Angels

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Angel or Malak (Arabic: مَلَک) is an invisible supernatural being that serves as God’s agent in this world and in the hereafter. The belief in the existence of angels is a fundamental Islamic doctrine.

Shiite scholars believe that angels are infallible, in the sense that they never disobey God’s commands and never commit sins. Moreover, angels never neglect their duties, which include worship, exalting God, writing the letters of people’s deeds, delivering revelations to prophets, protecting people, assisting the believers, delivering material and spiritual livelihoods, taking people’s lives, guiding people’s hearts, and enforcing the divine punishment.

Angels are classified into different groups and levels. Gabriel, Michael, Israfil, and Azrael are superior to other angels.

There are theological and exegetical issues over whether angels are superior to humans, whether they are infallible, and whether they are physical or non-physical. There are various views about each of these issues.

Muslim scholars disagree over the nature of angels. Muslim theologians believe that angels are physical beings that can take different forms, but Muslim philosophers believe that they are non-physical.

The Nature of Angels

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A picture of an angel belongs to the 10th/16th century

Angels are entities that mediate between God and the human world. God has appointed them as His agents in the world.[1] The Arabic word for angel is “malak,” the plural form of which is “mala'ika.”[2]

There are different views about the nature of angels. Muslim theologians believe that they fine illuminated physical things that can take various forms and shapes.[3] According to al-'Allama al-Majlisi, most Muslim scholars hold this view, with the exception of some philosophers. Moreover, he believes that prophets and saints could see the angels.[4] However, some philosophers believe that angels are beyond matter and material entities, holding that they have characteristics that cannot be found in physical objects.[5] According to 'Allama Tabataba'i, the hadiths about angels taking various forms and shapes are concerned with imaginalization (that is, the appearance of something’s image for someone).[6] Moreover, he believes that there is no valid evidence for the claim that angels and jinn are fine physical objects that take various forms.[7] A hadith from Imam al-Sadiq (a) says that angels are created from light.[8]

Significance and Place

The belief in the existence of angels is an Islamic doctrine.[9] The belief in them is like the belief in the prayer and fasting; that is, it is essential to the belief in prophethood.[10]

The term “malak” is used eighty-eight times in the Qur'an.[11] In the Sermon of Skeletons (Khutbat al-Ashbah), Imam 'Ali (a) talks about the creation of angels, their types, characteristics, and tasks.[12] In Bihar al-anwar, there are more than one hundred hadiths about the nature of angels, their tasks, their infallibility, and the characteristics of arch-angels (those closest to God).[13] The third Supplication of al-Sahifa al-Sajjadiyya by Imam al-Sajjad (a) is about the arch-angels. It says that God’s greeting is the reason why angels are so pure.[14]

According to hadiths, angels constitute the largest population among God’s creatures. Many hadiths talk about the large number of angels.[15] Some of them assert that angels were created after the creation of the lights of the Prophet (s) and the Imams (a).[16]

Some polytheists worshiped angels. They believed that angels were God’s creatures, but they thought that angels were autonomous in their actions and are lords of the inferior beings.[17] Moreover, some polytheists maintained that angels were God’s daughters.[18]

Angels in Other Religions

Other religions also talk about angels. In Zoroastrianism, angels are believed to be created by Ahura Mazda, Amesha Spenta (arch-angels in Zoroastrianism) being manifestations of His attributes. In Judaism, angels are deemed servants of God as they enforce His commands on the earth and deliver revelation to people. Christians believe that angels were created before humans and serve as their custodians. It is common in Christian churches to greet and worship some angels such as Michael.[19]

Tasks

The Quran enumerates the tasks of angels as follows: delivering revelation to prophets,[20] administrating the affairs of the world, sending the divine grace to creatures,[21] asking for God’s forgiveness,[22] intercession for believers[23] and helping them,[24] cursing the disbelievers,[25] registering people’s deeds,[26] and taking their lives.[27] There are angels who are constantly engaged in worshiping and exalting God, doing nothing else beside that.[28]

Angels are present in the world of Barzakh[29] and the hereafter as well. Some of them inhabit the heaven[30] and some are guardians of the hell.[31]

Degrees and Types

'Allama Tabataba'i believes that angels are of different degrees and rankings. Some are ranked lower than others.[32] According to Quranic verses, some of them are agents of the arch-angel of revelation (Gabriel)[33] and some are agents of the arch-angel of death (Azrael).[34]

Mulla Sadra classifies angels into several types, including arch-angels (the closest to God), roaming spirits (al-arwah al-muhayyama), angels responsible for heavenly bodies, intellectual angels, and earthly angels.[35] Imam Khomeini divides them to angels who do not manipulate physical objects (roaming angels and those inhabiting the world of jabarut) and those responsible for physical beings.[36]

Characteristics

Here are some of the characteristics of angels.

