Addressing the incorrect understanding of the dialogue which transpired between God and the angels regarding Adam’s stewardship of the Earth
Bayaan al-Islam Team
(Original article in Arabic located here)
Gist Translation by:
Abu Nadm al-Zahiri
The Gist of this Doubt:
Some people have erred in how they have understood the nature of the dialogue between Almighty God and His angels when He ordered them to bow down respectfully to our father Adam (peace be upon him) before entrusting him as the caretaker of the Earth. They say: if the angels had not prostrated to Adam as God had ordered them then they would have been disobedient, and if they did prostrate to him then they would become polytheists by worshipping other than God. Some of them ask with amazement: how can God consult the angels regarding a matter which He wills to happen – is this really compatible with His status as the All-Knowing?
The Angle from which this Doubt is Refuted:
- The correct understanding of this dialogue between Almighty God and His angels is that Almighty God performed an educational consultation, desiring for the angels to comprehend the wisdom behind entrusting Adam as the caretaker of the Earth.
- The question of the angles to their Lord: “Will you make therein those who sow the seeds of corruption and spill blood?” was not a form of rejection. Rather, it was merely a request to know the wisdom behind entrusting other than them with stewardship of the Earth.
- God did not consult the angels regarding His entrusting of a caretaker of the Earth; the point is that He was informing them of something which He had ordained.
- The prostration to Adam (peace be upon him) was a form of obedience to the order of Almighty God and at the same time a show of deep respect to Adam. This is the main point, as opposed to the original Arabic word “sujood” which possesses a number of meanings, such as greeting. From this aspect, it is not carried upon the meaning which would necessitate polytheism by worshipping other than God, as this is not something which He would possibly order.
- Lucifer is not an angel despite what some ignorant people believe; rather he was created from fire, because he is a jinn. Almighty God said: “except for Iblees. He was of the jinn and departed from the command of his Lord…”, and also “You created me from fire .“ He deliberately disobeyed as he was able to do. Were he an angel, he would not have been able to disobey because angels do not have the free will to do so. God said: they do not disobey Allah in what He commands them.
A Detailed Response:
First: we look at the correct understanding of the dialogue between God and His angels.
God said: And [mention, O Muhammad], when your Lord said to the angels, "Indeed, I will make upon the earth a successive authority." They said, "Will You place upon it one who causes corruption therein and sheds blood, while we declare Your praise and sanctify You?" Allah said, "Indeed, I know that which you do not know.". This was an informative discussion regarding the new situation in which He entrusted a caretaker in the Earth, which up to that point had not known life. It is possible that previous to that, there had been those among the angels who had been assigned certain duties relating to the universe which He had created.
“I will entrust a caretaker upon the Earth.” This is a caretaker with a mind, free will, the ability to make choices, independent thinking, and the ability to achieve, so that he may organize the affairs of this worldly life and build societies and civilizations filling the corners of the globe. Thus humanity upon the Earth is like the angels in the heavens; the only difference is that human beings are held accountable for their actions, while angels do not have free will or the ability to make a choice other than obedience to the will of God.
The angels said: “Will you make therein those who sow the seeds of corruption and spill blood?” This is in reference to man, who lives within a conflicting nature of logic and instinct, hiding within him the proclivity for disagreement and conflict, the desire for tearing down what has been built up, selfishness and ego and an obsession with the self. All of this feeds into both literal and figurative corruption, into the spilling of innocent blood. The Earth would thus live in a constant state of wars destructive to both lives and property due to all these complications and contradictions, far away from peace, purity and prosperity, far away from the spirit of faith, far away from piety, far away from knowing God. Bitterness, wrath, hatred and discord would reign, and the truth would be forced to give way to falsehood and a furious evil peppered with cruelty and crime, the squalor of ill will and the end of sanity.
And were the wisdom of God – as the angels understood it – that a steward be left upon the Earth in order to praise and worship the Lord in accordance with the purpose of creation to begin with, then the reality and depth of that wisdom was lost on them. This is because existence was not empty of these things previously: “We grant You due thanks and praise, and attest to Your holiness,” to the point where the heavens and the Earth were filled with thanks and praise of the Lord; thus the angels realized that perhaps they imagined that they were somehow closer to their Lord and more deserving of stewardship of the Earth than this new creation known as man. They imagined as such because they only obey their Lord without question, while man would assuredly combine obedience with disobedience and righteousness with deviation. This would necessitate negative results, while obedience to the commands of God is guaranteed in the nature of angels.
