The story of Adam appears in the Quran in seven instances (2:29-38; 7:10-25; 15:23-44; 17:51, 61-65; 18:37-51; 20:50-55, 114-123; 38:69-85), each time with an accent on a different aspect of this allegory.
Now, like any story, the story of Adam is also narrated in the Quran in the past tense, apparently giving a first impression as if it is exclusively narrating an event of the past.
But when a story is an allegory with certain moral intent, it is not time-bound. It belongs to past no more than it belongs to present and future.
Examples of allegories with similar moral intent are Aesop’s Fables, which are narrated in the past tense but are in fact meant to be occurring in all tenses, including present continuous.
Here we will take THE STORY OF ADAM IN 2:29-38 as a case for study:
He it is who created for you all that is in the Earth, while He settled to the Heaven and fashioned them into seven Heavens; and He knows all things. 2:29
And when your Sustainer said to the Forces: Indeed I am establishing upon Earth an inheritor, they said: Do You establish therein one who spreads corruption therein and sheds blood, while we, we hymn Your praise and sanctify You? He said: Surely I know that which you know not. 2:30
And He taught Adam all the names, then presented them to the Forces; then He said: Tell Me the names of those if you are right. 2:31
They said: Glory to You, we have no knowledge except that which You have taught us, You are the Knowledgeable, the Wise. 2:32
He said: O Adam! inform them of their names. When he informed them of their names, He said: Did I not tell you that I know the unseen of the Heavens and the Earth, and that I know what you reveal and what you were hiding? 2:33
And when We said to the Forces: Prostrate yourselves before Adam, they all prostrated themselves except Iblis, he refused and became arrogant, and became of the rejecters. 2:34
And We said: O Adam! Dwell you and your spouse in this garden and eat freely thereof whatever you wish, but do not approach this one tree, lest you become wrongdoers. 2:35
But the Devil caused them to slip therefrom, and expelled them from what they were in. We said: Descend you all, as enemies to one another; and you have on Earth your abode and a provision for a time. 2:36
Then Adam received words from his Sustainer, so He turned to him mercifully; surely He is Oft-returning, the Merciful. 2:37
We said: Descend from it you all; but most certainly there will come unto you from Me guidance, then whoever follows My guidance, on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve. 2:38
We will carefully go through the verses in an attempt to understand ‘the best possible meaning’ underlying the allegory:
A literal reading of this story is anthropomorphic and idolatrous
The Quran is not a history book but a spiritual guide. This sacred text, in order to present deeper ideas, often speaks in an inimitable language that uses a range of literary devices including metaphors, allegories and ancient parables, a fact confirmed by the Quran itself (2:26, 3:3-7, 5:27, 24:34, 25:33).
Evidently, the Quran re-narrates in its own way many ancient parables, which are mainly to deliver a range of moral lessons, and are not necessarily meant to be understood literally as real or historical events.
The story of Adam, if carefully observed, is a good example of such parables. Elsewhere we will reflect on the many indications whereby the Quran itself appears to highlight the figurativeness of this particular story.
Even in our current case study (2:29-38), we notice how the story of Adam appears in a context that repeatedly refers to ‘parables’ and ‘allegories’ (‘mathal’ or ‘parable’ in 2:17, 2:17, 2:26, 2:26; ‘mutashabihan’ or ‘allegories’ in 2:25). Clearly, while reminding us of the general Quranic trend to use ‘parables’ to present deeper contents, these references create a prelude to the allegorical nature of a forthcoming narration, where we actually get the story of Adam.
Failing to grasp the true message behind the figurative narration here, traditional interpreters imagined this as a ‘real’ event of the past, where God, angels, Iblis, Adam and his wife, all participated, both factually and physically!!!
Obviously, this is a very superficial, literal understanding of a very complex, metaphorical description – a description about the Creator’s ‘interaction’ with His creation.
This is not only anthropomorphic in approach and idolatrous in content but also a serious desecration of the underlying spirit of the Quran.
The story unfolds after creation of the Universe and evolution of man
Now, when we read the story of Adam in 2:29-38 in its context, we observe that the story follows an introduction: a reference to the CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE AND EVOLUTION OF MAN (2:21-30; cf. And We have created you (plural), then fashioned you (plural), then told the Forces: Fall you prostrate before Adam! 7:11).
To our reading, this attaches a generic connotation to this allegory, i.e. it makes Adam a collective noun, which refers to a group rather than an individual.
