Quran Day: The Story of Adam and the Angels in The Cow 30-39

The Quran and the Bible – Influence, Harmony and History

I loved reading this section, but as many of you are probably figuring out, I love to talk about the Quran’s relationship to the Bible.

On a basic level, reading Genesis 2-3 alongside these verses provides a great comparison of two texts telling the same (but a different) story. Next, you get to extrapolate to a comparison of Judaism and Christianity v. Islam based on their respective texts, all the while wondering to what degree the Quran is influenced by the actual biblical story or by the people who believe in the biblical story (i.e. Christians and Jews). And then you have to wonder what stage of their religious development those Christians and Jews were at; what I mean is that Christians and Jews didn’t just believe the biblical story as is (by the first to sixth centuries CE) but had all sorts of theological interpretations and alternate understandings by the rise of Islam – some which are more visible and some less in the Quranic text. So where are the influences coming from and how!?

That I find this ridiculously fun is like lifting up my dress to reveal my nerdiness, but I think that religious interplay and influence between peoples and their texts is the bees’ knees – one of the coolest and most fascinating things to study.

So what do I have to say about these verses then…

I wonder why the angels are such a large part of the story of the creation of man. Admittedly, it adds a fascinating element if one knows enough about “angelology.” The angels here reflect a common theme whereby angels are jealous of men, because men sin and don’t worship God constantly as angels do yet are still given so much by way of paradise (Garden) and forgiveness/mercy and access to Heaven. These knowledgeless angels are not unexpected – Angels always seem to be simple peons of God who do what they’re supposed to not because they should but because it would never occur to them to do otherwise.

Some interesting contrasts with the biblical story are that no particular tree is mentioned at this point in the Quran (is it later?). Plus, there’s only one tree. The Garden of Eden in the Bible had two forbidden trees (Knowledge of Good and Evil, which Adam and Eve ate from, and the Tree of Life, which gave immortality). It stands to reason that God would not want Adam and Eve to eat from those trees (all-knowing and immortal people could be problematic – though in the Quran God gives knowledge of reality and all things before the tree scene!) but in the Quran we have no reason for this tree being a no-no. It’s simply an injunction that Adam cannot eat from a certain tree. Why? What does this teach more pointedly that the Bible does not? Obedience?

Also, the biblical story doesn’t have Satan as the tempter. Sure, Christians will tell you that the snake was Satan, but as you may have learned with me on Fun with the Bible day, we must believe the Bible for what it says and not what we want it to say. There is no Satan in the biblical story of creation – only a snake and the original author intended that this be a snake. I imagine that the story, by the composition of the Quran, was long since one with Satan and not a snake and that is why we have what we have here.

I also find this element of male-female antagonism fascinating. Is this etiological (that is, a story about history meant to explain the present)? Why do men and women not get along? As a punishment from God when they ate from the wrong tree and were kicked out of the Garden, of course. Fortunately, God only gives this punishment for a specific time period, a luxury the biblical reader was not privy to.

Really fascinating things here and so much I just can’t get to!

Questions and Other Posts

What did you notice in these verses? What did I leave out when comparing this passage to the Bible? What do you think of the theological elements in these verses? Please feel free to answer the other questions I’ve posed above.

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Read more Quran Read-A-Long.

The Cow 30-39

30. Remember, when your Lord said to the angels: “I have to place a trustee on the earth,” they said: “Will You place one there who would create disorder and shed blood, while we intone Your litanies and sanctify Your name?” And God said: “I know what you do not know.” 31. Then He gave Adam knowledge of the nature and reality of all things and every thing, and set them before the angels and said: “Tell Me the names of these if you are truthful.” 32. And they said: “Glory to You (O Lord), knowledge we have none except what You have given us, for You are all-knowing and all-wise.” 33. Then He said to Adam: “Convey to them their names.” And when he had told them, God said: “Did I not tell you that I know the unknown of the heavens and the earth, and I know what you disclose and know what you hide?” 34. Remember, when We asked the angels to bow in homage to Adam, they all bowed but Iblis, who disdained and turned insolent, and so became a disbeliever. 35. And We said to Adam: “Both you and your spouse live in the Garden, eat freely to your fill wherever you like, but approach not this tree or you will become transgressors. 36. But Satan tempted them and had them banished from the (happy) state they were in. And We said: “Go, one the antagonist of the other and live on the earth for a time ordained and fend for yourselves.” 37. Then his Lord sent commands to Adam and turned towards him: Indeed He is compassionate and kind. 38. And We said to them: “Go, all of you. When I send guidance, whoever follows it will neither have fear nor regret; 39. But those who deny and reject Our signs will belong to Hell, and there abide unchanged.”

