Premortality in the Pearl of Great Price and the Qur’an

Kathryn Taketa, “Premortality in the Pearl of Great Price and the Qur’an,” in Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium, 2004 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2004), 203–217.

Premortality in the Pearl of Great Price and the Qur’an

Kathryn Taketa

Three major questions often posed by humankind regarding life on earth are: Where did I come from? What is the purpose of my life on earth? and What will happen to me after I die? Major religions of the world usually address the latter two questions with discussions of an afterlife, with the basic idea that those who live a good life will inherit some sort of paradise, while those who are wicked will reap punishment. The basic tenet of most religions, therefore, is to encourage people to live a good life and to believe in some sort of god or gods. Nonetheless, it seems that many religions, as communicated in contemporary doctrinal teachings, are reluctant to delve into any type of detailed response to the first question, where did I come from? If addressed, the question is often answered with the doctrinal idea that we came from God and were created by Him. Little, if any, discussion focuses on whether we existed in some type of form or entity prior to life on earth. Yet a thorough study of ancient scripture and religious literature reveals abundant references to such a premortal existence. Such literature not only recognizes the idea of a premortal life but discusses specific events and occurrences that transpired in that sphere.

Specifically, the Pearl of Great Price details events in a premortal realm, including the creation of the earth, the rise and overthrow of an adversary figure, the presentation of a plan designed by God for the salvation of man, and the assertion of agency as a crucial component of that plan. In parallel fashion, the Holy Qur’an, the primary book of scripture in Islam, recounts happenings in an existence that appears to have commenced prior to life on earth. The suggestion of such a premortal existence is foreign and even radical in many religions. This concept, however, has significant ramifications. For example, the scriptural narratives detailing events in a premortal realm offer invaluable insights into the nature of mankind and our purpose on earth. Both the Qur’an and the Pearl of Great Price detail a Council in Heaven, with discussions concerning life on earth prior to its creation. The content of those discussions communicates powerfully that this existence did not occur by chance. It speaks of the gravity of this life, that humankind was given mortal life for a specific purpose. Mankind’s potential and relationship with God are both elucidated in the Qur’an and the Pearl of Great Price. Furthermore, these two textual accounts of a premortal existence lend insights into the nature of the creation of the earth, as well as the concept of an adversary figure who opposes God. Thus, perspectives on the nature of God and man in these two sacred texts are profoundly affected by the idea that humans existed before life on earth. This concept provides much clearer answers to the question, Where did I come from? The insights gained from a better understanding of that query shed additional light and knowledge on the latter two questions, What is the purpose of my existence on earth? and What will happen to me after I die? Together the answers to these questions lead to a much deeper appreciation of life on earth.

Events that took place in a premortal realm are a principal theme of the Pearl of Great Price. The third chapter of Abraham recounts the proceedings of a Council in Heaven, as well as other noteworthy events that took place “before the world was” (Abraham 3:22). This statement asserts that prior to the Creation of the earth, important occurrences were taking place in the heavens. In Islam the concept of a premortal life is not specifically taught nor believed. Nonetheless, in his book Islam: Beliefs and Observances, Caesar E. Farah confirms the Islamic doctrine that man came from God and that God created him.[1] More specifically, the Islamic concept of God is Neoplatonic in nature: God is viewed as an ultimate, indivisible, absolute being from which the world emanates. A close examination of the Qur’an, however, seems to suggest that the relationship between God and man extends to a time preceding mortal life. Indeed, in my view the Qur’an alludes to a premortal existence with God: “He [God] gave you life, Then He will cause you to die, and will again bring you to life; And again to Him will ye return.”[2] The specific use of the word “return” indicates a belief that mankind was with God prior to this life and that we will return to His presence upon the conclusion of life on earth.

A similar passage states, “It is We [royal “We”] Who give life and make to die and to Us is the homecoming.”[3] If there is a homecoming in returning to God, then certainly the place where God dwells must have been a home to humankind, the first home of intelligent life. The term homecoming seems to portray this life as a kind of intermediary stage between a previous life and a life to come, in which mankind is away from home for a period of time.

