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Ömer Özsoy {*}

Man's Adventure on Earth

A History of Tension between Freedom and Order
from the View of the Koran


From the periodical of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria
'zur debatte', 7/2007, p. 26f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


As is well known, man has in the Koran's view two fundamental dimensions: the natural and the supernatural-divine, i.e. body and spirit. These are two sides of the one coin; in the case of man these two are no independent substances but the essential elements of a substantial unity of man. The one dimension alone is not enough to be called man. This means the dualism 'mind-body' is originally unknown to the Koran's conception of man.

Let us look a little closer at the individual dimensions of man. Man is a natural being. That he is made of soil means only that.

We created man of clay. (15:26) HE it is who created you from clay, then He decreed a term for your life. (6:2)

But he is different from other natural creatures by the fact that God endowed, resp. blessed man with HIS spirit. This however means that each individual has the same potential of divinity (but not of the godhead).

Who made good everything that He has created, and He began the creation of man from dust. Then He made his progeny of an extract, of water held in light estimation. Then He made him complete and breathed into him of His spirit, and made for you the ears and the eyes and the hearts. (32: 7-9)

The Koran's image of man, which does not regard man as a process of tension between freedom and order, takes shape from a mythological scenario that for the most part is identical with the biblical story of Adam:

And when your Lord said to the angels, I am going to place in the earth a khalif, they said: What! wilt Thou place in it such as shall make mischief in it and shed blood, and we celebrate Thy praise and extol Thy holiness? He said: Surely I know what you do not know. And He taught Adam all the names, then presented them to the angels; then He said: Tell me the names of those if you are right. They said: Glory be to Thee! we have no knowledge but that which Thou hast taught us; surely Thou art the Knowing, the Wise. He said: O Adam! inform them of their names. Then when he had informed them of their names, He said: Did I not say to you that I surely know what is ghaib in the heavens and the earth and (that) I know what you manifest and what you hide? And when We said to the angels: Make obeisance to Adam they did obeisance, but Iblis (did it not). He refused and he was proud, and he was one of the unbelievers. (2: 30-34)

The essential in this scenario is not only man's superiority to angels because of his ability to give names to things, what makes his mission meaningful, but also the rejection of his superiority by another being, namely Iblis, i.e. Satan, who has set himself the goal to make man give up the right path. In this context I may point to the fact that the Koran does again not know any dualism that compares the devil as the symbol of evil and God as a symbol of the good: God stands above good and evil, and only allows that the devil exists and is present as the quintessence of evil.

He said: Then get out of it, for surely you are driven away: And surely on you is curse until the day of judgment. He said: My Lord! then respite me till the time when they are raised. He said: So surely you are of the respited ones. Till the period of the time made known. He said: My Lord! because Thou hast made life evil to me, I will certainly make (evil) fair-seeming to them on earth, and I will certainly cause them all to deviate. Except Thy servants from among them, the devoted ones. He said: This is a right way with Me: Surely. as regards My servants, you have no authority over them except those who follow you of the deviators. (15: 34-43)

Hence in this scenario the devil is a historical actor who acts against man and not against God. The devil tries to prevent man from fulfilling his mission, i.e. in other words, that he goes his natural way. For he goes his natural way, like all other natural beings, as soon as he knows God and yields to him:

Is it then other than Allah's religion that they seek (to follow), and to Him submits whoever is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him shall they be returned. (3: 83) The seven heavens declare His glory and the earth (too), and those who are in them; and there is not a single thing but glorifies Him with His praise, but you do not understand their glorification; surely He is Forbearing, Forgiving. (17: 44)

The existential as well as ethical reality of man makes his life a battleground between good and evil, and man himself to a process of tension between freedom and order. The mission of man on earth is in the language of the Koran called 'amana', that means something that has been entrusted.

Surely We offered the trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to be unfaithful to it and feared from it, and man has turned unfaithful to it; surely he is unjust, ignorant. (33: 72)

This order makes not only man discharge his "duties", but also emphasizes the reciprocity of the relationship; with his word in the Koran God too on his part commits himself to fulfilling his covenant with man:

Therefore remember Me, I will remember you! (2: 152) Be faithful to (your) covenant with Me, I will fulfil (My) covenant with you. (2: 40)
Your Lord has ordained mercy on Himself. (6: 54)

Thus God refers in his demands to a promise by which HE is obliged.

And who is more faithful to his covenant than Allah? Rejoice therefore in the pledge which you have made. (9: 111)

The moral and religious demands on man have on the part of God a fundamental communicative character. The demanding word does at the same time honour to the listener: God turns to man, chooses his language, appeals to his responsibility, and expresses himself as one who binds himself in freedom. It is undeniable that the demands come from God, that HE is "Lord" of man, that listening to them is also to be "obedience", but already the medium of language conflicts with a mere relation of domination. The powerful appealing formulas running through the Koran are significant symptoms for it:

Have you then no sense? (2: 44) Will you not then mind? (6: 80) What is the matter with you? How do you decide? Do you not then hear? ... Do you not then see? (28: 71-72)

In interpersonal relations such a language would not only express the seriousness and urgency of the matter but also the limited power, even the helplessness and anxiety of the one who speaks so. Certainly, God is not to be seen so; the Koran impresses this on man by a different way of speech. These rhetorical formulas are nevertheless informative for the anthropology of the Koran, for its understanding of man before God. The linguistic form of God's way to talk shows a room for decisions that is not controlled by God - even if some statements of the Koran conflict with it, and theology can in its systematizations not cope with it. In statements of the Koran that seemingly cannot be harmonized with the freedom of choice it is either about emphasizing the fact that God is the origin of everything or about the task to describe the natural human processes with a language centred in God:

And We will turn their hearts and their sights, even as they did not believe in it the first time, and We will leave them in their inordinacy, blindly wandering on. (6: 110) (6: 110) And they say: Our hearts are covered. Nay, Allah has cursed them on account of their unbelief; so little it is that they believe. (2: 88)

The room for freedom and decision-making would be an ethical pre-condition resp. the logical consequence of the fact that God has put man to the test:

Surely We have created man from a small life-germ uniting (itself): We mean to try him, so We have made him hearing, seeing. Surely We have shown him the way: he may be thankful or unthankful. (76: 2-3)

The Koran's conception of man is not based on a particular story, but previous to all events and experiences in "the nature created by God, in which he created man" (Surah 30, 30). Hence the fundamental revelation of God is identical with his creation and man's mandate on earth is in agreement with it: If people rightly understand themselves and their world and live accordingly they will also recognize God in a way that is valid for all times.

The Koran confirms this fundamental revelation in a scene in which God obliges people already before their earthly existence to hold on to the true creed, so that their religion was relieved of all coincidences of earthly life and human history, and they were unable to withdraw from it without blame:

And when your Lord brought forth from the children of Adam, from their backs, their descendants, and made them bear witness against their own souls: Am I not your Lord? They said: Yes! we bear witness. Lest you should say on the day of resurrection: Surely we were heedless of this. (7: 172)

That God reveals himself as the only Lord is the quintessence of the whole of creation and revelation. The whole history of God's revelation in the creation up to the special proclamation of the Prophet Muhammad the Koran sees filled with many prophets who preceded him. Of this the Prophet Muhammad is to be aware:

Some of them that We have mentioned to you and there are others whom We have not mentioned to you. (40: 78) Naught is said to you but what was said indeed to the apostles before you. (41: 43)

That all historical revelation according to the Koran's view brings up God's eternally valid word, the Muslim faith sees after all justified still in a further way. It traces the Koran like any valid prophecy back to a heavenly document:

I swear by the Book that makes things clear: Surely We have made it an Arabic Quran that you may understand. And surely it is in the original of the Book with Us, truly elevated, full of wisdom. (43: 2-4)

In the following verses nothing else is expressed but that even the messengers of God have only been ordered to remind people of their original identity, without replacing it by further or other identities that they might wish themselves:

And then, when we received from the prophets their commitment, and from you, and from Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, the son of Mary! We received from them a firm commitment. God will ask those who have been truthful whether they really have been truthful. (As for) those who disbelieve, they shall have a severe punishment. (35: 7-8)
O apostles! eat of the good things and do good; surely I know what you do. And surely this your religion is one religion and I am your Lord, therefore be careful (of your duty) to Me. But they cut off their religion among themselves into sects, each part rejoicing in that which is with them. (23: 51-53)

From it follows that it is the real task of revelation religions to remind of the universal original identity, and to keep to the universal revelation, to the creation of God, but not in producing identities that are threatened with becoming mortal, as e.g. being a Jew, a Christ, a Muslim, etc.

For it is not the responsibility of those who are god-fearing to call (i.e. non-Muslims) to account, but only to exhort them, so they too become god-fearing. (6: 69)

One of the most important problems to which the Koran's revelation from beginning to end gave serious thought was the fact of disagreement among people. The proposed solution of the Koran is reflected in the Mecca passages, in which the hope of a possible agreement with the 'Followers of the Book' can still be felt - as a joint return to the only monotheistic religion, the religion of human nature, the religion of Abraham, the father of the three communities. So the earliest critical statements against Christians can be traced back to the Mecca period in which the Koran obviously did not yet recognize them as separate religious communities, and consist in having split the only true religion:

Then set your face upright for religion in the right state - the nature made by Allah in which He has made men; there is no altering of Allah's creation; that is the right religion, but most people do not know - Turning to Him, and be careful of (your duty to) Him and keep up prayer and be not of the polytheists. Of those who divided their religion and became parties, every sect rejoicing in what they had with them. (30: 30-32)

The Koran regarded the Jews and Christians in Mecca more or less as communities of the same faith and expected of them a positive approach to the new message, without forcing them to become Muslims - in Surah 85 this positive perception of Christians actually reaches its peak. But when in Medina it became clear that this expectation could not be fulfilled, they were regarded as "others", so that each was recognized as an independent religious community. But that did not mean that the Koran completely stopped its expectations to the 'People of the Scripture', but now they were restricted to the expectation that they may cleanse their own religious doctrine of misunderstandings and alienations and show a corresponding attitude:

And We sent after them in their footsteps Isa, son of Mary, verifying what was before him of the Torah and We gave him the gospel in which was guidance and light, and verifying what was before it of Torah and a guidance and an admonition for those who guard (against evil). And the followers of the gospel should have judged by what Allah revealed in it; and whoever did not judge by what Allah revealed, those are they that are the transgressors. (5: 46-47)

Already towards the end of the Mecca period the Koran's revelation took note of the fact that the other Abrahamitic traditions saw themselves as separate religions. In addition in the first years in Medina it became clear that the 'People of the Scripture' were not able to fulfil the hope for a real agreement. That was a kind of resignation and at the same time caused that Islam was declared to be a religion of its own and Muslims an independent religious community (5: 3; 3: 110, 22: 78). The change in the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca symbolizes this tragic, but decisive separation, which can be pursued in Surah 2, 142-157. This development in the direction from Islam in the meaning of devotion to an identity for the new community, to which in my opinion not God's will led but the historical conditions, has prevailed; and so the Muslims began to see their mission on earth in preserving their identity by often behaving so that they would deserve the Koran's criticism directed to the Jews and Christians.


    {*}Dr. Ömer Özsoy is Foundation Professor of Islamic religion at the University of Frankfurt


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