Adam is known for humanity’s first sin. Here’s why I named my son after him anyway.
The biblical figure Adam often gets a bad rap. This is understandable. In the creation story in the Book of Genesis, the first man and his wife, Eve, disobey God by eating the fruit of the one tree that God had forbidden. “Eat the fruit and you will be like gods,” the devil tempts them, and so they do. They are banished from the garden.
For centuries, Christians have seen Adam’s action as tainting our human nature and causing a rift between us and God. This is where we, in the Western churches, get our doctrine of original sin—the notion that we humans inherit the guilt of the sin that our first parents committed. Catholics also often hear that Adam was prideful, and that his desire to be like God is the reason for our own human condition of suffering and wickedness.
Given Adam’s poor reputation, it is hardly surprising that I’ve come across so few Christian individuals with his name. Virtually all the Adams I know of are Muslim or Jewish. Yet my husband and I, who are both Catholic and grew up with the prevailing negative image of the first man, were still inspired to give the name to our son when he was born earlier this year.
Given Adam’s poor reputation, it is hardly surprising that I’ve come across so few Christian individuals with his name.
That is because the story we had so often heard about the biblical Adam is not the only version. As a doctoral student in theology studying Islam and Christianity, I have come across portrayals of Adam that are quite different from the one many Catholics know. In the Quran and other Islamic texts, as well as in some lesser-known Christian writings, a more positive image of the first man emerges. These portrayals not only offer new ways of thinking about Adam and humanity, but also new ways of thinking about God—lessons that I hope my infant son will one day take to heart.
As in the Bible, the Adam of the Quran is the first man created by God. He is the first person to have a relationship with God, and he is the father of the diverse human family. In Islam, Adam is considered a prophet, a designation that means something a bit different than it does for Christians. For Muslims, prophets are individuals specially appointed by God to give voice to the divine message throughout history. Adam was the first in a line of prophets that include Abraham, Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus and, finally, Muhammad. After Adam’s creation, God teaches him the names of all the creatures or all the names of God (or both), depending on how one interprets the passage.
In the Quran, the human race is often referred to as “the children of Adam.” As in the Jewish and Christian traditions, Adam is not just the first human but also the archetypal human. Stories about Adam are not only about a single individual but speak to the basic human condition shared by all.
The story we Catholics had so often heard about the biblical Adam is not the only version.
References to Adam are peppered throughout the Quran, including three accounts of the story we call “the Fall.” Adam and Eve are lured by Satan into eating the forbidden fruit, and they are sent out from the garden of paradise to live on the earth. But Muslims (like Jews and even some Eastern Christians) do not draw from this story a doctrine of original sin. In the Quran, Adam and Eve repent immediately, saying, “we have wronged ourselves” and God accepts, citing his compassionate and relenting nature. In this Islamic perspective, we humans are like Adam in that we too sin, but we do not carry the guilt of his own personal error. In multiple places, the Quran states, “No one shall bear the burdens of another.”
Earlier in the Quranic story, God commands the angels to bow to Adam, to acknowledge the first human’s wisdom and his lofty status as God’s representative (or khalifa, caliph) on earth. But Satan, or Iblis in Arabic, refuses to bow, believing that the human is lesser than he is. So, in a sense, the ‘“original sin” of the Islamic story is not Adam’s pride, but rather Satan’s. The devil, in his arrogance, refuses to acknowledge humanity’s inherent dignity. (Perhaps surprisingly, this story of the angels bowing to Adam and Satan’s refusal is not foreign to Christianity. It first appeared in Jewish lore and has beenpart of Christian tradition in the East, too.)
Islam lacks a doctrine of original sin, but that does not mean that Muslims do not take human sin seriously. In the Quran, God constantly points out humanity’s tendency toward corruption, warning us of potentially dire consequences should we fail to take God’s guidance seriously. And the Islamic tradition does speak to a kind of “original forgetfulness,” as Omid Safi has called it. Humans are born into a state of goodness, or fitra, but we are prone to forget God and thus have needed prophets to come at different times and places to set us straight again. In the Quran’s Adam story, the angels even question God as to why he would choose humans, with all our flaws, to be his representatives on earth.
Still, Adam’s fall can be understood as something necessary and even beneficial. The 12th-century Muslim mystic Ahmed Sam’ani wrote that Adam/humanity is able to know God more fully precisely because of our flaws and our distance from God. Through our slip-ups—Sam’ani never uses the word sin—we can know God’s qualities of love and forgiveness, while the angels, who are perfect, can never know God as fully. The Adam story shows that imperfections are natural to being human, and that they actually help us lean on and yearn for God that much more. True love cannot be known without the pain of distance, so Adam needs to be separated (at least for a time) from God to know love’s fullness.
Islam lacks a doctrine of original sin, but that does not mean that Muslims do not take human sin seriously.
Sam’ani says that Adam would have been brought out of paradise even if he had not slipped. He was always intended to fall to earth so that he would be a prophetic model for the rest of humanity in their journey to be united to God. Sam’ani cites a purported saying of the Prophet Muhammad that says, “If you did not sin, God would bring forth a people who do sin, so that He could forgive them.” In this telling of the story, Adam is a model of repentance and dependence on God, not someone to blame for humanity’s predicament. It is a story about God’s overwhelming love, mercy and eagerness to forgive.
More positive views of Adam exist in Christianity, too. Even in the West, where St. Augustine’s notion of inherited sin is dominant, there are alternative voices. Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century English female mystic, offers a parable that is meant to make us rethink our interpretation of humanity’s fall through Adam. In her parable, a well-intentioned servant is tasked with a mission by his lord. The lord represents God, while the servant symbolizes both Adam/humanity and Jesus Christ. The servant runs off, seeking fervently to please the lord, but he falls into a ditch. There the servant flounders in the mud—upset, in pain, sorry for seeming to have failed. He feels separated from his lord. But all the while the lord, loving and merciful, is there.
I pray our Adam channels the wisdom and wonder of the first human, that he strives after God’s will rather than unattainable perfection, and that he takes seriously the task of being one of God’s representatives on earth.
In Julian’s reinterpretation, Adam was not prideful, but sincere. While seeking to do God’s will, he slipped and forgot God. Yet God never abandoned him. As the parable conveys by having the servant symbolize both Adam and Jesus, Christ is inseparable from humanity. Christ falls along with us so that we are always enveloped in God’s mercy. There is no rift that needs to be bridged between us and the divine. God, whom Julian understood as both “Father” and “Mother,” constantly surrounds us. God was not angry with Adam for his inadvertent fall, but rather he was compassionate. Julian would agree with the Quran when it says that God’s rahma—merciful compassion—outstrips God’s wrath. Indeed, she says there is no wrath in God at all.
I hope my husband and I are able to convey to our son some of the lessons from these interpretations of the Adam story. I pray our Adam channels the wisdom and wonder of the first human, that he strives after God’s will rather than unattainable perfection, and that he takes seriously the task of being one of God’s representatives on earth. I hope he knows that the angels bow to his greatness and that he is constantly wrapped in God’s love, even when he falls.