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In the Holy Qur’an there are several occasions where one can find some accounts of Adam’s encounter with man’s nemesis, Iblis. Carefully attending to those accounts with intelligence, sincerity and honesty can surely help Muslims derive useful lessons, insights and reminders not only about human strength and potentials but also human weaknesses and vulnerability. One such account is comprised of verses 30 to 39 of the Second Chapter of the Qur’an, al-Baqarah. It is crystal clear from those pertinent verses that compared to other creatures, particularly the angels, man derives his superiority from the epistemic ability which God endowed in him.

 prev46 The Qur’an talks therein about Adam being taught by God the names of all things. The term for "name" in Arabic is ism (plural: asmaa’), a derivative of the root word wasm or simah, meaning "sign," "mark," or "brand." A name qua sign basically functions as an indicator to point to something so that the thing or object concerned may be found and subsequently grasped by man’s searching mind. In fact, the human process of knowing the various objects of knowledge is almost inconceivable without involving any kind of language. Thus far, the human act of knowing almost always involves man’s recognition of the various objects by their names. And scientific discoveries almost always result in naming things with terms that are scientifically befitting.  In short, the aforementioned episode gets to show the importance of language in Islam as a system of symbolic forms so indispensible for the human cognitive activities. Such a cognitive significance of language is further reinforced by the fact that man, insofar as the religious, intellectual and scientific tradition of Islam is concerned, has been essentially considered to be al-hayawan al-natiq, a living being that is possessed of speech (nutq), pointing thus to his rationality and intelligence—in short, a rational animal.

The term al-natiq, signifying a differentia distinguishing man from other animate beings, itself being a derivative of the root word nutq (the power to formulate meaning manifested as human speech), in fact marks the symbiosis between language and the mind. As Prof. Dr. Syed Muhammad Naquib al-Attas has aptly described in his Prolegomena to the Metaphysics of Islam, both the terms natiq and nutq when applied to man as his special differential "signify a certain power and capacity innate in man to articulate words or symbolic forms in meaningful patterns" (p.122). In fact, in the religious, intellectual and scientific tradition of Islam, logic as the science of thinking and discourse is referred to as ‘ilm al-mantiq, the word mantiq itself being another cognate word stemming from the same root.


Hence, not only is man, to somewhat use today’s academic jargons, homo sapiens but he is also homo loquens.  He is homo loquens precisely because he is homo sapiens (from sapienta, scientia, etc.).  It also important for us to note that throughout this so-called dialogue between God and His somewhat disquiet angels, God clearly chose to emphasize His omniscience from amongst all His Attributes. In one instance, for example, while addressing the uneasiness of the angels concerning the fact that God had created a being who would make mischief on earth and shed blood despite them singing His praises and sanctifying Him, God asserts: "SURELY I KNOW THAT WHICH YE KNOW NOT." In another instance, after the angels had admitted both their ignorance and the fact that God is not only their Sole Source of Knowledge but is also All-Knowing, followed then by Adam’s ability to demonstrate his epistemic superiority, God again declared to the angels: "DID I NOT TELL YOU THAT I KNOW THE SECRETS OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, AND I KNOW WHAT YE REVEAL AND WHAT YE CONCEAL?"

It is only then that God summoned them to bow down to Adam, to which they all willingly obeyed, except Iblis. It is very obvious therein that in affirming man’s epistemic superiority and hence his nobility, God is invoking His supremacy in matters of knowledge and wisdom.  Such a Qur’anic event, therefore, serves as the best foundation for us to conclude that in matters of knowledge and understanding, one’s professorial claim—or one’s claim to authority—in any field of expertise, let alone in matters of guidance and life-orientation, must only be demonstrated in terms of wisdom, knowledge and proofs, and not in terms of power, wealth and lineage.  Should a Muslim’s actions be otherwise, then such contrary practice simply betrays his digression from the parameters of truth as exemplified by the Qur’an.

Article courtesy of Dr. Mohd Zaidi b. Ismail (IKIM)

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