The Human in the Qur’an

Page of The Qur'an from Granada, c. 1300 CE.


Today, we can find answers for the fundamental question of what it means to be human that claim to cast doubt on the essential reality of our humanity itself. The Qur’an, however, affirms our humanness and describes four aspects of the human—our physical creation, our spirit, our natural disposition (fitrah), and our light—all of which have an unmediated origin from God and combine to make the human a distinctive and special creation.

Physical Creation

God says that He created the human with “His two Hands.” Nothing else in creation possesses this distinction.1We should note that there are references in the Qur’an to creatures God created with “His Hands,” such as cattle (36:71). The distinction of Adam, peace be upon him, being created with God’s “two Hands” still applies, as God’s “Hands” in this verse are mentioned as having “fashioned” cattle from the generality of created things (i.e., mimmā amilat aydīnā). This refers to a process involving intermediaries, or means. Adam, peace be upon him, in the verse we are discussing, is mentioned as being directly created by God “mimmā khalaqtu bi yadayya,” with no intermediaries. Addressing the progenitor of Satan and his dupes,2Iblīs is held by many Muslim exegetes to be the father of the satans. See for example, Abū Jafar b. Jarīr al-Ţabarī, Jāmi al-bayān an ta’wīl āy al-Qur’ān (Beirut: Dār Ibn Ĥazm, 2002), 1:298; also Jalāl al-Dīn Abd al-Raĥmān al-Suyūţī, al-Durr al-manthūr fī al-tafsīr bi al-ma’thūr (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, 2000), 4:412. God says, “O Iblīs! What prevented you from prostrating unto one I created with My two Hands? Were you arrogant or were you haughty?” (38:75). Qur’anic exegetes opine that the “one” being referred to here is Adam, peace be upon him, the father of humanity. As for the meaning of “created with My two Hands,” we are told,

In the opinion of some latter-day exegetes, this is an example of the great care afforded to his [Adam’s] creation. An aspect of the affair of one that is scrupulously cared for is that he is handled with two Hands. One of the implications of this is that his creation was without the intermediary of a father or a mother. Also, he constitutes a small creation within which the entire wider creation is contained. Furthermore, he is suitable [for receiving] an overflowing of favors which do not grace other than himself.3Shihāb al-Dīn Maĥmūd al-Alūsī, Rūĥ al-maānī (Beirut: Dār Iĥyā’ al-Turāth al-Arabī, 2000), 12:297–98. The special attention afforded to the creation of Adam, peace be upon him, is emphasized in the comment Ibn Īsā makes concerning the phrase “one I created with My two Hands.” He says, “The one I personally created,” quoted in Abū al-Ĥasan Alī b. Muĥammad al-Māwardī, al-Nukat wa al-uyūn (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, 2007), 5:111.

Ţāhir al-Āshūr notes the divine directness implied in the human being created by the “two Hands” of God. Commenting on this verse, he says,

That is to say [it is] a special creation occurring in a single instance, in direct response to the creative command. The efficacy displayed in this act of creating is more direct than the efficacy in the creation of types of existence predicated on ordinary means such as pregnancy and childbirth.4Muĥammad Ţāhir b. Āshūr, al-Taĥrīr wa al-tanwīr (Beirut: Mu’assasat al-Tārīkh al-Arabī, 2000), 23:191.

This indicates that the human being began his journey as a physical creature with the direct, unmitigated creative act of God. Without this distinction, there is much the human shares with other creatures. For example, “God has created every beast from water. Among them are those that creep upon their bellies, those that walk on two legs, and others that walk on all four” (24:45). Like the birds, the human walks on two legs, although his erect torso and upright gait still make him unique. While birds walk upright, their torsos are either parallel to the ground or face downward at varying angles.