Almighty God said: “I know that which you do not.” The meaning is that the angels only know the external nature of the universe around them without knowing what lies beneath the surface. There exists natural evils within the universe as it exists, as well as within man; at the same time, there is great good which lies latent and even undetected within it. All of this exists alongside the natural order of the universe, in which there is not good found except that there is a measure of evil along with it, just as there is no evil except that a measure of good lies therein. There is a natural balance to the reality of the universe as we know it, even down to the good in some things existing rather than not existing and the good in the fact that some things don’t exist.
Thus the problem with the angels is that they did not possess the full, complete awareness of every aspect of creation in terms of its fundamental nature and existence. It is because of that that they only understood the matter from one angle while being unable to see it from angles the existence of which they didn’t even know to begin with. Henceforth, they would come to know and understand things which they had not previously comprehended or even been able to comprehend.
Our pious predecessors have confirmed the attribute of Speech for Almighty God without distortion, anthropomorphism or esoteric interpretation: “Nothing is like unto Him, and he is the All-Seeing, All-Knowing.”
Who is the steward of the Earth: Adam or the general category of humanity?
The apparent meaning of the verses indicates that all of mankind is the steward of the Earth, for two reasons:
First of all, the specific person Adam was a mortal individual of a limited lifespan which would eventually come to an end, so how could he alone undertake the massive task of taking care of the Earth, a task which would extend for an unimaginable period of time?
Second of all, the angels described this steward as one who would sow the seeds of corruption upon the Earth and spill blood, and this description does not match Adam at all. Rather, it would apply to a portion (not the entirety) of the general category of humanity.
It is here that we should also take note of the fact that the word used for steward here – “khaleefah” – is used for some of the prophets and other people in a number of different verses. We can also draw from this the fact that Adam’s being given knowledge of the names of all things was not some random grant of knowledge without purpose; rather, it was a purposeful categorization of the natural phenomena around us which mankind must inevitably comprehend during the process of gradually learning about said phenomena.
Some people will ask regarding the verses in which God Almighty speaks of granting stewardship to some of the believers, such as: Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them. They will then ask how we can define this stewardship as covering the general category of humanity.
The answer is that we defined this stewardship as covering the general category of humanity in the context of discussing the person of Adam, as this stewardship or “khilaafah” is of two categories: the general and the specific. The general is that which Almighty God has designated for mankind in the context of other categories of living things and that with which God has bestowed each of these categories in terms of general ability and qualities which these living things use in the way which God designed them to be used and/or that with which God is pleased. The specific refers to direct authority and domination over others, and this is what is considered to be the stewardship with which God has promised to enable the believers in the aforementioned verse. God has promised them actual power over others just as He enabled Adam before them, and thus the point which we made above doesn’t negate meaning of the verse.
Second: we come to understand that this is an issue of inquiry and surprise, not one of rejection or disapproval.
God, in His Infinite Wisdom, informed the angels that he would place a caretaker upon the Earth, and the angels replied with surprise: “Will you make therein those who sow the seeds of corruption and spill blood?” This can’t be understood as the occurrence of an independent opinion from the angels or a form of rejection, but rather their surprise at something in light of what they had known of mankind’s propensity to corrupt the Earth. The angels knew that their own fundamental nature would prevent them from ever abandoning the worship of the one true God, and from what little they did know of this new caretaker for the Earth was his potential violent nature, and thus they compared their nature to his. Thus they were surprised that a creation of pure obedience was passed over in favor of a creation with the ability to choose. The angels looked upon the heavens where they resided and the Earth where this new creation would reside, and could not comprehend how any of the creation of Almighty God could possibly conceive to stubbornly reject His blessings and consciously choose to disobey; thus, their questioning was an attempt to understand that of which they had no knowledge. None other than God possesses perfect wisdom and understanding, and thus it was the angels who said at the end of the story of Adam (peace be upon him): They said, "Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise." Thus when the angels came to know the wisdom of He Who possesses the greatest wisdom and were ordered to bow down to Adam, they all bowed down to Adam as a show of obedience to God.
Third: we come to know the wisdom behind God’s informing of the angels about Adam’s stewardship of the Earth.
Almighty God did not inquire with the angels as to whom He should appoint as steward of the Earth as some ignorant people think, seeking their consultation or opinion. Rather, He informed them of what He had decided and affirmed that He alone designated that which He had fated to happen. Thus the event cannot be considered as an inquiry on God’s part or as an original idea on the angels’ part, especially after the very clear assurance: “Indeed I am the maker…” with the Arabic particle “inna,” roughly translated as “indeed,” indicating the subject and agent of the sentence.
