Man, Universe, Meaning: Created in God’s Image
Apart from being story-telling creatures, we humans are also meaning-seeking creatures. Once we’re fed, clothed and sheltered, we have an inner tendency to want to find purpose and meaning in things. No matter how much we’re surrounded by comforts, or how much our needs and wants are catered for, we have an innate drive and hunger to find meaning; especially in terms of life’s meaning and purpose. This article addresses the heart of such thirst, by explaining how Islam says everything came to be, and why? That is, we shall try and address Islam’s big cosmic question:
The meaning-seeking drive in us humans can be seen in the following hadith report: Abu Razin once inquired: O Messenger of Allah ﷺ, where was our Lord before He created the creation? He replied: ‘He was in obscurity [lit. clouds] (kana fi ‘ama), with no wind (hawa) below Him and no wind above Him, and He created His Throne over the water.’1
In another hadith, we are presented with a somewhat more elaborate account of the great cosmic ‘How’ and ‘Why’ questions – how did we, and all of this stuff around us, get here; and why are we here? We read about the how question:
‘Imran b. Husayn relates: I was once sitting with the Prophet ﷺ when some people from the tribe of Tamim came to him. He then said to them: ‘Receive the good news, O tribe of Tamim.’ They said: You have given us good news, so grant us [something else]. Just then, some people from Yemen entered, so he said: ‘Receive the good news, O people of Yemen, for the tribe of Tamim did not accept it.’ They responded: We accept it! We have come to you in order to become versed in the religion, and to ask you concerning what was the beginning of this affair? He ﷺ answered: ‘Allah was, and there was nothing before Him. His Throne was over the water, He then created the heavens and earth and wrote down everything in the Register [the Preserved Tablet].’2
It has also been recorded with the following wording: ‘Allah was, and there was nothing other than Him.’3 Which suggest that Allah, the Creator, had not as yet created anything. He then created the water, Throne, Pen, Preserved Tablet, the heavens and the earth, and all things in them. There’s also this hadith to add to the jigsaw puzzle: ‘Allah decreed the measure of all things fifty thousand years before He created the heavens or the earth; and His Throne was over the water.’4
What empirical evidence has allowed us to understand is that the creation of the heavens and the earth wasn’t an instantaneous event, but instead it was a long drawn out process spanning aeons. Currently, the best scientific model we have that describes the origin and growth of our universe is the Big-Bang theory. As science goes, it’s a fine and exhilarating piece of detective work, the outlines of which go something like this:
In 1927, George Lemaitre, whilst studying Einstein’s new theory of relativity and gravity, deduced that if the theory was right (and there had been good evidence for it since 1919), then our universe was not static (as people had believed since the time of the early Greek philosophers). Rather it was expanding! Unfortunately, he had no empirical data to prove this, so his idea was ignored. Even Einstein felt uneasy about endorsing this implication of his general theory of relativity.
By 1929, we learnt that galaxies were rushing apart from each other at incredible speeds, thanks to the American astronomer, Edwin Hubble. Lemaitre used Hubble’s observations as clear proof for his theory of an expanding – not an eternal, unchanging – universe.
By 1931, Lemaitre explored the consequences of an expanding universe and proposed that the universe must have originated at a finite point in time. He argued that if the universe is expanding, it must have been far smaller in the past. If we keep rewinding the cosmic clock, going further and further back in time, our universe would have been smaller and smaller still. So much so, that there must have been a point in time when all of the matter and energy in the universe must have been densely packed together in a single point – the “primeval atom” as he called it – which then exploded, giving birth to time and space and the expansion of the universe. Lemaitre also proposed that there should be some leftover heat from the Big-Bang, which would have rapidly cooled with the expansion, to leave our universe with an overall uniform temperature. This Belgian priest-cum-astronomer would have to wait some decades before he was proven correct about the heat left over from the birth of the universe.
Ironically, in a 1949 broadcast for BBC Radio, the English astronomer Fred Hoyle coined the term “the Big Bang” for that initial cosmic explosion. The irony being that Hoyle did not believe in Lemaitre’s theory. Hoyle was an ardent believer in the Steady State theory of the universe: i.e. the universe was static, wasn’t expanding, and had existed from eternity. The term, however, caught on and stuck.
The deal-sealer came in 1964, when two American radio-astronomers Penzias and Wilson stumbled across the cosmic background heat, or radiation. This radiation was acting as a source of excessive noise in a radio receiver they were building. Despite taking all possible steps to eradicate this strange buzzing sound; even removing some nesting pigeons from the antenna, the noise still persisted. Again by sheer chance, they learned that a group of Princeton astrophysicists were researching for means to detect the residual radiation left over from the Big Bang. As it happened, the radiation detected by Penzias and Wilson was the very same Cosmic Background Radiation that earlier astronomers and physicists had predicted, and which the researchers were looking for. This accidental discovery, along with the fact that our universe is expanding, put the big bang theory firmly on the map, as well as make history.