Throughout the Qur’an and the Pearl of Great Price as well, emphasis is placed on faith and righteous living so that humankind might be able to enjoy a homecoming. Muhammed Abdel Haleem, a Muslim scholar, analyzes these verses, commenting that “the plan of two worlds [this life and the afterlife] and the relationship between them has been, from the beginning, part of the divine scheme of things.”[4] Abdel Haleem’s reference to a plan is significant. This seems to imply that mortal life on the earth was planned from the beginning as part of God’s design in what must have taken place prior to the earth’s actual creation. It appears that from the Qur’anic point of view, humans were given life in that premortal sphere and anticipated returning to God after a sojourn on earth.

Both the Qur’an and the Pearl of Great Price offer detailed, albeit differing, accounts of the Creation of the earth, one of the most momentous events of premortality. The nature of the Creation is significant because this impacts the perception of the nature of humankind. The Creation is traditionally taught in Islam as a creation out of nothing. However, the Creation accounts contained in the Pearl of Great Price and the Qur’an both portray the Creation as an organization of already existent matter, as opposed to a creation in a vacuum. This is a point of considerable gravity: if the earth was created from emptiness, it follows that man was also created out of nothing, and the idea of man’s existence prior to the creation would be invalidated. Conversely, if the creation was an organization of already existent matter, then mankind must have existed in some form prior to the formal initiation of his life on earth.

Daniel Peterson, in his article “Does the Qur’an Teach Creation Ex Nihilo?” argues that analysis of the Qur’anic text itself tends to favor the idea that the earth was created from matter, rather than ex nihilo, or from nothing. Peterson examines the etymology of the Arabic word for creation used in the Qur’an: “The most common relevant Qur’anic root is khalaqa. Significantly, its original meaning seems to have been associated, much like the creation-related vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible, with such things as working leather. It expressed, too, ‘the idea of determining parts, and . . . the idea of polishing, equalising.’”[5]

The word khalaqa, he says, brings to mind the ideas of proportion and symmetry, suggesting a closer relation in meaning to the words form or shape, as opposed to an actual, literal creation.[6] This idea is further expressed when examining the wording of the Qur’an with regards to the creation of man, in that “Man . . . is said to have been created ‘from dust’ [min turab] (Q 30:20; this is specifically stated of Adam and Jesus at Q 3:59), from the ‘earth’ [ard] (Q 20:55), ‘from clay’ [min tin] (Q 6:2; 7:12; 32:7; 38: 71, 76; cf 17:61), ‘from sounding clay, from mud’ [min salsal min hama’] (Q 15:26, 15:28, 33), ‘from an extraction of clay’ [min sulalat tin] (Q 23:12), ‘from sticky clay’ [min tin lazib] (37:11), and ‘from sounding clay like earthenware’ [min salsal ka-al-fakhkar] (Q 55:14).”[7]

The idea of man being created from dust or clay supports the view of creation as an organization of matter rather than creation from nothing. It follows closely with accounts in the Pearl of Great Price and the Bible, which state that God “formed man from the dust of the ground” (Moses 3:7; see also 4:25; Genesis 2:7). Furthermore, the Qur’an states that God’s “design comprehended the heavens, For He gave order and perfection to the seven firmaments; And of all things He hath perfect knowledge. The creation as it is recounted “[8] here appears not to be the construction of matter from nothingness and emptiness but the lending of “order and perfection” to the world, or, specifically, to the seven firmaments. This view of the creation suggests that mankind was also organized from previously existent matter and further supports the idea of a premortal human existence.

