Angels in Islam

Angels in Islam

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Angel in a Mughal miniature, in the style of Bukhara, 16th century

Angel Blowing a Woodwind’, ink and opaque watercolor painting from Iran, c. 1500, Honolulu Academy of Arts

In Islam, angels (Arabicملك malak; plural: ملاًئِكة malā’ikah)[1] are believed to be celestial beings, created from a luminous origin by God. They have different functions, including praising God in heavens, interacting with humans ordinary life, and carrying laws of nature. Islam acknowledges the concept of angels both as anthropomorphic and abstract.[2] Belief in angels is one of the six articles of faith in Islam.[3] The Quran is the principal source for the Islamic concept of angels, but more extensive features of angels appear in hadithsMi’raj literatureIslamic theology and Islamic philosophy.[4] The angels differ from other spiritual creatures in their attitude as creatures of virtue in contrast to impure demons and morally ambivalent jinn.[5]

Corporeal angels[edit]

Creation[edit]

Angels are another kind of creature created by God, known to mankind, commonly dwelling in the heavenly spheres. Although the Quran does not mention the time when angels were created, they are generally considered as the first creation of God. According to Tabari, the angels had been created on Wednesday,[6] while other creatures on the following days. Although not mentioned in the Quran,[7] angels are believed to be created from a luminous substance, repeatedly described as a form of light. The probably most famous hadith regarding their origin is reported in Sahih Muslim: “The Angels were created out of light and the Jann was created out of a mixture of fire and Adam was created out of what characterizes you.”[8][9] Nur, the term used for the light from which the angels are created from, usually corresponds to the cold light of night or the light of the moon,[10] contrasted to nar, which corresponds to fire or the diurnal and solar light from which the angels of punishment are said to be created of.[11] Dividing angels into two groups created from different types of light is also attested by Tabari,[12] Abd al-Ghani al-Maqdisi,[13] Al-Jili[14] and Al-Suyuti.[15] Suyuti distinguishes in his work Al-Hay’a as-samya fi l-hay’a as-sunmya angels as created from “fire that eats, but does not drink” in opposition to devils created from “fire that drinks, but does not eat” which is also identified with the fire of the sun.[16] Scholars also argued that there is no distinction between nur and nar at all. Although not his conclusion, Tabari argued that both can be seen as the same substance, since both pass into each other but refer to the same thing on different degrees.[17] Asserting that both fire and light are actually the same but on different degrees can also be found by Qazwini and Ibishi.[18][19] The lack of distinction between fire and light might be explained by the fact that both are closely related morphologically and phonetically.[20] Al-Baydawi argued that light serves only as a proverb, but fire and light refers actually to the same substance.[21] Apart from light, other traditions also mention exceptions about angels created from fire, ice or water.[22]

Characteristics[edit]

One of the Islamic major characteristic is their lack of bodily desires; they never get tired, do not eat or drink and have no anger.[23] As with other monotheistic religions, angels are characteristics of their purity and obedience to God.[24] However, their constant loyalty, towards God, emphasized by some Quranic verses such as 16:49, does not necessarily imply impeccability,[25] and the motif of erring angels is also known to Islam.[26] Some scholars on the other hand, among Hasan of Basra as one of the first,[27] extend their loyalty towards God to assume general impeccability. Those who accept the possibility of erring angels, advocate that actually only the messengers among the angels are infallible,[28] since the Quran also describes angels as being tested.[29] Al-Baydawi argued, that angels only remain impeccable if they do not fall. Ibn Arabi stated that angels may err in opposing Adam as a vice-regent and fixing on their way of worshipping God to the exclusion of other creatures.[30][31]

Angels are usually described in anthropomorphic forms combined with supernatural images, such as wings, being of great size, wearing heavenly clothes and great beauty.[32] Some angels are identified with specific colors, often with white, but some special angels have a distinct color, such as Gabriel being associated with the color green.[33]

