By Samuel Gonzalez
Made from light and older than human beings, angels are said to have assisted Allah in the creation of the universe and continue to fulfill their assigned tasks, from the miniscule to the cosmic. They appear under many names and are given many titles; they have been depicted as chubby naked infants with wings, full-grown males adorned in technicolor robes and rainbow feathers, and terrifying creatures with countless eyes and infinite wings. But who are the angels? Who are these invisible beings and what do they do on a regular basis? This article will explore the existence of angels, with a heavy emphasis on the Quranic tradition, without necessarily excluding the historical circumstances in which they appeared.
What is an angel?
In Arabic, the word that is translated as ‘angel’ is malak, which derives from the Hebrew malakh. Both terms suggest some sort of messenger-like role. In fact, oftentimes the Hebrew Bible will utilize the word malakh to refer to a human messenger, without connoting a divine origin. In Zoroastrianism, considered to be the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, there are different angel-like figures called yazatas, fravashis, and amesha spentas, which have their contemporary manifestations in the form of lesser divinities, guardian angels, and archangels, respectively. From Judaism to Christianity to Hinduism to Sikhism, similar divine beings who serve the Almighty God appear in both the heavens and the earth, interacting with humans whilst also dealing with the cosmic affairs of the universe.
In Islam, belief in angels is necessary and fundamental, since angels play a very prominent role in the Quran. Although they are invisible beings with an almost wispy, ephemeral sort of existence, the Quran repeatedly affirms the reality of these creatures. Furthermore, there are many miracles and scientific discoveries revealed in the Quran that could have only been revealed from a divine source. For instance, in the Quran it is revealed that both animals and humans were evolved by God from lower forms (56:58-62), that all matter are created in pairs (36:36), and that wingless ants are all females (27:18). How else could this knowledge have come upon an illiterate man in the desert some 1500 years ago? It makes sense that such advanced knowledge trickled down from the Almighty and came to the Honorable Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) through a mediator made of light. In other words, it is divine knowledge filtered through an unbiased medium. Hence, the Quran states regarding angels:
“They are honoured servants, who do not precede Him in speech, and they act according to His command. He knows what is ahead of them, and they do not intercede, except for those whom He approves.” [The Noble Quran 21:26-27]
From this verse, one can see that an angel is a creature that has no will of its own, for they only follow the commands of Allah. They say what Allah wants them to say; they act in the manner that Allah has commanded them to act; they do not intercede for anyone unless Allah has granted them permission. It is for this reason that Iblees sought to become greater than the human being while the angels prostrated before Adam. An angel is a creature that is totally subject to the commands of Allah, which is totally unlike the freedom given to human beings. For better or for worse, humans can choose to follow the straight path delineated by Allah and His Prophet (pbuh) or deviate from it to follow their whims. However, this freedom of will is what permits for an authentic relationship founded upon love to be possible in the first place.
What is the nature of angels?
Praise belongs to Allah, Originator of the heavens and the earth, who appointed the angels to be messengers, having wings two, three and four, increasing creation as He wills. Surely Allah is powerful. [The Noble Qur’an 35:1]
They have different numbers of wings, according to their class. Throughout Islamic history, many philosophers and theologians have attempted to classify the angels. The cosmology of Ibn Abbas assigns a different archangel to the seven circles of heaven during Muhammad’s Mi’raj. Abu Ishaq took this narrative even further and attributed to them personalities and physical characteristics. However, the Quran does not give us much information in regards to this.
And they [the angels] followed instead what the devils had recited during the reign of Solomon. It was not Solomon who disbelieved, but the devils disbelieved, teaching people magic and that which was revealed to the two angels at Babylon, Harut and Marut. [The Noble Quran 2:102]
A point of controversy in regards to angels in Islamic theology is to what extent do they have free will. In this ayah, it appears that two angels revealed black magic to humanity after they disbelieved. Some scholars would answer that these two spirits in question were either demons or djinn. In Christianity, angels are said to have fallen once they have lost faith in God, but this teaching has not gained much steam in Islamic discourse. But Allah knows best.
They do not disobey Allah’s commands that they receive; they do precisely what they are commanded. [The Noble Quran 66:6]
The will of angels is the will of Allah. Their nature is to obey and fulfil divine commands.
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What do angels do?
“They celebrate his praises night and day, nor do they ever flag or intermit.” [The Noble Quran 21:20]
First and foremost, the angels are worshipers of Allah. While the exact number of worshiping angels is unknown, some hadith record that during his ascension to Heaven, the Honorable Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) witnessed the House of Worship known as al-Bayt al-Mamoor which seventy thousand angels frequent daily. Furthermore, another hadith records that Jahannam will be brought forth on the Day of Judgement by means of seventy thousand ropes, each of which will be pulled by seventy thousand angels.
