And [recall] when your Lord said to the angels:
“I am going to place a viceroy in the earth.”
They said, “Will you place in it someone
who will wreak corruption in it
and shed blood?
While we glorify you with praise
and declare you holy?”
He said: “I know what you do not know.”
So begins one of the many Qur’anic narratives depicting the creation of humanity. This particular narrative has received a great deal of attention, partly because it appears so early in the canonical text. Needless to say, the story is full of intriguing details and nuances that continue to puzzle and fascinate thoughtful readers. Consider, for example, that the angels dared to disagree with God. They seem both surprised and a little disappointed. A viceroy in earth? A vicegerent? Someone who will be your representative? We can almost see the angels rolling their eyes heavenwards. Why create a new being at all? Why not elevate us to that rank? Don’t you see us glorifying you and praising you all the time? Don’t you recognize our sincere worship and unquestioned service? What more do you need from a creature? And this whole idea of a representative sounds rather dangerous, to say the least. A representative means that the creature will share some of your power and authority, and as everyone knows power tends to corrupt. This new creature of yours, this viceroy or vicegerent that you are planning to place in the earth, is sure to abuse the power that you are going to delegate, wreak mischief and corruption on your earth, and cause lots of bloodshed. Are you sure you want to go ahead with this plan? Are you absolutely, positively sure that you wish to take such a huge risk?
There is a lot more to this narrative than what has been quoted above. On the essential point mentioned in this quote, however, the Qur’anic narrative seems to lack a final conclusion; there appears to be no definite and satisfactory ending to the story. We should remember that the narrative lacks a satisfactory ending primarily because it has not finished yet. It seems that the Qur’an only introduced the beginning of the epic precisely because most of the story is still being played out on the stage of history. Like God and the angels, we too are characters in this story, and since we are still here on earth it is obvious that our ongoing story is open to multiple endings. The conclusion is not entirely fixed, which is precisely what makes this story so interesting. We all have a stake in how it ends.
God, indeed, seems to have taken a major risk, despite the humble suggestion of the angels to the contrary; God went ahead with his plan by creating the human race and giving it some of his own power and freedom. The results of this experiment so far can only be described as mixed, with a preponderance of the negative. Anyone who has any inkling of the history of humankind as it has unfolded so far, from the neolithic revolution to the present, can hardly fail to appreciate the incisive comments made by the angels. And remember that when angels made these comments they did not have the advantage of daily newspapers with reports of widespread human mischief, crimes, corruption in high places and low, rapes, thefts, murders, child molestation, genocides, wars, torture, and terror. In retrospect, then, it is clear that the angels did have a point.
Notice also that God did not disagree with the point raised by the angels. God did not say that the proposed vicegerent will not cause mischief on earth, will not wreak corruption, will not cause bloodshed. Instead, God seems to be saying that, yes, I recognize your point; the vicegerent I am about to place in the earth does represent a risky experiment because power does tend to corrupt and so this creature is almost definitely going to indulge in corruption and murder and mayhem. Yet, having taken this almost certain but undesirable consequence into account, I am still confident of the desirability of the final outcome because “I know what you do not know.”
Why did God take this immense risk of creating a vicegerent on earth? What is a vicegerent anyway? One way to approach this issue is in terms of freedom. God has created humankind as moral beings, i.e., creatures who are capable of moral reflection, of distinguishing between good and evil, and of freely choosing from among different options. God’s challenge is for the human individual to develop his/her moral faculties, to struggle against temptations, and to discipline oneself in order to choose the most righteous and most just of all available options. Without such a struggle, the full realization of human potential is not possible. Yet, to create conditions in which such a struggle can optimally proceed has definite undesirable effects too. Corruption and violence are the necessary, though unfortunate, side-effects of such an experiment in moral freedom. Our world is indeed the “best of all possible worlds,” but only if we take into account God’s ultimate purpose in creating a vicegerent on the earth.
This is what Iqbal has to say in chapter four of his Reconstruction on this issue:
A being whose movements are wholly determined like a machine cannot produce goodness. Freedom is thus a condition of goodness. But to permit the emergence of a finite ego who has the power to choose, after considering the relative values of several courses of action open to him, is really to take a great risk; for the freedom to choose good involves also the freedom to choose what is the opposite of good. That God has taken this risk shows His immense faith in man; it is for man now to justify this faith.
Yes, there is corruption and violence in the world —just as the angels had predicted—but this is hardly the end of the story. Despite the daily newspaper reports about the depraved state of humanity, God continues to be an optimist. The mere fact that humankind is still around is a sign of God’s unshakable confidence that his vicegerents will overcome all obstacles.