What does it mean that man is Khalifa on earth?

The man who is truly what he should be is described in the Quran as ‘AlKhalifatullah fil Ard’ i.e., the viceregent or representative of God on earth; he is not ‘rasul’ since he does not receive the divine message directly from heaven, but he receives it none the less — mediated through Muhammad — and is required to convey it with equal accuracy and with a comparable purity of intention, allowing no personal opinions or feelings to intervene. In this sense, the pious Muslim performs — in a minor key — the task which the Prophet fulfilled on a universal scale.

But there is one of Muhammad’s ‘titles of Glory’ in which every believer shares, the title of ‘abd’. Muhammad was the perfect ‘slave’. The believer must strive towards this perfection. Just as the Messenger could not have fulfilled his function had he not been the ‘slave of God’, so the viceregent is effective and true to his vocation only according to the depth and purity of his ‘slavehood’.

With the assertion of man’s viceregal status we step into dangerous territory. People need little enough encouragement to attribute grandeur to themselves. To tell them that they represent God on earth might seem like an invitation to megalomania. The modern age, sentimental and idealistic despite its superficial cynicism, is even more deeply shocked than were earlier ages by the human capacity for wickedness. This wickedness is indeed the measure of the grandeur of our vocation (no animal is wicked), and like a deep shadow it bears witness to a great light.

The monstrous evils of arrogance and oppression are due to men assuming the robes of viceregency without first submitting as ‘slaves’ (and knowing themselves to be ‘slaves’). Man alone is capable of monstrosity on this scale, because man alone stands above — or is capable of standing above — the tide of time and contingency. It might even be said that if there were no viceregency there could be no hell, for none would merit hell. It is for the betrayal of our vocation — therefore self-betrayal — that we are punished, and it is for living beneath ourselves that we run the risk of being trodden underfoot.

Gai Eaton, “Islam and Destiny of Man”

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