How, how much, and above whom are the Children of Adam preferred?

Surah Bani Isra'il (17:70)

These are some of the English versions of Sura 17:70 which render this verse as having one of two main different meanings:

Pickthall Al-Hilali & Khan Yusuf Ali
Verily we have honoured the Children of Adam. We carry them on the land and the sea, and have made provision of good things for them, and have preferred them above many of those whom We created with a marked preferment. And indeed We have honoured the Children of Adam, and We have carried them on land and sea, and have provided them with At-Taiyibat (lawful good things), and have preferred them above many of those whom We have created with a marked preference. We have honoured the sons of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favours, above a great part of our creation.
Sher Ali Muhammad Asad Arberry
Indeed, WE have honoured the children of Adam, and WE carry them by land and sea, and provide them with good things and have exalted them far above many of those whom WE have created. NOW, INDEED, We have conferred dignity on the children of Adam, and borne them over land and sea, and provided for them sustenance out of the good things of life, and favoured them far above most of Our creation: We have honoured the Children of Adam and carried them on land and sea, and provided them with good things, and preferred them greatly over many of those We created.

The interesting part of this verse is the last clause. Apparently, the Arabic is unclear, so that most translators offer (guess?) one of the two different meanings displayed above. Did the author of the Quran want to say that human beings are preferred by Allah far above (most of) the rest of creation? I.e. does the Arabic emphasize how highly humans are preferred above the other creatures? Or does the author say that there are some creatures on whom Allah has bestowed a marked preferment but human beings are preferred by him even above those?[1]

That is obviously a different meaning, and the Quran seems to be unclear on this point (and thus not of unsurpassed eloquence), though, in the end, it may not matter much, because one way or other this statement provides very little information.

Why is that statement rather meaningless? It raises more questions than it gives answers.

1. "preferred over many of those We created" — How many are many? Given that there are several million different species (creatures), is 1% of all creatures many? 10% of all creatures? 50%? 90%?

2. Which of the creatures? Preferred over bacteria? Insects? Trees? Birds? Dogs? Cows? All plants? Preferred over some or many or most or all of the animals? Jinn? Angels? Since the Quran doesn't give as much as a hint over which creatures in particular human beings are supposedly preferred, what value does this statement really have? Moreover, the formulation implies that there other other creatures that rank above human beings. Which are they?

If it is important enough to the author of the Quran to mention that there is a ranking, should it not be important enough to also state which creatures he considers to be higher than human beings and which creatures lower? What is the practical use of the statement the way it is?

3. Preferred in what way and for what purpose? I greatly prefer chicken over beef. Would the chicken consider that an advantage or a disadvantage?

This last question is not as absurd as it may first appear. The Quran clearly states that "We have created many of the jinns and mankind for Hell" (S. 7:179), i.e. Allah prefers to send many of the children of Adam to Hell. It is therefore not at all clear whether being part of Allah's preferred group is always beneficial. [Cows do not seem to live under the threat that many of them will be going to Hell because that is what Allah created them for.]

Apparently, Yusuf Ali also felt the need for an answer to the third question and thus he translated rather freely "... and conferred on them special favours, ...", but that is not an accurate translation by any standard, even though the author may have had something like that in mind as it would correspond to what is said in the first part of the verse.

Further reading:

Preferred for Hell?
Higher than angels?


1. A friend who is trained in classical Arabic commented that the Arabic literally says: "we made them preferred over many of whom we created ______". The next word constitutes the problem here. It is a confirmation or intensification of "we made them preferred" but in Arabic you do that by repeating the same word, for example: "I pound him a pounding". [Other examples in the Quran are: S. 33:56 "salute him with a salutation", and S. 75:16 and 25:2, both of which use the same concept of repeating, and both would sound in English somehow like "measure it measuring".] That is to say, in the above verse we find, "we made them preferred over many of whom we created preferred" but because that doesn't make much sense in English this had to be translated another way. I would go with Arberry, he is much closer to the Arabic. Nevertheless, the rest are possible renderings.

Qur'an Versions
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