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8 Responses

  1. To answer some of your questions, Jay:

    The story of Adam of Eve in the Qur’an should not be confused from the Biblical version. Adam is considered to be the first prophet, rather than the first man. Also, one must take note that Eve is not mentioned in the story. The verse only mentions of Adam having a wife. However, through history Muslim scholars gained knowledge of the Biblical story and adapted the name Hawwa (Hava in Hebrew or Eve in English) for Adam’s wife.

    It is great that point out the significance of the angels in this passage. Angels are considered to be a part of creation and are characters of great devotion and obedience. We know of Jibreel (Garbiel), who brought God’s revelation to Muhammad. Otherwise, there are no other angels in the Qur’an that take on a major role (at least none that I know of).

    A great contrast one must also take note of is how Adam and Eve are regarded after they commit their sin. In this verse, Adam and Eve are viewed as having committed an honest mistake, something any human being does at some point or another. The major emphasis is on Ibril (Satan), whose major characteristic is arrogance – a prime evil in Islam. Arrogance can lead to humanity’s downfall. Therefore, mankind must practice humility – the most important virtue in Islam.

  2. …all the while wondering to what degree the Quran is influenced by the actual biblical story or by the people who believe in the biblical story (i.e. Christians and Jews).

    You’re assuming that Muhammad (pbuh) had, at the least, a passing familiarity with Biblical stories. My understanding is that he did not; in fact, what I’ve read is that it was only after he began talking to the Jews of Medina (at least thirteen years into his receiving revelations) that he began to understand the chronological framework of when the various prophets (pbut) lived. Prior to then, he had little to no idea as to how the various revelations involving the Jewish prophets (pbut) related to each other. He knew that Noah (pbuh) was before Abraham (pbuh), who was before Joseph (pbuh), who was before Moses (pbuh), and so on – that much is clear in the Qur’an – but I don’t believe that Muhammad (pbuh) had a feel for the number of years and centuries between these various prophets (pbut).

    The angels here reflect a common theme whereby angels are jealous of men, because men sin and don’t worship God constantly as angels do yet are still given so much by way of paradise (Garden) and forgiveness/mercy and access to Heaven.

    Astaghfirullah! This is a completely incorrect reading of these verses, especially #30. First, why should angels feel jealousy when they can’t sin (because they’re created that way) and have permanent access to heaven? Let’s look at the verse in a little more detail; what follows is Yusuf Ali’s translation:

    Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: “I will create a vicegerent on earth.” They said: “Wilt Thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood whilst we do celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy (name)?” He said: “I know what ye know not.”

    And this is from Pickthall:

    And when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo! I am about to place a viceroy in the earth, they said: wilt Thou place therein one who will do harm therein and will shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and sanctify Thee? He said: Surely I know that which ye know not.

    First, note that in these two translations, Allah (swt) is more future-oriented: “I will create…”, “I am about to place…”, rather than “I have to place…” Allah (swt) doesn’t “have to” do anything if He so wills. Second, He’s about to “create” or “place” a viceregent/viceroy/trustee, which in Arabic is khalifa, from which “Caliph” is derived. We (humanity) accepted the offer to become custodians of the Earth (33:72) and, as a result, have a responsibility for its maintenance and care. Next, when the angels question Allah (swt), the motive is more like, “You’re placing mankind in charge of the Earth when You know that they will cause all sorts of harm and bloodshed? We at least praise you; much of mankind will not.” Yusuf Ali wrote:

    It would seem that the angels, though holy and pure, and endued with power from Allah, yet represented only one side of Creation. We may imagine them without passion or emotion, of which the highest flower is love. If man was to be endued with emotions, those emotions could lead him to the highest and drag him to the lowest. The power of will or choosing would have to go with them, in order that man might steer his own bark. This power of will (when used aright) gave him to some extent a mastery over his own fortunes and over nature, thus bringing him nearer to the God-like nature, which has supreme mastery and will. We may suppose the angels had no independent will of their own: their perfection in other ways reflected Allah’s perfection but could not raise them to the dignity of viceregency. The perfect viceregent is he who has the power of initiative himself, but whose independent action always reflects perfectly the will of his Principal. The distinction is expressed by Shakespeare (Sonnet 94) in those fine lines: “They are the lords and owners of their faces. Others but stewards of their excellence.” The angels in their one-sidedness saw only the mischief consequent on the misuse of the emotional nature by man; perhaps they also, being without emotions, did not understand the whole of Allah’s nature, which gives and asks for love. In humility and true devotion to Allah, they remonstrate: we must not imagine the least tinge of jealousy, as they are without emotion. This mystery of love being above them, they are told that they do not know, and they acknowledge (in 2:32 below) not their fault (for there is no question of fault but their imperfection of knowledge). At the same time, the matter is brought home to them when the actual capacities of man are shown to them. (2:31-33)

    These knowledgeless angels are not unexpected – Angels always seem to be simple peons of God who do what they’re supposed to not because they should but because it would never occur to them to do otherwise.

    Continuing on from above, when Allah says to the angels, “I know what ye know not,” this phrase (or something very similar) is said quite often in the Qur’an (three times in Surah al-Baqarah alone) and applies to humanity as well as the angels. We are all “knowledgeless” in comparison to Allah (swt), and we only learn or discover something new when He wills it to be learned or discovered. As for your last sentence, Muslims believe that angels were created by Allah (swt) with specific duties. They are “programmed,” if you will to do specific jobs; it’s not that it would “never occur to them to do otherwise.” In fact, the surprise is that they would openly question a decision by Allah (swt). (Jeffrey Lang, who’s a popular American Muslim convert, has a book out entitled, “Even Angels Ask,” which is based on this verse.)

    This comment is already quite long; I have more to write, insha’allah.

    • Salam Alaikum,
      Masha Allah Brother, May Allah bless you with More Knowledge and courage, to Help people Like Jay towards Understanding Islam In a More Clear, and Better Way…

      Masha Allah

  3. Some interesting contrasts with the biblical story are that no particular tree is mentioned at this point in the Quran (is it later?).

    You missed it; re-read 2:35; also, the tree appears in verses 7:19, 20:120 and 20:121.

    It’s simply an injunction that Adam cannot eat from a certain tree. Why? What does this teach more pointedly that the Bible does not? Obedience?

    See the second note from Muhammad Asad below.

    I also find this element of male-female antagonism fascinating.

    Actually, it’s not “male-female antagonism” as you suppose. This is one of the potential problems of translating from the Arabic original into another, vaguer language like English. As Muhammad Asad wrote:

    With this sentence, the address changes from the hitherto-observed dual form to the plural: a further indication that the moral of the story relates to the human race as a whole. See also surah 7, note 16. (Quran Ref: 2:36)

    Yusuf Ali tries to get around the problem by showing that the antagonism is not just between Adam and Eve, or between men and women, but between everyone:

    Then did Satan make them slip from the (garden), and get them out of the state (of felicity) in which they had been. We said: “Get ye down, all (ye people), with enmity between yourselves. On earth will be your dwelling-place and your means of livelihood – for a time.” (2:36)

    Muhammad Asad’s note 16 in Surah 7 reads:

    Sc., “from this state of blessedness and innocence”. As in the parallel account of this parable of the Fall in 2:35-36, the dual form of address changes at this stage into the plural, thus connecting once again with verse 10 and the beginning of verse 11 of this surah, and making it clear that the story of Adam and Eve is, in reality, an allegory of human destiny. In his earlier state of innocence man was unaware of the existence of evil and, therefore, of the ever-present necessity of making a choice between the many possibilities of action and behaviour: in other words, he lived, like all other animals, in the light of his instincts alone. Inasmuch, however, as this innocence was only a condition of his existence and not a virtue, it gave to his life a static quality and thus precluded him from moral and intellectual development. The growth of his consciousness-symbolized by the wilful act of disobedience to God’s command-changed all this. It transformed him from a purely instinctive being into a full-fledged human entity as we know it – a human being capable of discerning between right and wrong and thus of choosing his way of life. In this deeper sense, the allegory of the Fall does not describe a retrogressive happening but, rather, a new stage of human development: an opening of doors to moral considerations. By forbidding him to “approach this tree”, God made it possible for man to act wrongly – and, therefore, to act rightly as well: and so man became endowed with that moral free will which distinguishes him from all other sentient beings. … (Quran Ref: 7:24)

