Considering verse 70 of Surah al-Isra, is mankind superior to all other beings or to only some of them?

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question
What is meant by the word “kathir” in verse 70 of Chapter al-Isra?
Concise answer
God, the Exalted, says in the Quran regarding the status of mankind in the universe that He granted the offspring of Adam dignity and made them excel other creatures.
As for whether or not man is superior to other creatures, a lot of discussions have taken place among scholars and exegetes of the Quran. What is inferred from the scholars’ comments and arguments in this regard can be summed into two main views:
a) Some exegetes of the Quran maintain that the word “kathir” means “all” saying it means ‘We have made them (human beings) to excel by an appropriate excellence over whatever We have created despite their diversity.  The verse (verse 70 of Surah al-Isra) aims to portray the entirety of mankind as being superior to the entirety of angels. It does not say that every human being is superior to angels. Indeed, it does not mean that specific individuals won’t be superior to angels. There is no doubt that prophets and noble servants of Allah such as the infallible Imams (AS) are superior to angels. That was why angels were ordered to prostrate themselves before Adam out of respect for mankind.
b) Some exegetes are of the view that man is not superior to all other creatures. In fact, it is possible that there might be some creatures such as angels that are superior to mankind in terms of virtues and merits.  They maintain that it is very unlikely that the verse might aim to draw a comparison between man and angel. Therefore, the word “kathir” in the foregoing verse should be interpreted in its outward and literal meaning. There is no reason to interpret it in a different way. It is not far from being likely that the clause “of those whom We created” (mim man khalaqna) refers to various kinds of sensible animals and jinns.
Detailed Answer
God, the Exalted, says in the Quran regarding the status of mankind in the universe:
«وَ لَقَدْ كَرَّمْنا بَنِي آدَمَ وَ حَمَلْناهُمْ فِي الْبَرِّ وَ الْبَحْرِ و فَضَّلْنَاهُمْ عَلَی کَثِیرٍ مِمَّنْ خَلَقْنَا تَفْضِیلاً»
“And surely We have honored the children of Adam, and We carry them in the land and the sea, and We have given them of the good things, and We have made them to excel by an appropriate excellence over most of those whom We have created.”[1]
Commentators and exegetes of the Quran have offered different views and opinions while interpreting this verse and discussing man’s superiority over other creatures. Here is an outline of those views:
First and foremost, we must say that among various creatures of the world man enjoys certain features and characteristics which are prerogative of him in terms of great intellectual and material capacity as well as the capability of accepting and fulfilling obligations and finally attaining proximity to Allah. No other creature has these features.
According to Quranic doctrines, man is at the pinnacle of greatness, originality and primacy. We find him as a valuable being and a great feat among all other creatures of the world. He is so much valuable that God, after mentioning the stages of man’s creation, congratulates Himself saying:
«فَتَبارَكَ اللَّهُ أَحْسَنُ الْخالِقِينَ»
So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators![2]
Then Allah introduces man as being worthy of prostration by angels.  He makes reference to dignity, honor and excellence of Adam’s offspring.
God, the Exalted, has enumerated four characteristics for human being.
1. We have honored the children of Adam: That is to say, We have granted man dignity which means that he is superior to other creatures in terms of the capacity of thinking and various merits and potentialities by which he can make use of nature as well as make himself a better living.  Also, man has the power to make choices and he is self-conscious.
2. We carry them in the land and the sea: Man makes use of other creatures to carry things or move from place to place. In the land, he uses quadrupeds and means of transportation and in the sea he uses ships to travel or carry things.
3. We have given them of the good things: What man eats is very much better and superior to what other animals eat. He makes himself various delicious foods; he benefits from various kinds of fruit, vegetables, meat etc.
4. We have made them to excel by an appropriate excellence over most of those whom We have created: This is one of man’s most important characteristics because it has something to do with man’s spiritual merit in attaining spiritual perfection and divine rewards.[3]
When it comes to whether or not man is superior to all other creations, a lot of discussions have taken place among scholars and exegetes of the Quran. What is inferred from the scholars’ comments and arguments put forth in this regard can be summed into two main views:
a) Some exegetes of the Quran maintain that the word “kathir” means “all” saying the word “min” is explanatory (bayaniyah). That is to say We have made them (human beings) to excel by an appropriate excellence over whatever We have created despite their diversity and multiplicity.[4] They are of the view that Arabs have used the word “kathir” in the sense of “all”. For example, Allah, the Glorified, says: «وَ أَكْثَرُهُمْ كاذِبُونَ»[5] And most of them are liars. Here the word “akthar” has been used to mean “all” because all of devils are liars.
In Tafsir al-Saafi[6], under this verse, a narration has been narrated from Imam Sadiq (AS) that can be confirmation of this view:
«في الأمالي عن الصادق ع في هذه الآية يقول فضلنا بني آدم على سائر الخلق»[7]
Imam Sadiq (AS) says: “God made the children of Adam excel over the rest of the creatures.” Ibn Kathir al-Demashqi quotes Abdur Razzaq that he said that this verse seeks to prove the superiority of the entire mankind over the entire angels.[8]
A group of people who subscribe to this view maintain that man is superior to other beings except holy beings in the spiritual realm.  However, the superiority of certain human beings such as prophets over angels is not because they are the children of Adam but because of the secret God has entrusted to those noble servants.[9]
b) Some exegetes are of the view that man is not superior to all other creatures. In fact, it is possible that there might be some creatures such as angels that are superior to mankind in terms of virtues and merits.  That is because the Quranic verse says: We have made them to excel by an appropriate excellence over most of the creatures, not all of them.[10]
They maintain that it is very unlikely that the verse might aim to draw a comparison between man and angel. Therefore, the word “kathir” in the foregoing verse should be taken for its outward and literal meaning. There is no reason to interpret it in a different way. Knowledge also confirms that this term should remain in its apparent meaning because scientific discoveries invalidated the idea that the earth was the center of the universe and that man was the best of creatures of the world of existence.  The Quran also asserts by saying:
«لَخَلْقُ السَّماواتِ وَ الْأَرْضِ أَكْبَرُ مِنْ خَلْقِ النَّاسِ وَ لكِنَّ أَكْثَرَ النَّاسِ لا يَعْلَمُونَ»[11]
“Certainly the creation of the heavens and the earth is greater than the creation of the men, but most people do not know.”
The fact that man enjoys a special status in the universe goes without saying but he is not superior to all creatures and existents. In fact, he is one of the most superior beings. To prove this, there is no reason better than the fact that man has no knowledge of many realities in the universe; he has no access to them and he is also not aware of many earthly beings and issues, let alone heavenly beings which are abstract. Obviously, the most basic condition for superiority is to influence those lower to him.[12]
In this connection, some are saying that the comparison made between man and angel is a typical comparison. That is to say, the type of man is superior to the type of angel. That does not mean that every human being is superior to angels. Indeed, it does not mean that specific individuals won’t be superior to angels. There is no doubt that prophets and noble servants of Allah such as the infallible Imams (AS) are superior to angels. That was why angels were ordered to prostrate themselves before Adam out of respect for mankind.[13]
Thus, as for the famous debate existing among theologians whether human beings are superior or angels, the correct view is that the kind of angels is superior to humankind but some human individuals attain a degree of perfection where they become superior to angels.
Of course, some other scholars are of the view that it is not far from being likely that “of those whom We created” (mim man khalaqna) refers to various kinds of sensible animals and jinns whom the Quran has conceded. This probability is compatible with the meaning of the verse because we know that the purpose of the verse in question is to explain those dimension with which God, the Exalted, has honored man and made him to excel other creatures which are – as far as we know – animals and jinns. However, considering that angels are not subject to the system governing the material world, we cannot consider them as included by the verse.[14]
Therefore, according to this group of exegetes, the verse in question means that We have made the children of Adam to excel by an appropriate excellence over most of Our creatures which are animals and jinns. As for other beings as referred to by the word “most” (kathir) i.e. angels, they are out of the domain of discussion because they are non-material beings or they are made of light. Therefore, the rules which apply to earthly being do not apply to them. Although the verse in question speaks about man, the verse takes material aspect of man into consideration because he is one of the beings of the material world. Such a being has been honored with spiritual blessings and additional dignity.
This verse refers to human perfection and dignity in terms of material existence as compared to other material beings. Therefore, angels which do not abide by the material system are out of discussion.  In short, man’s superiority over most of other beings refers to material superiority in this world, not over angels. As for angels, they are basically different from the material beings. Thus, the verse in question does not make any reference to man’s superiority over angels.[15]

