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Blogging the Qur'an by Ziauddin Sardar- Part 10: Heading for The Fall

By Ziauddin Sardar

 February 18, 2008

From the parable of paradise we move to the story of the fall from grace. Here (30-39) we learn why we have to return to the innocence in which we were created; and a great deal about ourselves as human beings.

But this is not the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. To begin with Adam is not the first man - but the first prophet. His companion is simply referred to as his wife; as you note, Madeleine, she is not called Eve. As representatives of humanity, they are going to be the successors of God on earth. So beware of similarities and differences, from which flow big implications.

First God informs the angels he intends to add a new order to creation. So what are angels? They too are part of creation; they praise God and act in total obedience. We know the angel Gibreel (Gabriel) was the intermediary who brought God's word to Muhammad. Beyond that I have no knowledge of angelic hosts and am quite content; although others may know better. If I can accept the need for the quarks and gluons of quantum theory and the string theory universe of umpteen dimensions, I can happily live with the concept of angels.

The point is the new order takes a distinctive place within God's creation. God introduces humanity as Khalifah. This is a central concept of Islam. The word is often translated as vice-regent or trustee. It has the notion of succession, one who succeeds another, or inherits. This whole passage deals with the limits and ongoing relationship with God that comes with being the Khalifah or trustee of God.

Our inheritance is not outright ownership but conditional: we have to discharge our trust with responsibilities and accountability to God. We have to answer for how we used this inheritance which includes how we care for the world in which we live. And as the term implies, we live as part of succeeding generations of human beings and thus have responsibilities towards future generations.

To be human is to have abilities; this is symbolised in God teaching Adam the "names of all things". The word for names - ism - is understood to mean the ability to define and distinguish between things, the essential of reasoning and conceptual thought. To know the names is also the basis of language. As the Qur'an makes clear (30:2249:13) this is not just a generic ability, the diversity of human languages, cultures and races and nations is part of the intention of creation. We are being told we have the knowledge and ability to make this diversity work, if we make use of the guidance we are given.

The angels are not entirely convinced; and who can blame them? Human beings will "spread corruption" and "shed blood' on earth say the angels- well they got that right. So the obvious point of God requiring the angels to bow to humanity, in the symbolic personages of Adam and his wife, is to emphasise we have the capacity, the potential to do better. We can rise above angels in our good deeds.

The test presented to Adam and his wife is the practical demonstration of both human weakness and the better way. The couple are granted all they need but there is one limit, one "do not", to observe. We learn more of the nature of this test when the Qur'an retells this incident (7:10-2520:115-127). Iblis, otherwise known as Satan, convinces them the limit is unnecessary and against their interest. And by listening and being led by the arrogant and defiant angel, Adam and his wife lose the innocence in which they were created.

Both Adam and spouse disobey God but they did not commit an irredeemable sin. They made a slip. No blame is placed on Adam's wife for leading him astray. No one feels ashamed of their nakedness. Both repent and are forgiven. There are no bloodcurdling Old Testament curses from God about childbirth pain and "painful toil" of humanity. This is definitely not the drama of Christianity's "original sin".

Instead, we are pointed towards the nature of Iblis. His stock and trade is arrogance - the prime conceptual evil in Islam. It is arrogance, the Qur'an tells us that can lead to the downfall of humanity. That is why we need to be humble; and why humility before God and his creation is the main virtue in Islam. And just as our relationship with God and God's guidance is ongoing, so is our relationship with Iblis, the temptation to be arrogant. Iblis is always with us in the form of our hubris, our inclination to play god, and our myopia in not recognising boundaries and limits in our actions.

The allegory of the fall from grace is actually a message of hope. Human beings will always be faced with challenges in responsible living and will have to confront the temptation of arrogant disregard. But those who live creatively and constructively according to God's guidance "need have no fear and neither shall they grieve".

No, Madeleine, this was not the Biblical story of Adam and Eve. But Muslim scholars through history have had recourse to the Biblical version to find a name for Mrs Adam, Hawwa, and in that way introduce a great deal of the misogyny of the Biblical story into the fables, folk tales and prognostications of Muslim thought. It's a perfect example of why we need to be self-aware of the preconceptions we bring to reading the Qur'an.



What about Eve?

By Madeleine Bunting


February 18, 2008

I found these verses (30-39) hard to follow and there were a lot of pronouns - "we" "they" - which took several readings to make sense. Is this a translation problem Zia? Another small point is that in the first few verses there are several references to the importance of naming things, having the knowledge to name. You find a similar importance vested in names in the Old Testament. Is this about the gift of language? Do you see any significance in this?

More importantly most of these verses are taken up with the Qur'anic story of Adam and his tempting by Iblis. The first point which struck me was how the angels warned God that human beings would cause damage and bloodshed but he still put them - as his successors - on earth. God's argument was that he knew things they did not. Unfortunately, we still don't know what those things are, do we? Aren't we still as baffled as those angels were that God could allow a part of his creation to cause such a mess?

There were some very strong contrasts with this account of the story of Adam to the one I'm familiar with. There is no mention of Eve and certainly no reference to the idea that she tempted Adam with the apple - the version we find in Genesis. Also as one of our contributors, Richard Kimber points out, Adam is forgiven for his wrongdoing and unlike in the Bible, Adam and Eve are not thrown out of the Garden of Eden and cursed to feed and clothe themselves. Daily life is not a curse for the fall in Islam. This is a dramatic difference between Genesis and the Qur'an and I find the latter a more optimistic reading.

But there are things here that I don't fully understand. There is a reference to the "state" Adam and Eve (she is not mentioned by name) are in and how, after they have gone near the tree, God says "Get out ... " Get out of where, what state was Adam in? Can you explain this further?

Finally, there is a remarkable promise in this account that those who follow God's guidance will have no fear, nor will they grieve. Given how fear and grief plays such a large and painful part in human existence, this is amazing. Have you seen evidence of that, Zia?


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