What Prostration Means in the Quran


It Depends on the Context

The word sujud, sometimes transliterated sujood, is most often associated with the full prostration position illustrated above and below in this post. It is a powerful focal position in salat prayer in Islam indicating humility, but also in the original Christianity per Jesus’ example as mentioned in the Bible. Healing benefits of sujud have also been shown. It is strongly associated with worship and tawheed or worshiping Allah alone. But the Quran uses the word sujud (“prostration”) in contexts distinctly outside of prayer and worship, giving us an expanded usage of the word, which is extremely important to understand to avoid confusion and misconceptions, especially in the Creation of Adam narratives (found in order with Surah number here2, here7, here15, here17, and here18.)

There, as I have discussed in a number of such narratives, the Quran tells us that Allah the Exalted commanded the angels to prostrate to Adam, and this command extended to Iblees (who because he disobeyed became Satan & was expelled from the celestial realm), a jinn (like “genie” in English, which is not an angel), who refused to prostrate, saying he was “better than” Adam. Some people have been confused by this and mistakenly thought it meant Allah ordered the angels and Satan to worship Adam. 

Allah the Exalted would never command any creature to worship anyone other than Himself

The sujud or prostration here then must have a meaning more suitable to the situation. One translation uses the word “yield” in this specific context, while elsewhere in the Quran, when the prostration of prayer is indicated, translates it “prostration,” thus helping the reader clarify this point. The word “yield” is not commonly used in typical English conversation except as “yield right-of-way” for example. But it means “surrender,” “relent,” “submit,” “back down,” “heed,” “allow,” or “go along with.” No definition of “yield” means “worship,” and thus this translation is closer to the Quranic meaning in this instance. In fact, it is more accurate than “bowing humbly,” another expression used by other translators for sujud, although most translate it “prostration” in the creation of Adam narratives. 

So by commanding the angels and Iblees to “yield” to Adam, Allah the Exalted is commanding them to literally “back down” or “capitulate” in their reservations about Adam expressed in Al-Baqara 2:30, where “yielding” may be expressed in some act known to those of the celestial realm, but not the same as human prostration because they are different sorts of beings. 

Example: Prophet Yusuf’s Family Prostrates to Him, but it’s not Worship

The Quran also uses the word “prostrate” to refer to Prophet Yusuf’s (Joseph’s) father, Prophet Yaqub (Jacob), and mother plus his 11 brothers “prostrating” to Yusuf, first in a dream he had as a child (Yusuf 12:4) and later in the real-life fulfillment of this dream after he became a highly placed member of the king’s authority (Yusuf 12:. 

This did not mean his family worshiped Yusuf, but rather that they deferred to him as an authority or someone of a higher status, in this case, status conferred by the king. 

Angels and Jinn are not Human; It’s not about the Position

In 2:30, the angels had been arguing with the Almighty regarding the creation of Adam, who they said would spill blood and cause corruption (fasad could also mean pollution, destruction, etc.) on earth; so when Allah commands them to “back down,” He is not asking them to worship but rather to respect and “yield” to Adam’s authority as a successive representative of Allah on earth. He is asking them, and Iblees/Satan who was with them, not to argue about it but to accept Allah’s granting of such powers to humankind. This was a sign of Adam’s superiority and designated authority from Allah, but does not mean the angels worshiped Adam or prayed to him at all. Only that they serve Adam and thereafter his descendants, humanity, with Allah’s permission, and respectfully acknowledge humans’ authority capacity for knowledge and moral behavior, despite them often failing. 

One can obey one’s parents, authorities in government or work (such as managers, bosses, etc) or others in positions over us of authority without worshiping them. And although Prophet Jacob was certainly an authority, even having a position of authority as a father over Yusuf his son, yet he acknowledged the authority given to Yusuf and prostrated to him, which shows us the considerable difference in meaning from what we think of “prostrate” as worship, and “prostrate” as a sign of humility to someone higher in rank. In the case of Yusuf, it was a rank in this world. We cannot have sufficient knowledge of the celestial realm of the Almighty and His angels or of the Hereafter to presume the status of prophets or any of those who have passed on from this life, except as informed by Allah in the Quran.. 

How Do the Stars and the Trees Prostrate?

The Quran also mentions “the stars and the trees prostrate” (Al-Rahman 55:6) although neither can actually perform the physical position of sujud or prostration the way humans do. Allah the All-Wise includes these meanings to show us that a single word takes on differences or “colors” of meaning according to context and to let us understand that meanings are not riveted to our own human anthropomorphic singleminded interpretation. So the stars and the trees “yield” to and obey Allah’s will, each in their own way and according to their nature. How they do this physically is irrelevant: what we need to understand is they acknowledge Allah’s Unimaginable Authority and majesty; we know here they prostrate to Allah, since the Quran tells us who is being prostated to in any case other than to the Almighty.

(Photo by author.)

To Submit to Allah, we must Learn

The Quran continuously invites us and teaches us to understand complexities and nuances of meaning, yet humans are forever refusing to properly use their minds. We cannot understand the Quran or Islam without thinking. Therefore, perhaps even more than the sujud position of prostration, we must yield to Allah’s teaching and allow our minds to accept the expanded nature of His revelation to us. And back down from dogmatic oversimplified limited interpretations that may prevent us from wholly surrendering to Allah. After all, to surrender is to submit, both words included in the meaning of Islam itself. Allah the Exalted, who taught Adam “the names,” refers to Himself as also teaching us “children of Adam” in Al-Rahman 55:2:

Al-Rahman, (who has) taught the Quran.

Will we not then be better students, and use our minds??

Like the athlete below, who is not praying but humbly acknowledging that his success is not from himself alone but with Allah’s will and mercy.

Athletes prostrate too. 

Or we can look to the simplicity of a child whose idea of “worship” and “respect” are pure and without any preconceptions. 

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