Today, we can find answers for the fundamental question of what it means to be human that claim to cast doubt on the essential reality of our humanity itself. The Quran, however, affirms our humanness and describes four aspects of the human—our physical creation, our spirit, our natural disposition (fitrah), and our light—all of which have an unmediated origin from God and combine to make the human a distinctive and special creation.
The Physical Creation of Human in Quran
God says that He created the human with “His two Hands.” Nothing else in creation possesses this distinction. Addressing the progenitor of Satan and his dupes, God says, “O Iblīs! What prevented you from prostrating unto one I created with My two Hands? Were you arrogant or were you haughty?” (38:75). Quranic exegetes opine that the “one” being referred to here is Adam, peace be upon him, the father of humanity. As for the meaning of “created with My two Hands,” we are told,
In the opinion of some latter-day exegetes, this is an example of the great care afforded to his [Adam’s] creation. An aspect of the affair of one that is scrupulously cared for is that he is handled with two Hands. One of the implications of this is that his creation was without the intermediary of a father or a mother. Also, he constitutes a small creation within which the entire wider creation is contained. Furthermore, he is suitable [for receiving] an overflowing of favors which do not grace other than himself.
Ţāhir al-Āshūr notes the divine directness implied in the human being created by the “two Hands” of God. Commenting on this verse, he says,
That is to say [it is] a special creation occurring in a single instance, in direct response to the creative command. The efficacy displayed in this act of creating is more direct than the efficacy in the creation of types of existence predicated on ordinary means such as pregnancy and childbirth.
This indicates that the human being began his journey as a physical creature with the direct, unmitigated creative act of God. Without this distinction, there is much the human shares with other creatures. For example, “God has created every beast from water. Among them are those that creep upon their bellies, those that walk on two legs, and others that walk on all four” (24:45). Like the birds, the human walks on two legs, although his erect torso and upright gait still make him unique. While birds walk upright, their torsos are either parallel to the ground or face downward at varying angles.
The great attention and detail paid to the creation of the human represents another unique attribute of the human’s physical creation. We read, for example,
Verily, We have created the human from a quintessence of clay; then We placed him as a drop in a fixed resting place. We then made the drop into a clot and that into a fetus. We then made bones and clothed the bones with flesh and from that brought forth another creation. Therefore, blessed is God, the very Best of those who create. (23:12−14)
Similar narrations are found in 22:5, 35:11, and 40:67. This level of detail is not found in the description of the creation of any other creature in the Quran. One reason for this detailed description could be that the human is the only physical creature capable of reflecting on the miraculous processes culminating with his entrance into the world. It follows that we are the only creatures who can recognize that we have a marvelous Creator, who should be rightfully thanked for the incredible process that brought us into existence. The Quran implores us to do just that in 16:78, 23:78, and 33:9.5
As mentioned above, the most notable physical distinction of the human is his ability to stand permanently upright. God says, “Do you reject belief in the One who has created you from dust, then from a clot, then made you an upright man?” (18:37; also 82:7, 32:9, 38:72). A nonphysical reality—namely, sociability—accompanies this unique physical distinction. We read in the Quran, “Remember the favor of God upon you, how you were enemies, and He placed sociability between your hearts, and you became, by His blessing, brothers” (3:103).
This sociability is predicated, in part, on the upright stature of the human. His heart always points outwards. As a result, when he embraces another human, the hearts of two are joined, establishing a metaphysical connection between them. For this reason, the Prophet ﷺ has warned the believers, “Lā tadābarū (do not turn your backs to one another).” When believers turn their backs to one another, their hearts also turn away, breaking the metaphysical connection—a connection established by God and facilitated by their upright posture—between them.
Spirit in Quran
Man’s uprightness also makes the human being a fitting receptacle for the rūĥ (spirit), a special and unique creation of God, which not only animates the physical body of the human but also his senses and intellect. His physical stature and his spirit are two essential elements that define his humanity. Commenting on the following Quranic phrase, “And when He had made him upright and breathed into him of His spirit” (38:72), Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī says, “This indicates that the creation of the human is only complete with two things: first of all, his uprightness, and then the breathing of the spirit into him. This is true because the human is a composite of body and soul.”
While his uprightness may lead the human to exalt in what could be viewed as a unique virtue, aspects of his physical creation should also lead him to humble himself. For example, in the Quran, God reminds us, “Does not the human see that We made him from a drop of sperm? Then lo, he becomes a rebellious disputant who sets before Us parables and forgets his [lowly] origin” (36:77−78). We are reminded by some who comment on this verse that our beginning, in a sense, originates from the same channel that urine exits our bodies. How could such a creature behave arrogantly?
The breathing of the spirit into the human makes him a composite creation, although not in an Aristotelean sense.9 Some reject this apparent dualism as an accretion rooted in other faith or intellectual traditions. For example, the late Muslim thinker Fazlur Rahman states,
The Qurān does not appear to endorse the kind of doctrine of a radical mind-body dualism found in Greek philosophy, Christianity, or Hinduism; indeed there is hardly a passage in the Qurān that says man is composed of two separate, let alone disparate substances, the body and the soul (even though later orthodox Islam, particularly after al-Ghazālī and largely through his influence, came to accept it).
If Imam al-Ghazālī does accept the idea of a composite human—body and soul—it is an idea that is deeply rooted in the Quran. For example, as mentioned above, the Quran reminds us that the spirit is a distinct nonphysical creation breathed into the physical body (see 32:9, 15:29, 38:72, 21:91). The spirit and the physical body of the human, this means, were two distinct entities when they were brought together. The Quran does not indicate that they lose their individual natures upon uniting.
Additionally, many hadiths clearly indicate that the spirit enjoys an existence that is distinct from the body, both before and after physical life. For example, “The spirits are varied troops. Those who knew each other [precorporally] find familiarity, and those who were ignorant of each other find disharmony.” Many scholars use this narration as a proof that the spirits were created before the body. After the spirit enters the body, those who knew each other in the precorporeal realm experience familiarity upon meeting in this world, whereas those who were unknown to each other in that realm sense an estrangement upon meeting in the world. As for the fate of the soul after death, we are told, among other things, that the spirits of martyrs live on in the bodies of green birds in Paradise. These and similar narrations make it clear that the spirit has an existence distinct from the body.
Once the human has been animated by the spirit, he can undertake his primary purpose: namely, to worship and to know his Lord. We read in the Quran, “I have not created the jinn and humankind except that they worship Me” (51:56). Many Muslim exegetes mention that this verse can also be interpreted to mean “that they know Me.” These two meanings are consistent with the nature of the human, as worship involves bodily actions associated with the physicality of the human, while true knowledge of God requires a metaphysical process.