  4. Adam is considered to be the first prophet, rather than the first man.

    Actually, there is a hadith that says the opposite (which I just happened to read for the first time the other day); the first part of it reads:

    The Prophet said, “On the Day of Resurrection the Believers will assemble and say, ‘Let us ask somebody to intercede for us with our Lord.’ So they will go to Adam and say, ‘You are the father of all the people, and Allah created you with His Own Hands, and ordered the angels to prostrate to you, and taught you the names of all things; so please intercede for us with your Lord, so that He may relieve us from this place of ours.’ Adam will say, ‘I am not fit for this (i.e. intercession for you).’ Then Adam will remember his sin and feel ashamed thereof. He will say, ‘Go to Noah, for he was the first Apostle, Allah sent to the inhabitants of the earth.’ … Source

    Also, one must take note that Eve is not mentioned in the story. The verse only mentions of Adam having a wife.

    Another thing that is very important to note is that, in the Qur’an, Eve is not blamed for the fall of man. Eve doesn’t eat of “the apple” first and pass it on to Adam. The blame goes rightfully to Shaitan (presumably Iblis).

    We know of Jibreel (Garbiel), who brought God’s revelation to Muhammad. Otherwise, there are no other angels in the Qur’an that take on a major role (at least none that I know of).

    Actually Jibril doesn’t take much of a role in the Qur’an either, although there are many important ahadith that relate to him; for example, The Hadith of Jibril. There are a number of angels that appear in the Qur’an, mostly unnamed, but some named. See this.

    A great contrast one must also take note of is how Adam and Eve are regarded after they commit their sin. In this verse, Adam and Eve are viewed as having committed an honest mistake, something any human being does at some point or another. The major emphasis is on Ibril (Satan), whose major characteristic is arrogance – a prime evil in Islam. Arrogance can lead to humanity’s downfall. Therefore, mankind must practice humility – the most important virtue in Islam.

    Very good. 🙂 I don’t know that humility is the most important virtue in Islam (I think modesty ranks higher), but humility is maybe second most important. Removing ego from religious worship and achieving true submission is probably the greatest challenge for believers of all stripes.

  5. First, thank you for helping to clarify the understanding of angels in Islam. It’s definitely a more complicated issue than I had imagined and different from certain conceptions that come across in Judeo-Christian angeology. I would like to learn more about the understanding of angels in Islam – is there any source, author or text you would recommend?

    Regarding the tree in the Garden, I certainly noticed that there was a tree, but was pointing out that the tree is not named. I checked out the other verses that you said mention the tree, and found that only 20:120 tells us what this tree is – which is to say, why Adam shouldn’t have eaten from it. If it is the tree of immortality (and only Satan says so), presumably God doesn’t want men becoming immortal.

    However, in the Bible, there are two forbidden trees, one of which is this tree of immortality (The Tree of Life) and the other is the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is this latter which Adam eats the fruit of and it is because God fears he will eat of the former and become immortal that he kicks him out of the Garden (that is, the disobedience was not an isolated incident).

    What I find interesting is that only one tree is being mentioned in the Quran, and when it is named (tree of immortality), it is not the one that the biblical story tells us Adam ate from.

    In 20:120 it seems like Satan is tricking Adam into believing that the tree will grant him immortality since God never addresses the tree as such and since Adam doesn’t actually become immortal. So, the tree’s powers, in the Quran, aren’t real but a lie of Satan. My question, similar to the original post, is, what was God’s reason for forbidding Adam from eating the fruit of this one, singular tree that, as far as I can tell, isn’t special for any reason?

  6. First, thank you for helping to clarify the understanding of angels in Islam. It’s definitely a more complicated issue than I had imagined and different from certain conceptions that come across in Judeo-Christian angeology. I would like to learn more about the understanding of angels in Islam – is there any source, author or text you would recommend?