Currently, astrophysicists and cosmologists put the age of the universe at 13.8 billion years old. The planets in our solar system, including our own, are around four and a half billion years old. Although there are a few alternative models that attempt to explain the genesis and growth of the universe, none have as wide an acceptance as the big bang theory.
One last matter. Merely because we now have a good scientific model which explains the mechanism behind the universe’s origins, it doesn’t mean that there was no agent behind the birth of the universe. To think otherwise would be like believing that just because we know the inner workings of an iPhone, that there was no Steve Jobs as the agent behind that tech. Which is to say, knowing the mechanism, doesn’t negate there being an agent behind it. So having discussed a bit about the mechanism that got the universe going, let’s talk about the Agent behind it and why the universe and us are here:
That Allah kana fi ‘ama – was in some kind of veiled or clouded obscurity before creating creation – ties in with a very popular hadith, usually found in sufi literature, which is the “Hidden Treasure” hadith. This is the hadith that ascribes the following words to Allah: ‘I was a treasure unknown, then I desired to be known. So I created creation to make Myself known; they then knew Me.’ According to the hadith specialists, however, this hadith is a fabrication.
In his compendium of hadith forgeries, Mulla ‘Ali al-Qari wrote: ‘Ibn Taymiyyah asserts: “These are not the words of the Prophet ﷺ, and nor does it have any chain, be it sound or weak.” Al-Zarkashi and al-‘Asqalani state the same. Its overall meaning, though, is sound and takes its cue from Allah’s words, exalted is He: I only created jinn and men that they may worship Me. That is, “that they may know Me” – as was explained by Ibn ‘Abbas, may Allah be pleased with him.’5 This echoes the Qur’an when it says: Allah it is who created seven heavens, and of the earth a similar number. His command descends throughout them, that you may know Allah has power over everything and that He encompasses all things in knowledge. [Q.65:12] The point being made here is that Allah can only be worshiped after knowing Him. Which is why He created the heavens, earth and whatever is between them, as pointers to His oneness, divinity, glory, majesty and might.
An even more wondrous way that promotes li ta‘lamu – “that you may know” Allah – is the way in which Allah made Man. Ibn Taymiyyah wrote: ‘Now Allah manifested some of His tremendous power and astounding wisdom through righteous humans – via prophets and saints – in ways He hasn’t done so, not even via angels. For He united in the former, qualities that are dispersed throughout the other types of creation. So Allah created man’s physical body from the earth, while his spirit (ruh) was created from the Highest Assembly of Angels. That is why it is said: “Man is a microcosm, but contains the macrocosm (huwa al-‘alam al-saghir huwa nasakhah al-‘alam al-kabir).”’6 If we add to this the fact that we’re divinely designed with a spiritual heart (qalb) that can truly know Allah and can yearn to seek intimacy with Him, and an intellect that above all other creatures can grasp Allah’s signs and infer their meanings, then each of us are endowed with the potential to be what we are called upon to be: knowers, worshippers and lovers of God!
Profounder still is what our Prophet ﷺ taught us about Man in this next hadith: ‘Indeed Allah created Adam in His own image.’7 As to what this theomorphic nature of the human creature actually is, our ‘ulema have a few views concerning this:8
One view holds that the word “image” (surah) refers to: “attributes,” like hearing, seeing, knowledge and speaking. In other words, Adam, upon whom be peace, was created with certain attributes Allah also describes Himself with; although the attributes of the former are created and imperfect, whilst Allah’s attributes are eternal, perfect and absolute; and bear no resemblance or likeness to any of the creation, save in name: There is nothing like unto Him, and He is the All-Hearing, All-Seeing. [Q.42:11]
A second view has it that what is intended by “image” is Adam, peace be upon him, being created in a direct way by Allah, without the usual human birth process; and that he was endowed with the same form or image on earth, as he had in Paradise.