The wisdom behind Almighty God’s informing the angels about Adam’s (peace be upon him) stewardship of the Earth was demonstrating to His creation how to seek advice and counsel regarding one’s affairs before undertaking them. Thus, consultation being requested in both religious and non-religious affairs is a positive and recommended thing, as the Almighty said: “and whose affair is [determined by] consultation among themselves.” This is what the exegetes have deduced, and they do not mean by their logical deduction that God consulted the angels; in fact, they negate that. What they have deduced is that this informing on the part of Almighty God came in the form of counsel, educating the creation on how to seek advice for their own affairs.
It was not in reality, then, a consultation; God has knowledge of all things and an immeasurable wisdom, and is in no need of counseling. Rather, He informed the angels of a behavior about which they knew nothing – that God would designate and entrust a caretaker for the Earth. The topic of this informing wasn’t about the creation of Adam, though; it was about Adam’s stewardship of the Earth.
It is said: God only addressed the angels in order to satisfy their question and inform them of the wisdom behind said stewardship, and they did not give any sort of an answer to God after that.
Had God not informed the angels about the corruption and violence which man would eventually inflict upon the Earth, they would have never even had a way of learning this information by themselves. This alone essentially clarifies the whole issue even though it is not expanded upon in detail in the Qur’an itself. Many of the parables and events foretold and recounted in the Qur’an are abridged, with many of them explained in brief without mention of the details and thus relying on the discernment of the reader. The term “khaleefah” or steward can be used in the general sense for example, without going into the details. Thus the steward which is appointed by the Almighty to undertake divine tasks on the Earth intervenes in quarrels with justice and fairness in accordance with Islamic law, as He said: “[We said], "O David, indeed We have made you a successor upon the earth, so judge between the people in truth and do not follow [your own] desire, as it will lead you astray from the way of Allah." Indeed, those who go astray from the way of Allah will have a severe punishment for having forgotten the Day of Account.” This necessitates, of course, the existence of enmity, oppression and corruption.
It is also said: they knew these things about mankind because of what they had seen from the jinn before the existence of mankind, and this was the opinion of Qatadah. Abdullah ibn ‘Umar said that jinn preceded mankind by a thousand years and spilled blood just like mankind. God sent angels against them who cast the jinn down into islands scattered across the oceans. It is also possible that the angels knew this information about Adam due to observation of his nature and process of creation. Adam was created from clay, which sullies what it touches, changes to the touch without remaining stable. Az-Zamakhshari said that the angels knew this information due to God’s informing them or from the Preserved Tablet in which all which God fated was written, or from their knowledge that they as angels were the only sentient creation without the ability to disobey and every other sentient being was unlike them.
The question of the angels regarding the underlying wisdom and their surprise at it is not counted as some sort of a swipe at Adam before he was created, nor as a form of disrespect; insults and disrespect are only known by the intention of belittling another. This was only from the angle of reporting information, just like the statement of the angels about themselves: “we declare Your praise and sanctify You …” This is not a form of self-aggrandizement, as the intent was not to build themselves up beyond their reality. The angels asked with surprise due to the limits of their knowledge, desiring to know that which they did not know.
Fourth: the angels’ bowing down was an act of obedience to their Lord and a show of deep respect and honor to Adam.
The angels’ act of bowing down to Adam (peace be upon him) was not a form of polytheism as some people imply; rather, it was an act of obedience to the command of their Lord and a sign of respect to Adam whom God had created with His own two Hands. Remember when Almighty God said: And [mention] when We said to the angels, "Prostrate before Adam"; so they prostrated. Thus the act of showing respect and honor by bowing down to Adam was, in its essence, a show of respect and honor to their Lord Who had commanded it. There is no contradiction between their bowing down to Adam as a sign of respect and their bowing down to God as an act of worship, as God said of them: “Indeed, those who are near your Lord are not prevented by arrogance from His worship, and they exalt Him, and to Him they prostrate.” The emphasis here is on the act and not the actor; meaning, the angels do not bow down to any other than God, and their specific, individual instance here of bowing down to Adam was an exception to the general rule. Thus, it was still a form of worship to their Lord in that they were performing an act which their Lord commanded. Thus the intention of the angels was to perform their divine obligation and not to worship Adam.
