The Image of God
A famous prophetic statement says, “Allah created Adam in His image,” where, according to some scholars, the pronoun “His” refers to Allah. A few others have thought that it means, “Allah created Adam in his image,” i.e. in Adam’s own image. They explain that Adam was not created in an image other than the image in which his progeny now happens to be. In other words, Adam’s image was not arrived at through the process of various changing phases until he acquired the final image that his progeny has. In further explanation, a hadith is cited which says that originally Adam was made from dust. That image lay on the ground until Allah blew the spirit into him. He rose up, alive, and fully formed. Neither did he undergo the process of trial and error, nor of gradual development and improvement, until he acquired the final shape and form; but rather he was created at one go, in the present image. This according to some scholars is the meaning implied, when it was said that Adam was created “in his image.”
The Salaf, and many scholars who came after them, seem to have largely not accepted the meaning explained above, but rather, the first meaning. That is, Adam was created on the image of God.
Questions arise about the interpretation and explanation. How is the statement to be understood? Man has physical features, nose, ears, eyes, etc. Are these features like those of God? The answer is no. In Imam Ghazali’s words,
“Because those who go by the apparent meanings cannot imagine a face other that they are familiar with, they tend to give God an image, a picture, and create a likeness of Him, which He does not have, and is far above any such idea.”
Such imagining also challenges a Qur’anic statement which says (42: 11), “There is nothing like unto Him.” Therefore, whatever is imagined by the human mind as “the like of Him,” is an incorrect picture. God is unlike it. He is beyond what the human mind can imagine.
None the less, a few scholars have explained the words “in His image” by saying, “The allusion is to Allah placing some of His own Qualities in Adam, though in limited degrees. Living, knowing, seeing, hearing, being rational and self-consciousness, or having free will, for example, are all Qualities of Allah, to an unlimited degree, which He granted Adam but in limited degrees.” This, according to them, is being given the image of God.
Declaring that the human are in God’s image is an error that originates with the Bible. It makes a categorical statement about it, leaving no room for any other meaning but one. It says,
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. – Genesis 1: 27
The difference between the two statements – that of the hadith and of the Bible – should be apparent. The hadith speaks of Adam, while the Biblical statement is about man.
The commoners among the Sufis are also with the majority in taking the hadith statement in the sense of Allah creating Adam in His own image. But in interpretation, they go by the apparent words. They do not find it necessary to explain what that means. To them, it seems the meaning is clear; i.e. the apparent, surface meaning of the words. They could have been influenced by the Biblical statement, as many of them were exposed to the texts of the Bible, before they completed (if ever) their Islamic studies.
On the other hand, serious Sufis do not try to explain the meaning. Like the great majority of Muslim scholars they hold the opinion that the hadith is of the allegorical type, and, therefore, cannot be satisfactorily explained. One of the additional complications is that some versions of the hadith say, “Do not strike at the face of your opponent, for Allah created Adam on His image.” There are a few other versions with other additions that make it all the more complicated to elaborate. Because of the inexplicable texts, many would not wish to interpret them. They declared, “We believe in it as the truth, but, to be sure, the apparent meaning has not been intended.”
The Orientalists (Western non-Muslim scholars of Islam) have generally accepted the hadith in question in the Biblical sense and quote it quite often while discussing Islamic spiritualism – of which they seem to be very fond. It affords them the possibility to impose pantheism on Islamic spiritual science. They ignore many versions of the hadith in question and have popularized the Biblical text as the true Islamic meaning.
Not surprising, because this meaning is filled with pitfalls – and pitfalls they love. In religious truths, they like to take the deviated path, merely to stare at the truth as they pass by, onto their imaginary goal of religious truths. They never deal with it in detail. Truth is not what they are truly looking for. It is in support of their personal opinions that they seek in the Islamic texts.
One of the pitfalls is that having declared that man is in the image of God, they gave God the image of man. With that, He becomes like the humans. There are several advantages. Understanding Him becomes easier; dealing with Him becomes simpler; so that a Jewish prayer on the occasion of Passover was, “God, you know what you have done to us in the past. Yet, if you forgive us, we will forgive you.”
One another of the stated advantages of bringing God down to their level of thought and existence was that it allowed for fellowship with Him. He can walk with them: “God walked with Noah” (Gen. 6: 9), while, “Abraham walked before God” (Gen. 17: 1).
The Jews seem to have two versions of God. One for themselves, as in the Talmud, another for the non-Jews. The one for themselves is so revered that an orthodox Jewish writer will not even spell God in fear that it could be blasphemed. They would rather write G-d for God. But the version of God that is for non-Jews, or may be for unorthodox Jews, is in the image of man.
Man need not bow his head in submission in the face of seeming divine injustice, and humans must never accept the suffering of their fellow men in silence. Man’s highest calling is wrestling with God. We are invited to enter into a real relationship with God, involving give and take, not merely bowing and submission. This idea, found only in Judaism, traces its origin to the name Israel (Yisrael), literally, “he who wrestles with God,” as well to the giants of Jewish history, like Abraham and Moses, who contended with God about punishing sinners. (Judaism for Everyone – Shmuley Boteach).
It should be obvious that giving man the image of God will lead to God being given the image of man; and that He would suffer deficiencies. But it has the advantage of turning Him into a tribal, national, or racial God. To the white races for instance, God is a white man. He understands them, their needs, hopes and ambitions, and is with them in their efforts to dominate other races.
But the God of Islam does not require its adherents to seek His fellowship, or, what is absolutely blasphemous – His partnership: the kind of partnership the Jews believe in, the kind in which He is the junior partner.
Islam makes the demand on its adherents of God’s obedience. It asks them to be aware of Him, be conscious of His presence, and fear Him:
So as not to displease Him at any given moment;
So as not to harm others of His creation;
So as not to fail when brought out for accounting on the Day of Judgment;
So as not to enter Hellfire instead of Paradise – unscathed.