In the Holy Scriptures we can find vital instructions to reach peace and harmony in both our individual and social lives. The multicultural structure of the modern world requires that we follow such instructions more than ever. It is the goal of this article to head towards a common understanding between Christianity and Islam by examining a teaching that is very similar in meaning yet different in wording in both religions. The Biblical term “Image of God” and the Qur’anic term “Khalifa fi’l-ard” illuminate the significance of mankind before God. According to the Bible, humans were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). According to the Qur’an, God placed humans on the earth as a khalifa, a vicegerent (Baqara 2:30).
There are many interpretations of the “image of God” among Christian theologians. However, almost all of them center on the supremacy of human beings over all of God’s creation. Not in the Qur’an, but in Islamic traditions, Muslims have a similar expression in the term of “the image of Rahman.” Rahman, one of God’s names, describes the quality of abounding Grace inherent in and inseparable from the Almighty. While some Muslim scholars have rejected this expression, because it evokes anthropomorphic thoughts about God, some have tried to interpret it in the light of general Islamic principles. Muslim scholars have brought forward many explanations about the term khalifa. After exploring these explanations, the Sufi understanding and Said Nursi’s approach will be presented. In a general sense, the figure of the khalifa will be discussed, as this is the most conspicuous figure in Islamic thought that represents the dignity of humanity. As such, this term serves to find a common ground for inter-religious dialogue.
The Image of God in Christianity
The term “image of God” is derived from Genesis 1: 26-27:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
These verses bring to light two ideas: God’s “image” and His “likeness.” At first glance, the two ideas awake one notion: resemblance to God. This resemblance can be understood both physically and ideally. As a result, anthropomorphic interpretations regarding these accounts abound (Migliore 140). However, many theologians disregarded the idea of physical resemblance when they carefully considered the other accounts. As a matter of fact, the related verse we are studying establishes a connection between such a “likeness” and “dominion” on the earth. This connection forces us to conclude that human likeness to God is the major factor for human dominion over the world. Therefore, the idea of the “dominion of humanity” in the world has become one of the interpretations of the verse.
Considering what distinguishes humanity from animals, theologians such as Augustine have interpreted “the image of God” to be human reason (McGrath 441). According to Augustine, God created humanity with the gift of the power of reason, which comes from the wisdom of God and makes people different from other creatures and the most powerful of creatures. Like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas thought that the image of God refers to the rational nature of human beings (Migliore 140). However, the Cappadocians interpreted the doctrine as being restricted to Adam’s heavenly life before falling down to the earth, arguing that being created in the image of God means being free from all weaknesses and disabilities, such as death (McGrath 442). So, according to this interpretation, after the fall of Adam and Eve, the image of God in human nature was defaced. Athanasius, on the other hand, relates the doctrine to the human capacity to relate to and partake in the life of God (McGrath 441). For William C. Placher, the image of God denotes the nature of human relationships (134). According to this explanation, to be human entails being involved in relationships not only with God but with other humans and the environment. The last interpretation of the image of God touches on human freedom. Many modern philosophers and theologians emphasize that humans are free, self-determining, and self-transcending (Migliore 141).
In conclusion, the four soundest explanations of the phrase “the image of God” found in Genesis 1:26, 27 are: dominion over the earth, the power to reason, relationships with God and other creatures, and human freedom.
Khalifa fi’l-Ard in Islam
No Qur’anic verse states that humans were created in the image of God; however, we can find similar expressions in the collections of hadith (sayings of the Prophet). Narrated by Abu Huraira, the Prophet said: “God created Adam in His own image.”1
At first glance, this hadith seems to contradict some Islamic teachings since it implies anthropomorphism, which is strongly rejected by Islam, but Muslim scholars have interpreted this hadith in a way different to how it reads. Some have questioned the authenticity of the traditions implying anthropomorphism.2 However, the majority have judged the authenticity of this hadith, interpreting it in accordance with the principles of Islam.3
There is another hadith: “God created man in the form of al-Rahman (the All-Merciful One).”4 Because this hadith is popular in Sufi circles, it has been interpreted mostly in mystical ways. Some ecstatic Sufis consider the human’s spiritual nature to be in the form of the All-Merciful. Said Nursi criticizes the Sufi interpretation of this hadith mentioned above. According to him, “the Pure and Holy God who administers the universe as easily as it were a house, has no equal or match, no partner or opposite” (Nursi 2005). The verse saying, There is nothing whatever like unto Him states clearly that “He has no form, like, or peer, there is nothing resembling or similar to Him.” Nursi explains the related hadith within the understanding of “divine names and attributes.” Accordingly, the entire universe is the place where God’s divine names and attributes (not His essence, as His essence is a mystery for us) are manifested. However, the human being is the brightest mirror, reflecting God’s divine names more even than the whole universe. In this sense, human beings have been created like a mirror to illuminate God’s beauty. Nursi says:
… A further indication may be derived from the following analogy: Animate creation and humanity are loci of evidences of the Necessarily Existent One, proofs and mirrors to the All-Merciful, All-Compassionate. These proofs are so certain, clear, and evident that just as we might say that a mirror reflecting the sun “has the form of (or is like) the sun” (emphasizing the brilliant evidence of the sun’s light), we also might say: “Humanity has the All-Merciful One’s form,” stressing the clear evidence within us, and the completeness of the connection in Him, of the All-Merciful. Therefore, the more moderate and balanced believers in the Unity of Being said: “There is no existent but He,” expressing clarity of the evidence and perfection of the connection. (Nursi 2005, p.11)