[1] Surah al-Isra: 70
[2] Muminoon, 14.
[3] Ja’fari, Ya’qub, Kawthar, vol.6, p.330.
[4] Tabarsi, Fazl bin Hasan, Majma’ul Bayan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, vol.6, p. 662, Nasir Khosro, Tehran, third edition, 1372 (Persian calendar).
[5] Shu’ara, 223.
[6] Fayz Kashani, Mulla Mohsen, Tafsir al-Saafi, research, A’alami, Hussein, vol.3, p. 205, Al-Sadr, Tehran, second edition, 1415 A.H.
[7] Tusi, Muhammad bin al-Hasna, al-Amali, al-Nas, p. 489, Dar al-Thaqafah, Qom, first edition, 1414 A.H.
[8] Ibn Kathir al-Demashqi, Ismail bin Amar, Tafsir al-Qur’an al-Azim, researched by Shams al-Din, Muhammad Hussein, vol.5, p. 89, Dar al-Kotob al-Ilmiyah, Muhammad Ali Bayzun Publications, Beirut, first edition, 1419 A.H.
[9] Ibn Arabi, Abu Abdulah Mohyiddin Muhammad, Tafsir Ibn Arabi, research, Samir Mustafa, Rubab, vol.1, p. 383, Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, Beirut, first edition, 1422 A.H.
[10] Baydhawi, Abdullah bin Umar, Anwar al-Tanzil wa Israr al-Ta’wil, vol.3, p. 262, Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, Beirut, 1418 A.H.; Haqqi, Burusawi, Ismail, Tafsir, Rooh al-Bayan, vol.5, p. 185, Dar al-Fikr, Beirut (without date); Zamakhshari, Mahmood, al-Kashaf ‘An Haqaeq Ghawamiz al-Tanzil, vol.2, p. 680, Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi, Beirut, 1407 A.H.; Tha’labi Neishabouri, Abu Ishaq Ahmad bin Ibrahim, al-Kashf wa al-Bayan ‘An Tafsir al-Quran, vol.6, p. 115, Dar Ihya Turath al-Arabi, Beirut, first edition, 1422 A.H.
[11] Ghafir, 57.
[12] Mughniyah, Muhammad Jawad, Tafsir al-Kashif, vol.5, p. 67, Dar al-Kotob al-Islamiyah, Tehran, first edition, 1424 A.H.
[13] Fakhr al-Din Razi, Abu Abdullah Muhammad bin Umar, Mafatih al-Ghaib, vol.21, p. 375, Dar Ihya al-Turath al-Arabi, Beirut, third edition, 1420 A.H.
[14] Vide: Superiority of Prophets and Imams to Angels, 33482; Related: Man’s Superiority over Other Beings, 771.
[15] Tabatabai, Sayyid Mohammad Hussein, Al-Mizan fi Tafsir al-Qur’an, vol.13, p. 157 -158, Islamic Publications Office, Qom, 1417 Qom.

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