In the name of God, the Lord of Grace, the Ever Merciful
Your Lord said to the angels: “I am about to create a human being out of clay; when I have fashioned him and breathed of My spirit into him, kneel down before him in prostration.” The angels prostrated themselves, all of them together. Not so Iblis. He gloried in his arrogance and was one of those who reject the truth. Said (God): “Iblis! What prevents you from bowing down to one whom I have created with My hands? Are you too proud, or do you deem yourself superior?” Answered (Iblis): “I am better than he: You have created me out of fire but created him from clay.” Said He: “Then get out from it: you are accursed; My rejection shall follow you until the Day of Judgment.” (SAD: 38: 71-78)
As it approaches its conclusion, the surah tells us how the human story first began and what happened on high. This defines its course as well as its fate and destination. Muhammad (peace be upon him) was sent at the end of time to warn people of all this: “Your Lord said to the angels: I am about to create a human being out of clay; when I have fashioned him and breathed of My spirit into him, kneel down before him in prostration.”
We do not know how God said this to the angels or how He speaks to them. Nor do we know how the angels receive what God imparts to them. We do not know anything of the angels’ nature except what God has told us about them in His revealed book. Therefore, it is useless to try to delve further into this. We should instead consider the significance of the story as told in the Qur’an.
God created man out of clay, just like the rest of living things on earth. All the elements in their constitutions are derived from clay, with the exception of the secret of life, about which we do not know how or where it came from. Apart from this secret and the breathing of a soul into man, all the constituents of his body stem from mother earth. He will be transformed again into these constituents when the unknown secret departs from his body together with the effects of the sublime breath of soul which defined his course in life.
Again we do not know the nature of the sublime breathing of a soul into man, but we know its effects which distinguished man from the rest of creation on earth. It distinguished him with the quality of aspiring to the sublime, with mind and spirit, which allowed him to look at past experiences and make future plans and facilitated his spirit to go beyond what is received by his senses and understood by his mind to reach to what neither the senses nor the mind can comprehend. This quality of aspiring to the sublime is unique to man, shared by no other living creature on earth. It never happened in the long history of the earth that any species, or any individual from any species, made this leap even when we accept that physical evolution occurs.
God breathed His soul into man because His will wished to place him in charge of the earth, managing its affairs within the limits He set, so that he would build human life on it. God gave man the ability to gain higher knowledge. Ever since, man has risen higher whenever he is in contact with the source of his soul, deriving his values from there and maintaining a straight course. When he deviates from this source, the knowledge within him will be in discordance, unable to follow a coherent, progressive, and forward movement. In fact, these discordant trends will threaten his course and may lead to a setback in his human quality, pulling him down, even though his scientific knowledge and experience in some areas at least are well advanced.
This creature of small stature, limited ability, short life duration, and basic knowledge could not have attained such honor except for this aspect of divine grace bestowed on him. Otherwise, what is man? He is this small, weak creature living on Earth alongside millions of other species. The earth is only a small satellite of a mere star of which there are millions and millions in the great space whose boundaries are known only to God. Who is this creature, man, before whom the angels are required to prostrate? It is because of this subtle, yet great secret that man deserves his position of honor. When this is discarded, the man goes back to his origin, the clay of the earth.
The angels acted on God’s orders, as they naturally do: “The angels prostrated themselves, all of them together.” How, when, and where? All this is part of God’s knowledge. To know does not add significance to the story. Instead, the significance is seen in the position and value given to man, a creature made of clay, when he rose above his origin through this breath of God’s soul. The angels prostrated themselves in compliance with God’s order, knowing that His wisdom is infinite.
“Not so Iblis. He gloried in his arrogance and was one of those who reject the truth.” Was Iblis one of the angels? Most probably not, because if he were an angel, he would not have disobeyed God. Angels do not disobey any order issued to them by God, and they always do what they are bidden. It is mentioned in the Qur’an that he was created of fire, while it is known that the angels were created from light. Yet he was with the angels and the order to prostrate before Adam included him. He is not specifically mentioned in connection with the order so as to belittle his position. Yet we know that the order applied to him because of the reproach he received as a result of his disobedience.
“Said (God): Iblis! What prevents you from bowing down to one whom I have created with My hands? Are you too proud, or do you deem yourself superior?” God is the Creator of all. Therefore, the mention that He has created man is particularly significant because it refers to the special care given to this creature who has been given a breath of His soul. Are you too proud to obey My orders? Or do you deem yourself superior like all others who refuse to submit?
“Answered (Iblis): I am better than he: You have created me out of fire, but created him from clay.” The answer overflows with envy. It also ignores the noble element that Adam has in addition to his creation from clay. Thus, it is a rude retort stemming from a nature that had abandoned all goodness.
At this point, the divine order was issued expelling this rebellious creature: “Said He: Then get out from it: you are accursed; My rejection shall follow you until the Day of Judgment.”
– Commentary by Sayyid Qutb