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Tahsin Görgün {*}

Man as Creature and Deputy of the Creator

Creation from the Classical-Islamic View


From the periodical of the Catholic Academy in Bavaria
'zur debatte', 6/2006, P. 10f
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


The question about Creation is mostly discussed as a question of cosmology or natural history. It shows no fundamental differences in its basic structure, both in Christian and Islamic representations. Instead of discussing these views again - certainly an important task -, I will try here to ask that question from an ethical perspective that was determining for the classical Islamic viewpoint of Creation and is still - even if no longer as in theological systems of the past - important as general culture. In this contribution I will try to present some aspects of this concept of Creation:

1. The term "Creation" is like "left", "right", "above", "larger", "beautiful" etc. a term of relation. Other examples of such terms are for instance knowledge, power, rule or love. All these words are alone in themselves not meaningful. They always presuppose a relation: Knowledge ... about, power ... over, rule ... over, love ... of. Hence "Creation" belongs to a class of words that constitute together a semantic field and get a meaning only as part of this field. These other words are Creator and creature. One cannot talk about Creation without thinking of a Creator - and also not without "creature". "Creator" too is such a term: Without creature and Creation one can also not speak of a Creator. What does this mean anyway?

If one wants somehow to speak about God, usually the first question is whether and how one is to speak about something that is in each regard "absolute" - with a language that is only conditioned and allows talking in a conditioned way about conditioned things. How can one talk about the "absolute" in a form that is not absolute?

We can formulate this question more precisely: Either the word "absolute" has no sense that is somehow known to us (then we talk nonsense when we use this word), or God is something about that we are able to speak, i.e. that (our conception of) God is not "absolute", because just the human language always limits, differentiates, defines, i.e. it conflicts with absoluteness. To bring something up means to "define" it and to make it eo ipso available. An available thing is not "absolute". We can be brief: Language - taken alone - is not the suitable way to Creation. "Creation" - at least in one regard (i.e. regarding the Creator) - goes beyond the possibilities of language, and does not seem to be fully ascertainable by the possibilities of language.

2. If we first leave aside language - to return later to it on another level -, there remains for us only the way to look in a non-linguist way for an approach to that reality that we call Creation.



If we try to talk non-linguistically about the reality that is called in our language 'Creation', there the question arises whether the question about Creation, Creator and creature is a question that is only the result of language resp. the manner of speaking. The question about the distinction of the creature from the Creator is no longer meaningful, if one only regards those things that are or are there.

3. But it is a quite general experience of man that there are differences and distinctions. I differentiate at least between myself and the outward world, or between "I and not-I". Also the distinctions between the things around me are inevitable and vital. This means that we, if we do not rely on language, must nevertheless make somehow or other distinctions without which life is not possible and which - in this sense - are vital. This means that the distinctions get only then a fundamental sense when and as far as they are vital. Out of this perspective the distinction of the Creator from creatures and Creation seems to be understandable. It means that we need not ask the question about Creation out of the concept 'God', but we can or even are to ask it from the perspective of existence or man's life.

4. Hence the question about Creation is not necessarily to be asked as theological question, but as an existential question of man. For this question cannot be resolved by simply developing a theology, a doctrine about God, and to answer then this question by this doctrine. The consequences brought about by this attitude are meanwhile too well known to us. Hence this question can only then be understood in its full sense, when one finds out how man is confronted with a distinction that is vital.

We can begin just here and ask the question, What does "vital" mean? It is clear that the matter meant here with 'essential to life' is not to be equated with "being alive" or "living being". Of course, being alive is the precondition for life. But "human" life is more than being alive. If it were not so, we would only need medicine - taking care that and how we remain alive (health and illness) - and nothing else. Well, man is a living being, but it is more; hence one said about man that it were an "animal rationale", whereby "rationale" would mostly be replaceable by "logic" or "language". Later one also added "faber", in order to designate a phase in the history of mankind that corresponds to the modern technology or expresses it. This means briefly that man is a living being that speaks, thinks and decides.

The question, 'What is vital?' is not answered alone by telling how man is to be kept alive; for death too is - at first glance paradoxically - vital for life. What would a world be where birth but no death was to be found? - Or birth and aging but no death? Hence 'vital for life' is not to be understood in a sense that concerns life only in the biological sense. The question concerns the core of something that is called 'being man'.

