This read starts with the question: Does it matter how one sins? To answer it, it explores the deeper layers of the story of Adam, Satan and the divine command to not eat from the Tree of Immortality, in order to understand why it is that at the end of the story Adam is bathed in grace, while Satan is utterly disgraced. For at the heart of the saga, we discover the theme of divine love.
Are all sins equal? No, they are not. Are some sins worse than others? Yes, indeed! Does how you sin make any difference to Allah? This may come as a surprise to some, but yes, how one sins does make a difference to Allah. This last point is taught to us in a gem of a saying from the exemplary scholar and saint, Sufyan ibn Uyaynah, who said:
مَن كانَتْ مَعْصِيَتُهُ فِي الشَّهْوَةِ فَارْجُ لَهُ، وَمَنْ كَانَتْ مَعْصِيَتُهُ فِي الْكِبْرِ، فَاخْشَ عَلَيْهِ فَإنَّ آدَمَ عَصى مُشْتَهِيًا، فَغُفِرَ لَهُ وَإِبْلِيْسُ عَصى مُتكَبِّرًا فَلُعِنَ.
‘Whoever sins due to a desire, have hope for him; while whoever sins out of pride, fear for him. For Adam disobeyed out of a desire, but was forgiven, whereas Iblis disobeyed from pride and so was cursed.’1
The reference to the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, and to Iblis or Satan, lies at the heart of the human drama. The story is recounted at the start of the Qur’an at 2:30-9, and also at 7:11-25; 17:61-5; 20:115-23 and 38:71-85. In the Adamic story, both Adam and Iblis are subject to a single divine command. For Adam it was: ‘O Adam! Dwell you and your wife in the Garden, and eat as you wish, but do not come near this tree.’ [2:19] For Iblis: ‘Prostrate yourselves before Adam!’ and they all fell prostrate, except Iblis, who was not of those who prostrated. [2:11] In both instances, Allah’s order was not followed through: Adam [and Eve] ate from the tree; Iblis refused to prostrate. One could be forgiven for assuming that both these actors would be recipient to similar consequences for having failed to uphold a divine command? But they were not.
On being asked why he disobeyed the command to prostrate, Iblis replied in this defiant and arrogant tone: ‘I am better than him. You created me from fire, while You created him of clay.’ [7:12] Being made of subtle fire, Iblis presumed himself to be better than Adam, who was heavy and clay-like in nature. So driven by pride, and exercising his own reasoning in defiance of the Divine Command, Iblis set himself up as a god against Allah and thus was cursed. Yet what Satan, in his hubris, failed to acknowledge was the heavenly, luminous substance called ruh or “spirit” that was insufflated into Adam: ‘So when I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My spirit, then fall down prostrate before him.’ [38:72] Inspite of Adam’s opaque, earth-like nature, it is this God-knowing spirit which grants mankind the potential to rise above all other sentient creatures.
As for our father Adam, peace be upon him, his is a story of love; in terms of what drove him, deprived him and distressed him. We read in the Qur’an: But Satan whispered evil to him, suggesting: ‘O Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and a kingdom that never decays?’ [20:120] His eating from the Tree of Immortality was not out of defiance of Allah’s will, rather: We made a pact with Adam before, but he forgot. [20:115] However, some of the scholars hold that his forgetting doesn’t refer to eating from the tree, but to not recalling that Satan is his avowed enemy: ‘O Adam, this [Satan] is an enemy to you and your wife; let him not drive you both from the Garden.’ [20:117] In this reading, it is Adam’s love for Allah and his aching desire to remain in His presence that drives him to eat from the tree. Let us hear from Ibn ‘Ajibah on this point:
‘Realise that Adam’s eating from the tree was not out of obstinacy or wilful disobedience. It was either due to not recalling the command, so he ate whilst being forgetful; which is what some have said, and is what may be meant in Allah’s saying: but he forgot. [20:115] If, however, he ate whilst remembering the command, he did so because: ‘Your Lord forbade you this tree lest you become angels or become of the immortals.’ [7:20] So his love for Allah and his deep attachment to Him made him to want what would lead him to dwell forever in Allah’s company and abide with Him eternally. Or [he wilfully ate because] he desired to become angelic. For Adam, peace be upon him, held the angels to be closer to Allah, so he wished to eat from the tree to be an angel who – as far as he was concerned – were the best [of creation].’2