This narration is comparable to its counterpart in the Bible, where the creation story of the Universe and man in Genesis i similarly appears to give a generic significance to the story of Adam in Genesis ii.
That ‘Adam’ in the Quran simply symbolizes man becomes further obvious when we notice that the word ‘man’ totally replaces ‘Adam’ in the same allegory depicted in occurrences like 15:28-44 and 38:69-85.
The story takes place solely on Earth
That Adam’s story is but mankind’s story taking place solely on EARTH, and not elsewhere, is made clear by repeated mention of the Earth in the prelude of the story: He it is who created for you all that is in the Earth … / … Indeed I am establishing upon Earth an inheritor. 2:29-30.
Also, the metaphorical description of the ‘Garden of Adam’ – the ideal abode of humanity, wherefrom ‘Adam’ is expelled (2:29-38, 2:221) – is in clear contrast with the description of the actual paradise elsewhere, in another instance of the story of Adam (15:23-48; Nor are they be ejected therefrom. 15:48).
Adam’s status as ‘Inheritor on Earth’ has a generic connotation
We note that the status ‘INHERITOR on Earth’ is repetitively described throughout the Quran as a special gift to all mankind (cf. ‘khalifah’, inheritor, successor, leader; 2:30, 6:133, 6:165, 10:14, 27:62, 33:72, 35:39).
Then ‘Adam’, which appears first time in 2:31 – to embody the status of ‘Inheritor on Earth’ as implied by 2:30 – must occur as a generic name for the whole human species rather than a proper noun for an individual person.
As a successor of his anthropoid ancestors as well as the leader of all other species, while holding the top position in the food chain of Earth’s ECOSYSTEM, modern man is a divinely authorized inheritor on Earth.
This issue of ‘inheritance’ comes back elsewhere (15:23) in another instance of the story of Adam (15:23-44), which unfolds after references to cosmic and human evolution (15:14-18, 26) in line with evolution of Earth’s geo-biology, ECOLOGICAL balance and food chain (15:19-22).
Interestingly however, the above instance – where the word ‘man’ totally replaces ‘Adam’ – defines this ‘man’s inheritance on Earth’ as temporary and relative, since it is only God who remains the ‘Absolute Inheritor’ (15:23; cf. 3:180, 57:10).
Adam is a species that is instinctively violent
We further observe that the name ‘Adam’ in 2:31 functions as a metaphor to symbolize an animal species already existing on Earth who ‘SPREADS CORRUPTION therein and sheds blood’ (2:30; cf. 2:72, 2:84-85).
Remarkably, this reference to human’s inherent tendency to violence follows a context that condemns people who disregard the unity of mankind and ‘SPREAD CORRUPTION on Earth’ (2:27) and also follows a context that asks those who ‘SPREAD CORRUPTION’ (2:12) not to ‘SPREAD CORRUPTION on Earth’ (2:11).
Please observe throughout sura 2 the interesting ring structure in the multiple recurrences of the expression ‘SPREADING CORRUPTION’: 2:11, 2:12, 2:27, 2:30, 2:60 (cf. 2:72, 2:84-85), 2:205, 2:205, 2:220, 2:251.
Evidently here, the concern voiced by the witnessing ‘Forces’ is about the ‘violence and atrocities’ of the whole mankind, not of an individual human.
‘All the names taught to Adam’ signify the total knowledge given to human through his ever-growing vocabulary
Then we read that Adam acquired higher status because of ‘ALL THE NAMES’ he was taught (2:31-33). Here again, Adam cannot be an individual person since a single human cannot be taught ‘all the names’.
Thus once again, Adam here must stand for the whole mankind, while ‘all the names’ must symbolize the total knowledge of humanity through his ever-growing vocabulary, and, in particular, the ever-growing scientific terminology, parallel to his continuous accumulation of evidence-based knowledge.
Acquiring knowledge is vital, since it is knowledge only that qualifies man for ‘INFORMED CHOICE’. This ability to choose between right and wrong is a special privilege divinely gifted to him out of all earthly creatures. Some people call it ‘free will’, a term which we will avoid as controversial.
To human bow down all the ‘Forces’, except the ‘Evil Force’ inside his mind
Clearly, thanks to this vocabulary – which is related to the special, human faculty of logical definition (55:3-4) – man is superior to and is gradually becoming capable of harnessing all the observable and hidden ‘controlling Forces of nature’ (‘malaika’), which are commanded by the Divinity to PROSTRATE themselves to man (2:34).
However, out of all the ‘controlling Forces’ (‘malaika’), there is one that makes an exception: the hidden, evil Force inside human mind that refuses to bow down to human (2:34).
