Chapter Two: The Cow (Al Baqara)
Chapter 2, Verse 34
And when We said to the angels, ‘Prostrate before Adam,’ they prostrated, but not Iblis: he refused and acted arrogantly, and he was one of the faithless. (Chapter 2: Verse 34)
God commanded the angels to prostrate before Adam. This issue has caused controversy, and stirred many debates. Some people argued: how can the angels bow before an entity other than God? Isn't prostration is only performed before Allah? Others said: Does the prostration of the angels before Adam suggest that they worshiped him?
In order to answer these arguments, let's look into the true meaning of the verse. God elevated Adam above the angels by teaching him the names, then He asked them to bow down before Adam. The first important point that must be understood is that prostration before Adam reflected the angel's obedience to God. It was not meant as an act of worship to Adam. Allah was the one who ordered them to prostrate, not Adam. Thus, when the command was issued by God, whoever obeyed this command fell into the category of a worshipper of God, and whoever rejected this command was from amongst the disobedient to God.
The second point to understand is the true meaning or worship. By definition, worship means to obey God’s commands and avoid His prohibitions. Hence, when God says: ‘do’ then I must do, and when He says: ‘do not do’ then I must not do. My obedience to my creator, in both His commands and His prohibitions, is the very essence of worship. I do not pick and choose which command to obey or reject. Take for example the pilgrimage trip to Mecca. During Hajj you strive to kiss the black stone placed at the corner of the Ka’ba, while you throw pebbles at the stones that represent the devils in Mina. You kiss one stone, and throw pebbles at another! This signifies the true meaning of worshipping God and following His commands. We do as Allah has ordered; we hold nothing sacred except for His command and doctrine. Thus, we elevate the status of one stone because God ordered so, and debase another stone because God ordered so.
This brings us back to the verse. The angels did not prostrate before Adam out of worship or respect for Adam, rather they bowed before him by the command of God. There is a great difference between prostrating to something out of worship, and prostrating to the same thing because God has commanded so. Allah's order to the angels to prostrate to Adam is similar to His command to us to prostrate towards Mecca and the Ka'aba. We do not bow to the Ka'aba itself, rather we prostrate to the authority of God. Thus, when the angles prostrated before Adam, they did not go beyond the boundaries of faith in God. In fact, their act was absolute obedience to Allah; and obedience is the foundation of faith.
Here is another question that often comes up: Did all of the angels bow down? The answer is No. Only those angels who were appointed to perform tasks related to Adam did. God Almighty sheds lights on their appointments in the following verses:
Surely there are guardians over you, Illustrious scribes, Who know what you do. (82:10-12)
And in another verse:
He does not utter a single word, without a watcher by him, pen in hand! (50:18)
And those who regulate affairs. (79:5)
From the verses above you can appreciate that angels are assigned different tasks. Some are given the job of recording our deeds, thoughts and words. Others are appointed to guard and protect us and so on. All the angels that have tasks related to humans were included in the command to prostrate before Adam. Prostration, on the other hand, did not include the angels elevated in ranks such as the carriers of the throne, the guardians of the heavens and so on. That is why when Satan (Iblis) refused to prostrate, God Almighty asked:
He said, ‘Iblis, what prevented you prostrating to what I created with My own Hands? Were you overcome by arrogance or are you amongst the exalted?’ (38:75)
This phrase ‘Or are you one of the exalted?’ questions Iblis if he thought of himself amongst the angels elevated in rank who were not commanded to prostrate.
When Allah issued his command, all angels who were included in the order prostrated, except for Iblis who refused and disobeyed God. Some people argue that, since the command was issued to the angels, Iblis was excluded. Satan, after all, is not an angel; he is from amongst the jinn as the following verse illustrates:
When We said to the angels, ‘Prostrate before Adam,’ they prostrated, but not Iblis. He was one of the jinn, so he transgressed against his Lord’s command. Will you then take him and his offspring for guardians in My stead, though they are your enemies? How evil a substitute for the wrongdoers! (18:50)
The Jinn, like humans, are given freedom of choice. So being from the jinn was the very reason why Iblis transgressed against God’s command. Had he been from amongst the angels –who are impelled to obey – he would have carried God’s command faithfully. Satan entered into sin through the door of free choice - a privilege that both humans and jinn enjoy-. If God wanted to compel Iblis to prostrate, he would never have been able to disobey. Allah gave us this information so we can learn and pay attention to how sin may creep into the heart.
As to those who claim that Satan, as a jinn, was not included in God's command to prostrate before Adam, we answer with the following verse:
God said, ‘What prevented you from bowing down as I commanded you?’ and he said, ‘I am better than him: You created me from fire and him from clay.’ (7:12)
Satan's sin was grave. Not only did he refuse to obey a direct command from God, but he also rejected God and questioned his wisdom as the following verse illustrates:
When We said to the angels, ‘Bow down before Adam,’ they all bowed down, but not Iblis. He retorted, ‘Why should I bow down to someone You have created out of clay?’ (17:61)
Let's take a moment to look into Satan's background. Although he was from the jinn -a creation ranked lower than the angles- he used to be in the Angels' company. He was known as the 'peacock of the angels.' He reached this honor because of his worship and devotion. Iblis prided himself with this achievement, and it was pride that dragged him into sin. Initially, he used his freedom of choice by carrying himself towards perfecting God's worship and obedience -not a small feat-. However, self-pride in this achievement transformed Satan's humbleness into arrogance, arrogance into sin, and sin into defiance and disbelief. As soon as the command to prostrate to Adam was issued, Satan's pride kicked in and he immediately declined out of vanity. He lost sight of faith and could no longer bring himself to obey God's order. Thus, Satan's sin was the worst sin that one can commit. It did not come from weakness, or distraction from God's orders. It came from defiance and arrogance. Hence, God expelled him from His mercy and made him the accursed. When Iblis realized that he no longer had access to mercy, he asked God to respite him until the last day. He swore by God's honor to tempt and deceive the children of Adam as the following verse demonstrates:
I will come at them- from their front and their back, from their right and their left- and You will find that most of them are ungrateful.’ (7:17)
In the verse above, you may notice that Satan mentioned four direction from which he will approach humans. However, as you well know, there are six directions: right, left, front, back, above and below. The two directions that Satan omitted were: from above and from below. This gives you a very important piece of information: The devil cannot approach you from above and from below’. ‘Below’ signifies the place where you prostrate in submission to God. While ‘above’ is the place of ascension of your prayers and supplications. When you are truly connected with Allah through prayer, supplication, and good deeds, then the devil has no access to you. God says:
you will have no power over My servants, only over the ones who go astray and follow you.(15:42)