The dignity of mankind
Friday Khutba by Dr Zahid Aziz, for Lahore Ahmadiyya UK, 2 December 2022
“And when your Lord said to the angels, I am going to place a ruler in the earth, they said: Will You place in it such as make mischief in it and shed blood? And we celebrate Your praise and extol Your holiness. He said: Surely I know what you do not know. And He taught Adam all the names, then presented them to the angels; He said: Tell Me the names of those if you are right. They said: Glory be to You! we have no knowledge but what You have taught us. Surely You are the Knowing, the Wise. He said: O Adam, inform them of their names. So when he informed them of their names, He said: Did I not say to you that I know what is unseen in the heavens and the earth? And I know what you manifest and what you hide.” — ch. 2: Al-Baqarah, v. 30–33
وَ اِذۡ قَالَ رَبُّکَ لِلۡمَلٰٓئِکَۃِ اِنِّیۡ جَاعِلٌ فِی الۡاَرۡضِ خَلِیۡفَۃً ؕ قَالُوۡۤا اَتَجۡعَلُ فِیۡہَا مَنۡ یُّفۡسِدُ فِیۡہَا وَ یَسۡفِکُ الدِّمَآءَ ۚ وَ نَحۡنُ نُسَبِّحُ بِحَمۡدِکَ وَ نُقَدِّسُ لَکَ ؕ قَالَ اِنِّیۡۤ اَعۡلَمُ مَا لَا تَعۡلَمُوۡنَ ﴿۳۰﴾ وَ عَلَّمَ اٰدَمَ الۡاَسۡمَآءَ کُلَّہَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَہُمۡ عَلَی الۡمَلٰٓئِکَۃِ ۙ فَقَالَ اَنۡۢبِـُٔوۡنِیۡ بِاَسۡمَآءِ ہٰۤؤُلَآءِ اِنۡ کُنۡتُمۡ صٰدِقِیۡنَ ﴿۳۱﴾ قَالُوۡا سُبۡحٰنَکَ لَا عِلۡمَ لَنَاۤ اِلَّا مَا عَلَّمۡتَنَا ؕ اِنَّکَ اَنۡتَ الۡعَلِیۡمُ الۡحَکِیۡمُ ﴿۳۲﴾ قَالَ یٰۤاٰدَمُ اَنۡۢبِئۡہُمۡ بِاَسۡمَآئِہِمۡ ۚ فَلَمَّاۤ اَنۡۢبَاَہُمۡ بِاَسۡمَآئِہِمۡ ۙ قَالَ اَلَمۡ اَقُلۡ لَّکُمۡ اِنِّیۡۤ اَعۡلَمُ غَیۡبَ السَّمٰوٰتِ وَ الۡاَرۡضِ ۙ وَ اَعۡلَمُ مَا تُبۡدُوۡنَ وَ مَا کُنۡتُمۡ تَکۡتُمُوۡنَ ﴿۳۳﴾
A human being, as an individual, seems to be quite powerless and insignificant in the world. He or she is treated as just a tiny component of society or nation who hardly matters in his or her own right. It is as if his purpose in life is only to serve the society, country or the state in which he lives and obey its laws. Not only individuals, but even huge sections of mankind look as if they are servants and slaves of some system or ideology or religion. The general perception and image of Islam is also that it reduces its followers to the position of just servants of the Islamic system. The common Muslim name, Abdullah, has unfortunately often been translated into English as “slave of Allah”. That has connotations of someone who merely obeys out of fear and holds a very low position. But right at the beginning of the Quran, speaking of the creation of human beings, Allah says that man has been created to be a khalifa on earth, in other words a ruler who is empowered with authority from God. The verses I have recited are generally considered to relate to one man, the first man Adam. But it is obvious that the whole of humanity is meant. One man could not be a ruler, or deputy appointed by God, over the whole earth. Nor could one man by himself cause so much disorder and bloodshed that the angels feared this happening.
So what is meant is that mankind will rule in the earth and have the capability of acquiring power over physical nature. In addition, spiritually also, human beings can acquire a semblance of those great, good and noble qualities which are the attributes of God. Perhaps a single human being is mentioned here, Adam, in order to convey that individually also people will be rulers in matters relating to their own lives, rulers who have been given authority by God and who are therefore responsible to God for how they exercise that authority.
The objection raised by the angels to God creating Adam, and God’s reply, cannot be conversations conducted by word of mouth. What is meant is that nature runs according to God’s laws without disobedience. When we look at various natural phenomena we are struck by their orderliness and their beauty. This is like the angels saying: “And we celebrate Your praise and extol Your holiness”. So, given that nature is working fine, why create someone with the power to interfere with it? In reply to this God says: “Surely I know what you do not know”. And what they didn’t know is then explained: “And He taught Adam all the names”. The meaning is that God will place in human beings the capability of acquiring knowledge of all things. The “name” of something is knowledge of that thing. God teaching names or knowledge does not mean that people are born possessing that knowledge and don’t have to make an effort to attain it. As is well-known, in the first revelation to the Holy Prophet it is said that Allah “taught by the pen, taught man what he did not know” (ch. 96, v. 4–5). Certainly Allah did not take a pen in hand and wrote on a board to teach man. Man picked up the pen himself.
