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Last Updated: 2008/06/17
Summary of question
In the Quran’s viewpoint, is man an ignorant and unjust creature or is he khalifatullah (God’s vicegerent)?
In the Quran’s viewpoint, is man an ignorant and unjust creature or is he khalifatullah (God’s vicegerent)?
Concise answer

1. The Holy Quran praises man (mankind) in many ways, while, on the other hand, scolding and reproaching him in various verses.

2. Because of man's high potentials, he is able to reach and ascend to the highest levels and ranks, and at the same time, is capable of sinking to the lowest.

3. Man is made up of two elements; one is his spiritual being and the other, his materialistic being and all of the animalistic desires that accompany it.

4. Unlike other creatures, man has freedom of choice, choosing his way of life according to the conditions that he has determined.

5. Those who accept Allah’s guidance and don’t show enmity towards it, and control there materialistic and animalistic desires achieve the high rank of “Khalifatullah” (being God’s vicegerent on earth).

Detailed Answer

A brief look at the Quran gives us the conclusion that regarding man, there are two groups of verses; the first praising and adoring him and expressing his greatness and highness.

For example:

1. ((We have honored the children of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favors, above a great part of our creation.))[1]

2. ((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."))[2]

3.(( We did indeed offer the Trust to the Heavens and the Earth and the Mountains; but they refused to undertake it, being afraid thereof: but man under took it…))[3]

And other verses similar to these.

The second group strongly scolds and reproaches him using harsh and bold phrases such as  “unthankful  and of low tolerance”[4], “transgressing beyond all bounds”[5], “man is given up to injustice and ingratitude”[6], “He (man) was indeed unjust and foolish”[7], “he (man) (stands forth) as an open adversary”[8], “Man is in loss”[9], etc.

The big question is that do these two groups of verses contradict each other? How can this problem be solved? What is the Quran actually trying to say? Are we supposed to conclude that man is a noble creature or that he is a mere dishonorable one?

The best way to get our answer is to return to the Quran once again because usually the Quran interprets and explains what it means in other verses.

In surah “Bayyinah” we read that: ((Those who reject (Truth), among the People of the Book and among the Polytheists, will be in Hell-Fire, to dwell therein (for aye). They are the worst of creatures. Those who have faith and do righteous deeds, they are the best of creatures.))[10]

In these two consecutive verses, we see that man has both the capability of being the highest of all creatures and the lowest. These verses are expressing the endlessness of the ascendance and descending of man and how high or low he can go. If he is faithful and obedient towards Allah and does righteous deeds, he is the best of all creatures. On the other hand, if he disbelieves, goes astray, chooses to be an atheist and is disobedient and hostile, he sinks to the lowest level of all creatures. Imam Ali (a.s.) says: “God created three different classes of creatures in this world; the angels, animals, and humans. Angels have minds and no sexual drive, animals have sexual desire and fury, and humans have the attributes of both. What is important is which of the two man chooses. If his mind overtakes his desires and he makes the right choice, his rank is higher than that of the angels. Yet, if his desires take over his intellect, he is worse than animals (as the Quran puts it).”[11]

One can conclude from this glorious hadith (tradition) that just like man has two dimensions (his spiritual and materialistic beings), he also has two types of drives and needs or desires (spiritual and materialistic ones), and because of his god-given freedom of choice, he can willingly choose any of the and in return become the highest of all or the lowest of all. So, what the Quran is trying to say is that because of the extraordinary potential that man possesses, he is capable of reaching the highest levels and ranks, especially the rank of “Khalifatullah”, just by making the right choice, and in contrast to that, if he doesn’t make good use of this opportunity, he will fall to the level in which as the Quran puts it, he will be the worst of all creatures and lower than animals.[12]

So the magnificent verses of the Holy Quran express the reality that man has the potential to be the best and most beloved of all creatures and even bypass the angels and by making use of this potential, is able to become Allah's vicegerent and khalifah in this world. But on the other hand, if he misses out on this exceptional opportunity and doesn't make use of this god-given blessing, he will be scolded by Allah (swt) as we named a few examples in this short article. For further information, see:

- Al-Mizan (Farsi translation), v.16, pg. 524-527.

- Tafsir Nemooneh, v.8, pg. 242, v.17, pg. 451-457.

[1] Isra:70

[2] Baqarah:30

[3] Ahzab:72

[4] Fussilat:49-51

[5] Shora:27

[6] Ibrahim:34

[7] Ahzab:72

[8] Yasin:77

[9] Asr:2

[10] Verses 6 and 7

[11] Tafsir Nur al-Thaqalain, v.3, pg. 188.

[12] A’raf:179

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