ۗوَهُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَكُمْ خَلَائِفَ الْأَرْضِ وَرَفَعَ بَعْضَكُمْ فَوْقَ بَعْضٍ دَرَجَاتٍ لِّيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِي مَا آتَاكُمْ
Huwalladhī ja‘alakum khalā’ifal-ardhi warafa‘a ba‘dukum fawqa ba‘din darajātin liyabluwakum fī mā atākum
He it is Who appointed you vicegerents upon the earth and raised some of you by degrees above others, that He may try you in that which He has given you.
(Sūrat al-An‘ām, No 6, Āyat 165)
This verse is the last verse of Sūrat al-An‘ām, concluding the topics of strengthening the foundations of Tawhīd and countering the faces of polytheism by talking about the position of the human being and his role in the universe. It talks about human beings as representatives of Allah ‘azza wajall on earth. The human being should recognize and appreciate his position and not stoop to worshipping idols of wood and stone, or gods that he sets up to worship rather than worshipping the One True God.
The word ‘khalā‘if’ is plural of the world ‘khalīfah’, meaning representatives or successors,. The first khalīfah or vicegerent Allah appointed on earth was Prophet Adam ‘alayhis-salām. The Quran says: And when your Lord said to the angels, I am going to place in the earth a khalīfah (Q 2:30). As Adam (a) represents humanity, all human beings can be understood to be God’s vicegerents on earth. The Quran also uses vicegerents upon the earth to refer to new generations or communities that succeed older ones that have been destroyed for their wrongdoing. He says, for example, to the people of Thamūd: Remember when He made you successors after the people of ‘Ād and settled you in the land (Q 7:74) and about the people of Prophet Nūh ‘alayhis-salām: So, We delivered him and those who were with him in the ark and We made them the successors (Q 10:73).
In Islamic political terminology the Khalīfah is the title of the head of Islamic state (anglicized as caliph).
The verse then goes on to explain that Allah (swt) creates people with differing potential. He gives people different abilities and talents, equips them with different types of bodies and mental abilities. The reason for these differences is not to make some ultimately superior over others. Rather it is to test them to see how they use what He has given them. Human beings have often used this God-given potential and abilities for wrong purposes.
The differences seen in society today such as those between the rich and poor, the educated and the uneducated often stem from human beings oppressing others. These differences are not enacted by Allah. But even if you think of a completely just society, where everyone fulfills the rights of others, there will remain differences between people. People would differ in their physical strength, their ways of thinking, their interests, and their abilities. These are inherent differences between people, a part of how they were created and brought into this world. If human beings were completely identical, and every human being was the same, the society would be stagnant. There would be no movement or progress. Differences are not a cause of superiority or inferiority. Each person is unique and has his/her own role to play in society. Only then can society function harmoniously. Just like a tree that has different parts to it, each playing a role in keeping the tree healthy and alive.
This verse tells us that whatever human beings have belongs neither to them, nor to society. It belongs entirely to Allah. As His representatives, human beings are expected to use what they have been given in the way He wishes it to be used. They are trustees to establish God’s law on earth. They will be tested on their performance through their usage of what they have. This verse is a reminder of the special role of human beings on earth and their responsibilities.
Sources: Āyatullāh Nāsir Makārim Shirāzī (Ed.), Tafsīr-e Namūneh; S.H. Nasr (et al), The Study Quran.