Abdullah Yusuf Ali, in his English translation of the Holy Qur’an, offers the following commentary regarding Q. 2:28–29: “When you die on the earth, that is not the end. You were of Him, and you must return to Him. The immeasurable depths of space above and around you may stagger you. They are part of His plan. What you have imagined as the seven firmaments (and any other scheme you may construct) bears witness to His design of order and perfection, for His knowledge (unlike yours) is all-comprehending.”[9]

In his commentary, Ali states that we were of God and that we must “return to Him,” reflecting the sentiment of the Qur’anic text. This further emphasizes the idea that the human race existed prior to its inception on earth and that this life is an intermediary phase between a previous life with God and a reunion with Him in the hereafter. Ali’s commentary evidences a plan designed by God for the benefit of humankind; indeed, as stated in verse 29, God “created for you [mankind] all things that are on earth.” If God created all things on the earth specifically for mankind, surely that would require a sound acquaintance with the needs, as well as the strengths and weaknesses, of man. In other words, God realized man’s potential and what he could do with all of the elements on earth created for him. In the Qur’an the creation of the earth seems to be part of a specific plan for man, which God designed prior to the creation and establishment of life on earth. Such a plan would witness to the omniscience and eternal wisdom of God, ideas repeatedly underscored throughout the Qur’an and the Pearl of Great Price.

Further commentary by Ali on the Q. 2:30–39 provides additional insight into the nature of man and the plan designed for him:

Yet Man! What wonderful destiny

Is Thine! Created to be

God’s vicegerent on earth!

A little higher than the angels!

Yet beguiled by evil! Set for a season

On this earth on probation

To purge thy stain, with the promise

Of guidance and hope from on high,

From the Oft-Returning, Merciful!

Wilt thou choose right and regain

Thy spiritual home with God?[10]

The opening lines of this passage clearly allude to the great potential of mankind. We have a “wonderful destiny,” created with the purpose of acting as “God’s vicegerent on earth.” In the Arabic text of the Q. 2:31, the word translated into English as “vicegerent” is khalifa. According to Edward Lane’s Arabic-English Lexicon, khalifa can be translated as “a successor: and a vice-agent, vice-gerent, lieutenant, substitute, proxy, or deputy: one who has been made, or appointed, to take the place of him who has been before him.”[11] From this definition it is clear that mankind has fantastic potential, created specifically with the intent and purpose of acting as God’s deputy on earth. Mankind is appointed not only as a deputy but as a successor to God, appointed to take the place of Him who was before him. The willingness on the part of God to bestow such a position on man evidences the extreme trust and confidence God has in the capabilities and potential of mankind. Indeed, man is invested with a spirit by God: “the Knower of the unseen and the seen, the Mighty, the Ever Merciful Who has created everything in the best condition, and Who began the creation of man from clay . . . made his progeny from an extract of an insignificant fluid. Then He perfected his faculties and breathed into him of His spirit.”[12] The account here names man as the progeny of God (not accepted doctrine in Islam today), and consequently man has a divine heritage. It was God’s divine Spirit that gave man life and “perfected his faculties.” The idea expressed seems to reflect the sentiment of God when He speaks to Moses as recounted in the Pearl of Great Price: “Thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten . . . for he is full of grace and truth” (Moses 1:6). In the Pearl of Great Price, this idea is carried a step further. God declares to Moses, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Mankind not only has an immeasurable potential, but the fulfillment of that potential is the very aim of God’s work. When mankind can achieve immortality and eternal life, it is a glory to God. Thus, the nature of man and God’s plan for him are intimately connected.

The final lines of Ali’s commentary reflect the purpose God had in placing man on earth. Man would be set on the earth, not permanently but “for a season.” If man indeed lived with God before coming to live on the earth, what then was the purpose of such an intentional separation of man from his Maker? Ali provides an answer, asserting that this life on earth would serve as “probation to purge [man’s] stain.”[13] The same idea of earth being a probationary period is given in the Q. 67:2: “He [God] created death and life that He might try you according to which of you is best in works.”[14] Further, man would not be left to rely upon his own faulty judgment but was given a “promise of guidance and hope” from a merciful God, who would not forget the beings whom He had created. The final line of Ali’s commentary pointedly poses the question to the reader, “Wilt thou choose right and regain Thy spiritual home with God?” He emphasizes the power of choice in man’s destiny. Man’s own actions and choices have a hand in determining his state in the postmortal realm; choices in line with God’s will enable him to return to God’s presence.