Scholars debated whether human or angels rank higher. The prostration of angels before Adam is often seen as evidence for humans’ supremacy over angels. Nevertheless, other hold angels to be superior, as being free from material deficits, such as anger and lust, Angels are free from such inferior urges and therefore superior, a position especially found among Mu’tazilites and some Asharites.[25] A similar opinion was asserted by Hasan of Basri, who argued that angels are superior to humans due to their infallibility, originally opposed by both Sunnis and Shias.[34] This view is based on the assumption of superiority of pure spirit against body and flesh. Contrarily argued, humans rank above angels, since for a human it is harder to be obedient and to worship God, hassling with bodily temptations, in contrast to angels, whose life is much easier and therefore their obedience is rather insignificant. Islam acknowledges a famous story about competing angels and humans in the tale of Harut and Marut, who were tested to determine, whether or not, angels would do better than humans under the same circumstances,[35] a tradition opposed by later scholars, such as ibn Taimiyya, but still accepted by earlier scholars, such as ibn Hanbal.[36] Some Sufi traditions argue that a human generally ranks below angels, but developed to Al-Insān al-Kāmil, he ranks above angels.[37] Comparable to another major opinion, that prophets and messengers among humans rank above angels, but the ordinary human below an angel, while the messengers among angels rank higher than prophets.[25] Maturidism generally holds that angels’ and prophets’ superiority and obedience derive from their virtues and insights to God’s action, but not as their original purity.[38]

Purity[edit]

Angels believed to be engaged in human affairs are closely related to Islamic purity and modesty rituals. Many hadiths, including Muwatta Imam Malik from one of the Kutub al-Sittah, talk about angels being repelled by humans’ state of impurity.[39] Such angels keep a distance from humans, who polluted themselves by certain actions (such as sexual intercourse). However, angels might return to an individual as soon as the person (ritually) purified himself or herself. The absence of angels may cause several problems for the person. If driven away by ritual impurity, the Kiraman Katibin, who record people’s actions,[40] and the Guardian angel,[41] will not perform their tasks assigned to the individual. Another hadith specifies, during the state of impurity, bad actions are still written down, but good actions are not. When a person tells a lie, angels nearly are separated from the person from the stench it emanates.[42] Angels also depart from humans when they are naked or are having a bath out of decency, but also curse people who are nude in public.

Abstract angels[edit]

Philosophy[edit]

In Islamic philosophy, angels appear frequently as incorporeal creatures. Al-Kindi and Ibn Sina both define angels as simple substances, which means, they belong to the Celestial spheres comparable to Ptolemaic astronomy, endowed with life, reason, and immortality, in contrast to sublunary entities such as humans and animals, who are endowed with life, and the former also with reason, but are mortal.[43][44] Similar Qazwini assigns the angels to heavenly spheres, distinguishing them from among the animals, although both are said to possess the attribute of life. Significantly, Al-Damiri includes in his zoological works, animals, humans, jinn and even demons, but not angels.[45] Such cosmological thought, maintained by scholars such as Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, has strong resemblance with the Neo-Platonistic emanation cosmology, identifying the different angels in Islam with intellects, dividing the cosmos into different spheres. However, Islamic scholars repeatedly insist that all heavenly spheres as a whole form a single body and are moved by God, in contrast to Aristotelian cosmology in which God only moves the outer sphere.[46] According to ibn Sina, but differing from Al-Farabi, God is not part of the scheme of emanation. God emanated things in accordance with his will. In his Theologia Aristotelis he shows that through the manifestation of God, the intellects are aware of God and their role in the universe. Further Ibn Sina seems to distinguishes between two types of angels: One completely unrelated to matter, and another one, which exists in form of a superior kind of matter. The latter ones can carry messages between the heavenly spheres and the sublunary world, appearing in visions. Therefore, the higher angels dwell in higher spheres, while their subordinate angels appear in an intermediary realm. Ibn Sina’s explanation might imply an attempt to consider revelation as part of the natural world.[23][47] Also Qazwini lists a lower type of angels; earthly angels as indwelling forces of nature, who keep the world in order and never deviate from their duty. Qazwini believed that the existence of these angels could be proved by reason and effects of these angels on their assigned object.[48]

