The Humble "I"

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Satan’s Deceit, Adam’s Slip & the Tree of Immortality

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.

The Kaʿbah, the Abrahamic Call & the Spiritual Meaning of Hajj:

The Qur’an relates to us this duʿa of the Holy Prophet Abraham:

رَبَّنَا إِنِّي أَسْكَنتُ مِنْ ذُرِّيَّتِي بِوَادٍ غَيْرِ ذِي زَرْعٍ عِنْدَ بَيْتِكَ الْمُحَرَّمِ رَبَّنَا لِيُقِيمُوا الصَّلاَةَ فَاجْعَلْ أَفْئِدَةً مِنْ النَّاسِ تَهْوِي إِلَيْهِمْ وَارْزُقْهُمْ مِنْ الثَّمَرَاتِ لَعَلَّهُمْ يَشْكُرُونَ

‘Our Lord! I have settled one of my offspring in a barren valley near Your Sacred House so that, O Lord, they may establish the prayer. Thus make the hearts of people incline towards them, and provide them with fruits, so that they may give thanks.’ [14:37]

This duʿa was made around 2000 BC. But let’s go even further back in sacred time to the dawn of man’s arrival on earth, to 3000 years earlier; or much more so:

It’s been said that Adam, the first man and prophet, having been told to leave Paradise for this dusty earth, was ordered to undertake a great journey.

Guided by Heaven, he travelled far till he came to the deserts of the Hijaz and stood, at last, in a valley ringed by mountains; a barren place of rock and sand. There he built a holy structure, a place of worship; and when this task of his was complete, he left. And for a great length of time, silence and stillness descended upon this sacred place, and windblown sand covered what Adam had built. The Qur’an says of this sacred House and valley:

إِنَّ أَوَّلَ بَيْتٍ وُضِعَ لِلنَّاسِ لَلَّذِي بِبَكَّةَ مُبَارَكًا وَهُدًى لِلْعَالَمِينَ

The first sanctuary ever built for mankind was that at Bakkah [Makkah], a blessed place and a guidance for the worlds. [3:96]

The hadiths about Adam’s role in erecting the Kaʿbah aren’t definitive, their soundness questionable. What is certain, though; what does constitutes sound sacred history, is that:

After long ages had passed, two people came over the desert into the Makkan valley, with a child. The one, an elderly man in his eighties, Abraham by name and a prophet by destiny. The other, Hagar, his Egyptian maid-servant who had borne him this child in his old age: Ishmael. Near the mound that now covered the Sacred House, Abraham left both Ishmael and Hagar to the divine mercy and under divine instruction, leaving with them a few dates and a water skin.

Thirsty, hungry and perhaps by now distraught, Hagar left the child under a sheltered spot and began looking for water and help. Following a path that led her to the hilltop of Safa, there she saw no spring nor signs of habitation. She ran to the neighbouring hilltop, Marwa; again she saw nothing. Seven times she ran between the two hilltops, calling on Allah for mercy. It was then she heard the sound of a voice. Hurrying back to her son, she saw standing besides him an angel who was now striking the earth with his wing so that water gushed forth. This was the spring of Zamzam, from which the pilgrims in their millions drink even today. Here it was that Hagar settled, and reared Ishmael, soon to be joined by a wandering tribe from the north, the Jurhumites; and it is here she died and here he thrived.

Abraham would often come back to Makkah. On one such return, when Ishmael had grown to manhood, both father and son set about rebuilding the Kaʿbah; repeating Adam’s deed, as all men must in one way or another. Father and son dug the earth, found the foundations of the original structure, and rebuilt the Kaʿbah as a simple structure of four walls, setting in one corner of this House a white stone:

وَإِذْ يَرْفَعُ إِبْرَاهِيمُ الْقَوَاعِدَ مِنْ الْبَيْتِ وَإِسْمَاعِيلُ رَبَّنَا تَقَبَّلْ مِنَّا إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ السَّمِيعُ الْعَلِيمُ

And when Abraham and Ishmael raised the foundations of the house, [they prayed]: ‘Our Lord! Accept from us [this act]; You are indeed the Hearing, the Knowing.’ [2:127]

