The hadith “Allah created Adam in His/his image (`ala suratihi)” was narrated from Abu Hurayrah by both Bukhari and Muslim. To understand this narration, one must first recall a fundamental aspect of Islamic belief, namely the transcendence of Allah Most High and His complete dissimilitude from created things.
This is decisively conveyed within the Qur’an itself when it states, “There is nothing whatsoever like Him,” (42: 11) and by the foremost theological texts of our tradition. Therefore, the scholars looked at the Qur’anic verses and prophetic traditions that outwardly indicated similitude between Allah and created things in the backdrop of this principle.
In respect to the narrative in question, as well as similar narratives, the scholars had two approaches:
1. Confining the meaning to Allah Most High, 2. Interpreting the outwardly problematic part of the text in a suitable and methodologically sound manner. Among the interpretations that the scholars gave for this narrative were:
1. That the word “image” here refers to “attributes”, such as hearing, seeing, knowledge, and so forth. Thus, Adam (Allah bless him) was created possessing attributes that Allah has also described Himself with, although the attributes of the former, as is evident, are contingent and relative while the attributes of Allah are eternal and absolute.
2. That the word “image” is understood based on another variant of this narration, narrated by Imam Muslim, whereby the Prophet (Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “When one of you attacks [or “strikes” as per another narration] his brother then avoids his face for Allah created Adam in his image.”
The attached particle “his” is interpreted as referring back to “brother” and not to “Allah”.
3. That what is meant by Adam (Allah bless him) being created in “his image” is a direct creation that did not take place through the passage of embryological stages. Further, it indicates that Adam (Allah bless him) was characterized by the same “image” or form on earth as he was in paradise, without any change until his death. [Bajuri, Tuhfat al-Murid; Bayhaqi, Kitab al-Asma’ wa’l Sifat]
And Allah alone knows best