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Anthropology: The Creation of Man and the Contradiction of God and Iblis, or Spirit and Clay

Ali Shariati


(Transtaled from Islamshinsi, Vol. 1, pp. 56 68.)

THE STORY OF ADAM and his creation in the Qur'an is the most profound and advanced expression of humanism that exists. In this story, Adam represents the whole human species, the essence of the human race, man in his philosophical sense, not in the biological sense. When the Qur'an speaks of man in the biological sense, it uses the language of the natural sciences, mentioning sperm, drops of clotted blood, fetus, etc. But when it comes to the creation of Adam, its language is metaphorical and philosophical, full of meaning and symbol. The creation of man, that is, the essence, spiritual destiny and attributes of the human race, as it appears in the story of Adam, may be reduced to the following formula:

The spirit of God + putrid clay = man

"Putrid clay" and the "spirit of God" are two symbols, or indications. It is not that man has actually been fashioned of putrid clay (hama' masnun) or of the spirit of God; rather, the first of the two terms refers to lowness, stagnation and absolute passivity, and the second indicates an endless movement toward perfection and infinite exaltation. "Spirit of God" is the best conceivable phrase for expressing this meaning.

The meaning of the Qur'anic statement that man is com­pounded from the spirit of God and putrid clay is similar to the assertion of Pascal in his book Two Infinites, that man is a being intermediate between two infirnites: an infinity of lowli­ness and weakness, and air infinity of greatness and glory. There is, however, a great difference between the words of Pascal and the words of the Qur'an, even though they express the same truth; it is the same difference between Pascal and God!

The human situation, to use the terminology of existential­ism, or the primordial disposition of man (fitra)‑both terms signifying the dual and contradictory nature of man‑can be deduced from the Qur'an as follows: man is a free and responsi­ble will occupying a station intermediate between two oppos­ing poles‑God and Satan. The combination of these two opposites, the thesis and the antithesis, which exist both in man's nature and in his fate, create motion in him, a dialectic, ineluctable and evolutionary movement, and a constant strug­gle between the two opposing poles in man's essence and in his life.

The opposing, contradictory compound‑God and Satan, or spirit and clay‑that comprises man makes him a dialectic reality.1

God or the spirit of God, which represents absolute and infinite purity, beauty, splendor, power, creativity, awareness, vision, knowledge, love, mercy, will, freedom, independence, sovereignty and eternity, is present in man as a potentiality, an attraction that draws him toward the summit, to the glory of the heavens; as an scension toward the sphere of God's sovereignty and being nurtured with the attributes and characteristics of God, as far as knowledge will reach. Aware of all the secrets of nature, man becomes a power enjoying kingship over the world; in front of him there bow down in submission all mate­rial and spiritual forces, earth and heaven, the sun and the moon, and even God's angels, Including the highest among them. Man is thus a creature and a creator, a servant and a master; he is a conscious, seeing, creative, decisive, knowing, Wise, Purposeful, pure and exalted will, the bearer of God's trust and His viceregent on earth, an eternal creature of paradise.

How and why is this so? Half of man is the spirit of God; this is the thesis, the given, the fundament, that enables him to fly in ascension toward the absolute, toward God and divine charac­ter, that impels him to motion. There is, however, a powerful factor opposed to the first, which summons and drags him down to stagnation, solidity, immobility, death, lowliness and ugliness. Then man, who has a divine spirit which flows pow­erfully and tumultuously as a flood, which broadens and removes all obstacles in its path, causing verdure, gardens and fields to grow in its wake, before finally reaching the limpid waters of the ocean of eternity‑then man will become the stagnant pools left behind by a flood. He will be unable to move; he will become stiff and hard and finally shatter, like the potter's sherds that cover the ground, blocking springs and stifling seeds. Nothing will grow from him; he will remain motionless and become a swamp instead of a field, a lagoon instead of an ocean; he will be stagnation instead of movement; death, instead of life; Putrid clay, instead of the spirit of God­-mud and sediment. The factor that brings all this about is the antithesis, that which negates and contradicts the thesis, what impels man in a direction opposed to the thesis.

From the combination of these two opposites, struggle and motion arise, as a result of which a perfecting synthesis comes into being.

The distance between the spirit of God and putrid clay is the distance between two infinities; and man is a "hesitation," a pendulum between them, a free will faced with a weighty and difficult choice‑the choice of the spirit, the spirit of God, while contained within putrid clay and buried beneath mud and sediment.

In one direction lies the highest of the high ‑perfection, beauty, truth, power, awareness, absolute and infinite will­- higher and greater than anything that might be imagined, beyond all that is lowly, banal, contemptible, commonplace, and petty‑this is the hereafter. In the other direction lies the lowest of the low‑defect, ugliness, falsity, weakness, igno­rance, absolute bondage, an infinite decline‑viler, uglier and more egoistic than anything that might be imagined‑this is this world.

