By Dr. Eren Tatari
The prophetic saying (hadith) “God has created Adam in His image” is a parable that should be understood in terms of attributes, not necessarily in its literal meaning. “…in His image” refers to Divine Attributes rather than appearance. In other words, God has created Adam (human beings) with the capacity to reflect His Attributes of Perfection (Asma al-Husna). Thus, each of us is created in the image of God in order to reflect His Attributes from the functional point of view. Likewise, verse 95:4 of the Qur’an states that God has created human in the best form (taqweem). God turns our attention to the signs within us and urges us to ponder upon them:
“On the earth there are (clear) signs (of God’s Oneness as Lord and Sovereign) for those who seek certainty; And also in your own selves. Will you then not see (the truth)?” (Qur’an, 51:20-21).
The parable, then, is referring to the signs within us. In light of this prophetic saying and these verses, can we not say that we are the masterpiece of our Creator, and the signs in us are the manifestations of God’s Attributes? In a way, everything in us is created by God, such as our physical body, our senses, and the way we think and behave. As far as our creation is concerned, nothing is missing or imperfect. The Creator has manifested His Attributes in the best way.
What should we make of this reality about our existence? Should we be proud of it and spoil the world with our self-indulgence as if we were its rightful tyrants? Once we realize that we are the masterpiece of the Creator, and that we have the potential to manifest His Attributes of perfection, our responsibility is to try to develop this potential and act accordingly without contradicting our true nature/fitrah. When we act, we are to reflect, for instance, His Mercy, and realize that it is not from us, but from God.
Developing our potential does not mean improving it (as if it was not perfect to begin with). We are already given the full potential to reflect all of God’s Attributes. Our only responsibility is to avoid covering up (the literal meaning of kufr) or preventing God’s Attributes from being reflected through us. When we choose not to reflect God’s Mercy through us (thus act mercilessly), we are hindering our potential and the purpose of our creation. On the other hand, when we let our potential and purpose manifest themselves, it is from God. In other words, when we help someone in need by complying with our inner call (or acting in the way we have been created), we should realize that we are not the source of this virtue, but only a mirror.
Everyone has been created with different levels of abilities to develop. As Rumi put it beautifully, every cup created by God is full, but some cups are smaller than others. Yet, everyone has the same duty towards his/her Creator: submission. We have been given a certain capacity and our duty is to fill our cup/fulfill our capacity in the way God wants. So what does God want from us? God is educating us through the Scriptures and the Messengers to accept reality as it is. In other words, God wants us to realize and acknowledge that nothing is from us, and that everything is only from Him.
So we have a big responsibility. We are carrying the best “jewels” from the treasure of God’s Attributes. If we are not benefiting from them, it does not matter how many years we carry the jewels, but if we use them in the best way, we benefit greatly. Thus, we should not cover them up, or hinder their manifestation through us. We should not claim to own them or use them in a wrong way.
We have been created in the image of God, given the potential to manifest God’s Attributes so that we might use them to get to know our Creator. We can know God through our own existence because the Attributes of God are engraved in us (i.e. His Divine Breath breathed through us while we are in the womb). Thus, our duty as human beings is two-fold: Knowing and recognizing God and acting accordingly.
Knowing and recognizing God is belief (iman); acting accordingly is the action (amal). Belief comes first, and action follows. And inevitably, acting without acknowledging the real source of all our qualities leads to arrogance.
 Dr. Eren Tatari is the author of Surrendering to God: Understanding Islam in the Modern Age (Tughra Publications, December 2012). She is an Assistant Professor at Rollins College, FL focusing on Islam and Muslims in the West.