Psychology[edit]

Islamic philosophy stressed that humans own angelic and demonic qualities and that the human soul is seen as a potential angel or potential demon.[49] Depending on whether the sensual soul or the rational soul develop, the human soul becomes an angel or a demon.[50] Angels may also give inspirations opposite to the evil suggestions, called waswās, from Satan.[51]

In Ibn Abbas Mi’raj narrative[edit]

Muhammad requests Maalik to show him Hell during his heavenly journey. Miniature from The David Collection.

Muhammad encounters the Angel composed of fire and ice during his Night journey. Miniature from a copy of al-Sarai’s Nahj al-Faradis from The David Collection

Muhammad‘s encounter with several significant angels on his journey through the celestial spheres, play a major role in Ibn Abbas version.[52][53] Many scholars such as Al-Tha`labi drew their exegesis upon this narrative, however it never led to an established angelology as known in Christianity.

first heaven second heaven third heaven fourth heaven fifth heaven sixth heaven seventh heaven
Habib Angel of Death Maalik Salsa’il Kalqa’il Mikha’il (Archangel) Israfil
Rooster angel Angels of death Angel with seventy heads Angels of the sun Cherubim Bearers of the Throne
Ismail (or Riḍwan) Mika’il Arina’il Shamka’il Afra’il

Individual angels[edit]

Islam has no standard hierarchical organization that parallels the division into different “choirs” or spheres hypothesized and drafted by early medieval Christian theologians, but does distinguish between archangels and angels. Angels are not equal in status and consequently, they are delegated different tasks to perform.

Archangels[edit]

  • Jibrā’īl/Jibrīl/Jabrīl (EnglishGabriel),[54] the angel of revelation. Jibra’il is the archangel responsible for revealing the Quran to Muhammad, verse by verse. Jibra’il is the angel who communicates with (all of) the prophets and also descends with the blessings of God during the night of Laylat al-Qadr (“The Night of Divine Destiny (Fate)”). Jibra’il is also acknowledged as a magnificent warrior in Islamic tradition, who led an army of angels into the Battle of Badr and fought against Iblis as he tempted Jesus (Isa).[55]
  • Mīkāl/Mīkāʾīl/Mīkhā’īl (English: Michael),[56] the archangel of mercy, is often depicted as providing nourishment for bodies and souls while also being responsible for bringing rain and thunder to Earth.[57] Some scholars pointed out that Mikail is in charge of angels who carry the laws of nature.[58] According to legend, he was so shocked at the sight of hell when it was created that he never laughed again.
  • Isrāfīl (frequently associated with the Jewish and Christian angel Raphael), is the archangel of music[59] often depicted with a trumpet, he will blow in the end time. Therefore, Israfil is responsible for signaling the coming of Qiyamah (Judgment Day) by blowing a horn. On his association with Raphael, the historian Ali Olomi writes, “In esoteric circles, Israfil is the angel of the West, the Sun, and sometimes Thursday. Other times the angel of Jupiter Sarfayail is assigned to Thursday. The astrological overlap may hint at a parallel with the Jewish angel Seraphiel or Raphael.”[60]
  • ‘Azrā’īl/’Azrayl/Azrael, is the archangel of death. He and his subordinative angels are responsible for parting the soul from the body of the dead and will carry the believers to heaven (Illiyin) and the unbelievers to hell (Sijjin).[61][62]

Mentioned in Quran[edit]

