Created by God, blessed with a sacred trust: some biblical and Qur'anic perspectives on humanity.
I have been pondering the subject matter of this essay for some years. I believe it is a topic on which Christians and Muslims can engage in fruitful conversation. The Bible and the Qur'an relate certain views not only of God but also of humanity. As with their respective views of God, so also with the way they picture humanity, there are both convergences and divergences. For the most part, this essay is concerned with convergences.
First, a few comments about the creation. In the twenty-first century, any talk about creation is meaningless unless we at least consider scientific theories about the origin of our universe. It has been observed that our universe is expanding. How do scientists account for this? There is what is commonly known as the Big Bang theory, which says that our universe started with an explosion some ten to twenty billion years ago of an immensely dense mass, and this explosion has propelled everything outward. Another theory speaks of an oscillating universe--a universe in the process of continuous expansion and contraction. (1)
I do not detail such theories here but want to note several points about them. First, they describe the origin of our universe without mentioning God, because the subject of God is beyond the purview of scientific inquiry. Second, both theories start with a given (mass or matter) and proceed from that starting point to describe the possible development of our universe; they do not go back beyond that given, as we find, for instance, in the idea of creation out of nothing. Third, although these theories all contain a degree of plausibility, they are not facts. They begin with observable phenomena that science has discovered and make a proposal to account for these phenomena. With the discovery of new phenomena, the theories may change.
God as creator
The Bible begins with an account of creation. Historically, however, the first great affirmation in the Judeo-Christian tradition was not that God created the world. (2) We see in the Old Testament that the essence of Israel's faith
is the firm conviction that God has saved the fathers and mothers from Egypt, led them through the desert and settled them in the land of Canaan. They have only become a people because of God's intervention. What is more, God has made a covenant with them at Mount Sinai, and this covenant determines their entire subsequent history. (3)
The people of Israel believed they had a special relationship with God founded upon these particular events. The creation story flows out of that conviction. Its purpose is not to explain how the world began but to express the conviction that the God who saved the people of Israel also created the world and continues to care for it and them. As Walter Brueggemann says, the creation narrative is "not a scientific description but a theological affirmation." (4)
The New Testament writers also affirm that the creation owes its existence to God. There we are told that God "created all things" (Eph 3:9) (5) and "calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Rom 4:27). Indeed, we read that God's act of creation is not simply an event of the past; God is also creating the world anew (2 Cor 5:17).
The Qur'an does not contain a creation narrative, but in numerous verses it declares that God is the creator and source of all things. For instance:
Surely, your Lord is God, Who created the heavens and the earth in six days, then ascended the throne. He covers the night with the day, which it follows quickly. He has made the sun, the moon, and the stars subservient by His command. Truly, His are the creation and the command. Blessed be God, the Lord of all being. (Q. 7:54; see also 24:45; 13:2-3; 16:3-16) (6)
The Bible and the Qur'an share a conviction that the whole of creation owes its existence to God. My principal concern in this essay, however, is not the creation in general. Rather, it is one part of the creation, namely, humanity.
The biblical account of the creation of humanity
First, let us look at Genesis 1:24-31.
And God said, "Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind." And it was so. God made the wild animals of the earth of every kind, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the ground of every kind. And God saw that it was good. Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth." God said, "See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food." And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
This passage describes the moment God "designed" humanity. It is, therefore, the moment God tells us what God has in mind for us. It provides a vision of what God intended us to be.
One of the first things we notice is that we are creatures. In v. 27 we hear three times that God created humanity, as if to emphasize that humans are only creatures of God and not on the same level as God. We also see how closely humans are associated with animals. There is no special day reserved for the creation of humanity. Animals and humans are created on the same day. It seems that the Bible is well aware that we, like animals, are controlled by instincts and urges, needs and desires. The Bible sees us as higher animals, as possessors of conscience and reason, but, as Psalm 49 says, like the animals we perish (v. 12). Clearly, we are less than God.
So, before we rightly note that we are the crown of creation, we must first recognize that we are only creatures and not gods. This theme of the great distinction between God and humanity is also stressed in Islam; in fact, there the difference is even more strongly emphasized.