On another earlier occasion, according to one of two authoratative readings, Abraham came to fulfill a dream about him and his first born, Ishmael:

فَلَمَّا بَلَغَ مَعَهُ السَّعْيَ قَالَ يَابُنَيَّ إِنِّي أَرَى فِي الْمَنَامِ أَنِّي أَذْبَحُكَ فَانظُرْ مَاذَا تَرَى قَالَ يَا أَبَتِ افْعَلْ مَا تُؤْمَرُ سَتَجِدُنِي إِنْ شَاءَ اللَّهُ مِنْ الصَّابِرِينَ. فَلَمَّا أَسْلَمَا وَتَلَّهُ لِلْجَبِينِ. وَنَادَيْنَاهُ أَنْ يَا إِبْرَاهِيمُ. قَد صَدَّقْتَ الرُّؤْيَا إِنَّا كَذَلِكَ نَجْزِي الْمُحْسِنِينَ. إِنَّ هَذَا لَهُوَ الْبَلاَءُ الْمُبِينُ. وَفَدَيْنَاهُ بِذِبْحٍ عَظِيمٍ.

And when [his son] was old enough to walk with him, [Abraham] said: ‘O my son, I have seen in a dream that I must sacrifice you, so what do you think?’ He said: ‘O my father! Do what you have been commanded. Allah willing, you shall find me steadfast.’ So when they had both surrendered to Allah and he had turned him down on his face, We called him: ‘O Abraham! You have fulfilled the vision. Thus We reward the doers of good.’ That was a clear test. Then We ransomed him with a great sacrifice. [37:102-07]

And then there is this duʿa spoken by Abraham, perhaps when he was leaving Makkah for the last time, or perhaps when he was back in the fertile land of Canaan:

رَبَّنَا وَابْعَثْ فِيهِمْ رَسُولاً مِنْهُمْ يَتْلُو عَلَيْهِمْ آيَاتِكَ وَيُعَلِّمُهُمْ الْكِتَابَ وَالْحِكْمَةَ وَيُزَكِّيهِمْ إِنَّكَ أَنْتَ الْعَزِيزُ الْحَكِيمُ

‘Our Lord! Raise from their midst a Messenger who shall recite to them Your signs, and teach them the Book and the Wisdom, and purify them. You are the August, the Wise.’ [2:129]

More than two millennia passed before Abraham’s prayer was answered. By that time, the worship of the One true God taught by Abraham was mixed with much idolatry, the Kaʿbah had been defiled with idols in and around it, and the pure white stone set in the eastern corner had been blackened because of the sins of men. Once more, the sacred House was largely forgotten, except to the Arabs and a few scattered tribes of nomads, of whom history took little notice.

But the time was at hand when the Abrahamic call would be reinstated, re-energised, and its scope made universal. And in the fullness of time, with destiny being ripe, there was born from Ishmael’s seed, among the Arabs, from the tribe of Quraysh and the clan of Hashim, a Messenger of God, a final Prophet, in a line of prophets extending all the way back to Adam and his descendents: Muhammad ﷺ – mercy to the worlds. Under the weight of the final divine Revelation, the Prophet ﷺ restored the primordial Adamic faith and reestablished the salvic truths of Abrahamic monotheism.1

The Pilgrimage to Makkah and to the Kaʿbah, as well as involving the continuity of a number of ancient rites, contains potent spiritual symbolism. The physical journey from one’s homeland is a reminder that one must eventually leave this world forever. Wearing the ihram reminds one that each will be buried in a shroud when they die and shall meet their Maker, shorn of any ability to hide behind clothes of pretension or of status. The huge multitudes of people camped out on the plain of Arafat, or under the desert sky of Muzdalifah, brings to mind the tumult and terror of the Resurrection, when all shall be marshalled together for judgement. But of course, the most potent symbol, and the one that most links us to the Abrahamic legacy, is the ritual sacrifice, in remembering Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son. For Abraham’s story is a story of loving submission – and it is loving submission and surrender that lie at the very heart of Islam.

1. See: Gai Eaton, Islam & the Destiny of Man (Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1997), 46-48.

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