A third opinion simply insists in issues like this: amirruha kama ja‘a bila kayf – ‘Let it pass as it came, without inquiring into how.’ Most of the early believers accepted such hadiths (or verses) concerning Allah’s attributes on trust, and were content to leave any apparent anomaly or mystery unexplained. In fact, a number of early scholars have cited an actual consensus, or ijma‘, on this approach.9
All this is with the assumption that the pronoun in ‘ala suratihi – “in his image” – returns back to Allah, and not to another human; as held by some. Such are the opinions offered to explain the intent behind the words: ‘Allah created Adam in [H]is own image’ or, as per the hadith (if sound): ‘Do not say [to another]: “May Allah disfigure your face;” for the son of Adam was created in the image of the All-Merciful.’10
This theomorphic nature of having been created in His image finds its practical expression in another spiritual principle of the faith: takhalluqu bi akhlaqi’Llah – “Adorn yourselves with the qualities of God[liness]” Although it is not a hadith by any stretch, it forms a core aspect of Islam’s spiritual ethics.11 Imam al-Suyuti explains that: ‘Its meaning is to adorn oneself with praiseworthy attributes and rid oneself of the blameworthy ones. Its meaning isn’t that we [try to] usurp any of the divine attributes.’12 Teasing it out a little more, Ibn al-Qayyim wrote:
‘He [i.e. Allah] is compassionate and loves those who are compassionate; merciful to His servants who show compassion. He conceals [faults] and loves those who cover the faults of His servants. He is clement and love those who pardon; forgiving and loves those who forgive; gentle and loves those who are gentle to others. But He is angered by those who are rude, rough or hard-hearted. He is companionable and loves companionship [among people]; forbearing and loves forbearance; good and loves goodness and its doers; just and loves justice. He loves to accept excuses and loves those who excuse others. Thus He recompenses His servant inasmuch as these attributes are present or absent in him.’13
It may likewise be said that we are something or nothing inasmuch as such attributes are present or absent in us. The Holy Qur’an teaches us that we are obliged to choose between being something or being nothing! Created, according to the hadith, in Allah’s image – a theomorphic being – our natures are such that we, above all creatures in this vast cosmos, can reflect, as in a mirror, the names or attributes of our Lord. In practice, it means that the believer’s heart should be like a mirror; such that when God gazes at it, He sees – as it were – His own reflection!
To sum-up: There was Allah, He that is One, and nothing else was with Him; and He was as yet unknown. He then created creation in order to be known. First came the water, Pen and Throne (though not necessarily in that order), and then the heavens and earth. Long ages passed as the heavens and the earth took form; and as the earth was being prepared to receive Man. Such was the jewel in the crown of the divine plan. So when the time was right, and what was destined for Adam and his wife overtook them, they were both sent down to earth to dwell therein: to live, cultivate and to bring forth new life in the reverent worship, knowledge, and gratitude of God.
Being a theomorphic creature, made in His image, the divine hand made of man a work of art. The human soul, when purified of its ego and opposition to the divine will; and when enrobed in the akhlaq of Allah, becomes the highest embodiment of beauty in the created order, reflecting something of the Divine Beauty. For the goal of Islam’s spiritual path is not to acquire the attributes of divinity, but to embrace our full humanity. And this is done by being steered by the attributes of Lordship and making Allah’s acts the basis for one’s own. Such is the implication of our theomorphic nature.
To be something, or nothing: that seems to be the question. Whether to grow and nurture our theomorphic potential and be lifted to a station loftier than that of angels, or to live in pursuits of whims, desires and distractions and thus sink to the lowest of the low, is the choice before each of us. All other concerns must surely take a lower priority?
Wa’Llahu’l-hadi ila sawa’ al-sabil.
1. Al-Tirmidhi, no.3109, who graded it hasan.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.7418.
3. Al-Bukhari, no.3191.
4. Muslim, no.2653.
5. Al-Asrar al-Marfu‘ah fi’l-Akhbar al-Mawdu‘ah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1986), no.353; Ibn Taymiyyah, Majmu‘ Fatawa (Saudi Arabia: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 18:122.
6. Majmu‘ Fatawa, 11:96.
7. Al-Bukhari, no.6227; Muslim, no.2841.
8. Consult: al-Munawi, Fayd al-Qadir (Cairo: Dar al-Hadith, 2010), no.3928; al-‘Asqalani, Fath al-Bari (Damascus: al-Risalah al-‘Alamiyyah, 2013), no.2559, 8:167-68; no.6227, 19:6-7.
9. See the article on this blog: Doctrine of the Divine Attributes.
10. Ibn Abi ‘Asim, Kitab al-Sunnah, no.517; and al-Tabarani, al-Mu‘jam al-Kabir, no.13580. Despite the narrators being highly reliable (thiqah), al-Albani showed how its chain has four ‘ilal, or hidden defects, and is therefore da‘if, in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1176.
11. Ibn al-Qayyim called it batil in Madarij al-Salikin (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Arabi, 2003), 3:226-27; al-Albani declared it to have no chain at all (la asl lahu) in Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah (Riyadh; Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 2000), no.2822.
12. Ta’yiyd al-Haqiqat al-‘Aliyyah (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 2006), 84-5.
13. Al-Wabil al-Sayyib (Beirut & Damascus: Maktabah Dar al-Bayan, 2006), 79.