And in fact we see that men known to us have risen so far in brilliance of spirit, splendor, beauty, awareness, virtue, purity, courage, faith and generosity, and integrity of character, that they leave us amazed. No being material or immaterial, angel or jinn, has the capacity for similar growth. At the same time, we see other men who in their vileness, impurity, weakness, ugli­ness, cowardice and criminality have descended lower than any beast, microbe or demon. Man may attain the infinite in vile­ness, ugliness and evil just as he does in perfection, nobility and beauty. One extremity of man touches God; the other, the devil. Man is situated between two absolute possibilities, each situ­ated at two extremities. He is a highway leading from "minus to the power of infinity" to "plus to the power of infinity." Facing him, traced out across the plain of being, is a highway leading from air infinitely vile minus to an infinitely exalted plus. He is a free and responsible will; he is both a will obliged to choose and the object of his own will and choice. To use the terminol­ogy of Brahmanism, he is the way, the wayfarer and the wayfar­ing. He is engaged in a constant migration from his self of clay to his divine self.

Man, this compound of opposites, is a dialectical being, a binary miracle of God.2 In his essence and life‑destiny, he is an "infinite direction," either toward clay or toward God.3 But apart from this, in actuality man is, of course, precisely what we see in ourselves, what is examined and made known by science.

The Qur'an, moreover, repeatedly discusses the creation and composition of man in scientific, not philosophical, terms. No element of the divine essence exists in him, nor can it exist in him. God exists in man as a potentiality, a possibility, a direc­tion in which man call strive toward God, absolute essence and infinite perfection. The profound verse "Truly we are God's and to Him we shall return" (23:60), 1 do not understand as referring to death and the tomb, as do the commentaries com­monly in use. These commentaries imply that only when we head for the tomb does God take possession of us, when His servants come and remove us from this world that is supposedly our property. Nor do I understand it like the pantheists, who interpret it in the sense of man becoming merged in the objec­tive essence of God, like a bubble which, bursting, is reabsorbed into the ocean; his self fades away and he becomes immortal in God. The verse does not use the word fihi("in Him"); it uses the word ilayhi ("to Him"). That is, we return to God, not in God; the verse is proposing an orientation of man toward infinite perfection.

Oil account of his dualistic and contradictory nature, man, this dialectical phenomenon, is compelled to be always ill motion. His own self is the stage for a battle between two forces that results in a continuous evolution toward perfection.

This movement is from clay toward God, but where is God? God is in infinity. Man, then, can never attain a final resting place and take up residence in God. The distance between clay aud God is the distance that man travels in his search for perfection; but he travels unceasingly, in ascent arid upward striving to Him Who is infinite, unbounded and unlimited. Thus the movement of man is from infinite lowliness toward infinite exaltation, and the destination is God, the spirit of God, eternity; it is impossible for him ever to stop!

How disgraceful, then, are all fixed standards. Who can ever fix a standard? Man is a "choice," a struggle, a constant becom­ing. He is an infinite migration, a migration within himself, from clay to God; he is a migrant within his own soul.

The path that has been laid down from clay to God is called "religion." Now we all know that religion (madhhab) means path, not aim‑ it is a road, a means4. All the misfortunes that are observable in religious societies arise from the fact that religion has changed its spirit and direction; its role has changed so that religion has become an aim in itself. If you turn the road into an aim or destination ‑work on it, adorn it, even worship it gener­ation after generation for hundreds of years, love it and become infatuated with it so that every time its name is mentioned or your eye glimpses it you burst into tears; if you go to war with anyone who looks askance at it, spend all your time and money on decorating, repairing and leveling it, never leave it for even a minute to go in pursuit of your worldly affairs, constantly walk on it, talk about it, and rub its dust into your eyes as if it were some cure‑if you do all of this, generation after generation, for hundreds of years, what will you become? You will become lost! Yes, this straight, true and correct road will deflect you and hold you back from your aim and destination. And to be lost in this fashion after having found the road is worse than never to have found the road in the first place.

You have heard that this true, straight path, this smooth and sacred highway, has led thousands of men to their destination.

But you it has detained for a whole lifetime, so that in effect you have become like those who have chosen the wrong path which leads them astray and into misguidance.

Why? Because you have made the path a place of recreation; you have turned the highway into some sort of sacred park or clubhouse. Look at the Shi'a. In their belief, the Imam is a person who leads and guides them. But he has become for them, in effect, a sacred and invisible essence, a suprahuman entity to be praised and loved and worshipped and extolled, but nothing else! Religion as a whole, the principles and ordinances of the law, the personages important in religion‑they have all become alms in themselves, and are no longer capable of direct­ing you to the true aim and destination. Now prayer is a means; the Qur'an describes it as a means for preventing abomination and evil. But now the words and motions of prayer have become ends in themselves, so that while our knowledge of prayer has become more complex, more sensitive, more technical, tire actual effectiveness of our prayer has decreased.

