The Islamic scholars say that the “names” that Allah ﷻ taught Adam (alaihi salaam) and the significance of their teaching is a reference to knowledge gained through human ability to think, read, learn & write. This I believe is the most correct scholarly opinion because Allah ﷻ says He taught ٱلۡأَسۡمَآءَ كُلَّهَا - Al Asma’aa Kullahaa i.e. “all the names (of things)” which implies human ability to gain knowledge of the environment and creation then based on that existing knowledge further develop in to newer sciences and knowledge. This ability was exclusive of Adam (alaihi salaam) which the angels could not display: (Al Quran 2:30–33)...they (angels) said, ‘How can You put someone there who will cause damage and bloodshed, when we celebrate Your praise and proclaim Your holiness?’ but He (Allah) said, ‘I know things you do not.’ He taught Adam all the names [of things], then He showed them to the angels and said, ‘Tell me the names of these if you truly [think you can].’ They (Angels) said, ‘May You be glorified! We have knowledge only of what You have taught us. You are the All Knowing and All Wise. Then He said, ‘Adam, tell them the names of these.’ When he told them their names, God said, ‘Did I not tell you that I know what is hidden in the heavens and the earth.'
The angels only knew what was directly imparted to each of them without having the ability to further develop on their limited knowledge. Adam (alaihi salaam) taught names by Allah ﷻ is also an echo of the first set of verses revealed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ where Allah ﷻ commanded: ٱقۡرَأۡ - iqra i.e. “read”, a reminder of how man was created and his characteristic to gain knowledge through the use of pen which highlights his ability of thinking, reading, learning & writing: (Al Quran 96:1–5) Read in the name of your Sustainer, who has created, created man out of a germ-cell! Read - for your Sustainer is the Most Bountiful One, Who has taught [man] the use of the pen, taught man what he did not know! But man exceeds all bounds when he thinks he is self-sufficient.
Furthermore, when the angels said: (Al Quran 2:30) “‘How can You put someone there who will cause damage and bloodshed, when we celebrate Your praise and proclaim Your holiness?’ but He said, ‘I know things you do not.’” - their saying is a reference to the arrogance that accompanies knowledge in humans. Knowledge is power and creates a sense of independence which carries the potential to make us arrogant and commit crimes against the creation and rebel against our Creator. Allah ﷻ reminds us in the first set of verses revealed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ about our potential to become arrogant with increase in knowledge: (Al Quran 96:5–7)...But man exceeds all bounds when he thinks he is self-sufficient.
This may also explain, as pointed by Muhammad Asad in his commentary, that Iblis (Satan) instigated Adam (alaihi salaam) and his wife to eat from the tree called شَجَرَةِ ٱلۡخُلۡ - shajarat ul khuld "tree of life eternal" (Al Quran 20:120), which implies that man may succumb to the desire to achieve immortality on earth by dreaming to become a master of a kingdom that will be eternal. This can only happen as a result of greater increase in knowledge followed by unrestricted material development causing him to overlook moral responsibility, reject the hereafter (akhira) and the very concept of our Creator, God.
While increase in knowledge and development does carry potential to generate arrogance and bad behavior in humans, alternatively it can also generate humility because with knowledge humans also learn a sense of meaning and purpose of life and that explains Allah’s response to angels: “I know things you do not”. There is also potential in us to make use of knowledge in a positive manner, express gratefulness to Allah ﷻ, be humble and serve and benefit the creation by following the way of His chosen ones called Prophets & Messengers, as Allah ﷻ says: (Al Quran 35:28)…It is those of His servants who have knowledge who stand in true fear of God. God is almighty, most forgiving.”
This expression of arrogance or humility in learned individuals depends on how much of their learning process was guided by taqwa or God consciousness which primarily defines the purpose of education in Islam. Imam Ghazali (also called Algazel) gives a beautiful parable to explain this fact: “Education is like rain water which comes down pure. Trees, plants and leaves drink that water which assumes different natures according to their different kinds. Water increases bitterness in a plant that is bitter and sweetness in a plant which is sweet. People acquire education and change it according to their conduct and desires. One whose object of learning is to boast increases his boast by education. One whose object is to increase God-fear increases his God-fear by education.”
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