Before we turn to look at what the Qur'an says about the creation of humanity, however, we should read the second Genesis account of humanity's creation, Genesis 2:4b-8, 18-23.
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up--for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground--then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed.... Then the Lord God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner." So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken."
Qur'anic references to the creation of humanity
Now we turn to some of the Qur'anic passages concerning the creation of humanity.
[God speaking] We created humanity, a product of clay. Then We placed him as a drop in a secure place. Then We fashioned the drop into a lump of clotted blood, the lump of clotted blood We fashioned into tissue, the tissue We fashioned into bone, and We clothed the bone with flesh. Thus We produced another creature. Blessed be God, the finest Creator! (Q. 23:12-14) [God] created all things well, and He began the creation of humanity from clay. (Q. 32:7) He created humanity from a drop [of fluid]. (Q. 16:4) He [humanity] was created from a gushing fluid coming forth from between the loins and the breast. (Q. 86:6-7) We created humanity from a mixed drop. (7) (Q. 76:2; see also 32:8; 56:57-59) He it is who created you [pl.] from dust, then a drop [of fluid], then a clot, and brings you [pl.] forth as a child. (Q. 40:67)
This last passage puts in sequence what we find in the earlier ones: dust, a drop (of sperm or a mixture of fluid from the male and the female), clot, child. Here it seems that the Qur'an witnesses that God's work of human creation continues in the human reproductive act, the growth of the fetus, and its entrance into the world as a child.
Other passages picture God as a potter and the giver of life and various human faculties:
He created humanity from clay like the potter. (Q. 55:14) He it is who produced you [pl.] and appointed for you [pl.] hearing, sight, and hearts (Q. 67:23). God created humanity male and female. Was he [humanity] not a drop of sperm emitted? Then it was a blood-clot, created and formed. Then He made of it a pair, the male and the female. (Q. 75:37-39)
As God created fruits and hills in various colors, so God created humanity in different colors (Q. 35:28), and God causes humans to multiply in the earth (Q. 67:24).
Our administrative task
Both the Bible and the Qur'an see a close relationship between humanity and the rest of the creation, but they also see a distinction. One way the Qur'an expresses this is by saying that God fashioned Adam from clay and then breathed his spirit into Adam.
Then He fashioned and breathed into him of His spirit. (Q. 32:9; also 15:29; 38:72)
The Bible expresses the distinctiveness of humanity a little differently, saying that God fashioned Adam from the dust of the earth, then breathed into Adam the breath of life (Gen 2:7). However, this does not distinguish Adam from the animals, because Genesis also speaks of animals as having the breath of life in them (Gen 1:30). In Genesis what sets humanity above the rest of the creation is that humanity has been created in "the image of God" (Gen 1:26-27). What does this mean? It does not refer just to characteristics we regard as specifically human, such as our ability to reason and make moral decisions. Nor does it mean that humans are a replica of God. In fact, the Genesis account seems uninterested in defining what the image of God means. Instead, it emphasizes the purpose for which the image is given. (8) When God created humans, God gave them a special position within the creation.
God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every breathing thing that moves upon the earth...." The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.... ... out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. (Gen 1:28; 2:15, 19)
The special position is that humans are to have dominion over the animals, subdue the earth, till the earth and bring forth produce, and name the animals.
Perhaps we can understand more clearly how humans function in God's image when we consider the ancient Middle Eastern custom of erecting images of earthly rulers. When a picture or statue of a king was set up, it indicated that the area in which it was erected was under the king's dominion. Drawing a parallel here, if humans are introduced into God's creation as being God's image, this may mean that humanity symbolizes and exercises God's dominion over the earth. Human dominion over the world should remind everyone that God is in control of the creation and that we exercise authority on God's behalf. (9)
Brueggemann compares this task of dominion to the work of a shepherd
who cares for, tends, and feeds the animals ... the task of "dominion" does not have to do with exploitation and abuse. It has to do with securing the well-being of every other creature and bringing the promise of each to full fruition. (10)
This could be contrasted, says Brueggemann, with the caricature of the human shepherds described in Ezekiel 34, who abused the responsibility given them by the creator.
