Shafaqna (Internationl Shia News Agency)
Commentary of the Quran (Chapter 2:30; Part-4)
By: Mohammad Sobhanie
Knowledge of Names [علم الاسماءَ]
View of Allamah Tabatabai (may Allah be pleased with him), the author of Al-Mizan,
بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّحْمَـٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
وَعَلَّمَ آدَمَ الْأَسْمَاءَ كُلَّهَا ثُمَّ عَرَضَهُمْ عَلَى الْمَلَائِكَةِ فَقَالَ أَنبِئُونِي بِأَسْمَاءِ هَـٰؤُلَاءِ إِن كُنتُمْ صَادِقِينَ ﴿٣١﴾ قَالُوا سُبْحَانَكَ لَا عِلْمَ لَنَا إِلَّا مَا عَلَّمْتَنَا ۖ إِنَّكَ أَنتَ الْعَلِيمُ الْحَكِيمُ ﴿٣٢﴾قَالَ يَا آدَمُ أَنبِئْهُم بِأَسْمَائِهِمْ ۖ فَلَمَّا أَنبَأَهُم بِأَسْمَائِهِمْ قَالَ أَلَمْ أَقُل لَّكُمْ إِنِّي أَعْلَمُ غَيْبَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالْأَرْضِ وَأَعْلَمُ مَا تُبْدُونَ وَمَا كُنتُمْ تَكْتُمُونَ ﴿٣٣﴾
Translation: And He (Allah) taught Adam all the names, then presented them to the angels; then He (Allah) said: Tell me the names of those if you are true [to your claim that you more deserved to be My deputies on earth].
They (the angels) said: Glory be to You! we have no knowledge but that which You have taught us; surely you are the Knowing, the Wise.
He (Allah) said: O Adam! Inform them of their names. Then when he (Adam) had informed them of their names, He (Allah) said: Did I not say to you that I surely know what is unseen of the heavens and the earth and I know what you manifest and what you hide.
Commentary: Before the creation of Adam, Allah (SWT) announced to the angels that He would appoint a vicegerent (deputy) on Earth. The angels’ initial view was that they are more qualified than Adam for this noble position. Hence, they were curious to learn as to what deemed Adam as the divine choice. Allah (SWT), through a divine test, revealed that the essential merit of Adam was his knowledge of all names [علم الاسماءَ]. A brief narration of the divine trial was presented earlier.
The knowledge of names is a faculty of recognizing and naming objects (regardless of whether they are physical or metaphysical) and having a profound knowledge of them. It was the latter part, having a profound knowledge of objects and things, which truly constituted the virtue of Adam over the angels.
The Quran does not reveal which objects were the actual subjects in the divine trials. Allamah Tabatabai ratiocinates that they were alive beings with knowledge and intellect who are kept in the treasure of Allah (SWT). These exalted and sublime beings are source of all divine bounties and blessings, and that everything in the universe is created from their light and splendor1. His reasoning is summarized in the next section.
Allamah Tabatabai’s Reasoning: The above verses asserts that Allah (SWT) taught Adam all the names of some objects. Then, He “presented them to the angels”, asking the angels to tell Him their names. The angels replied, “Glory be to You! we have no knowledge except what You have taught us.”
First: These objects were alive beings since the Arabic pronoun [Arabic: هُمْ] “them” in the verse, where it reads “presented them to the angels” is used for rational beings, those who have life, sense and understanding. Hence, all the names or all the named ones were alive beings with knowledge and intellect2.
Second: The content of the verse suggests that the angels were not aware of the existence of those beings when they said “Glory be to You! we have no knowledge (of existence of these beings) except what You have taught us.”
For the sake of argument, let us assume that the angels were aware of the existence of those beings, but did not know whether Adam had knowledge of them. Why would Allah question the angels first, and then ask Adam to inform the angels the names of those beings? Questioning the angels would not reveal any new information to them! In this case, it would be sufficient that Allah (SWT) ask only Adam to name these beings. This would disclose to the angels whether Adam had knowledge of the named ones.
Third: Since none of the angels in the divine kingdom knew about the existence of these beings, one could henceforth form an opinion that these beings may be living out of the realm of the universe. Otherwise, at least one angel amongst all the angels would have had previous knowledge of the existence of these beings. A better rigorous proof is as follows:
After the angels became certain that they did not have knowledge of these sublime beings, Allah (SWT) then told the angels “Did I not tell you that I know the unseen (to all) of the heavens and Earth?” The Unseen of earth and heavens is a possessive case. Since Allah (SWT) speaks about His absolute power and knowledge, this phrase therefore implies that He knows of the unseen in all of the heavens and Earth, not just parts of heaven and earth.
Furthermore, the “unseen of the heavens and Earth” refers to the beings which were the subject of discourse between Allah (SWT) and the angels. These beings were unseen to all the worlds, to all the heavens and Earth; they were unseen within the realm of the universe3. In other words, when the angels stated that they had no knowledge of these beings, Allah (SWT) replied to the angels: Had not I told you that I knew beings which were unseen to all the heavens and Earth?
Recap: The objects, which Adam (AS) had knowledge of, were sublime and exalted beings that were alive with knowledge and intellect; they were Unseen to all of the heavens and Earth and lived out of the realm of universe, therefore proving Adam’s worth of being God’s vicegerent upon Earth.
Fourth: Allamah Tabatabai continues to state that the above description of beings matches with the theme of verse 21 of chapter Al-Hijr. This particular verse asserts that anything, or whatever we see/perceive/imagine in the world, has its source and unlimited fountainhead in the vast treasure of Allah (SWT):
وَإِن مِّن شَيْءٍ إِلَّا عِندَنَا خَزَائِنُهُ وَمَا نُنَزِّلُهُ إِلَّا بِقَدَرٍ مَّعْلُومٍ ﴿٢١﴾
And there is not a thing but with Us are the treasures of it, and We do not send it down but in a known measure.
The vastness of the divine treasure cannot be measured by any scale, because any number, no matter how large the number is, establishes a limit on the divine treasure. However, the second part of the verse makes it clear that first, measurements and quantities are taken out at the moment of creation, and then subsequently the objects from the divine treasure are sent down to the universe.
Conclusion: The named ones, [الاسماءَ], which Adam (AS) had knowledge of, were sublime and exalted beings that were alive with knowledge and intellect; they were well-protected by Allah; unseen to the heavens and Earth. They are the source of all divine bounties and blessings, and everything in the universe is created from their light and splendor1.
Knowledge of Adam vs the Angels: Indeed the depth of knowledge that Adam learned from Allah (SWT) was different than the depth of knowledge that angels learned from Adam. If Adam’s knowledge from the beings was the same as the angels, then, Adam would no longer possess a merit over the angels4.
The Quran indeed praises the angels and calls them “the honored servants” of Allah (SWT) who are in full submission to divine commands. Allah (SWT) did not favor Adam over the angels on teaching names, nor did Adam purposely withhold any knowledge from the angels. The intrinsic nature of the angels was not suited to learn all the names. Otherwise, the angels would have argued that since Allah (SWT) taught them the names, they would be equal or better than Adam for the position of vicegerent4.
- Al-Mizan, 1, P.182, L.10
- Al-Mizan, 1 P.181, L,14
- Al-Mizan, 1 P.179, L14
- Al-Mizan, Vol.1. P180, L 22