We can speculate here or elsewhere upon it, whether man has a essence, a nature or a history. In any case there is no doubt about it that man is not at all conceivable without history. But it would be rashly to abuse man's historicity, which speaks at first glance against man's nature, and to deny that there was something like humanity. And this humanity is not exclusively made up by speaking, thinking and deciding. Talking, thinking and deciding as such can not be last goals for man. Man does not speak in order to speak, or does not think in order to think, or is not free to decide what to do with something in order to do so. We can summarize it so: Neither literature and discussion nor philosophy, sciences and technology are ends in themselves. Man would be too good for these things alone!

5. It is important to point out that talking, thinking and deciding are preconditions for that being whose generic concept is 'man' - and this are we. The genus 'man' is not at all conceivable without these characteristics. But the genus 'man' is not completed by these characteristics. Even these characteristics are intentional and are always real in contexts that force to a decision. As Gazzali once formulated, "Man is condemned to liberty". But liberty does not mean to be free from everything, but to be able to choose among the present possibilities. This can meaningfully only be done by the worry in life and also about life. Liberty and responsibility are the two categories which permit to realize talking, thinking and deciding in a meaningful way. Liberty and responsibility are the two preconditions which can only be substantiated in man's worry about itself.

This statement means that we - via man - can meaningfully ask the question about Creation, and that it is finally a fundamentally ethical question. Hence we can ask this question as question about man's nature that turns out to be worry about itself. On the other hand this worry has its centre in man's life: it gets its actual sense only from the horizon of death.

6. Hence we must look or keep a look-out for something that is characteristic for the genus 'man' and that is higher than it. Thus it is to take place in man and by man. The classical answer to this question is: the one who leads a life that is ethically answerable is the perfect man. Ethical attitude as the highest aim of human life!

"Life" (al-hayat) is mostly used as abbreviation for al-hayat ad-dunya (the lay life, the life in this world, or the earthly life). Also "world" is not used in the sense of "globe", but as abbreviation of al-hayat ad-dunya. Thus the two terms "world" and "life" meet, and are used for each other. That has of course to do with the concept "Creation" that is related to man. This world or this life is not something that has directly been created by God, but they are the work of man; they are related to God as far as they are created by the power or competency given to man by God. God is also from this perspective the last instance on which everything depends.

7. Just in this context the question about Creation gets a sense: Man - as a being that is talking, thinking and deciding - created something that did not yet exist before. Each activity of man is Something New: The sentences are new, the conceptions, all actions, yes, everything that is done by man is new. If we only remember that the chair on which we sit, the table at which we sit, the room and the building where we now are and the city, the state, the society, the economy, the University etc. are products of man, we can easily see and understand that we live in a world that has been "created" by us. Hence when we talk about Creation, we do not talk about something that - at least from our view - is unique, but we talk about a process that continues "through human beings". Man itself is "creator", and in this sense "God's deputy on earth". Just here begins the question about the Creator's distinction from creatures and creation. Man is a "creature" that can create in a certain sense of the term 'create'. And this means that we can talk about 'creation' as our own work, and that we know - in this sense - what creation is. Man can speak about itself as 'creator', but did he also create itself? And what is it about death? Just at this point the question gets a dimension that gives to it its actual sense.

8. The Koran very often underlines that God does not anything that is unjust. But in the world there are lots of things which human beings experience as unjust and which are called unjust also by God. Well, God is Creator of all things (Koran 13/16), but what is called unjust is not attributed to God but to man. God does not anything that would be unjust; Injustice (Zulm) is man's doing or the characteristic of man's doings or of their consequences. Injustice is the consequence of people's actions towards each other (examples of it: Koran 3/182; 8/51; 22/10; 41/46) 50/29). Man is the actual subject of an injustice that is not only related to other humans and other living beings, but to man as subject: Man can be unjust against itself and can behave toward itself in an unjust way (this is repeated literally in the Koran in 18 places; in a general sense very often. Examples: 2/231; 3/117; 3/182; 8/51; 12/79).