The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel: prophesy, and say to them--to the shepherds: Thus says the Lord God: Ah, you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd; and scattered, they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep were scattered, they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill; my sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with no one to search or seek for them. (Ezek 34:1-6)
A Christian understanding of dominion must be understood in the light of the way of Jesus, who said "whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (Mark 10: 43-44). The one who rules properly is one who serves. To exercise lordship means to be a servant. The shepherd's task is not to control but to lay down his/her life for the sheep (John 10:11). Human beings are given dominion over the creation for its benefit and well-being. (11)
Genesis 1:26-29 helps us understand both God and humankind in new ways. "The creator is 'humanized' () as the one who cares in costly ways for the world. The creature is seen as the one who is entrusted with power and authority to rule." (13) We have here a picture of God as one who rules not from on high by decree but by gracious self-giving. We have a picture of humanity not as slaves of God "but agents of God to whom much is given and from whom much is expected." (14)
What kind of people can fulfill this function? Is it only those who have a special gift for exercising authority? In Genesis the idea of dominion is always expressed in the plural: "let them have dominion" (Gen 1:26, 28). The focus is not on exceptional, specially gifted people but on the human community, and this clearly means both male and female in mutuality and complementarity. The whole human community is entrusted with the task of serving as God's administrator. (15)
The Qur'an also speaks of the administrative task humanity has under God over the creation.
And your [s.] Lord said to the angels: "I am placing in the earth a khalifa." They replied: "Are You going to place in it one who will cause corruption and shed blood, while we sing Your praise and cry 'Holy' before You?" He [God] said, "I know what you do not know." He taught Adam all the names, then presented them to the angels, saying: "Tell Me the names of these, if you speak truly." They replied, "Glory be to You. We only know what You have taught us. You are the All- knowing, the All-wise." He said, "Adam, tell them their names." And when he told them their names, He said, "Did I not tell you that I know the unseen things of the heavens and the earth? And I know what you disclose and what you have concealed." When We said to the angels, "Prostrate yourselves before Adam," they fell prostrate, except Iblis. He refused. He was arrogant, and so became an unbeliever. (Q. 2:30-34)
This passage pictures God as saying to the angels, "I am placing in the earth a khalifa." This word can be translated as "vicegerent," "vice-regent," "viceroy," or "deputy." The khalifa is one who exercises authority on behalf of another. The medieval commentator Ibn Kathir (d. 1373) argued that the word khalifa refers not only to Adam but also to his descendants, that is, the whole human community, basing his argument on the angels' protest, "Are You going to place in it one who will cause corruption and shed blood?" Another medieval commentator, al-Razi (d. 1209), argued the same point differently, by referring to another Qur'anic verse where one of the plural forms of the word khalifa is used: "It is He who has appointed you (pl.) as khala if (vicegerents/vice-regents/deputies) in the earth" (Q. 6:165). (16) He could also have pointed to Q. 35:39, "He it is who made you (pl.) khala if in the earth." Thus, as in the Bible, so in the Qur'an this sacred task is given to the whole human community.
The angels know what a great privilege is being given to humanity, and they express concern about this announcement. They draw attention to their own peaceful character and perpetual adoration in contrast to the corrupt and violent character of humanity. God's response is that he has a surer, deeper knowledge. God then teaches Adam the names of things; the Genesis account simply says that Adam named the animals (Gen 1:20). In both places this should be understood in the light of its Semitic background. It is an image of sovereignty: to be able to name means to have control over something. (17) Adam's ability to identify and name is something the angels confess they cannot do.
Then God instructs the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam. The verb here (sajada) is the same verb used for the proper human recognition of God. This suggests that God's lordship itself is in some sense at stake in the human role, that the proper recognition of humanity's primacy in the creation is an acknowledgment of God's primacy over the whole creation. (18)
The refusal of Iblis (the devil) to bow before Adam is seen as an act of defiance against God. By rejecting the status of humanity, Iblis questions God's wisdom and challenges God's authority. Perhaps we can say this means that God is defied and mocked whenever humanity is despised. (19)
A couple of other Qur'anic verses speak of how God has made the whole creation subservient to humanity.
