“Your Lord said to the angels, ‘I am appointing a vicegerent on earth.’ They said, ‘Will You appoint on it someone who would spread corruption and shed blood, whereas we celebrate Your praises and extol Your holiness?’ He said, ‘I surely know that of which you have no knowledge.’“ (Quran 2:30)
God, in His infinite wisdom, decided to hand over the earth’s affairs and destiny to man and give him a free hand to use, develop and transform all its energies and resources for the fulfillment of God’s will and purpose in creation, and to carry out the pre-eminent mission with which he was charged.
It may be assumed, then, that man has been given the capability to take on that responsibility, and the necessary latent skills and energies to fulfil God’s purpose on earth.
It may, therefore, be concluded that a perfect harmony exists between those laws that govern the earth and the universe, and those governing man’s powers and abilities. The aim of this harmony is to eliminate and avoid conflict and collision, and to save man’s energies from being overwhelmed by the formidable forces of nature.
This clearly indicates that man is held in high regard in God’s sight, and occupies a prominent position in the system of the universe, bestowed on him by God Himself. This is neatly encapsulated in the glorious statement: “I am appointing a vicegerent on earth.” (Quran 2:30) The impact of this statement becomes even more profound and impressive, as we reflect on man’s contribution and achievement on earth and beyond.
“They said: ‘Will You appoint on it someone who would spread corruption and shed blood, whereas we celebrate Your praises and extol Your holiness?’” (Quran 2:30) The angels’ reply suggests that they were aware of man’s nature and disposition, either through some past experience on earth or special inspiration or direct information. Thus, they were able to surmise that he would spread corruption and shed blood on earth.
Furthermore, by nature, angels can think only of absolute goodness and complete peace. Hence, they perceive that total dedication to the praise of God should be the sole and ultimate purpose of existence. They were already carrying out this purpose, extolling God’s praises and glorifying Him at all times.
The angels were not privy to God’s will and His purpose in setting up the earth and creating the various forms of life on it. They were not aware of God’s plan to have the earth developed, cultivated and enriched at the hands of man, His vicegerent there. It is true that man would commit corruption and shed blood, but even this apparently evil aspect of his function turns out to be for the best. It is a necessary consequence of perpetual progress and development, and the changes brought about by a ceaseless endeavour in pursuit of better and higher things in this world.
Thus, they are given God’s answer which settles the matter: “He said: “I surely know that of which you have no knowledge.’“ (Verse 30) “And He taught Adam the names of all things and then turned to the angels and said, ‘Tell Me the names of these things, if what you say is true.’ They said, ‘Limitless of e You in Your glory! We only know what You have taught us. Indeed, You alone are all-knowing, wise.’ He said, Adam! Tell them their names.’ When he had told them all their names, He said, ‘Have I not said to you that I know the secrets of what is in the heavens and the earth, and I know all that you reveal and conceal?’“ (Quran 2:31-33)
The passage takes us right into the very scene in which we can see the angels in God’s presence, and witness how He entrusts man with the task of God’s vicegerent on earth. He has given man the great secret of knowledge and cognition, as well as the ability to assign names to persons and objects which serve as symbols denoting whatever they are assigned to, even though they are no more than sounds and words. The ability to know and name objects has had the most profound effect on man’s life on earth. We can only imagine what life would have been like without this communication tool to appreciate its value. Indeed, without it, human life and interaction would have been unthinkable, and there would have been no progress beyond a very primitive state. Without such ability, all communication would have necessitated the presence of the subject matter. Thus, if a group wants to discuss something related to a tree, a mountain, or a particular person, then that person should be brought before the group, or they should all go to the tree or mountain.
Indeed, without the ability to use names and symbols, human life could not function. The angels have no use for such ability because it is not required for their role. Therefore, they have not been given it. When God, having bestowed this great honour on Adam, asked the angels to identify certain objects, they could not because they did not possess the ability to use symbols and assign names or titles to things.
They admitted their inability and recognized the limits of their knowledge, prompting the comment that followed: “He said, ‘Have I not said to you that I know the secrets of what is in the heavens and the earth, and I know all that you reveal and conceal?’“ (Quran 2:33)