The same applies to the statement: “He taught Adam all the names”, that this creation known as humans will have the capability and indeed the desire and urge to gain knowledge. Then this passage says that Allah presented those things, whose names He had taught Adam, before the angels and said to them: Can you name them? And they could not. They said: “we have no knowledge but what You have taught us.” This indicates that things we see in the natural world, such as trees, birds, wind, etc., all those things which keep the world running, don’t have any knowledge of what they are doing. They may be doing amazing things but they are simply doing them. This can be seen in human organisations as well. For example, in an electronics manufacturing plant, workers are busy assembling components to make televisions, computers etc. They mostly don’t have knowledge of how those components work and how assembling them in a certain way, that they are doing, makes a device work. They are just carrying out instructions. This verse teaches us that humans are at a higher level than this. They have the capability of knowing how and why things work, and this gives them the power to make them work for the benefit of humans.
Adam was able to inform the angels of the names which they did not know. This indicates the supremacy of those who have knowledge of how things work, and why they work, over those who keep things running as a routine. As regards “names”, every field of knowledge has devised its own terminology, and their specialists communicate with each other quickly and easily using their terminology, whether it is the field of any science, medicine, law, etc. It also helps greatly in the advancement of their knowledge. In science, when someone says “energy” or “power”, for example, it has a specific meaning, and is not like saying “energy” or “power” in ordinary conversation. Only by the use of such terms can science advance. If you try to read a book on any such subject, you may know every word which is written in that book, but you will not be able to understand the book unless you know the terminology which is used in that field. In mathematics we give names to quantities whose amount we don’t know, such as saying “let x be the length, and y be the width”. It was only after people hit upon this idea of using symbols that modern maths and science could develop.
So, essentially what this passage of the Quran conveys is that human beings will be rulers in the world because of acquiring knowledge of things. And if they are rulers, then how can they worship other physical things as gods, such as trees, mountains, rivers, the sun, the moon, the stars, idols of stone, or other humans who are just like them? This is the main way in which Islam has dignified mankind: by placing in man the highest potential imaginable and setting for it the highest goal imaginable.
It is said in the Quran that man is made from “an extract, of worthless seeming water”, in other words, the drop of fluid containing the male seed, and then God “made him complete and breathed into him of His spirit, and gave you ears and eyes and hearts; little thanks you give!” (ch. 32, v. 9). Thus God has breathed into every human being, at the time of his or her creation, God’s own spirit. This gives each person the capability of attaining nearness to God because God’s spirit lives within him. He has also been dignified by being granted his senses and understanding. Whether it is attaining knowledge of how the world works, or how to attain nearness to God by reform of one’s character, you need to make use of your senses to acquire knowledge and your mind to draw conclusions from it. There is mention in this verse that humans should give thanks for having ears and eyes and hearts. “Thanking” means that human must use their senses and reason to understand things, including matters of religious belief.
Blind belief and following are condemned in the Quran. Those who don’t use these faculties are referred to as cattle, and indeed as going astray even more: “they have hearts with which they do not understand, and they have eyes with which they do not see, and they have ears with which they do not hear. They are as cattle; rather, they are more astray” (ch. 7, v. 179). Allah has given them minds and eyes and ears so that by using them they may become dignified, independent-thinking human beings. But they do not make use of them, and reduce themselves to the status of cattle who are driven by their owners and follow their orders.
In another place the Quran says: “Have you seen him who takes his low desire for his god? Will you be a guardian over him? Or do you think that most of them hear or understand? They are only as the cattle; rather, they are farther astray from the path” (ch. 25, v. 43–44). This again mentions mankind choosing to fall to a low state instead of rising to the high state that Allah has made them capable of rising to. Neither the Holy Prophet, nor anyone else, can act as a guardian for someone who has made it his goal in life to satisfy his low desires, the desires he has in common with animals. It says here that such people are more misguided than cattle. Of course, cattle do not go on the wrong path at all. In fact, the Quran says to human beings:
“And surely there is a lesson for you in the cattle. We make you to drink of what is in their bellies, and you have in them many advantages and of them you eat, and on them and on the ships you are borne.” (ch. 23, v. 21)
“…and they carry your heavy loads to regions which you could not reach but with distress to yourselves. Surely your Lord is Compassionate, Merciful.” (ch. 16, v. 7)
The meaning of being more astray than cattle is that while cattle cannot be guided to the right path in moral or spiritual terms, they are doing very useful, in fact indispensable, work but these people who are as cattle are not useful or beneficial to the world in any way.
May Allah enable us to reach the status of dignity that He has meant human beings to attain. — ameen.