Do you not see that God has made subject to you [pl.] whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth? (Q. 31:20) He has made subject to you [pl.] whatever is in the heavens and whatever is in the earth; it is all from Him. (Q. 45:13; see also 16:12-14)
One present-day commentator, Fazlur Rahman, says that the human mission as God's vicegerent is "to create a moral social order on the earth." (20) The same thought is found in medieval commentaries. One from the fifteenth century interprets Q. 2:30 as God saying, Adam "substitutes for me in implementing my decrees in the earth." (21)
One final Qur'anic reference to consider is 33:72, where the Qur'an describes the mission of being God's vicegerent as "the Trust" (al-amana). It says that God offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth, but they refused to accept it, afraid of the burden involved. It was accepted by humanity, whom the Qur'an speaks of as being unjust and foolish.
Today, too, many wonder whether these biblical and Qur'anic statements do not overestimate human potential. Many parts of the world are threatened with or actually face overpopulation, a depletion of natural resources, and abuse of and strain on the ecosystem. Poverty, hunger and disease are rampant. Human greed and mismanagement are seen as principal causes. Are we capable of only injustice and foolishness? Or do we have within us the capacity for better? If so, how do we go about it? These are questions deserving of discussion between Christians and Muslims. In our shared convictions that we are created and sustained by God and have been given a sacred trust as guardians of the creation under the sovereignty of God, it seems there is considerable scope for creative conversation and cooperation.
Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
1. See Hans Schwarz, Our Cosmic Journey: Christian Anthropology in the Light of Current Trends in the Sciences, Philosophy and Theology
(Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977), 33-48.
2. As Schwarz says, "Both in the Old and in the New Testament, however, God is first introduced to us as redeemer and then as creator" (Our Cosmic Journey, 137).
3. David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 17.
4. Walter Brueggemann, Genesis (Atlanta: John Knox, 1982), 25.
5. Biblical references are to the New Revised Standard Version.
6. Qur'an references are based on the standard Egyptian system of verse numbering. The translations are my own.
7. This could refer to the male sperm or a mixture of the sperm of the male with an emission from the female genitalia (Edward William Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon, s.v. mashij).
8. Schwarz, Our Cosmic Journey, 158; Hans Schwarz, Responsible Faith: Christian Theology in the Light of 20th-Century Questions (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986), 128.
9. Schwarz, Our Cosmic Journey, 158-59, and Responsible Faith, 129; see also Gerhard von Rad, Genesis, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1972), 60, and Brueggemann, Genesis, 32.
10. Brueggemann, Genesis, 32.
11. Brueggemann, Genesis, 32-33.
12. Muslims are uncomfortable with using such language about God.
13. Brueggemann, Genesis, 33.
15. Schwarz, Our Cosmic Journey, 159-60; Responsible Faith, 129-31.
16. Mahmoud Ayoub, The Qur'an and Its Interpreters, vol. 1 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984), 76-77.
17. von Rad, Genesis, 83.
18. Kenneth Cragg, The Privilege of Man: A Theme in Judaism, Islam and Christianity (London: Athlone, 1968), 28.
19. Ibid. Although there is no biblical parallel to this story, there is a very similar tale in the Life of Adam and Eve, a Jewish work from the first century of the Common Era. Chapters 12-16 in this document tell how the archangel Michael ordered the (later) devil and the angels to worship Adam since he was created in the image of God. Because of the refusal of the devil and the angels to worship Adam, they were expelled from heaven and cast down to earth. See "Life of Adam and Eve," in James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2 (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985): 262. I am indebted to my colleague at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Ralph W. Klein, for bringing this to my attention.
20. Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Quran (Minneapolis: Bibliotheca Islamica, 1980), 18.
21. Tafsir al-jalalayn (Beirut: Dar alma'rifa, 1983), 8; my translation.
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|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2006|
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