Q. When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam - from their loins - their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying): "Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?" - They said: "Yea! We do testify!" (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: "Of this we were never mindful." (Q7:172)

What does the above verse mean? Some scholars have said that it is our souls that testified. When did we testify and in what form? As usual, your insight is always appreciated.

A. The verse is problematic in that some view it as being at the time of birth, others not. Muhammad Asad gives the best interpretation that keeps in line with the Arabic language. This issue about souls is obviously not a part of the text, for it does not say when, although the text would probably for some, by use of the word "Zuhoor" indicate backbone, when something is at the spermatozoon stage. But we know it cannot be without the ovum coming into play, so this therefore shows that the meaning is for a child of both parents. The term of sulb or zahr is used in Arabic to denote certainty of paternity, not chronology of conception. Now the traditionalists go for this bit about Allah taking from Adam's back, at the time of creation, his progeny. This is nonsense for the simple fact that the plural is used -- Banu Adam. The exegetes struggle, unsuccessfully except to the most dense, to say that Adam and Banu Adam are one and same. So all the hadith on the subject are absolutely, by this logical analysis, rendered void.

Asad puts it into perspective and rightly adduces that it denotes continuity, and so comes to the conclusion that it can be at the time of birth, when every child is asked to witness. To this seemingly logical picture, I present some questions: The Qur'an says that Allah does not punish until He sends Prophets; the Muslims and indeed all people agree that a child will not be punished for something that occurs at birth. So how then can a just Lord, who knows full well that a child may forget something at such a tender age, call this child to answer? And use that answer to chastise? Impossible. So there is something else being presented for us to think about, and that clue lies in the remaining part of the verse. As Tabataba'i points out, "to take -- akhadha" -- means to take something from another thing, to separate them. As further explanation, God adds, "from the children of Adam" -- to show separation among those children. And then from their backs -- showing that the taken things do not in any way take away from the source, i.e. no injury or any such thing is occurring.

Now this is neither here nor there for our purposes, but then the learned scholar goes further: "Their being called to witness over themselves, i.e. the witnessing of something is to bring the witness, and then show him the proof, so that he will have tangible proof regarding that which he is presented with, and then this leads to that which they are responsible for if asked. (He then goes on with an interpretation which basically puts that humans see around them all that points out to the presence of a God, etc.) My opinion is that it is not this exactly. There are two possible interpretations:

(1) That the verb is in the past tense and it refers to the past about the early generations of Adam, who may have been taxed with certain things from birth, as in the case of the much later Jesus. These early generations -- among them obviously Cain -- are being referred to. This is the weaker of the two interpretations.

(2) The more cogent one to me seems thus: the people are claiming that they are their fathers' children, and must do what their fathers did. So Allah is telling them here, as elsewhere, that they are not joined to their fathers in terms of answerability and mental faculty. So Allah says that He draws them forth from their fathers (Banu Adam therefore means humans here, for that is also what the Arab term for humans is, for we are all children of Adam).

From their backs -- the part about separation -- again is the polemic against people who are claiming oneness with what their fathers did or are doing. God is saying that every person is judged and challenged as a separate individual. Now God cannot punish without sending a messenger (Q17:15), and also says that He has guided everything (Q20:50 [of course it has the choice of rejection], Q92:13 etc.). So Allah here is saying that by the day of Judgment, every human will have received guidance. The form is not mentioned, and is not necessary, be it through ratiocination (by God given intellect), by a messenger, by whatever -- all come under rasul -- "that/he who is sent) -- but Allah is saying that on that day all of us will be questioned, and what will be thrown back to us is that point in our contemplation of the cosmos, or of listening to a Prophet or whatever, when we realized beyond all shadow of a doubt that there is a God.

We will be asked about that moment. What happened to change it? Peer pressure? Pride? And no, we cannot say it was our fathers' religion, because God has already pointed out to us that all this happened when we were no longer a part of them, i.e. we are separate, with separate intellects, separate bodies. We can reconcile this with Asad simply by saying that it does not happen, or has to happen at birth. We think that our approach to explaining this verse shows the need for what is termed "al tafsir al mawdu'i" -- the topic/thematic approach, instead of the atomistic dealing of verses that often occurs. It also shows that we must place the Qur'anic verses in some sort of historical context to best understand them, and often the Qur'an itself provides this context. The hadith purporting to explain the verse, as presented in many of the exegetical works, only serve as testimony to Andrew Rippin's findings that many of the so-called reasons of revelation (asbab al nuzul) reported by the Muslim scholars are in fact creations of the mind, seeking to explain rather than being an actual occurrence. We must also not ignore the crypto-polemic tone of the Qur'an on certain issues, and in this one, while we have shown it to be quite evident, a lack of classical Arab balagha and speech pattern may lead to a wrong interpretation. And Allah knows best.

Posted October 13, 2000