Satan whispered to Adam and Eve, in order to lead them by deceit: And he swore to them: ‘Truly, I am a sincere advisor to you.’ [7:21] Adam, in his innocence, believed him, thinking that no one would ever swear by Allah’s holy Name falsely!3 So he used Adam’s love for Allah and his yearning to be in His presence as a means to make him eat of the tree. Adam was thus deceived into thinking that if he were to become an angel or an immortal, he too would be able to abide in Allah’s holy presence forever – perpetually adoring, glorifying and worshiping God as the angels do. Hence the lover ate.4
Ironically, love deprived him – for a while, at least – of dwelling in Allah’s presence: He said: ‘Go down, both of you, from the Garden.’ [20:123] And: ‘There will be for you on earth a habitation, and a provision for a while.’ [7:24] It was this very same love that caused him to then weep a thousand tears and be utterly heart-broken and remorseful. For unlike Satan who refused to own his sin, but sought instead to justify it, Adam and Eve acknowledged their slip and were remorseful, repentant and longed for God’s acceptance: ‘Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you forgive us not, and have not mercy on us, we shall be among the losers!’ [7:23] Ibn al-Qayyim wrote:
‘By Allah! Having committed the error, Adam neither profited from his rank: ‘Bow down before Adam!’ [2:34]; nor from his nobility: He taught Adam the names of all things [2:31]; nor his distinction: ‘that which I created with both My hands’ [38:75]; and nor his glory: and breathed into him of My spirit. [15:29] Instead, he profited only from his humility: “Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you forgive us not, and have not mercy on us, we will be among the losers!” [7:23]’5
One last point, and it’s an important one. When we say that Adam “sinned” – Thus Adam disobeyed his Lord [20:121] – it’s not the usual type of sin that is driven by the ego’s wilful opposition to Allah. Rather, as the Qur’an says elsewhere, it was an unintentional sin; an inadvertent “slip”: But the Devil caused them to slip. [2:36] Both courtesy and creed; adab and ‘aqidah, demand that we acknowledge this. Courtesy because when one speaks about God’s chosen prophets – the crown of all His creation – one does so in the most respectful and reverent way possible; salawatu‘Llahi ‘alayhim ajma‘in. Not to do so could, in certain cases, amount to disbelief (kufr). As for creed, then this is because the texts of the Qur’an and Hadiths, when taken collectively, teach us that the prophets are ma‘sum – “infallible” in the sense of being protected from sin and wilful disobedience. Al-Qurtubi stated: ‘The prophets are protected from major sins and the reprehensible minor sins, by consensus.’6
Although Adam and Eve are the first humans to violate a command from God, Satan is the first of all Allah’s creation to wilfully disobey Him. His decision to rebel came purely from himself and his pride; no one else lured or persuaded him. Furthermore, his decision to continue to disobey God after his initial defiance ensures that God will not forgive him. In contrast, both Adam and Eve immediately felt remorse and sincerely repented. We could say that while Iblis was driven by pride; Adam’s slip, in stark contrast, was driven by love and his longing to be with his Lord. Love is what drove Adam to eat – and there is always some special consideration for Allah’s true lovers.
The example of the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, remains as valid today as it was then. For having turned to God, Adam did not transmit the curse of an “original sin” to his descendants. Instead, he was received into divine grace and a state of harmony was once again restored between him and his Maker: Then Adam received words from his Lord, and his Lord relented towards him. [2:37] A similar grace awaits all those who sin, but turn to Allah in remorseful repentance, following the Adamic example. The key is in pondering God and His grace, which allows one to become closer to Allah and more devoted to Him. In the Adamic saga, Iblis contemplates only himself: Adam constantly contemplates God and being close to Him.
So here’s to contemplating closeness!
1. Cited in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:461.
2. Ibn ‘Ajibah, Bahr al-Madid fi Tafsir Qur’an al-Majid (Cairo: al-Maktabah al-Tawqifiyyah, n.d.), 4:320, citing Ibn Ata‘illah, Kitab al-Tanwir.
3. See: Qadi ‘Iyad, al-Shifa’ bi Ta‘rif Huquq al-Mustafa (Damascus: Maktabah al-Ghazali, 2000), 692.
4. Cf. Muhammad Idris Kandhalawi, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an (Sindh: Maktabah ‘Uthmaniyyah, 1422H), 3:85-90. I am indebted to Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoun, hafizahullah, for bringing this point, and this superb Urdu tafsir, to my attention.
5. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 51-2.
6. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur‘an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 3:194.