Moral choice is integral to God’s plan and is crucial to the makeup and nature of man. Both the Qur’an and latter-day scriptures express the view that man is superior to all other earthly creations. The Qur’an states that “We have indeed honoured the children of Adam, and . . . exalted them high above the greater part of Our creation.”[15] Even more than that, however, Ali asserts in his commentary that man’s station exceeds even that of divine ministers, created to be a “little higher than the angels.” The prospect that man ranks above angels suggests that he possesses inherent traits that set him apart from the race of divine ministers. Ali proposes that man’s ability to experience passions and emotions, as well as his ability to choose for himself, serve as those distinguishing characteristics.

It would seem that the angels, though holy and pure, and endued with power from God, yet represented only one side of Creation. We may imagine them without passion or emotion, of which the highest flower is love. If man was to be endued with emotions, those emotions could lead him to the highest and drag him to the lowest. The power of will (when used aright) gave him to some extent a mastery over his own fortunes and over nature, thus bringing him nearer to the God-like nature, which has supreme mastery and will. We may suppose the angels had no independent wills of their own; their perfection in other ways reflected God’s perfection but could not raise them to the dignity of vicegerency. The perfect vicegerent is he who has the power of initiative himself, but whose independent action always reflects perfectly the will of his principal.”[16]

The nature of man, which allows him to feel emotions, is the very quality that sets him apart from the angels and permits him to be worthy of the title of vicegerent to God. The proper exercise of the power of will, or agency, is of the utmost importance. When man independently aligns his actions with the will of God, it is then that he is able to come nearer to the “God-like nature.” Agency, as discussed in the Pearl of Great Price and Book of Mormon, is a quality of man that is crucial to God’s plan for him. In the second chapter of 2 Nephi, Lehi teaches his son Jacob regarding God’s will for man in the context of the Fall and Redemption. In verse 16, Lehi says, “The Lord God gave unto man that he should act for himself.” As a consequence of the redemption from the Fall, mankind “have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon. . . . And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil” (2 Nephi 2:26–27).

These verses parallel those in the Qur’an in their statement that God gave man the power of will, or agency, as a key part of a divinely crafted plan. Man is free to act as he chooses. In the Q. 41:40, two types of people are discussed, he “who is cast into the Fire” and he “who comes to Us secure on the Day of Judgment.” The declaration is issued directly to man, “Do as you wish.” It is stipulated, however, with a reminder of God’s omniscience, “Surely He sees all that you do.”[17] Mankind is therefore free to choose his course of action but will inevitably reap the consequences. Furthermore, man is not given to make choices as an ignorant being, but he was instructed by God as to good and evil. The Qur’anic passage in 9:8–10 poses the rhetorical question, “Have We not given him two eyes, and a tongue and two lips, and pointed out to him the two highways of good and evil?”[18] Mankind, in the Qur’an, is well acquainted with good and evil, and can make educated choices accordingly. This is precisely what makes the gift of agency so powerful. Furthermore, the association with right and wrong is connected to the soul and its ‘perfect proportioning’: “We call to witness . . . the heaven and the purpose of its making, and the earth and the purpose of its spreading out, and the soul and its perfect proportioning (He revealed to it the right and wrong of everything), he indeed prospers who purifies it, and he is ruined who corrupts it”[19]

Because mankind has had the right and wrong of everything revealed to him, his soul is purportedly in “perfect proportion.” To choose incorrectly is to throw that perfect proportion out of balance. Additionally, the passage seems to suggest that the soul is connected with the heavens, the earth, and their purposes as well. It would then follow that he who purifies the heavens, the earth, and his soul would prosper, and that he who corrupts such would be ruined.

The Pearl of Great Price further clarifies the gravity of the man’s agency in God’s perspective. In Moses 4:3, Satan reaps dire consequences in seeking to rob man of his ability to choose: “Because that Satan rebelled against me [God], and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, . . . I caused that he should be cast down.” It is specifically stated here that God had given agency to man. Satan rebelled against God by seeking to remove the power of choice from man. This further emphasized that God must have intended for man to have that power, for in seeking to strip man of that gift, Satan was thrust down.

