Was Adam Created from "Clay"?

The Quran provides several verses describing the creation of Adam, the father of all mankind. Historically, the standard way scholars have reconciled these verses is reflected in a quote attributed to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. The narration states, in part, that God created Adam by taking dirt, then adding water to form mud, then let it set, then God formed Adam, then let the clay dry hard, and finally God breathed into the hard clay a soul. (1) This narration was reported by the companion Abu Huraira who frequently taught both prophetic teachings, and stories he heard from other sources. Unfortunately, it was not uncommon for people who heard him to confuse the source of his information and falsely attribute quotes to Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. (2) This narration appears to be one such example of false attribution, and the scholar Imam Al’Nisa’i stated that it was not reliable. Yet this narrative is the standard explanation given when reconciling the various verses in the Quran on this topic.

This narrative is not above the realm of possibility, because God can do anything, but it suffers from at least two issues given our modern knowledge of science:

1- We know that the human body is composed of about 60% water. When you form clay, clay contains about 25% water. When it is allowed to air dry into a hard surface, it obviously loses even more of its water. So basically, the step of allowing the clay to dry appears to be a wasted step because the water would just need to be added back again in the creation process. Furthermore, the human body does not have the same proportions of any of the other elements that would be found in a body made of clay.  So the step when the soul was added would have had to completely change the composition of the hard, dry, clay body to turn it into a living human body. If the soul did that upon entering the human body, it would seem reasonable that the body would physically transform back to its previous condition when the soul leaves, and we know that doesn’t happen. 

2- This creation story at least implies that humans should have unique DNA in the animal kingdom because Adam was created directly from “clay”. The reality is that we share most of our DNA with other animals. For example, we share about 95 percent of our genetic material with Chimps and about 60 percent with mice.

When the Quran is evaluated without the bias of the above weak narration, a different interpretation emerges that doesn’t suffer from any of the above issues. First, we have to start with a little background:

 In the classical Arabic of the Quran, things are often named based on how they visually appear rather than based on what they actually are. So for example, what we today call stages of human embryonic development, the Quran refers to as “mixed fluids”, then hanging “blood clot” or “leach”, then a “chewed piece of flesh”, then “bones”, then the “bones” are covered with “meat”. (23:14). These are not literal physical descriptions. The human embryo is never literally a chewed piece of flesh. These stages are accurate and simple visual descriptions of embryonic development.

In the Quran, Adam is described as being made from “salsal.” In Arabic, salsal refer to the condition in which clay has dried to form a hard substance but has not yet been fired. (3) The word “clay” is not used in the Quran. Rather, it is this description of “salal” that is often translated “sounding clay” or “dry clay” that has created the impression that the Quran is stating that the composition of Adam was in fact actually clay. As will become apparent, it more consistent with the Quranic approach to understand “salsal” as a visual description of appearance rather than a physical description.

The story of the creation of Adam and the Devil’s refusal of God’s command to bow to him is repeated in the Quran in several places. In (7:12), (17:61), and (38:71-76), the Devil justifies his refusal to obey God’s command because he felt he was better than Adam who was “made from T’een.” T’een is the Arabic word for mud, or the mixture of earth and water. The word is not limited to mud made from clay.

Then in (15:28-33), the Quran repeats the same story but substitutes a different description instead of T’een. In these verses, Adam is described as being made from “Salsa” made from “Hama’” that is “Masnoon.” In classical Arabic, Hama’ refers to black, dark, rich mud that is decomposing, and “Masnoon” is used as an adjective to describe something that is rotting or changing. “Masnoon” can also be used to refer to something that is being poured. (4)  From this we see that the “Salsa” is not made from “clay”, rather it is made from a combination of minerals and organic matter that can be described as dark rich decomposing mud. This accurately describes what you would get if you liquefied a human body. What you would not get is a simple combination of clay and water.   

The traditional interpretation puts these various descriptions into a temporal order, when the more straight forward way of interpreting the verses is that they are giving different descriptions that are true at the same time. (5)This is the reason that the descriptions are used interchangeably. From this perspective, the picture we get is the following:

God took from the earth a rich dark mixture of organic and inorganic raw material that was mixed with a large amount of water. This “mud” mixture, which consisted mostly of water, was formed into a solid physical shape that had the appearance of dry clay. Then all that was needed was a soul and the body came to life.  This interpretation is more straightforward and overcomes the first two problems present with the traditional interpretation.

And Allah knows best.

(1) Bidaya Wa Al’Nihaya, Volume 1, Page 139. The narration was considered strange by the hadeeth scholar AlNisa’i.

(2) Al’Israeliat fee Al-Tafseer wa AlHadeeth, Dr. Mohammad Al-Thahabi page 76.

(3) The Quran (55:14).

(4) Fath Al-Qadeer, Imam Al-Shawkani, and Tafseer Al-Tabari for verse (15:26).

(5) This has grammatical support from verse (17:61) which implies that Adam’s condition was that of T’een at the time of his creation. See Lisan Al-Arab definition for T’een.

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1- The Opening / Al-Fatihah

2-The Cow - Part 1
2-The Cow - Part 2
2-The Cow - Part 3
2-The Cow - Part 4
2-The Cow - Part 5
2-The Cow - Part 6
2-The Cow - Part 7
18-The Cave / Al-Kahf
19-Mary Mother of Jesus / Maryam
24-The Light 35-40
29-The Spider
67-God's Kingdom / Al-Mulk
68-The Pen / Al-Qalam

69-Day of Accountability / Al-Haqqah
70-The Levels / Al-Ma'arij:
71- Noah / Nuh
72- The Jinn / Al-Jinn
73-Wrapped with Responsibility / Al-Muzzammil

74-Get out of Bed / Al-Muddaththir

75-Day of Resurrection / Al-Qiyamah

76-Humanity / Al-Insan

77-What I send / Mursalat

78-The News / An-Naba

79-The Angels Who Pull Out Your Souls / An-Naziat

80-He Frowned / Abasa

81-When the Sun Collapses and Dies / At-Takwir

82-The Tearing / Al-Infitar

83-The Cheaters / Al-Mutaffifin

84-Ripped Open / Al-Inshiqaq
85-The Constellations / Al-Buruj

86-The Brilliant Stars / At-Tariq
87-The Most High / Al-A'la
88-The Overhelming Day / Al-Ghashiyah
89-The Dawn / Al-Fajr
90-The Sacred Land of Makkah / Al-Balad
91-The Sun / Ash-Shams
92-The Night / Al-Lail
93-Morning / Ad-Duha
94-Insight and Understanding / Ash-Sharh
95-The Fig / At-Teen
96-The Clot / Al-Alaq
97-The Night of Destiny / Al-Qadr
98-Clear Evidence / Al-Bayyinah

99-The Earthquake / Al-Zalzalah
100-Running Horses /Al-Adiyat
101-Terrifying / Al-Qariah
102-Collecting Things / Al-Takathur
103-Time / Asr
104-Backbiting / Al-Humazah
105-The Elephant / Al-Feel
106-The Tribe of Quraish / Quraish
107-Small Assistance / Al-Ma'un
108-A River in Paradise Called Kauthar / Al-Kauthar
109-Those Who Reject the Truth
110-My Support / Al-Nasr
111-Twisted Braided Rope / Al-Masad
112-Pure Intention / Al-Ikhlas
113-Daybreak / Al-Falaq
114-People / Al-Nas