The great attention and detail paid to the creation of the human represents another unique attribute of the human’s physical creation. We read, for example,

Verily, We have created the human from a quintessence of clay; then We placed him as a drop in a fixed resting place. We then made the drop into a clot and that into a fetus. We then made bones and clothed the bones with flesh and from that brought forth another creation. Therefore, blessed is God, the very Best of those who create. (23:12−14)

Similar narrations are found in 22:5, 35:11, and 40:67. This level of detail is not found in the description of the creation of any other creature in the Qur’an. One reason for this detailed description could be that the human is the only physical creature capable of reflecting on the miraculous processes culminating with his entrance into the world. It follows that we are the only creatures who can recognize that we have a marvelous Creator, who should be rightfully thanked for the incredible process that brought us into existence. The Qur’an implores us to do just that in 16:78, 23:78, and 33:9.5The reminder of the importance of thankfulness (shukr) in these verses is for the specific blessings of hearing, vision, and understanding. The former two are the most important aspects of human physicality because they facilitate understanding and are therefore critical means for our guidance.

As mentioned above, the most notable physical distinction of the human is his ability to stand permanently upright. God says, “Do you reject belief in the One who has created you from dust, then from a clot, then made you an upright man?” (18:37; also 82:7, 32:9, 38:72). A nonphysical reality—namely, sociability—accompanies this unique physical distinction. We read in the Qur’an, “Remember the favor of God upon you, how you were enemies, and He placed sociability between your hearts, and you became, by His blessing, brothers” (3:103).

This sociability is predicated, in part, on the upright stature of the human. His heart always points outwards. As a result, when he embraces another human, the hearts of two are joined, establishing a metaphysical connection between them. For this reason, the Prophet ﷺ has warned the believers, “Lā tadābarū (do not turn your backs to one another).”6Muslim, 2564. When believers turn their backs to one another, their hearts also turn away, breaking the metaphysical connection—a connection established by God and facilitated by their upright posture—between them.

Spirit

Man’s uprightness also makes the human being a fitting receptacle for the rūĥ (spirit), a special and unique creation of God,7The rūĥ (spirit), which is breathed into the human, is not connected to nor does it emanate from the essence of God. Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī emphasizes that the spirit is a distinct creation separate from the body, as we have argued, and it is aeviternal—a term which identifies creations which are similar to the temporal in their createdness but unlike them in that they are everlasting, like the eternal. This latter assertion is based on a statement in the verse that mentions the animating spirit—namely, that it is from “the amr of my Lord” (17:85). Imam Rāzī comments, “The expression amr conveys the meaning command.” God mentions, “The command (amr) of Pharaoh lacked guidance” (11:97). God also says, “And when Our command (amr) came” (11:66). Therefore, His response saying, “Say, the spirit is from the amr of my Lord”—that is to say, “from the command of my Lord”—indicates that those who had asked the Prophet ﷺ about the spirit were asking, “Is the spirit preexisting or contingent existence?” He said, “Rather it is contingent existence, brought about by the command, origination, and creative act of God.” See Imam Abū Muĥammad b. Umar Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī, Mafātīĥ al-ghayb (Beirut: Dār Iĥyā’ al-Turāth al-Arabī, 2001), 7:393. which not only animates the physical body of the human but also his senses and intellect. His physical stature and his spirit are two essential elements that define his humanity. Commenting on the following Qur’anic phrase, “And when He had made him upright and breathed into him of His spirit” (38:72), Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī says, “This indicates that the creation of the human is only complete with two things: first of all, his uprightness, and then the breathing of the spirit into him. This is true because the human is a composite of body and soul.”8Mafātīĥ al-ghayb, 9:409.

While his uprightness may lead the human to exalt in what could be viewed as a unique virtue, aspects of his physical creation should also lead him to humble himself. For example, in the Qur’an, God reminds us, “Does not the human see that We made him from a drop of sperm? Then lo, he becomes a rebellious disputant who sets before Us parables and forgets his [lowly] origin” (36:77−78). We are reminded by some who comment on this verse that our beginning, in a sense, originates from the same channel that urine exits our bodies. How could such a creature behave arrogantly?

The breathing of the spirit into the human makes him a composite creation, although not in an Aristotelean sense.9The difference between the Qur’anic view of a composite human and the Aristotelean hylomorphic view is that the latter views the soul as the form of the body. This position is not found in the Qur’an. Some reject this apparent dualism as an accretion rooted in other faith or intellectual traditions. For example, the late Muslim thinker Fazlur Rahman states,

The Qur’ān does not appear to endorse the kind of doctrine of a radical mind-body dualism found in Greek philosophy, Christianity, or Hinduism; indeed there is hardly a passage in the Qur’ān that says man is composed of two separate, let alone disparate substances, the body and the soul (even though later orthodox Islam, particularly after al-Ghazālī and largely through his influence, came to accept it).10Fazlur Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur’an (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1989), 17.