The Qur’an details other events of the premortal world which shed further light on the nature of man. Starting in verse 30 of the second Sura of the Qur’an, a three-way dialogue ensues between God, Adam and the angels. God instructs Adam as to the “names of all His attributes.”[20] Thereafter, God asks the angels to tell Him of those attributes. The angels are unable to perform the requested task, whereupon Adam teaches them in the way of all things. The notion that Adam was thus created to be a “little higher than the angels” is driven home. This implies that because Adam was created with a nature closer to that of divinity than the angels, he could comprehend and instruct in areas where they could not. God “created and made man flawless . . . [and] determined the measure of his faculties and guided him accordingly.”[21] Additionally, in Q. 95:4, it is stated that man was created “in the best mould.” Therefore, man was made with great abilities and potential that elevated him to a surprisingly high status. God created man with His own wise purposes in mind, which purposes the angels could not fathom. In response to God’s initial announcement that He would create man, the angels cried, “Wilt Thou then place there also such as will create disorder therein and shed blood, while we glorify Thee with Thy praise and extol Thy Holiness? Whereupon He admonished them: I know that which ye know not.”[22] Only the negative side of man’s willful and emotional nature was apparent to the angels, but God in His wisdom knew the full capacities and potential of man.

The dialogue between God, Adam and the angels continues in verse 34, and the significant role of an adversary figure opposing God’s plan becomes evident. God calls on the angels to submit to Adam by bowing down to him. All acquiesce, with the exception of one called Iblis: “he refused and was arrogant, being already one of the disbelievers.”[23] A later Qur’anic passage provides further insight into the character of Iblis, noting that “He was one of the jinn, so he rebelled against his Lord’s command. Will ye choose him [Adam] and his seed for your protecting friends instead of Me, when they are an enemy unto you?”[24] Pickthall notes in his translation that “the fact that Iblis or Satan is of the jinn and not of the angels, though he was among the latter, explains his disobedience; since jinn, like men, can choose their path of conduct.”[25] Thus, it is clear that Iblis also possessed agency and willfully used it to rebel against God. Farah specifically identifies Iblis as Satan, stating that “the devil (Shaytan) or Satan . . . at one time was himself an angel but [was] expelled from heaven for refusing to bow to Adam and the Lord’s command.”[26] The fall of Iblis is specifically recounted in the Qur’an: “He protested: Shall I prostrate myself along with one whom Thou hast created of clay? Tell me, Lord, can I submit to this one whom Thou hast honoured above me? If Thou wilt grant me respite till the Day of Judgment, I will most surely reduce his posterity to subjection except a few. Allah said: Get out. Hell shall be the recompense of you all, thee and those who follow thee from among them: an adequate recompense . . . thou shalt have no authority over My true servants.”[27]

Clearly Satan was cast out because of his pride and rebellious attitude against God. Satan represents the force of opposition, for which God has no tolerance. He was jealous of the honor granted to man and desired to rule over him. In the Qur’anic account, Satan tells God that if he will but “grant [him] respite till the Day of Judgment, I will most surely reduce his posterity to subjection except a few.” This is not unlike his claim recorded in the Pearl of Great Price, in which he came before God and said, “Behold, here am I, send me, I will be thy son, and I will redeem all mankind, that one soul shall not be lost, and surely I will do it; wherefore give me thine honor” (Moses 4:1). Satan desired to take away the agency of man, which, according to Ali, was the very power that elevated man above the level of angels. Taking away man’s agency would consequently serve a dual purpose: (1) it would reduce all of Adam’s posterity to subjection, allowing Satan to force all to be “redeemed,” and winning glory and honor for himself, and (2) mankind would be stripped of the very power that elevated him above the angels and made him vicegerent to God.

