[Mufti Muhammad Shafi Usmani (rahmatullah alayh)]
And when We said to the angels: “Prostrate before Adam!” So, they prostrated, all but Iblis. He refused, and joined the infidels.” [Surah al-Baqarah: Verse 34]
The episode recounted in the foregoing verses has shown how the angels came to learn that Adam (alayhissalaam) was superior to them in so far as he possessed the forms of knowledge necessary for the function of divine viceregency, while they themselves did not, nor did the jinns. NOW, Allah willed to manifest this superiority in a visible and concrete form So, He commanded the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam (alayhissalaam) in his honour. They obeyed except Iblis or Satan who, in his pride, refused to do so.
If we go by the words of the Holy Qur’an, the command was given to the angels alone, but, in excepting Iblis from those who obeyed, the text also suggests that the command was given to all the created beings that existed at that time and possessed understanding, including the jinns as well as the angels. But the Holy Qur’an mentions the angels alone, because when superior beings like the angels were required to show their respect for Adam (alayhissalaam), inferior creatures like the jinns must, it goes without saying, have been ordered to do the same.
Angels Prostrate Before Adam (Alayhissalaam)
(1) In this verse, the angels have been commanded to prostrate themselves before Adam (alayhissalaam). Another verse of the Holy Qur’an tells us that the parents and the brothers of Yusuf (alayhissalaam) on reaching Egypt, prostrated themselves before him (12:100). Evidently such a prostration cannot have been intended as an act of worship, for worshipping anyone other than Allah is an act of association (Shirk) and infidelity (Kufr), and hence cannot possibly be allowed by any Shari’ah. So, it appears that in the days of the ancient prophets prostrating oneself before somebody must have been just an act of courtesy or a way of showing one’s respect, and enjoyed the same value as we do in our own days things like a simple greeting, a hand-shake, the kissing of hand, or standing up in someone’s honour. Imam Al-Jassas has said in his Ahkam al-Qur’an that it was permissible in the Shari’ah of the earlier prophets to prostrate oneself in honour of one’s elders, but that the Shari’ah of the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) has forbidden gestures like prostrating oneself, or bowing down very low or standing with one hand placed on the other in the manner of the Salaah before someone, all of which may suggest an act of worship, and has allowed only greeting (Salaam) and hand-shake as a gesture of courtesy or respect.
It is easy to understand the raison d’etre of such a prohibition. Association, infidelity and the worship of anyone other than Allah are things which in their nature go against the very principle of ‘Iman (faith), and cannot therefore be tolerated by any Shari’ah. There are, however, certain acts and gestures which are not in themselves acts of ‘association’ or infidelity, but may, on account of the ignorance or indifference of people, become a prelude to ‘association’ and infidelity. So, the Shari’ahs of the earlier prophets did not forbid such acts in an absolute manner, but prevented them from being used as the instruments of ‘association’ and infidelity. For example, making pictures of living things is not in itself an act of ‘association’ or infidelity, and was hence permissible in the earlier Shari’ahs. In speaking of how the jinns used to serve Sulayman (alayhissalaam0 (Solomon) the Holy Qur’an itself says:
”They made for him whatever he liked – places of worship, and pictures.” [Qur’an 34:13]
Similarly, prostrating oneself before somebody as a gesture of respect was permissible in the earlier Shari’ahs. But gradually the practice opened the way to ‘association’ and infidelity on account of people’s ignorance and thoughtlessness, and even caused grave distortions in the Shari’ahs of different prophets, which had to be rectified by other prophets and other Shari’ahs.
Since the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) is the last of all the prophets and Messengers of Allah, and his shari’ah is the last of all Shari’ahs and is to remain valid upto the end of time, Allah has, in order to protect it against all distortion, stopped every chink through which ‘association’ or idolatry could possibly enter. That is why this Shari’ah has strictly forbidden all those practices which had at one time or another served as a means towards ‘association’ or idol-worship.
For example, making pictures of living things has been totally banned; prostrating oneself before somebody, even as a mark of respect, has been forbidden; it is not permissible to offer one’s Salaah (prayer) at those hours of the day which the infidels had reserved for worshipping their gods, for even this slight and external correspondence might lead to ‘association’; and, according to a hadith reported by Muslim, one is not allowed to call one’s slave an “‘abd”, nor is a slave allowed to call his master a “rabb” – the words respectively signify “a slave” and ‘one who gives nurture’, and are as such harmless, but they can be misconstrued, and may mislead ignorant slaves or helpless and subjugated people into the worship of their masters: hence the prohibition.
With regard to the question of prostration, we may add that, according to some authentic scholars, Salaah, the basic form of Islamic worship, comprises of four kinds of actions – standing upright, bowing, sitting down, and prostrating oneself; the first two of these, standing up and sitting down, are actions which one habitually does in the course of one’s daily chores, and which one also performs as acts of worship in the course of a Salaah (prayer), but the other two, bowing down and prostrating oneself, are actions which one does not go through as a matter of habit, and which are characteristically associated with Salaah (prayer) and ‘Ibadah (worship); hence it is that the Islamic Shari’ah has identified them with acts of worship, and forbidden the Muslims to bow down or prostrate themselves before anyone other than Allah.
Given that the Holy Qur’an itself speaks of prostration as a mark of respect, one would wish to know on what grounds it has been affirmed that the Islamic Shari’ah has forbidden this practice. As to this question, we may point out that several well-known narrations coming down to us from the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) through quite a large number of his blessed Companions, are there to establish that prostrating oneself before somebody as a mark of respect is unlawful (haraam). To cite only one such narration, the Holy Prophet (sallallaahu alayhi wasallam) has said that, if he could allow people to prostrate themselves before anyone other than Allah as a mark of respect, he would have commanded wives to prostrate themselves before their husbands. This clearly shows that prostration as a mark of respect is absolutely forbidden, and no allowance can, in this respect, be made in favour of any created being. We may add that the hadith we have just referred to has come down to us through twenty Companions, while, according to Tadrib al-Rawi, the famous book on the fundamentals of the science of Hadith, a Tradition which has been reported by only ten Companions is called Mutawatir, and enjoys the same authority in the matter of injunctions as the Holy Qur’an.
(2) The Holy Qur’an describes Iblees or Satan as an infidel. His infidelity does not arise from disobedience in his action, for, according to the shari’ah, giving up an obligation in practice is only a sin and a transgression, and does not constitute infidelity. Iblees became an infidel, because he had defied and challenged a Divine commandment, and had, in refusing to prostrate himself, virtually said that, in his opinion, Adam (alayhissalaam) was not worthy of it.
(3) Iblees had attained such a high degree in science and knowledge that he was called Ta’us al-Mala’ikah: “The Peacock Among the Angels.” How did he, then, come to commit such a suicidal error? Some scholars say that it was because of his pride and vanity that Allah took back from him the wealth of knowledge and understanding, and hence he came to act like an ignorant fool. Others have suggested that his error was due to self-love and ambition. The famous commentary, ‘Ruh al-Bayan’ resolves the question by quoting a line of verse in Arabic which shows that once the aid of Allah has been withdrawn from a man, he can no longer save himself from sins, and all the effort he makes only serves to push him farther and farther – into misguidance. May Allah, in his mercy, save all of us from such a fate! The commentary draws from it the conclusion that one should not be vain about one’s learning or one’s deeds or even about one’s ‘Iman (faith), for Iman is valid only if it lasts till one’s final breath and into the first stage of one’s journey to the other world.