In my view, it is not fortuitous that all the names and expres­sions used in the vocabulary of Islam to designate the different aspects and dimensions of religion have the meaning of road. The word din (religion) itself has the meaning of road, in addition to the other significances that have been proposed for it, such as sacred wisdom and so forth. Other terms also have the same meaning: silk: a narrow mountain path; shari'at: the path leading down to a river, enabling the thirsty to take water; tariqa: a broad path or road leading from one town to another or one land to another; madhhab: a highway; sirat: a road leading to a place of worship; umma: a group of people mov­ing toward a common destination under a single leader and along a single road.

Religion is, therefore, a road or a path, leading from clay to God and conveying man from vileness, stagnation and igno­rance, from the lowly life of clay and satanic character, toward exaltation, motion, vision, the life of the spirit and divine character. If it succeeds in doing so, their it is religion in truth. But if it does not, their either you have chosen the wrong path, or you are making wrong use of the right path. In either case, the result will be the same. We see there is no difference here between Muslim and non‑Muslim; neither of them attains the goal of the path.

Here someone might say, "Non‑Muslims are in fact better situated than Muslims in today's world." This is true. If some­body advances with determination on an incorrect path, he may attain his goal more quickly than somebody who does not know how to make correct use of the right path. If somebody chooses a roundabout, twisting road but walks swiftly along it, he will sooner or later reach his goal. As for the people who are sup­posedly on the right path, either they are not walking correctly, or they are shuffling along. Maybe they are even sitting down and discussing the merits of the road! Or maybe they are simply walking around in circles, gazing admiringly on themselves; this is an even worse possibility. There are a thousand and one proofs for the correctness and the truth of the path they have chosen, and a thousand and one examples of men before them who have traversed this path and attained the destination. But despite all these signs and proofs, all this certainty and assur­ance, they have no awareness of their backwardness, no self­doubt, no concern to do something in order to change themselves, to see where the fault lies. Thus it is that the worshippers of cows have outpaced the worshippers of God, and out‑ pious believers are not even aware of it.

'I'he totality of elements that emerge from the story of Adam in the Qur'an for a comprehensive definition of Adam are, then, the following: man is a theomorphic being in exile, the combi­nation of two opposites, a dialectical phenomenon composed of the opposition "God‑Satan" or "spirit‑clay." He is a free will, capable of fashioning his own destiny, responsible, com­mitted; lie accepts the Unique trust of God, and receives the prostration of the angels; lie is God's viceregent on earth, but also a rebel against Him; he eats the forbidden fruit of vision; and he is expelled from the garden and banished to this waste­land of nature, with the three aspects of love (= Eve), intellect (= Satan), and rebellion (= the forbidden fruit). He is com­manded to create a human paradise in nature, his place of exile. He is in constant struggle within himself, striving to rise from clay to God, to ascend, so that this animal Made of mud and sediment can take on the characteristics of God!


1. I am, of course, aware that the joining of opposites is impossible, as is also, the resolution of contradictions. But these rules pertain to Aristotelian logic, formal and abstract logic. Dialectics, however, has nothing to do with abstract forms, only with objective realities; it discusses not the motion of the mind and intellectual forms, but the objective motion of natural phenomena. In the world of the mind, it is impossible for an object to be hot and cold at the same time, or to be both large and small. In nature, however, this is not only possible, but actually obtains. The intellect cannot conceive of a being Simultaneously dead and alive, because death and life cancel each other out, but in nature death and life exist with each other and within each other; they are the two sides of a single coin. A tree, an annual, a man, a social system, love, maternal tenderness­ while all these are living and developing, they are also preparing their own old age and death. Hazrat Ali said: "The breaths a man takes are also the steps by which he advances toward death." The breath of life itself is a progress toward death.

2. The duality of God and Satan in Islam is not the same as the duality of God and Satan (the "bright Zurvan and the dark Zurvan") in dualistic religions such as Zotoastrianism and Manicheism. Further, it is not in any way opposed to tauhid. In Islam, there is no question of a contradiction or dualistic war fare in the world between Ahuramazda and Ahriman. The contradiction exists only in man. Satan is not the antithesis of Allah; he is His impotent and submissive creature, permitted by God to engage in enmity with man. In other words, Satan has no independent power of himself. He is the antithesis of the divine half of man, and the struggle between light and darkness, Allah and Iblis, plays itself out in tire world of men, in societies and individuals; the combination Allah­ - Iblis yields man as its result. The world of nature is the undisputed realm of God's absolute sovereignty; it is all light, goodness and beauty. The contradic­tion of good and evil does not exist there, and Ahriman counts for nothing.

3. There exists a certain apparent similarity between some of my expressions and terminology and the words used by the Sufis, the Indian and Platonic sages, and certain of the Islamic theologians .... What I have to say, however, should not be confused with their view ....

4. The word madhhab is used in Persian to mean ''religion" as well as "school of thought," its customary meaning in Arabic. (TR)


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