We know this for sure because the angels were created with the ability for obedience only; it is not possible for them to disobey or even comprehend disobeying God as this is impossible in light of their fundamental nature. Almighty God has said about them: “they do not disobey Allah in what He commands them.” Thus when God commanded them to bow down, there was not found within the hearts of the angels other than the desire to undertake the command of their Lord; hence the prostration was to Adam and the worship and obedience was to God. This is reminiscent of the word of our Lord regarding the brothers of Joseph (peace be upon him): “And he raised his parents upon the throne, and they bowed to him in prostration.” This act was also merely an act of obedience to the command of Almighty God, thus the vision of Joseph which he retold to his father was one of truth, and Jacob (peace be upon him) understood the vision’s true meaning.
Fifth: Lucifer was a jinn, not an angel.
Lucifer was never an angel despite what some uneducated people may think. Were that the case, he would have prostrated to Adam along with the angels when the command of God came. He rejected the command, as God said: “And [mention] when We said to the angels, "Prostrate to Adam," and they prostrated, except for Iblees.” God’s statement “he was of the Jinn” removes Lucifer from the category of angels, and God’s statement “and departed from the command of his Lord” grants certainty that he was a jinn. This is because jinn are like humans; they are created with free will and the ability to make premeditated choices and independent decisions; they can obey or disobey. As long as someone has the ability to choose, then he cannot possibly be an angel; he is forced to obey by his very own nature. This also indicates that both humans and jinn, who are able to disobey but can still make the conscious choice to obey, are of a higher status within the dominion of created things.
It is also said that Lucifer was commanded to prostrate to Adam on his own, separate from the command to the angels for the same thing. The proof given for this statement is the verse: “What prevented you from prostrating when I commanded you?” With this view, there would then be an exception to the statement “except for Lucifer who rejected the command and became arrogant.” Thus Lucifer was so named for this incident; his name in Arabic is Iblis which comes from the word Iblaas, meaning despair, exile and remoteness; in this case, remoteness from the mercy of our Lord.
Just as the angels were created from light, Lucifer was created from fire. He expresses as much honestly in a quote from him within the Qur’an: “You created me from fire and created him from clay.” It’s also affirmed authentically from the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): “Angels were created from light, jinns were created from a smokeless flame of fire, and 'Adam was created from that which you have been told (i.e., sounding clay like the clay of pottery).” Also, angels have no offspring and do not reproduce, as opposed to jinn; they do both of these things, as we know from God’s statement regarding Lucifer: “Then will you take him and his descendants as allies other than Me while they are enemies to you?” Al-Hasan of Basra said: “Lucifer was never an Angel, not for a second.”
The Bottom Line:
- It is not understood from the angels’ line of questioning that they were rejecting God’s command; it was from a state of surprise at what they understood would be corruption on the Earth, and a request to know about that which they had no knowledge.
- Almighty God did not consult His angels regarding His appointment of a steward upon the Earth; rather, He merely informed them of what He had decreed. The wisdom behind His informing them of the reason was to educate His creation on how one should seek advice before making decisions.
- The surprise of the angels at what they saw as the inevitable spilling of blood upon the Earth was not predicting the future; rather, they had previous experience before the creation of Adam with what they had seen from jinn – though it is also possible that Almighty God simply informed them – and their expression wasn’t a sort of insult but rather speaking from what they knew.
- Undertaking the command of God to prostrate to Adam wasn’t a form of polytheism but rather that of obedience, and at the same time a show of respect and honor to Adam (peace be upon him). This also demonstrates even further the absolute loyalty of the angels to Almighty God, Who alone determines what will happen and what will not happen as He does with the entire universe.
- Lucifer was never an angel. Angels obey God’s every command in accordance with their fundamental nature. Also, Lucifer was created from fire; thus, he was a jinn, which is an entirely different category of creation from angels who are created from light.
 Al-Baqarah verse 30
 Al-Baqarah verse 32.
 Ash-Shoura verse 38.
 Al-Baqarah verse 30.
 Al-Baqarah verse 34.
 Sahih Muslim, chapter on asceticism and heart-softening, miscellany, #7,687.
 See: Stories of the Qur’an by Dr. Muhammad Bakr Ismael, Cairo: Dar al-Manar, 1424AH/2003CE.
Series of Qur’anic Stories by Hamzah an-Nashrati, Cairo: Mu`assasah al-Ahram.
Stories of the Prophets by Muhammad Mitwalli ash-Sha’rawi, Cairo: Dar al-Quds, 1426AH/2006CE. 1st ed.
The Middle Exegesis by Sayyid Tantawi, Cairo: Dar ar-Risalah, 1407AH/1987CE. 3rd ed.
The Major Exegesis by ar-Razi, Cairo: al-Matba’ah al-Bahiyyah al-Misriyyah, 1301AH.
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