If Imam al-Ghazālī does accept the idea of a composite human—body and soul11In terms of the divinely originated substance (laţīfah rabbāniyyah) that animates the human being, most scholars refer to it as the rūĥ (spirit) or the nafs (soul), viewing the terms as synonymous. Here, I am assuming they are synonymous. Some differentiate between the spirit and the soul based on its connection to the body. They posit that the spirit only becomes the soul when it connects with the body. See Imād al-Dīn Ismāīl b. Kathīr, Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-ażīm (Damascus: Maktabat Dār al-Fayĥā’, 1994), 3:86. Others view the soul and the spirit as two among several manifestations of a divinely originated substance. That substance assumes different names according to its varying functions. According to Imam al-Ghazālī, that substance may be the rūĥ (spirit), the nafs (soul), the qalb (perception), or the aql (intellect). For a description of their various functions, see Ĥujjat al-Islām, Imam Abū Ĥāmid b. Muĥammad al-Ghazālī, Iĥyā’ ulūm al-dīn (Jeddah: Dār al-Minhāj, 2015), 5:13–20.—it is an idea that is deeply rooted in the Qur’an. For example, as mentioned above, the Qur’an reminds us that the spirit is a distinct nonphysical creation breathed into the physical body (see 32:9, 15:29, 38:72, 21:91). The spirit and the physical body of the human, this means, were two distinct entities when they were brought together. The Qur’an does not indicate that they lose their individual natures upon uniting.

Additionally, many hadiths clearly indicate that the spirit enjoys an existence that is distinct from the body, both before and after physical life. For example, “The spirits are varied troops. Those who knew each other [precorporally] find familiarity, and those who were ignorant of each other find disharmony.”12Bukhārī, 3110; Muslim, 2638. Many scholars use this narration as a proof that the spirits were created before the body. After the spirit enters the body, those who knew each other in the precorporeal realm experience familiarity upon meeting in this world, whereas those who were unknown to each other in that realm sense an estrangement upon meeting in the world.13For a detailed discussion of the possible meanings of this hadith, see Aĥmad b. Alī b. Ĥajar al-Asqalānī, Fatĥ al-Bārī: Sharĥ Śaĥīĥ al-Bukhārī (Cairo: Dār al-Manār, 1999), 6:400–01. As for the fate of the soul after death, we are told, among other things, that the spirits of martyrs live on in the bodies of green birds in Paradise.14Muslim, 1887. These and similar narrations make it clear that the spirit has an existence distinct from the body.

Once the human has been animated by the spirit, he can undertake his primary purpose: namely, to worship and to know his Lord. We read in the Qur’an, “I have not created the jinn and humankind except that they worship Me” (51:56). Many Muslim exegetes mention that this verse can also be interpreted to mean “that they know Me.”15Rūĥ al-maānī, 14:32. These two meanings are consistent with the nature of the human, as worship involves bodily actions associated with the physicality of the human, while true knowledge of God requires a metaphysical process.

Fitrah

A third aspect of the human in the Qur’an is his natural disposition, which is described by the Qur’anic term fitrah. Like the physical creation and the spirit, the fiţrah proceeds directly from God. We read, “Orient your face towards the true religion, in accords with your natural disposition. [This is] the nature of God, upon which He has fashioned humanity. Let there be no alteration in the creation of God. That is the upright religion; however, most people realize it not” (30:30).

In this verse, God mentions that He has fashioned the human upon His nature. We can understand this as referring to, among other things, His waĥdāniyyah (oneness).16For a discussion of the nature, proofs, and implications of God’s oneness, see Abd al-Karīm Tatān and Muĥammad Adīb Kaylānī, Awn al-murīd li sharĥ jawharat al-tawĥīd (Damascus: Dār al-Bashā’ir, 1999), 1: 310–20. This means that humans are fashioned to readily recognize that oneness, unless they have been removed from their natural state. This understanding is supported by the verse “I have not created the jinn and humankind except that they worship Me” (51:56), as well as the verse, “When your Lord brought the descendants of the Children of Adam from their loins, and caused them to bear witness against themselves, ‘Am I not your Lord?’ they said, ‘Certainly, we bear witness,’ lest they should say on the Day of Resurrection ‘We were heedless of this’” (7:172).