    You’re welcome. Yes, I would agree that Islamic “angelology” is different from that explained in Christianity, although there are a lot of similarities. To be honest, there’s not a whole lot of writings by Muslim authors on the topic of angels, perhaps because the Qur’an discourages theological hair-splitting on topics that are essentially unknowable. Still, I did find one book on the topic, The World of Angels by Sheikh Kishk; I have no idea how good it is. This might be a topic worth my writing an essay or two on, insha’allah.

    Regarding the tree in the Garden, I certainly noticed that there was a tree, but was pointing out that the tree is not named. I checked out the other verses that you said mention the tree, and found that only 20:120 tells us what this tree is – which is to say, why Adam shouldn’t have eaten from it. If it is the tree of immortality (and only Satan says so), presumably God doesn’t want men becoming immortal.

    One of the better tafsir (exegesis) on the Internet says:

    It has already preceded in our discussion that Allah took a promise from Adam and his wife that although they could eat from every fruit, they could not come near a specific tree in Paradise. However, Iblis did not cease prodding them until they both had eaten from it. It was the Tree of Eternity (Shajarat Al-Khuld). This meant that anyone who ate from it would live forever and always remain. A Hadith has been narrated which mentions this Tree of Eternity. Abu Dawud At-Tayalisi reported from Abu Hurayrah that the Prophet said,

    (Verily, in Paradise there is a tree which a rider can travel under its shade for one hundred years and still not have passed it. It is the Tree of Eternity.) Imam Ahmad also recorded this narration.
    (Source)

    What I find interesting is that only one tree is being mentioned in the Quran, and when it is named (tree of immortality), it is not the one that the biblical story tells us Adam ate from.

    Well, you’ll find lots of differences between Biblical stories and similar Qur’anic stories. 🙂 But the thing to keep in mind is that the Qur’an stresses moral lessons with an economy of words (the “denseness” of the Qur’an that you discovered).

    In 20:120 it seems like Satan is tricking Adam into believing that the tree will grant him immortality since God never addresses the tree as such and since Adam doesn’t actually become immortal. So, the tree’s powers, in the Quran, aren’t real but a lie of Satan. My question, similar to the original post, is, what was God’s reason for forbidding Adam from eating the fruit of this one, singular tree that, as far as I can tell, isn’t special for any reason?

    I don’t think that I can give you an answer with any certainty; I’m not sure anyone can. When I was writing my comment the other day (the 11:45 pm one), I originally wanted to say that the purpose may have been to test Adam. There are numerous ayat in the Qur’an that state that Allah (swt) tests everyone, up to two or three times per year, that we are given multiple chances to redeem ourselves with Him before He pulls our plug, so to speak. This could have been such a test with Adam. Then I came across the Muhammad Asad note (#16 in Surah 7), where he wrote:

    By forbidding him to “approach this tree”, God made it possible for man to act wrongly – and, therefore, to act rightly as well: and so man became endowed with that moral free will which distinguishes him from all other sentient beings. …

    And I think there’s some truth to what he wrote as well. One other thing to remember is that Allah (swt) has a plan, which we are not privy to. Knowing that Adam would eat from the tree, even though Shaitan appears to be tricking Adam, that may have been part of Allah’s plan, perhaps as Muhammad Asad wrote, to give man the moral free will he needs to be kalipha upon the earth, to give (perhaps) Allah (swt) Himself the opportunity to forgive (which He has said in the Qur’an that He wants to do). Who can say? Wa allahu alim. (And God knows best.)

  7. I like that final Asad quote. Not only does it recall my original supposition about the prohibition (that it was simply about obedience), but it also brings us back to the biblical story about the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In Asad’s understanding, the tree isn’t actually magical (which I like), but its existence and the fact that it is forbidden, conveys the lesson and knowledge of good and evil – or as we might have it, right and wrong.

    Adam had the ability now, based on the tree, to act rightly or to do wrong. He chose wrong, was banished, and now forever had the knowledge of such things, not because the fruit had powers but because there was a lesson attached. Wonderful! and so much more down to earth, so to speak, than the biblical tale.

    Thanks so much for adding that one. It’s beautiful.

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