Last week, I explained why I’m writing this ongoing series. Not just as a Ramadan booster shot, but an inoculation against approaches to Islam that I find unmoving—and simply unfulfilling. We spend far too much talking about what Islam isn’t, and not enough time imagining how we can understand Islam for ourselves in our circumstances. Every generation needs its rethinking. What keeps us from it?
Our spiritual forefathers carried God’s message to the ends of the known world. So many of the people they met along the way voluntarily, eagerly adopted this faith, even fighting for the right to it. I think we need to find in Islam a language that is fitting to us, which would make us want to take Islam if we didn’t already have it. And I think the best place to start is at the beginning, in Islam’s magnificent history.
Because Islam isn’t 1,400 years old. It’s as old as humanity is, and then some.
Last week, we recalled God’s gathering us before Him to confirm His lordship, a moment so powerful that Urdu and Persian poets refer to it as ‘ahd-e alast,’ or the ‘Covenant of Am I Not?’—from the original Arabic of the Qur’anic verse: ‘a lastu bi rabbikum?’ ‘Am I not your Lord?’ Yes, we cried, yes! All of us who ever were, are, and will be, until the end of the world. We know it deep in our bones. As I argued last week, and will keep stressing, notice the themes in these stories.
God throws out more than questions than answers—‘then which of the favors of your Lord will you deny?’—because He’s not teaching us, He’s reminding us. Of who we were, in order that we might know who we are, in order that we might grasp who we can become. This week’s installment opens with Adam and Eve’s creation, the origins of humanity—but you’ll note, no timeline is provided or needed, because Islam’s purpose is not to reassure insecure 21stcentury Muslims.
The only thing taller than our new skyscrapers are our inferiority complexes. Stand up, straighten your spine, and look to the heavens above. That’s where you come from, and where we’re headed. For it’s where God announced to an assembly of worshipful angels of an imminent Caliphate. Just like that, in fact: ‘I am going to create,’ He said, ‘a Caliph—on Earth.’ And if you were there, say an angel, what might you say? Here’s what they said: They asked if this Caliph will sow corruption and shed blood while they worship God dutifully. Odd, no?
Unless, as some Muslim scholars have supposed, Adam (and Eve) had Caliphal predecessors. Perhaps previous creations failed to uphold their mandate, necessitating a reboot? It could be the case that while this was happening in the heavens above, predecessors lived on the Earth below, and it was to their character the angels were alluding. (Hey, Neanderthals believed in an afterlife.) The only reason I bring up evolution here is because it would be dishonest not to, and it’s a difference from the Judeo-Christian Genesis story.
Islam’s Genesis stories aren’t chronologically told or retold. In fact, there’s very little on details. Was Adam the ancestor of all human life, or simply modern humans? How long was he up in heaven? What we do know is, it doesn’t matter—to the Qur’an. The Qur’an is a moral text, not a biology class cheat sheet. Which is proven by God’s response to the angels’ concern: ‘I know and you do not know’—redolent of the Biblical ‘I am that I am’—which is less of a response and more of a ‘stay in your lane’.
So God proceeds to create His Caliph out of ‘earth’ into which He breathes his spirit (The Cow 30-33; Exodus 3:14; The House of Amram 59). What does this mean, really? A Caliph meant for Earth should be created out of the same stuff as life on Earth, of course, though elevated and distinguished by God’s ‘breathing’ into us. We shouldn’t be surprised that we are biologically similar to earthly life, since we are meant to live on earth, nor that we are related to life on Earth.
Does that mean earthly life evolved biologically, though Adam was created separately, or that we, too, evolved directly? No matter your opinion on this, there is no implication for our belief in God, our dependence on Him, or His guiding evolution. Just because the omniscient Creator of the world chooses to bring life about through a mechanism we are able to understand doesn’t mean He didn’t bring it about. Indeed, why would He not, considering His revelation keeps asking us to reflect on the world?
I do not wish to be detained here, however. I wish us to explore what it means to be a Caliph, and what it means when God says we are created to be Caliphs albeit on Earth.
The Arabic word, Khalifa, means something between the overly colonial ‘vicegerent’ and more relatable ‘power of attorney,’ with a sprinkling of ‘succession’ and dash of ‘representation.’ But since the word is widely used these days, let’s be clear. Here, we are discussing the ‘Caliphate of God,’ as in God is creating a ‘Caliph’ to Him or for Him on Earth. The Caliphate you hear about in the news today is a reference to the ‘Caliphate of Muhammad,’ the political office established after the passing of the last Prophet.
For now, disentangle the two.
Upon creating Adam, God ‘teaches him the names of all things,’ which names Adam reproduces for the angels, thereby answering their question about mischief—except, of course, that doesn’t answer their question at all (The Cow 30-33). (Note to Sunday school teachers and religious authorities everywhere: If God is okay with questions, you can be too. Note to Sunday school students: Just because you get an answer you don’t understand doesn’t mean it’s not an answer, or that you won’t eventually understand.)
Let’s stay with this for a moment, because it happens so fast we might miss it. God intends to create Adam. Angels voice skepticism. [Adam gets created]. Adam names the names he’s been taught. God points out to the angels that He is, after all, God, and they should respect the knowledge gap: ‘Did I not tell you that I know the secrets of heaven and earth, that I know what you reveal and what you conceal?’ (The Cow 33). Angels agree. God then orders the angels to bow, and they do, all of them—well, except Iblis (we’ll be seeing and hearing more from him for the rest of our lives)—and in this rebellion we find the seeds of the Caliphate.
What does it mean to be a Caliph of God?
For, of course, the angels aren’t really bowing down to Adam, but to God—because He told them to bow to Adam. Although some Muslim mystics, to be fair, suggest that the only one who didn’t bow, Iblis, was not rebelling, but remaining constant to who he was up until that decisive moment, which was a worshipper of God, a Muslim and a very good one at that, but that he remained a worshipper of God despite the apparent act of disobedience and subsequent acts of disobedience. He was content to play the foil to God’s Caliph if that’s what God wanted and needed from him.
Because he loved God too much (talk about devil’s advocates): Iblis would never bow to anyone but God, even if God Himself ordered Iblis to—if we accept this interpretation (and you don’t have to), then the test Iblis is given is not so different from the Prophet Abraham’s way down the line. God will order him to sacrifice his son Ishmael (or, according to some scholars like Ibn Taymiyya, his soon Isaac), therefore to murder not just a child, but his own. The command has to horrify us in order to move us. Otherwise, where’s the sacrifice?
Would you listen to God over what God Himself told you is right and wrong? Which is a good place to close for this week. Is right and wrong what God teaches us, or inherent in us? Or both?
Muslim scholars, throughout history, would disagree. Some split the difference. Much more in our religion is debated than is fixed, and we should accept this, and celebrate this. Pluralism is the reason Islam survived for so long, whereas the rigidity of modern fundamentalists is responsible for the brittle, unattractive, repulsive picture, experience and reputation of too much of modern Muslim religiosity. It might burn brightly, but it will fade quickly. I promise you that. And this is a good place to close, because next week we’ll see how Islam is like the Force.
You can use it for good, or for evil.
Editor’s Note: Haroon Moghul is the author of “The Order of Light” and “My First Police State.” His memoir, “How to be Muslim”, is due in 2016. He’s a doctoral candidate at Columbia University, formerly a Fellow at the New America Foundation and the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School, and a member of the Multicultural Audience Development Initiative at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Connect with Haroon on twitter @hsmoghul. The views expressed here are his own.