It is difficult to avoid the impression that IBLIS in 2:34-36 – which refuses to bow down to Adam and misguides him – is a metaphor for all the overpowering, negative forces intrinsic in human psyche, i.e. the Devilish urge inside man, as described in a previous verse in the context (2:14). These uncontrollable, destructive emotions are burning in relation to sound reasoning, as if they are ‘made of fire (7:12).
Thus this invisible Devil residing in Adam’s inner self is described in the Quran as ‘hidden’ (‘jinn’, 18:50) and one of the ‘controlling Forces’ (‘malaika’, 2:34).
Adam and his/her spouse symbolize mankind’s male and female equals
At this point (2:35) – when man and woman are asked to dwell in the garden and to ‘eat’ therefrom – we notice the sudden change of address from single form (Adam) to the dual (ADAM AND HIS/HER SPOUSE), apparently to signify the whole humanity represented by its male and female equals.
Here we cannot ignore that this reference to the two human counterparts – men and women – clearly follows a context that insures gardens for virtuous people to be fed therefrom and to dwell with their SPOUSES therein (2:25).
The Quran deliberately bypasses those components of this Genesis myth that discriminate against woman
We observe that the Quranic wisdom gently BYPASSES (cf. 5:15) here those components of this Genesis myth that discriminate between man and woman: e.g. it deliberately overlooks the fallacy ‘Eve’ (a name absent in the Quran) having been created from Adam’s rib and the fallacy that it was Eve who was tempted and ate the apple first.
Rather – while confirming the origin of male and female as unitary, parallel and simultaneous (4:1, 30:21, 35:11, 39:6, 53:45-46, 75:36-39) – the Quran holds both man and woman as equally responsible for the ‘Fall’ and describes them as equal participants in all the related events including repentance and receiving divine guidance (2:35-39; cf. 7:19-23).
‘Garden of Adam’ is the spiritual, multi-coloured garden of One Humanity
Then we observe that the ‘GARDEN OF ADAM’ in 2:35 occurs as a metaphor for the spiritual garden of our human Earth, portrayed in its preceding context (2:22-23, 25) – i.e. the diverse garden of countless human minds where divine rain of ONE LIGHT is constantly producing fruits with INFINITE COLOURS (2:22-23) – which is a graphic representation for the ideal dwelling of humanity (2:25; cf. 2:221).
In other words, this is the same GARDEN, described in the context, which is meant for conscious and righteous people to be fed with FRUITS therefrom and to dwell with their spouses therein (2:25).
‘Eating’ from ‘the tree of discord and division’ causes ‘Fall’ from that ‘Garden’
This garden of bliss, this perfect dwelling of humanity, is lost when humans ‘fall’ from this higher station of One Humanity (10:19) – because of ‘eating’ from ‘the TREE OF DISCORD AND DIVISION’ under the influence of Devil (2:34-36) – thereby getting split up into conflicting factions: Descend you all, as enemies to one another. 2:36 (cf. 2:30, 2:72, 2:84-85, 2:178, 2:213; cf. 5:27-32; 7:19-27, 31, 35, 199-201; 17:53).
This is the tree of hate and hostility that causes people to become enemies of one another and to divide into divisions. This toxic growth has too many branches: branches within branches; sects within sects; and sections within sections.
‘Fall of Adam’ symbolizes ‘Fall of mankind’
The multiple PLURAL EXPRESSION ‘descend you all’– and the abrupt change of address from dual form to the plural – in 2:36 and 2:38 indicates that the ‘Fall’ mentioned in the story refers to the ‘Fall’ of the whole human race, and not to the ‘Fall’ of any individual person or a pair.
This parable of Fall of Adam – of man’s degradation to a lower state – is comparable to a parallel account in 7:19-24, where, likewise, the dual form of address changes at this stage into the plural, thus connecting with 7:10-11, and making it clear once again that the story of Adam is, in reality, an allegory of human destiny.
Contrary to the traditional understanding, while ‘Descend you all, as enemies to one another. 2:36’ addresses all humans, it doesn’t address Iblis. This is made clear by the rest of the verse, ‘and you have on Earth your abode and a provision for a time’, as well as by the multiplicity of human addressees in 2:38-39. Iblis cannot fit into this description of mutual enmity, because, though he is an enemy to man (17:53), man is not an enemy to him. Moreover, this is not a Fall of Iblis, which the Quran mentions as a separate event prior to the Fall of Adam (7:13, 7:24).