  • Nāzi’āt and Nāshiṭāt, helpers of Azrail who take the souls of the deceased.[63]
  • Hafaza, (The Guardian angel):
    • Kiraman Katibin (Honourable Recorders),[64] two of whom are charged to every human being; one writes down good deeds and another one writes down evil deeds. They are both described as ‘Raqeebun ‘Ateed’ in the Qur’an.
    • Mu’aqqibat (The Protectors)[65] who keep people from death until its decreed time and who bring down blessings.
  • Angels of Hell:
    • Maalik, Chief of the angels who govern Jahannam (Hell).
    • Nineteen angels of hell, commanding the Zabaniyya, to torment sinful people in hell.
  • Those angels who distribute provisions, rain, and other blessings by God’s Command.[66]
  • Those angels who drive the clouds.[67]
  • Hamalat al-‘Arsh, those who carry the ‘Arsh (Throne of God),[68] comparable to the Christian Seraph.
  • Harut and Marut, often depicted as Fallen angels who taught the humans in Babylon magic; mentioned in Quran (2:102).[69]
  • Ar-Ra’d, said to be the Angel of Thunder; mentioned in Quran (13:13). According to Tafsir al-Qurtubi: “It is said that he is the angel in charge of clouds and he drives them as ordered by Allah, and he glorifies His Praises”.[70]
  • The Angel of life gives the soul to every human being

In canonical hadith collections[edit]

  • The angels of the Seven Heavens.
  • Jundullah, those who helped Muhammad in the battlefield.
  • Those that give the spirit to the fetus in the womb and are charged with four commands: to write down his provision, his life-span, his actions, and whether he will be wretched or happy.[71]
  • Malakul Jibaal(The Angel of the Mountains), met by the Prophet after his ordeal at Taif.[72]
  • Munkar and Nakir, who question the dead in their graves.[73]

Other[edit]

  • Ridwan, the keeper of Paradise.
  • Artiya’il, the angel who removes grief and depression from the children of Adam.[2]
  • Habib, an angel Muhammad met during his night journey composed of ice and fire.
  • The angels charged with each existent thing, maintaining order and warding off corruption. Their number is known only to God.[74]
  • Darda’il (The Journeyers), who travel the earth searching out assemblies where people remember God’s name.[75]

Disputed[edit]

  • Dhul-Qarnayn, believed by some to be an angel or “part-angel” based on the statement of Umar bin Khattab.[76]
  • Khidr, sometimes regarded as an angel which took human form and thus able to reveal hidden knowledge exceeding those of the prophets to guide and help people or prophets.[77]
  • Azazil, in many early reports a former archangel, who was among whose who were commanded to bow before Adam, but he refused to and was banished to hell.

Sufism[edit]

Angels play an important role in Sufism. Just as in non-Sufi-related traditions, angels are thought of as created of light. Al-Jili specifies that the angels are created from the Light of Muhammad and in his attribute of guidance, light and beauty.[78] Influenced by Ibn Arabis Sufi metaphysicsHaydar Amuli identifies angels as created to represent different names/attributes of God’s beauty, while the devils are created in accordance with God’s attributes of Majesty, such as “The Haugthy” or “The Domineering”.[79] Sufi cosmology divides the world into several realms. The realm of Malakut is the plane in which symbols take on form. It is also the sphere in which humans may encounter angels, during their dreams.[80] Some authors have suggested that some individual angels in the microcosmos represent specific human faculties on a macrocosmic level.[81] According to a common belief, if a Sufi can not find Shaikh to teach him, he will be taught by the angel Khidr.[82][83]

Contemporary Era[edit]

Contemporary Salafism continues to regard the belief in angels as a pillar of Islam and regards the rejection of the literal belief in angels as unbelief and an innovation brought by secularism and Positivism. Modern reinterpretations, as for example suggested by Nasr Abu Zayd, are strongly disregarded. Simultaneously, many traditional materials regarding angels are rejected on the ground, they would not be authentic. The Muslim Brotherhood scholars Sayyid Qutb and Umar Sulaiman Al-Ashqar reject much established material concerning angels, such as the story of Harut and Marut or naming the Angel of Death Azrail. Sulayman Ashqar not only rejects the traditional material itself, further he disapproves scholars who used them.[84]

Islamic Modernist scholars such as Muhammad Asad and Ghulam Ahmed Parwez have suggested a metaphorical reinterpretation of the concept of angels.[85]

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