According to the Pearl of Great Price account, Satan attempted to usurp the role as the Redeemer of mankind for himself. His was an act of open rebellion to God’s plan. Both Qur’anic and Pearl of Great Price accounts provide evidence that God’s plan was to create an earth for man, grant him agency, and try him through a probationary period on earth. If man proved righteous and faithful, he would be allowed to return to the presence of God and reap eternal glory. He would fully develop his potential through the correct application of the agency granted him and be able to progress into the eternities.

The similarities between the Qur’an and the Pearl of Great Price, both extremely influential books of scripture from two different religious realms, are both impressive and surprising. Although modern Islamic belief does not support the idea of a premortal existence, an examination of the Qur’anic text itself seems to indicate otherwise. The implications of these two books with regards to a life prior to mortal existence are numerous and significant. Both accounts show that life on earth was planned prior to its creation. Therefore, mortal life is not simply a product of chance, but part of a divine scheme intended for the benefit, learning, and growth of humankind. Life is a probationary period, and therefore the choices made by individuals have consequences which resonate from this life into the next. Man was given agency, a power so great that it elevated him above angels, made him a prime target of the adversary, and gave him the title of vicegerent to God. Finally, if man proves faithful in earth life, he can return to God, to the same realm where he existed premortally, but as an experienced being. The knowledge and inspiration that come to the human mind regarding events of a premortal existence instill a richer understanding and respect for the purpose of this life. The answers to the questions, Where did I come from? What is the purpose of my life on earth? and What will happen to me after I die? are intimately connected. Perhaps the greatest implication that arises out of these accounts of premortality is that God designed all of it for the benefit of His creation, the human race. This shows that God is intimately concerned with the human race and is anxious to foster a glorious homecoming, which engenders an appreciation of life that is eternally significant.

Notes



[1] See Caesar E. Farah, Islam: Beliefs and Observances, 5th ed. (New York: Barron’s Educational Series, 1994), 107.

[2] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary (New York: Hafner, 1946), 2:28, 30:40.

[3] Qur’an 50:43; Muhammed Abdel Haleem, Understanding the Qur’an: Themes and Style (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999), 83.

[4] Haleem, Understanding the Qur’an, 82.

[5] Daniel C. Peterson, “Does the Qur’an Teach Creation Ex Nihilo?” in By Study and Also By Faith (Salt Lake City and Provo, UT: Deseret Book and FARMS, 1990), 1:592.

[6] See Peterson, “Creation Ex Nihilo,” 593.

[7] Peterson, “Creation Ex Nihilo,” 592–93.

[8] Qur’an 2:29.

[9] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Holy Qur’an: Text, Translation and Commentary (New York: Hafner, 1946), 23.

[10] Ali, The Holy Qur-an, 23–24.

[11] Edward William Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon (Beirut, Lebanon: Librairie du Liban, 1980), 2:797–98.

[12] Qur’an 32:6–9; Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, trans., The Quran (London, Curzon Press, 1981), 407.

[13] Ali, The Holy Qur-an, 23–24.

[14] Abdel Haleem, Understanding the Qur’an, 83.

[15] Qur’an 17:70–71; Kahn, The Qur’an, 271.

[16] Ali, The Holy Qur-an, 24.

[17] Kahn, The Qur’an, 479.

[18] Ali, The Holy Qur’an, 619.

[19] Qur’an 91:2–11; Kahn, The Qur’an, 620.

[20] Qur’an 2:31; Kahn, The Qur’an, 9.

[21] Qur’an 87:2–3; Kahn, The Qur’an, 615.

[22] Qur’an 2:30; Kahn, The Qur’an, 9.

[23] Qur’an 2:34; Kahn, The Qur’an, 9.

[24] Qur’an 18:50; Marmaduke, Pickthall, The Glorious Koran: A Bilingual Edition with English Translation, Introduction, and Notes (London: George Allan and Unwin, 1976), 387.

[25] Pickthall, The Glorious Koran, 387.

[26] Farah, Islam, 110.

[27] Qur’an 17:62–66; Khan, The Qur’an, 270.