In this verse, God describes the descendants of Adam, peace be upon him, as extracted from his loins and then called to bear witness to the oneness of God. This pretemporal event imprinted upon human consciousness a natural disposition toward monotheism. Hence, “[this is] the nature of God, upon which He has fashioned humanity.” The dross of the world, which envelops the heart in darkness, leads many humans to reject their very nature, turning them away from God. Revelation and prophetic teachings remove that darkness and allow humans to reaffirm the pretemporal covenant of monotheism, thereby returning to their natural state.

Light

Finally, the Qur’an informs us that the believers possess a “light.” We read,

On the Day you see the believing men and women with their light emanating before them and to their right. “Glad tidings are yours. [You will have] gardens with rivers flowing beneath to dwell therein forever. That, indeed, is the great triumph.” (57:12)

Similarly,

On a day God will not disgrace the Prophet and those believing along with him, their light emanating before them and to their right. They plead, “Our Lord complete for us our light and forgive us. Surely, You have power over all things.” (66:8)

Likewise, “One for whom God does not make light, he has no light” (24:40).

The light referred to in these verses has variously been described as the “actualized knowledge of God,”17Mafātīĥ al-ghayb, 10:455. “the light of insight,”18Mafātīĥ al-ghayb, 10:455. “a light given by God to the believers after their resurrection,”19Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-ażīm, 4:394. “the light of Divine Oneness,”20Al-Qāđī Thanā’ Allāh Uthmān al-Mażharī, al-Tafsīr al-Mażharī (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, 2007), 7:30. “the light of obedience,”21Al-Qāđī Thanā’ Allāh Uthmān al-Mażharī, al-Tafsīr al-Mażharī (Beirut: Dār al-Kutub al-Ilmiyyah, 2007), 7:30. and “the light of guidance.”22Jāmi al-bayān, 13:274. The prophetic tradition, however, introduces narrations that allow us to view this light from another perspective and to understand its divine origin. One of the prayers made by the Prophet ﷺ is the following: “O God, make light in my heart, light in my vision, light in my hearing, light to my right, light to my left, light before me, light behind me, make a light for me.”23Bukhārī, 6316. Another version adds, “and light in my hair, light in my skin, light in my flesh, light in my blood, and light in my bones.”24Tirmidhī, 3419. This prayer was not just personal for him: it is instructional for us.

The Prophet ﷺ prayed to God that he be made into a being of light, and he taught us to make that prayer. This could mean that he was praying that the light of his spirit be reflected in his physical nature. Our physical nature can indeed be infused, by the will of God, with light. When that occurs, like the angels, who are created from light,25Many authentic hadiths indicate that the angels were created from light. We read, for example, the saying of the Prophet ﷺ, “The angels were created from light; the jinn were created from a smokeless type of fire; and Adam was created according to what has been narrated to you,” Muslim, 2996. we readily recognize the purpose of our creation and become monotheistic, obedient servants of the One.

Thus, the Qur’an presents a view of the human as a physical creature, a spiritual creature, a creature naturally disposed to worship, and an enlightened creature. Our body, our spirit, our predisposition to worship God, and our light are gifts sent directly from God to serve as critical means toward our attaining human perfection. That perfection lies in cultivating those aspects of the spirit that transcend its animating qualities, actualizing our disposition to worship, and refining our light. When this happens, the human is a beautiful creature, and as such, a fitting object of divine love, for as our Prophet ﷺ mentioned, “Verily, God is beautiful and loves beauty.”26Muslim, 91.

Zaid Shakir is a prominent American Muslim scholar and has taught courses in Arabic, Islamic spirituality, contemporary Muslim thought, Islamic history and politics, and Shafi’i fiqh at Zaytuna College. He is one of three co-founders of Zaytuna College.  He speaks and writes on a wide range of topics, and he is regularly included among the Western world’s most influential Muslims in The Muslim 500.

( Source: This article was first published by Renovatio: The Journal of Zaytuna College and is republished with permission. )

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