Another fundamental belief for Muslims everywhere is in the prophethood of Muhammad (pbuh). The revelations given to him were mediated through the archangel Jibreel, the first of which may be found in Surah al-Alaq (96:1-5). Furthermore, the Quran informs us that angels visited the Prophet Abraham in the desert (51:26-28) as well as Mary, Mother of Jesus (3:42-43, 19:20, 21:91, and 66:12).
For him [i.e., each one] are successive angels before and behind him who protect him by the decree of Allah [The Noble Quran 13:11]
Angels are extremely strong creatures. While the Quran makes no mention of their strength and power, there are several reliable hadith which outline the strength of these beings. Among the traditions of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is a narration that describes one of the angels carrying God’s throne in this manner: “The distance between his ear-lobes and his shoulders is equivalent to a seven-hundred-year journey.” Furthermore they were witnessed by the Prophet and several companions during the Battle of Badr as accompanying them in battle, protecting them from arrows and the like.
Moreover, there are two scribes, one each sitting on the right and the left, recording everything. He utters not a word, but there is a vigilant watcher at hand [The Noble Quran 50:17-18]
Two angels called the Kiraman Katibin (Honorable Scribes) pay attention to everything that people past puberty think, say, and do. The one who sits at the right of the individual records their good choices while the one who sits on the left records their bad decisions, says the Quran. Whosoever does an atom’s weight of good will have it recorded, and whoever does an atom’s weight of evil will have it recorded.
Custodians of Paradise, Jahannam, and the Universe
And We have sent the fertilizing winds and sent down water from the sky and given you drink from it. And you are not its retainers. [The Noble Quran 15:22]
By those angels who extract [souls] with violence, and by those who remove with ease, and by those who glide as if swimming, and those who race each other in a race, and those who arrange [the matters of the Universe]. . . [The Noble Quran 79:1-5]
Angels are also responsible for carrying out their assigned duties in the seen and unseen world. They change the weather according to the will of Allah; they purify the air according to the will of Allah; they take souls to their respective destinations upon dying and they bring souls to their respective bodies upon conception. Hence, there are angels of flame, angels of the air, angels of the clouds, angels of the stars, angels of the planets, and so on. These guides are responsible for putting in place and maintaining all the signs of the universe which point to the existence of Allah.
Significant Angels Mentioned by Name
When Prophet Muhammad rose in the night to pray he would begin his prayer with the words: “O God, Lord of Jibreel, Michael and Israfil, Creator of heaven and earth, Knower of the unseen and the seen. You are the Judge of the matters in which Your slaves differ. Guide me with regard to disputed matters of Truth by Your permission, for You guide whomever You will to the Straight Path.” [Sahih Muslim]
Several angels are referred to with their names in the Quran, with a description of their responsibilities:
- Jibreel: Entrusted with delivering revealed messages to humanity (i.e. Muhammad, Mary Mother of Jesus, and Abraham).
- Israfil: Given the responsibility to sound the first and second sound of the trumpet on the Day of Judgment.
- Mika’il: The angel said to effectuate God’s providence as well as natural phenomena, such as rain. Mentioned in Al-Baqarah (2:98).
- Raqib and Atid, the Honorable Scribes mentioned earlier who will question everyone in the grave about their faith and deeds.
- Azra’il: The Angel of Death who takes possession of souls after death. Mentioned in As-Sajdah (32:11) and described by later exegetes as being of of cosmic size, with 4,000 wings and a body formed by as many eyes and tongues as there are living human beings, he stands with one foot in the fourth (or seventh) heaven, and the other on the razor-sharp bridge that divides paradise and hell.
In conclusion, angels are heavily involved in the life of humanity, the wellbeing of the animal kingdom, and meteorological phenomena. Their lives are intertwined with the lives of humans from the cradle to the grave, accompanying us in every step of the human development cycle. They are unlike us in every way – in some ways we are superior to them whereas in other ways we are inferior. They are divine beings made of light, are unable to disobey Allah, worship Allah without ceasing, guard and protect lifeforms throughout the globe (as well as those on other worlds), record and report good behaviors and bad ones, and bestow great peace upon those who remember Allah and His servants.
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- Jenny Rose, Zoroastrianism: A Guide for the Perplexed, 2011, p. 34.
- Sunan Abi Dawud Book 42, Hadith 132, No. 4727.
- Sunan an-Nasa’i Book 20, Hadith 28, No. 1625.