9. Just the first seven verses of the 95th Sura, which belong to the first revealed verses, are a good example for this. Not only these verses, but most of the verses of the Koran represent the question of Creation from this perspective. Also the classical tradition, particularly the Islamic mysticism, discussed the sense of the question about Creation from a human perspective. The verses read:

1. Read (recite, lecture!) in the name of your Lord who created; 2. Created man from a lump of blood. 3. Read! For your Lord is the all-kind one (or benevolent one); 4. Who taught (man) by the pen; 5. Taught man what it did not know. 6. By no means! Indeed, man is unruly (or rebellious). 7. Because it mistakenly thinks itself independent. 8. Indeed, to your Lord is the return.

The first verse is an imperative. It is a demand. An imperative is counted to that type of expression which is called both in the classical Islamic and in modern philosophy of language "performativ". These are expressions that realize their meaning by their expression; at the same time they are regarded as intervention into life. When they are stated then actions are carried out which can be the reason for other actions. This verse asks the one who is addressed to do something that we translate as "reading". This translation is so far correct that it is thereby also about reading. But "Qira`a" is somewhat more than mere reading. It is reading out, reciting, and perhaps also reading loudly. Well, the translation is not wrong, since it is about something that can be called 'deciphering of signs'. Any reading is deciphering. Here too deciphering is concerned. The thing that is primarily to be deciphered is mentioned in the following verses: It is something that concerns man most: man itself. Hence the second verse is about man. Those who are addressed are asked to think about human beings, i.e. about themselves. Thereby just in the first verse is expressly said that the reading is to be done in the name of God. The verse reads "with the name of your Lord who created". Here we have words which occur in an expression that asks those who are addressed to act. They are: "your Lord", "the one who created" and "with the name". The last word "with names" points out: man is not in direct contact with God, but only with Its name. Here we can put the question: What does this word mean? What is a name? What do we do with names? With names we talk about things that are not visible. Names enable us to speak about things that admittedly exist in this or that sense but are not visible. The language consists mainly of names. With the help of names we bring up what we see, hear - briefly: experience.



The language is, one could say, a second level of the existence of things. Things become the subject of experience only by names. The classical manner of speaking calls this: linguistic way of existence (wugud fi al-lisan). But this is not the original, but a secondary way of existence that at the most is seen as an expression of what exists in man's intelligence or spirit (wugud fi al-azhan - the mental being).

If one remembers that the first addressed people were mostly idolaters who had placed their idols in form of different materials also around the Kaaba and adored them, the meaning of the word "with names" becomes evident. That one cannot or may not do something with God but (only) with its name, is at the same time a hint that it is about God not about something material or something that can be experienced by our five senses, but about some superior being, some transcendent being, with which one can only get contact by words, a contact that can be deepened and continued in another dimension.

Then we have a second word, "your Lord" (rabbika). The word "Rabb", which is generally translated as "Lord", means different things. The fundamental point is that it is first about a relationship that can briefly be named 'ownership'. Lord (Rabb) is the one who is free to decide what to do with something. Then a second meaning is added: by this word something is expressed that corresponds to this free decision: Lord (Rabb) is the one who is not only free to decide on something, in this case on human beings, but who already d i d freely decide. In this sense educators are called "murrabbi", because they decide on children. The third word, i.e. "the one who created", is directly connected with the word "Lord". "Create" too is a word that expresses something that has not been observed by man. It indicates a characteristic of the Lord, which at the same time is related to man and to the world. Namely, It is the one who created everything, and all things are Its creatures. As well as all words are here relational words - their objects too are of such a kind that they exist only in relations. All these terms are related to the fact that man has to return to the Lord. The return to God, which happens in the way of death, is at the same time a clear refusal to the idea that man is "omnipotent" and independent. Man's dependence on the environment, on fellow human beings and all together on God's grace is reminded by the terms "Lord", "creation" and "grace" as well as by "return to God". This return is the last foundation that carries man's responsibility.

In summary we can say here that Creation and its concept(ion) get only its sense with the genus 'man' and through man. But man's life gets and has only so far its sense as it is to return to the one God. That points to man's responsibility: without freedom it is not meaningful at all. Hence the question about Creation is not a genuine epistemological one, but finally an ethical, existential question.


    {*} Professor Dr. Tahsin Görgün, Center for Islam-scientific Studies, Istambul, visiting professor for Islamic religion, Frankfurt/Main


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