The ‘word’ received by Adam is the ‘divine inspiration’ received by all mankind
And this lost paradise – this ideal, higher state of humanity before fall – can be regained back by following the divine message of unity revealed through the messengers (2:37-39; cf. 7:24, 35; 38:5).
This explains why throughout the Quran the issue of Fall of Adam from his garden of bliss (2:22-36, 7:10-25, 38:69-85) is invariably accompanied by a reference to the divine guidance through messengers (2:37-39, 7:35, 7:59-84, 38:12-65).
Here, by highlighting that Adam is forgiven (2:37), the Quran dismisses the doctrines of ‘original sin’ and ‘vicarious atonement’ (cf. 6:164, 17:15, 35:18, 39:7, 39:53, 53:38-39; cf. Deut 24:16, Ezekiel 18:20).
The MULTIPLICITY OF ADDRESSEES in 2:38-39, which indicates all humanity requiring guidance (reconfirmed by 7:24, 35), once again elucidates that Adam is a metaphor for the whole humanity.
Thus the ‘WORD’ received by Adam from His Sustainer (2:37) connotes the generic meaning of ‘divine inspiration’ or ‘divine guidance’ received by all mankind as a whole, not by any individual Adam.
The story eventually identifies Adam as plural
It is interesting to note that the description of Adam in the story starts in SINGULAR (2:30-35) which goes through a change to DUAL (2:35-36) which is then transformed into PLURAL (2:36-39). Compare this with the story of Adam in ch 7 and observe a similar shift of address from singular (7:11-12, 7:27) to dual (7:19-23, 7:27) to plural (7:24-25, 7:28). Also compare with instances where Adam (human) is totally replaced by bashar (man) along with a similar shift of address from singular (15:28-33, 38:71-76) to plural (15:39-42, 38:82-83). Thus the story eventually identifies Adam as plural, as standing for all humans of all times.
Like any story, the story of Adam is also narrated in the Quran in the past tense. However, because it is an allegory with certain moral intent, it is not time-bound. Its events are meant to be occurring in all tenses – past, present and future – including present continuous.
Above we have carefully read THE STORY OF ADAM IN 2:29-38 in an attempt to understand ‘the best possible meaning’ of this allegory. In this Case Study we have the following findings:
• A literal reading of this story is anthropomorphic and idolatrous.
• The story unfolds after creation of the Universe and evolution of man (2:29-38; 2:21-30; cf. 7:11). This makes ‘Adam’ a symbol for man and explains why ‘man’ totally replaces ‘Adam’ in 15:28-44 and 38:69-85.
• As a mythical name for all humans, Adam belongs to past no more than s/he belongs to present and future. The story of Adam, therefore, is an ongoing story of all humans.
• The story takes place solely on Earth (2:29-30; cf. 15:48).
• Adam’s status as ‘Inheritor on Earth’ has a generic connotation as it is actually a designation for all humankind (2:30, 6:133, 6:165, 10:14, 27:62, 33:72, 35:39; cf. 15:26-38).
• Adam is a species that is instinctively violent (2:30-31; cf. 2:11, 12, 27).
• ‘All the names taught to Adam’ signify the total knowledge given to human through his ever-growing vocabulary (2:31-33).
• To human bow down all the ‘Forces’, except the ‘Evil Force’ inside his mind (2:34-36; cf. 2:14).
• Adam and his/her spouse symbolize mankind’s male and female equals (2:35-39).
• The Quran deliberately bypasses those components of this Genesis myth that discriminate against woman (2:35-39; 7:19-23; cf. 5:15).
• ‘Garden of Adam’ is the spiritual, multi-coloured garden of One Humanity (2:35; cf. 2:22-23, 2:25, 2:221).
• ‘Eating’ from ‘the tree of discord and division’ causes ‘Fall’ from that ‘Garden’ (2:34-36; cf. 2:30, 2:72, 2:84-85, 2:178, 2:213; cf. 5:27-32; 7:19-27, 31, 35, 199-201; 10:19; 17:53).
• ‘Fall of Adam’ symbolizes ‘Fall of mankind’ (note plural in 2:36 and 2:38; cf. 7:19-24, 7:10-11).
• The ‘word’ received by Adam is the ‘divine inspiration’ received by all mankind (2:37-39, 2:22-23; cf. 7:24, 35; 7:59-84; 38:5, 38:12-65).
• The story eventually identifies Adam as plural (2:36-39; cf. 7:24-25; cf. 15:28-42).