In the same way that the Biblical account mentioned above does, the following verse from the Qur’an clearly shows the importance of human beings before God:
Remember (when) your Lord said to the angels: “I am setting on the earth a vicegerent.” The angels asked: “Will you set therein one who will cause disorder and corruption on it and shed blood, while we glorify You with Your praise and declare that You alone are all-holy and to be worshipped as God and Lord.” He said: “Surely I know what you do not know. (God) taught Adam the names, all of them. Then, He presented them to the angels, and said, “Now tell Me the names of these, if you are truthful. … And (remember) when We said to the angels: “Prostrate before Adam!” (Baqara 2:30-34)
Muhammad Asad suggests that the term khalifa is used to denote the rightful supremacy of mankind on earth. More tellingly, the sequel of the verse strengthens the idea of the superiority of humanity. As seen clearly, the angels could not understand the creation of man and asked God why He had created this being. But God said He would create a khalifa, a kind of representative, because the angels, who had no ability to improve or regress, could not reflect God’s beautiful names or attributes properly. Adam’s ability to learn the names that the angels did not know points out his ability to develop mentally, physically, and spiritually. On the contrary, angels always remain at the same level. Because human beings have free will, which does not exist among the angels, they are capable of ascending to the heavens or going down to the abyss.
It would be helpful if we mention another verse from the Qur’an related to our discussion. The verse reads,
We did indeed offer the Trust to the heavens, and the earth, and the mountains; but they refused to undertake it being afraid thereof. But man assumed it; indeed, he is most unjust, most foolish. (Ahzab 33:72)
The scholars vary also in their explanations about what this “trust” means. While some think that the Trust is reasoning power, which distinguishes humans from all other creatures, others assume that it is religious responsibility, such as worship. However, Nursi has a different understanding. According to him, this “Trust” can be understood as the “ego”; the “I” part of the psyche, because humans can know the existence of God only with their ego, which is planted in their nature. How? Nursi answers this question as follows:
“An absolute and all-encompassing entity has no limits or terms, and therefore cannot be shaped or formed, and cannot be determined in such a way that its essential nature can be comprehended. For example, light undetermined by darkness cannot be known or perceived. However, light can be determined if a real or hypothetical bounding line of darkness is drawn. In the same way, the Divine Attributes and Names (e.g., Knowledge, Power, Wisdom, and Compassion) cannot be determined, for they are all-encompassing and have no limits or like. Thus what they essentially are cannot be known or perceived. A hypothetical boundary is needed for them to become known. In our case, this hypothetical boundary is our ego. Ego imagines within itself a fictitious lordship, power, and knowledge, and so posits a bounding line, hypothesizes a limit to the all-encompassing Attributes, and says: ‘This is mine, and the rest is His.’ Ego thus makes a division. By means of the miniature measure it contains, ego slowly comes to understand the true nature of the Divine Attributes and Names. Through this imagined lordship, ego can understand the Lordship of the Creator of the universe. By means of its own apparent ownership, it can understand the real Ownership of its Creator, saying: ‘As I am the owner of this house, the Creator is the Owner of this creation.’ Through its partial knowledge, ego comes to understand His Absolute Knowledge. Through its defective, acquired art, it can intuit the Exalted Fashioner’s primary, originative art.” (Nursi, 2005, p.552-3)
Whatever the interpretations may be, these two verses clearly articulate the superiority of mankind. Under the influences of these verses, Muslim thinkers, particularly Sufis, have placed humans at the center of creation. Needless to say, there are many other Qur’anic, traditional, and historical accounts that support human dignity and importance in Islam.
The verses we examine in the Bible and the Qur’an offer a common ground for dialogue among the three Abrahamic religions. But it must be said that this promising ground goes beyond religious identities because it is about the higher identity: being human. Therefore, not only religious persons, but also non-religious ones will appreciate what the Bible and the Qur’an emphasize on the subject of human dignity.
How do Biblical and Qur’anic accounts inspire us to interfaith dialogue?
It would be controversial to deduct anthropomorphic interpretations from such Scriptural information. To some extent, all religions have this kind of approach, where God is assumed in human form. This may be the result of two major reasons: first, people tend to understand and accept their Creator at their intellectual capacity. For example, because seeing, for people, becomes truth only with their “eyes,” they imagine a kind of “eyes” for God. Second, the Scriptures allow people to think of a human-like God because they address humans, who have a certain limited capacity. In other words, if the Scriptures had drawn a transcendental picture of God, their addressees, namely humans, would not have understood the idea. Therefore, the Holy Books contain many anthropomorphic details such as “the hand of God” or “the face of God.” Muslim scholars have come to the conclusion that all these details must be taken as metaphorical and understood/interpreted in the light of a basic principle revealed in the Qur’an:
There is nothing whatever like unto Him, and He is the One that hears and sees (all things) (Shura 42:11).5
McGrath points out that “the fact that humanity is created in the image of God is widely regarded as establishing the original uprightness and dignity of human nature.” (441). As it is readily apparent, being human is the first and the most important identity of human beings. The human dignity emphasized in the Bible and the Qur’an forces us to be respectful of each other, even though we do not share the same religion. As reported, the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, once stood up when he saw a funeral. His companions told him that the deceased was Jewish. “Is he not a human?” replied the Prophet.6 So, human beings deserve to be seen with respect, as all are creatures of God.
