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God as King, Man as Trusted Servant: An Exploration of Islam, Part VI

May 29, 2012

VI. The “Forbidden Tree” and Human Nature in Islam

            If humanity is to be Allah’s viceregent on earth, given great responsibility for an enormous task, a most reasonable question to ask is, “Why does man ‘sin’ or disobey, or fall short of Allah’s design?”  This, I believe, is the preeminent question for every worldview to answer concerning its own conception of a doctrine of humanity.  Why do humans ‘sin’?  Why do humans behave so wickedly so often?  Conversely, we might also ask, why are humans capable of such incredible goodness and altruism?  What is it that can explain the complexity of the human being that can account for both the horrific actions of a Hitler or Pol Pot and the sacrificial life of a Ghandi or Mother Teresa?  It is answering this question that, perhaps more than any other, helps us understand what each religious worldview is offering to humanity in its explanation and solution to the human problem of sin.

The story of Islam follows closely the story of Judeo-Christianity in giving an account of Adam, a temptation by Satan, and an eating fruit of a forbidden tree.  It differs dramatically, however, in the interpretation of these events.  Consequently, the Islamic understanding of human nature is dramatically different than a Christian understanding.

According to the Quran, Adam was placed in a garden and given permission to eat from any tree in it, save one.  Were he to eat of it, he would become a “wrongdoer.”  So what is this tree?  In Husayni Behishti and Jawad Bahonar’s view, this tree is not a tree of knowledge—knowledge is perhaps the supreme virtue in Islam—but a tree of lust whereby mankind may test his self-control.[1]  If this is true, we might think of the forbidden tree as a sort of testing marker so that humanity may prove itself.  Yet, if Adam (and humanity) was created with a perfect nature, this would be an unnecessary test.  Thus, this interpretation of the forbidden tree, along with our prior understanding of humanity’s creation leads to a specific view of human nature.

When we remember the two-part formulation of humanity—‘mud’ and ‘Spirit’—it becomes clear that man is created with a propensity to sin.  This is his ‘mud’-nature.  At the same time, as part of our divine constitution, humanity can choose to obey Allah and seek after good things.  Ira Zepp states it in this way:  “The ‘breath of God’ establishes our distinctiveness among created things…Here is our misery (‘mud’) and our grandeur (‘Allah’s Spirit’), our bondage to this world and our capacity to soar to heights of excellence.”[2]  Shariati confirms this view when he writes, “Man is a two-dimensional being:  mud and Spirit…It is up to man to choose where to go, towards mud or providence.”[3]  In other words, Allah has created humanity as beings who are intrinsically capable of choice—they may follow their earthly or ‘carnal’ instincts or they may choose to follow Allah and prove their allegiance to Him and confirm their status as His viceregents.  It is within man’s power to do either.

Humanity, in Islam, is not “fallen” as in the Christian worldview.  We are free, at any time to choose either good or evil.  Zepp, in denouncing the idea of “original sin” in Islam, writes, “In Islam, we are not original sinners or original saints.  As a result of our actions we become either.”[4]  So what are we to make of the immensity of evil that mankind is often guilty of?  The best answer, in Islam, is that we have forgotten Allah and have ignored his commands.  We have chosen to use our status as viceregents to serve ourselves and in doing so, have wreaked havoc in our world.  We have—to put it simply—simply served the “mud”-nature at the expense of our world.  Within this context, we can see why the Quranic teaching to return to Allah and obey him is so urgent.  If, as Allah’s trusted servants, we have forsaken our responsibilities, then his judgment will be severe.  Yet, if we do as He commanded and “submit,” then we will be worthy of great reward.  The constant mention of reward and punishment follows reasonably in light of the Islamic understanding of human nature.

Within the context of our Arthurian analogy, it would be best to see the entire human life as a divine test whereby human beings may prove their allegiance to their king.  By test, I do not mean to convey that life is a farce and somehow not real.  Rather, just as a king gives responsibilities to his servants so that they may prove their worth and ability to accept greater responsibility, so human life is Allah’s giving the opportunity to show our “stuff.”[5]  We  may definitely fall, and Allah is merciful in our failures, but in the end, our lives should show by our actions a firm commitment to Allah, proving ourselves to be faithful viceregents in His kingdom.  Our human nature, being both mud and spirit, offers us the genuine opportunity to choose our allegiance.


[1] Husayni Behishti and Jawad Bahonar, “Man”, in Philosophy of Islam.  Al-Islam.  http:// http://www.al-islam.org/philosophyofislam/.  Accessed March 19, 2012.  They write, “The Forbidden Tree of Paradise is not that of knowledge which should be approached, but it is a tree of lust which should be controlled.  It is a means by which man tests his will-power and the power of self-control.”

[2] Ira G. Zepp, Jr., A Muslim Primer:  Beginner’s Guide to Islam, (Westminster, Maryland:  Wakefield Editions, 1992), 94.

[3] Shariati, “Man and Islam.”

