Angels in Islam

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What are angels? What do angels do?

Muslims have been informed that Angels are created by Allah from light and that they have forms. However, they are not to be confused with the classical western images of angels in human form, with wings and halos, nor should they be misperceived with such notions as ghosts. The angels are creations entirely different from human beings, and unlike human beings, they have not been bestowed with free will.  Angels are there to do the bidding of their Lord and have been assigned differing and widely ranging functions. For example, there is the angel of death, angels who record everything that transpires in a person’s life and angels who were responsible for delivering revelations to Prophets.

The Arabic word for angel, ‘malak’ (which literally means messenger or envoy), is mentioned ninety times in the Qur’an. Some of these verses clearly highlight the role of angels as messengers of God. Allah, may He be glorified and exalted, says in the Qur’an, “God chooses messengers from angels and from men.”[1] One understanding of this verse is that angels are sent as messengers to men, such as, Moses, John the Baptist and Jesus, who are then entrusted with the responsibility to serve as messengers to their fellow human beings. According to the Qur’an, if angels were clearly seen walking upon the earth then all the humans would be forced to believe in this phenomenon on the basis of its empirical proof, but a believer must be given free choice to believe in the unseen, that is the true test of life.[2] In the Qur’an, angels such as Gabriel, Michael, Hārūt and Mārūt are referred to by their individual names. In the Hadith corpus, there are other angels who are mentioned by name, such as, ʿAzrāʾīl, the angel of death, Munkar and Nakīr, who question the dead in their graves; and Isrāfīl, who is responsible for blowing the horn on the Day of Judgment.[3] In both the Qur’an and Hadith, it is stated that each human being is accompanied by two angels who act as record keepers throughout the person’s life, recording individual sins and good deeds.[4] This fact is acknowledged within the five daily prayers. All Muslims are required to end their prayers with the greeting, ‘Peace be upon you,’ while turning to the right and then to the left, acknowledging the existence of the two angels that are present with them.

The angels were created out of light and they occupy a plane of existence near to God that is beyond human perception. Angels are dissimilar to human beings in the sense that they do not eat, drink, procreate or sleep, and are devoid of sin. According to many statements in the Qur’an and Hadith, angels are capable of metamorphosis; for example, the angel Gabriel came to Mary in the form of a man to tell her the news of a blessed son, he also approached the Prophet Muhammad in form of a handsome man to teach the Muslims their religion by speaking about Imān, Islam and Iḥsān. Thus, angels can take the shape of anything that God wills. In the Qur’an, the absolute obedience of the angels to God is strongly stressed, as is their lack of free will.

Even though angels are created beings, no source indicates when the angels were created; knowledge about them begins with the account of their witnessing the creation of Adam. As stated in the Qur’an, they were asked to prostrate in front of the first human being to honor him: “Behold, thy Lord said to the angels: ‘I will create a vice-regent on earth.’ The angels said, ‘Wilt thou place therein one who will make mischief therein and shed blood? Whilst we celebrate Thy praises and glorify Thy holy name?’ He said: ‘I know what ye know not.’”[5] Various other historical events mentioned in the Qur’an and Hadith involve angels, such as the angels who came to warn Noah about the flood, the angels who visited Abraham in human form to give good news about the birth of his son, the angels who came in the form of young men to deliver Lot from impending danger, the angels Hārūt and Mārūt who descended upon Babylon, and the angel Gabriel who came to give good news to Mary about the birth of Jesus.[6] At the moment of Jesus’s conception, God sent angel Gabriel to Mary in the form of a man: “Then We sent to her Our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects.”[7] All previous messengers such as Adam, Abraham, and Noah (peace be upon them) were supported by angels and Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was no exception. One of Prophet Muhammad’s first encounters with an angel took place at the beginning of the revelation of the Qur’an. At the age of forty, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) walked up to a cave on Mount Ḥirāʾ for his habitual spiritual retreat during the month of Ramadan. Once inside the cave he heard a voice saying, ‘Recite!’ but Prophet Muhammad responded that he could not. According to the earliest sources, the voice that the Prophet heard belonged to an angel who appeared to him in the form of a man; Muhammad would later come to know this angel by the name of Gabriel.  The angel seized Muhammad and again told him to recite, but once again the Prophet replied that he could not. After a third time, the angel recited, “Proclaim! (or recite!) in the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created—created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood. Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful, He Who taught (the use of) the pen, taught man that which he knew not.’[8] After this encounter, Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) relates that the enormity of the first revelation were “as though the words were written on my heart.”[9] Over the next twenty-three years, Muhammad maintained a personal relationship with the angel Gabriel. At first, this interaction was confined to the revelation of the Qur’an during Muhammad’s years in Mecca when he and his community were persecuted by the Meccan Arabs. However, the angel Gabriel also taught Muhammad about many aspects of the religion. After thirteen years of persecution in Mecca, Muhammad and his Companions sought refuge in the city of Yathrib, which was later renamed al-Madīna al-Nabawīyah (or more commonly in English, Medina), the city of the Prophet. This period of Muhammad’s life featured further encounters with angels, such as further revelations brought by angel Gabriel and angels supporting the believers in the various battles.[10]

[1]. Q. 22:75.[2].Q. 6:8–9.[3].Karima Diana Alawi, ‘Pillars of Religion and Faith,’ in Vincent J. Cornell, ed., Voices of Islam, London: Praeger Publishers, 2006, p. 34.[4]. Murata and Chittick, Vision of Islam, p. 84.[5]. Q. 2:30.[6]. Abdu’l-Hamid Kishk, The World of the Angels, London: Dār al-Taqwa, 1994, pp. 31–41.[7].Q. 14:17.[8]. Q. 96:1–5.[9].Quoted by Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based Upon The Earliest Sources, Cambridge: Islamic Texts Society, 1991, p. 44.[10].  For further information on the Angels please see Amjad M. Hussain, The Muslim Creed: A Contemporary Study of Theology, Cambridge: Islamic Text Society, 2016, pp. 83-108.

Source: Islam For New Muslims An Educational Guide,Assoc. Prof. Amjad M. Hussain, Erkam Publications

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