وَإِذْ أَخَذَ رَبُّكَ مِنْ بَنِي آدَمَ مِنْ ظُهُورِهِمْ ذُرِّيَّتَهُمْ وَأَشْهَدَهُمْ عَلَىٰ أَنْفُسِهِمْ أَلَسْتُ بِرَبِّكُمْ قَالُوا بَلَىٰ شَهِدْنَا أَنْ تَقُولُوا يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ إِنَّا كُنَّا عَنْ هَٰذَا غَافِلِينَ
أَوْ تَقُولُوا إِنَّمَا أَشْرَكَ آبَاؤُنَا مِنْ قَبْلُ وَكُنَّا ذُرِّيَّةً مِنْ بَعْدِهِمْ أَفَتُهْلِكُنَا بِمَا فَعَلَ الْمُبْطِلُونَ
And when thy Lord took from the Children of Adam, from their loins, their seed, and made them testify touching themselves `Am I not your Lord?' They said, `Yes, we testify'‑lest you should say on the Day of Resurrection, `As for us, we were heedless of this,' or lest you say, Our fathers were idolaters aforetime, and we were seed after them. What, wilt Thou destroy us for the deeds of the vain‑doers?'(7:172‑173)
There exists some diversity of opinion regarding the interpretation of these verses. The two most important among them are as follows:
a) God has created mankind in such a way that if they ponder over their own creation and their perpetual dependence on their Sustainer, and if they keenly observe and meditate about the manifestation and signs of His wisdom, power, and providence, they will confess and bear testimony to His existence as the One God, who creates them and sustains them.
In view of this statement, this verse is expressive of the human situation: like a thirsty animal after water, like a hungry human being or beast in search of food, or like the longing of one suffering from sickness for a healer, the situation of the human being is such that it speaks eloquently of his constant need for a Sustainer and reminds man of his Wise Creator.
His situation is such as if his Creator keeps on questioning him: `Am I not your Sustainer, your Lord? Am I not the One God?' and man with his entire being replies to his Creator, `Yes. I bear testimony that You are my God. Yes, You are the One God.' This bearing of testimony, this constant acknowledgement of a covenant between man and his Maker goes on throughout his life. And this is what represents the Divine testimony against man, so that on the Day of Judgment he may not excuse himself for lack of knowledge and justify his not being a monotheist because he inherited the religion of his ancestors who were idolaters or polytheists.
b) Every human being has an incorporeal and immaterial being as well, which is the cardinal reality of his being; his physical and corporeal existence is subsequent and subordinated to his real, spiritual existence, and is merely a shadow or an image of his spiritual being. In other words, every human being, and even every creature, follows a cyclic course with respect to God: it originates from God and returns unto God إِنَّا لِلَّهِ وَإِنَّا إِلَيْهِ رَاجِعُونَ.
However, this course and existential journey varies according to its merits and shortcomings. Prior to this worldly existence a human being has some kind of a more perfect, a more unrestricted and a sublime existence, which becomes imperfect, infirm and restricted after entering the material world; however, again when he leaves it, he returns to that prior state of perfection. The verse:
وَإِن مِّن شَيْءٍ إِلاَّ عِندَنَا خَزَائِنُهُ وَمَا نُنَزِّلُهُ إِلاَّ بِقَدَرٍ مَّعْلُومٍ
Naught is there, but its treasuries are with Us, and We send it not down but in an appointed measure.(15:21)
is cited as evidence that every being had a more extensive existence before its material stage, and becomes more confined as it enters the material world. The late `Allamah Tabataba'i commenting on the following verses of the Quran,
إِنَّمَا أَمْرُهُ إِذَا أَرَادَ شَيْئًا أَنْ يَقُولَ لَهُ كُنْ فَيَكُونُ (82) فَسُبْحَانَ الَّذِي بِيَدِهِ مَلَكُوتُ كُلِّ شَيْءٍ وَإِلَيْهِ تُرْجَعُونَ (83)
His command, when He desires a thing, is to say to it Be', and it is. So glory be to Him, in whose hand is the dominion of everything, and unto whom you shall be returned. (36:82‑83)
وَمَا أَمْرُنَا إِلاَّ وَاحِدَةٌ كَلَمْحٍ بِالْبَصَرِ
Our commandment is but one, as the twinkling of an eye. (54:50)
says that these, and several other verses like them, prove that the gradual emergence of all living beings, including man, is consequent to God's command (`Be'). It is with the utterance `Be' that existence is conferred at once and without gradualness upon things.
On account of this, all existents have two visages: one is physical and this‑worldly, associated with their gradual emergence from potentiality to actuality and from nothingness into being; the other visage is with respect to God and is non‑gradual. According to the first visage, a thing is imperfect at its beginning, but involves during its passage though the world of matter, until, ultimately, it returns to God.
The second visage, which is with respect to God, is ungradual; it means that a thing has from its beginning everything it needs to acquire actuality. These two faces, though they are different aspects of the same thing, are nevertheless two different facets.