[4] Zepp, A Muslim Primer, 95.  I must admit, this sound remarkably similar to every other religious worldview with the exception of Christianity.  In Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and even in many understandings of Judaism, it seems as if the emphasis is on man’s ability to choose the good—whatever that may be—or evil.  The various religious worldviews all speak of the power of the ‘carnal’ nature, or ‘desire,’ or the propensity toward earthly wants, but in the end, they each seem to agree that it is within man’s intrinsic power to say no and overcome.  The Christian worldview is, in my estimation, the only one that says the problem of man’s nature is far bigger than we are aware of—that at our fundamental core, we are broken in such a way that, left to ourselves, we will never overcome our propensity toward sin and evil.

[5] Murrata and Chittick, The Vision of Islam, 111.  It should be noted that we are not proving ourselves to Allah, for He seeing the future already knows what we are made of.  It is rather to show ourselves so we are without excuse in the day of judgment:  “The Koran often says that God measures out good and mercy to test people’s faith and to allow people to prove their own nature–not to God, of course, because he already knows their nature.  They are demonstrating their nature to themselves, so that they will have no objections when they reach their destination in the next world,” 111.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. kat permalink
    May 30, 2012 11:58

    Once again, I am impressed with the clarity with which you have handled a subject which is actually very complex!! A very good job!!.

    If I may, I would like to give you the proper terms and a little context for “mud/spirit”……
    Judaism has two terms Yetzer hara (egoic desires) and Yetzer hatov (transegoic)–These are part of Nefesh (soul/consiousness)—In the Quran the concepts that correspond to these terms are nafs ammara (egoic desire) and nafs lawwama (transegoic)—nafs=soul/self/consiousness. The term for “God’s breath (Spirit) is Ruach in Hebrew and “Ruh” in Arabic.

    “Man created with a propensity to sin”—-No, not quite…….Man is created with a propensity for good but rebels against his inherent nature when he sins………

    Desires are not “evil” by themselves—how we use them makes them bad—for example, hunger creates a desire for food which is essential for the survival of our body. So feeling hungry is not a bad thing—it is when this desire is taken to excess that it can harm our body and also harm our soul. Why does it harm the soul?—because excessive desires cage the soul. To liberate it, one must turn away from excess to Taqwa (God-awareness/love of God) —that is the purpose of Ramadhan (fasting).

    The desire to protect ones family or loved ones, to be sexually intimate with ones spouse, to eat and drink of the provisions given by God, or to find pleasure in beauty/God’s creations……are all part of celebrating life. They should not be annihilated—but “managed” by integrating Taqwa into our lives.(—Jihad=inner struggle/striving)

    By submitting (to God) Man is able to come to inner peace with his inherent nature (goodness) and to achieve the purpose for which he was created—-God’s will=to have right belief that promote right intentions that lead to right actions for the benefit of all of God’s creations.

    (the highest spiritual level of soul is called Neshama in Judaism and nafs mutmainna in the Quran……in the Indian/Bhuddist tradition the soul is called atman, the “spirit” or God’s breath is called Prana and the highest spiritual level is called nirvana. ——Peace (joyful peace) is a common characteristic of the highest level of spirituality.)

    • June 4, 2012 8:34

      Kat, thanks for your comments and encouragement! As I mentioned, I was trying, as much as possible, to understand the Islamic doctrine of humanity from the point of Islam. It was definitely an exercise in comparative religion. Of course, as and outsider, I will never understand Islam the way a faithful Muslim does, and that’s why your comments have been helpful. For example, in using the Arthur analogy, I wasn’t suggesting that Allah could be fit solely into one model, and your comments about the 99 names was helpful for me to realize how I may have pigeonholed Him. I was trying to get a picture to understand how Muslims my understand submission and obedience and the role of viceregency.

      I very much appreciated your comments on desires. What you have said is very much in line with what I believe. I wonder though, is your views on Islam and Allah the views that most Muslims hold? It seems you’ve taken a very philosophical (and thoughtful I might add!) approach to your faith, but are the views you articulate common? Not that it matters, the views I typically articulate about Christian faith are not what the average-joe believes (although our foundations will be much the same).

  2. kat permalink
    May 31, 2012 12:19

    Islam=to submit (to God/God’s will)—the root word is the same as salam which means peace——-the connotation is—to submit to God in order to arrive at peace.

  3. kat permalink
    June 5, 2012 2:39

    The terms/ideas are both mainstream and classic—that is, scholars of mainstream classical Islam have articulated them. (these scholars/philosophers use the Quran as a base and all the arabic terms I mentioned are from the Quran) The Sufis have a more sophisticated approach to spirituality—but I am not a Sufi. However, there are also other elements —what in Christianity may be called the “fundamentalists”–may equate to what in Islam may be referred to as the “Purists” They prefer the outward compliance to rules and are not interested in spiritual nuance.Their views tend to be simplistic and reductionist. However, the Quran is for all levels of spirituality—from those whose capacity is only minimum to those who are able to seek the highest level of spiritual nuance.

    (I did simplify the Jewish concepts somewhat in order to equate them better with the Arabic/Quranic concepts)

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