Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Chapter 2, Verse 31
And He taught Adam the Names, all of them; then presented them to the angels and said, ‘Tell me the names of these, if you are truthful.’ (Chapter 2: Verse 31)
In the previous session, God informed the angles that He is appointing human beings as successors on earth. He also informed them that they did not have sufficient knowledge to understand the wisdom behind this appointment. The verse ended with the phrase 'I know what you do not.' God, however, did not wish to leave this statement without supporting evidence. In this verse, Allah provides the evidence and demonstrates the angles' lack of knowledge to them.
Let's start with the word ‘all’. 'All' implies comprehensiveness and means the full knowledge of the names being taught. Here you may ask: Does that mean that God taught Adam the names of all the things that will exist from the time of creation until the last day? What about the inventions that will appear centuries after Adam? To answer this question we should note that Allah taught Adam the names in order to distinguish him above the angels. In essence, Godgranted the inferior element (in this case Adam) privileges over the angles -creatures made from a superior element-. Adam was created from clay, while the angels from light. God grants such privileges in order to remind each one of us that whatever we have is not the result of our powers and will; rather it is through God's power and will. To further understand this: suppose that a weak person needs to carry a heavy load but is unable to. A stronger person comes to help, but he cannot give the weak person part of his strength and ability; all he can do is carry that heavy load for him. Only God can grant strength to this weak person and give him the ability to carry the heavy load. Another example comes to us fromthe story of the prophet king Solomon (peace be upon). God had blessed Solomon with a kingdom the likes of which will never be until the end of time. His vast rule distinguished him above men, jinn and animals alike. Then we come across this verse where a hoopoe is giving Solomon new information:
‘I have learned something you did not know: I come to you from Sheba with firm news.’ (27:22)
How can the hoopoe -a feeble bird limited in intelligence- know something significant that Solomon - a king and a prophet who ruled men and jinn- did not? This is because God wants to humble His creation and remove any hint of arrogance from their hearts. For this reason, He grants inferior creations a quality that distinguishes them above superior one. These humbling acts should remind you that all your abilities are not inherent, and are not the result of your will and effort; they are from God. Likewise, we see Prophet Moses (peace be upon him) approaching al-khidr, a righteous worshipper, to learn from him that which he does not know.
This brings us back to the verse. God, the creator and the all knowing, taught the angels the names of objects from the mouth of Adam. Here we should pause and take note of a very important point. God distinguished Adam and raised him above the angles through the gift of knowledge and learning. This is something that we can all do to raise and distinguish ourselves in life. God says:
What of him who spends the night hours in prayer, prostrating and standing up, mindful of the Next World, hoping for the mercy of his Lord? Say: ‘Are they the same – those who know and those who do not know?’ It is only people of intelligence who pay heed. (39:9)
Some people wonder about the way Allah taught Adam these names. Keep in mind that the teaching of the Creator differs from the methods of teaching of the creation. The Creator educates through inspiration, through casting the entire knowledge of the names of the objects in the universe into the heart and mind of Adam. This includes all the objects that were to be invented and those yet to be named later. In fact, a name of a new invention is usually derived from existing language by combing and evolving the names of the surrounding objects. This is further proved by the fact that the angels, who were aware of the universe and the names of what existed in it at the time, did not know the names of the objects presented to them.
Let’s take a break here to shed light on an important concept. Speech is the a product of hearing, while language is the product of the environment. Adam could not have properly spoke the names unless he had heard them from God. If you, for instance, bring a child from an Arabian country to live in London, he or she will start conversing in English fluently while not knowing a single word of Arabic. Thus, language cannot be inherited, it is the result of mimicry and imitation of what we hear. When a person is born deaf, he or she cannot hear words, so this person cannot mimic sound and ends up being mute. Thus, if Adam was able to say the names of the objects then he certainly would have learned and heard them from God.
It is also worth noting that the method God employed in educating Adam is the same method we still use to this day. We teach our children nouns and names of objects first rather than verbs and actions. For instance, you may teach your child by saying: this is a cup, this is a tree, this is a cat and so on. Once the child masters the basic nouns, you then move on to teaching him or her verbs. Thus, we learn that the initial emergence of language and speech came through God’s power that taught Adam the names.
In fact, everything that exists owes its origin to Allah. The first man and woman were created by God. The emergence of knowledge required the first teacher: Allah the all knowing. Afterwards, Adam taught the names to his children and his children passed them on to their progenies and so on. Language also diversified from God. When people spread on earth, they formed groups that evolved their own language. Every existing language nowadays branched from a common source. French, English and Italian for instance are influenced by Latin. Likewise, the vast dialects spoken in Arab countries today all revert to the proper Arabic: the language of the Quran. All these languages originated from what God taught Adam.
Now we come to the end of the verse. God says: "if you are truthful". The first question that comes to mind is: Do the angels lie? Angels are created from light, they praise God and do what they are commanded carrying out their mission faithfully without the slightest deviation. God is not questioning the angles' honesty, rather He is asking whether they had enough information to reach the conclusion that they did. In essence, the question is: Are you making this statement based on solid information, or are you just making predictions about what will happen in the future?
We now that he angels deduced their judgment by reflecting upon another creation that inhabited the earth -like the jinn for example- who were created before humans. Well if this is the case, then God Almighty says to them in reply that you are mistaken in your judgement. Moreover, even if you were truthful in what you have concluded of the unseen, you have no right to make that statement based on prediction. No one has the knowledge of the unseen except Allah.
This verse does not intend to criticize the angels, rather this statement works to rectify and guide them. It explains to us that the angels do not know the unseen, and that this knowledge is exclusive to God. The angles made this prediction and said what they said out of their intense love for Allah, and out of the utmost care not to see corruption or bloodshed in His universe.