcendent God of the Abrahamic faiths, Who is beyond time, space and matter, has complete control over every aspect of nature at the Quantum level. For details, please see our article: Quantum Physics: The Divine Prescription for Our Free Will and God’s Providence.
God teaching Adam some names is a reference to human language, which is the key distinction between humans and other apes. The subject of language will be described further in surah Rum.
The fall of Adam is to point to human vulnerabilities, Id, as discussed in a separate article. Human propensity to cause violence and disorder stems from his unregulated selfish interests or Id as well and angels mentioned that human vulnerability to God.
God teaching him words to repent is the start of the office of prophethood, as God begins to reveal a moral and spiritual code to humanity, with Adam being the first prophet. The Quran also says, there have not been any people to whom a Teacher has not been sent. (35:24) Human conscience had been evolving over the millennia, but, at the time of the prophet Adam, some six thousand years ago, it was time to give humans a moral and a spiritual code and full accountability to their Creator.
So this section not only describes human language and psychology, our dominion over nature and its study but also the institution of prophethood, which in the last 6000 years has constantly broadened our horizons and in many ways brought us to our present state of development.
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