These verses imply that despite all its enormous vastness the universe possesses a unified, unitary existence before God, and every part of this whole is present simultaneously for God. In fact, it is not possible that a creation should not be present for its creator or an act for the doer. This is the thing referred to as `kingdom' in the Quran:
وَكَذَلِكَ نُرِي إِبْرَاهِيمَ مَلَكُوتَ السَّمَاوَاتِ وَالأَرْضِ وَلِيَكُونَ مِنَ الْمُوقِنِينَ
So We were showing Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and earth, that he might be of those having sure faith. (6:75)
But the worldly visage that we behold of human life, a visage in which all things are different from one another in their conditions, circumstances and behavior, their varying situation in time and space, engages the senses and alienates human beings from their God.
This material visage is a secondary derivative of the other and a by‑product of the original visage. The relationship between these two is that between Kun (`Be') and Fayakun (`and it is'). The first represents `alam alamr, the `world of command', a world of incorporeal and abstract existence free of the fetters of space and time. The second, the `alam alkhalq, `the world of creation', is the world of gradual physical birth, subject to the restrictions of space, time and matter. 1
This explanation is sufficient to show that this world (alam al‑khalq) is preceded by another existence (`alam al‑ amr), which is similar to it, except that in the second there is no screen separating creatures from the Creator. In that world, the knowledge of God and testimony to His Divinity and Unity are not based on acquired knowledge (`ilm husuli), but on direct experience and knowledge by presence (`ilm huduri).
Now, if we study the verse 7:172 in the light of this discussion, we will see that there is a distinct allusion to the existence of `alam al‑ amr (`world of command')',,a world prior to that of physical existence where mankind existed before taking birth in this world. There God had already made the human individuals distinct from one another, made them witnesses to His Divinity by asking them, `Am I not your Lord?' to which they replied, `Yes, we testify."
In short, every human individual, before stepping into this physical world of change, transition, decay and motion in space and time, had a kind of immaterial existence, devoid of all the dimensions of material change and movement. It was a mode of existence immersed in knowledge, and awareness in which he experienced the Divinity and Unity of God.
In that mode of existence, he had experience of God, not through any acquired rational knowledge based on concepts and arguments, but on direct experience. God spoke to man, made him bear testimony to His Divinity and Unity, made His covenant with man, and did not leave any room for pretexts and excuses.
It is obvious that a claim is established only when there is no room for any denial, or for explaining away the claim. As mentioned, that claim has to be based on evidence experienced directly through ‘ilm huduri, not on evidence based on `ilm husuli. For acquired knowledge is based on general concepts and ideas which cannot establish the verity of a particular truth or fact.
On the other hand, the verity of a truth directly experienced by a knower is indubitable. Thus, in the above verse (7:172), the Divine address to man is one directly experienced by him, and man has attested to God's Divinity and Unity directly without any intermediary or mediator.
Therefore, there is no room for any denial of this primordial testimony. However, if God had taken this testimony through an intermediary (i.e. through acquired knowledge), there was room for him to deny or debate something which he had not directly experienced.
So, the purport of the verse is that there has taken place a certain kind of dialogue or encounter between every human being and God. As a result of that experience, man had direct knowledge of God's Divinity and His Unity.
During this dialogue or encounter, God has taken from him a confession to His Divinity and Unity, and man, too, confessed to it as an evident truth imbedded in his own nature. As a result, there is no room for any pretext or excuse for denying that once directly experienced truth.
However, it is possible that man's natural vision may be clouded by forgetfulness and negligence, which may engulf his being and obscure his natural sense of godliness. But once he removes the dust of forgetfulness from his heart, he is able to regain his vision, recollect his real self, and hear the echoes of that sacred dialogue in the depths of his being‑the first dialogue between his Creator and himself, and his original covenant with God.
This natural voyage of the self or the heart was the `path' used by various mystics and saints. When Hafiz says:
جناب عشق را در گه بسى والاتر از عقل است
Love has an abode higher than that of reason.
he is referring to a state of direct religious experience reached by means of self‑purification and achievement of a beatific vision of Absolute Love, Beneficence, Power and Beauty, which surpasses the reach of rational understanding, conception and imagination.
Those who are not satiated by rational, philosophical arguments can quench their spiritual thirst and obtain the peace of mind and spirit through the way of nature. Even those who are not in quest of truth to this extent, and are not interested in purely rational pursuits, or those who are not capable of such endeavors, they approach God through this way of nature, as Rumi puts it:
ارتباط بى تكيف بى قياس هست رب الناس را با جان ناس
A relationship free of categories and syllogisms,
exists between the Lord of Men and souls of men.
1. Editor's note: The reader's attention is called here to Martyr‑Sayyid Muhammad Husayni Beheshti's article "The Qur'an and the Theory of alam al-Khalq and alam al‑'Amr", Al‑Tawhid, vol. 1, No. 2, in which he rejects the entire theory of alam al‑ amr and alam al‑khalq as a notion alien to the Qur'an and as a deviate transference of non‑Qur'anic notion to it by the Mutakallimun.