I have tried to determine a common ground for interfaith dialogue. Which subjects are to be talked about and how the boundaries are to be drawn in such a dialogue is another issue, but I propose that the fact that humanity was created in the image of God, or as a khalifa of God on earth, should be the common ground. This idea, I believe, can be not only a common ground among the three Abrahamic religions, but also a starting point to launch dialogue and a factor supporting the dialogue during the process. I can summarize what I have said with the following: humanity is the apex of God’s creation and the terms “Image of God” and “khalifa fi’l-Ard” point to this superiority; all human beings must be respected because of the dignity granted to them by God, and no matter what their religion is, all humans are worthy of participating in dialogue. Religious people who have respect for their God must show respect to His creatures.
In brief, religious people are more likely to succeed in dialogue because they have a common ground to begin with. They consider humans as valuable creatures created in the image of God or as the khalifa of God. This consideration must give birth to respect among them. And this respect is the most significant factor nurturing a healthy dialogue.
- Bukhari V, 2299; Muslim IV, 2017.
- Suyuti I, 167.
- Nawawi, a prominent hadith scholar, points out that there are four opinions in this hadith. First, the Salaf, the scholars who lived before the emergence of Islamic theological schools, avoided stating anything about this kind of tradition and its implications. Second, some claim that the pronoun in the word “His image” (in Arabic: “suratihi” with the third person masculine singular suffix) refers to Adam not God. Namely, the meaning is the following: “God created Adam in his (Adam’s) (complete and perfect) image.” However, this interpretation, which seems wrong according to Arabic grammar, is rejected by many. Third, accepting the use of the pronoun for God, the majority of the scholars suggest interpretation according to basic principles. In this case, the phrase shows the dignity of human beings. Remarking on its importance, Muslims call the Ka’ba “the house of God.” Likewise, considering the image of God in human creation reminds us of the degree of excellence of human beings (See Nawawi XVI, 166). In this case, the last group suggests that we understand the hadith metaphorically.
- Daraqutni I, 37; Shaybani I, 229.
- Most Islamic scholars have interpreted the allegorical verses in the Qur’an in the light of verse 42:11, mentioned above. For example, they have explained “God’s hand” as His power and “God’s face” as His Essence.
- Bukhari I/441; Muslim II/661
- Asad, Muhammad. The Message of the Qur’an. Kazi Publications Inc, 1980.
- The Harper Collins Study Bible (NRSV). London: 1993.
- Al-Bukhari, Muhammad b. Ismail. Al-Jami’ al-Sahih, Dar Ibn Katheer, Beirut: 1987.
- Coffman, James Burton. Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New Testament. <http://www.studylight.org/com/bcc/view.cgi?book=ge&chapter=001’.Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
- Al-Daraqutni, Ali b. Omar. Al-Sifat. Maktaba al-Dar, Madina: 1981.
- Gill, John. The New John Gill Exposition of the Entire Bible. <http://www.studylight.org/com/geb/view.cgi?book=ge&chapter=001&verse=026’.
- Ibn Katheer, Ismael bin Omar. Tafsir Ibn Katheer. Dar al-Fikr, Beirut: 1980.
- McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology: An Introduction. Oxford: 2004.
- Migliore, Daniel L. Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology. Michigan: 2004.
- Muslim, Ibn al-Hajjaj. Sahih Muslim. Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, Beirut.
- Al-Nawawi, Ebu Zakariyya Yahya b. Sharaf. Sharh al-Nawawi ala Sahih Muslim. Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, Beirut: 1972.
- Nursi, Said. Words. http://www.sozler.org/risnur/words/1.htm.
- Placher, William C. (Ed.). Essentials of Christian Theology. Kentucky: 2003.
- Al-Shaybani, Amr bin Ebu Asim. Al-Sunna li Ibn Ebu Asim. Al-Maktaba al-Islami, Beirut: 1979.
- Al-Suyuti, Abdurrahman bin Ebu Bakr. Tanwir al-Hawalik. Maktaba al-Tijariyya al-Kubra, Egypt: 1969.
- The Holy Qur’an. Trans: Yusuf Ali. Riyad: 1983.
- Al-Qurtubi, Muhammad bin Ahmad bin Ebu Bakr. Tafsir al-Qurtubi. Dar al-Sha’b, Cairo: 1952.
- Al-Tabari, Muhammad bin Jarir. Tafsir al-Tabari. Dar al-Fikr, Beirut: 1984.