Infallibility

According to al-'Allama al-Majlisi, Shias believe that angels are infallible and immune to any minor or major sins. This is held by the majority of Sunni Muslims as well.[37] Nevertheless, some Sunni Muslims reject the infallibility of angels, and some of them believe that only some of the angels are infallible, including those who deliver revelation and the arch-angels.[38] Evidence for the infallibility of angels includes the Quranic verse “They do not venture to speak ahead of Him, and they act by His command”[39] and “mighty angels, who do not disobey whatever Allah commands them.”[40] However, some people have cast doubt on the infallibility of angels by making recourse to stories such as Harut and Marut, Iblis’s failure to prostrate for Adam (a),[41] and Futrus’s disobedience. Shiite scholars have responded to these cases. For instance, the story of the disobedience of Harut and Marut is said to be influenced by myths that do not appear in hadiths and the Qur'an.[42] Moreover, they believe that Iblis was not an angel.[43] Morteza Motahhari says that only some angels might disobey God’s commands.[44] According to Nasir Makarim Shirazi, what appears in some hadiths about punishment of some angels for their dullness in complying with God’s commands does not count as a sin, but just a case of abandoning the better, as is the case about some prophets.[45] 'Allama Tabataba'i holds that angels will whatever God wills, they act upon whatever God commands, and thus they never commit sins.[46]

Superiority to Humans

Some religious scholars appeal to the Quranic verse “Certainly We have honored the Children of Adam (a), ..., and preferred them with a complete preference over many of those We have created”[47] to argue that angels are superior to humans. Some have adduced the story of angels prostrating before Adam (a) and their being taught by Adam (a) as evidence for the superior of humans to angels, provided that they flourish their potentialities.[48]

According to Hasan Hasanzada Amuli, Ibn al-'Arabi believed that the supreme angels (roaming angels) were superior to humans, since they were not obliged to prostrate for Adam (a).[49] Muhammad Dawud al-Qaysari holds that people who achieve the position of God’s vicegerent are even superior to the supreme angels.[50] Mulla Sadra cites verse 31 of Quran 2 about Adam (a) teaching angels as evidence for the superiority of humans to angels who reside in the earth and in the sky, but not to the roaming angels.[51]

Superiority of Prophets to Angels

Most Muslims believe that prophets are superior to angels, because they are infallible in spite of having irascible and appetitive faculties, unlike the angels.[52] Moreover, Quranic verses such as the prostration of angels before Adam (a) and their being taught by Adam (a) are cited as evidence for the claim.[53] Moreover, Shias believe that their Imams are also superior to angels.[54]

Human Manifestation

According to Quranic verses,[55] the Trustworthy Spirit appeared to Mary (a) in a human form.[56] Moreover, there are hadiths to the effect that angels manifest in different forms to a person whose life they are about to take, in proportion to whether he or she is a believer or is vicious.[57] Manifestation of angels occurs when they appear in a form other than their original form.[58] No one other than the Prophet (s) has seen angels in their original form.[59]

Immateriality

Muslim philosophers believe that angels are immaterial.[60] Evidence for their immateriality includes their lack of material properties such as irascible and appetitive faculties,[61] change, transformation, evolution,[62] and being perceptible by senses.[63] Nevertheless, Mulla Sadra disagrees with Quranic exegetes who believe that angels have static positions,[64] claiming that knowledge and virtues of some angels grow over time.[65] Imam 'Ali (a) says that some angels are the most knowledgeable and the closest creatures to God as sleep never falls on their eyes, negligence never happens in their intellect, and tire never occurs in their bodies.[66]

Wings

On the face of it, some Quranic verses and hadiths imply that angels have wings. [67]There are different accounts of what this means.

  • 'Allama Tabataba'i takes this to mean that angels are equipped with a power by which they move from the sky to the earth, from the earth to the sky, and from any place to any place. It does not mean that they literally have wings like those of birds.[68]
  • Imam Khomeini believes that angels in the supernatural realm are non-physical, immaterial, and hence they have no wings, but those in the imaginal world (ʿAlam al-Mithal) might have imaginal wings and feathers.[69]
  • Ibn al-'Arabi construes the number of an angel’s wings as metaphorical for the extent of its influence in the kingdom of the sky and the earth.[70]

Furthermore, the number of an angel’s wings is construed as relevant to their pace in compliance with God’s commands,[71] their power of transition,[72] and an indication of the different degrees of angels.[73]

Bibliography

Works have been written about angels in Persian, Arabic, and English. Some are as follows.

  • Sayri dar asrar-i firishtigan ba ruykard-i Qur'ani wa 'irfani (A survey of the secrets of angels with a Quranic and mystical approach) by Muhammad Zaman Rustami and Tahira Ali Buya is a book in Persian. The book includes chapters such as the nature of angels, their attributes, their types, their tasks, and the human vicegerency.[74] The book was published Islamic Sciences and Culture Academy in 1393 Sh in 552 pages.[75]
  • Al-Makhluqat al-khafiyya fi l-Qur'an: al-mala'ika, al-jinn, Iblis (Hidden creatures in the Quran: angels, jinn, Iblis): This is a book in Arabic written by Sayyid Muhammad Husayn Tabataba'i.

Other relevant works include al-Iman bi-l-mala'ika (The belief in angels) by 'Abd Allah Siraj al-Din; Angels by Billy Graham; Simayi firishtigan dar Qur'an wa nahj al-balagha (The visage of angels in the Qur'an and Nahj al-balagha) by Liyla Hamdullahi; Firishtigan (Angels) by Alirida Rijali Tihrani; and Mala'ika (Angels) by Muhammad Shuja'i.[76]

Notes

  1. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān, vol. 17, p. 6.
  2. Ṭurayḥī, Majmaʿ al-baḥrayn, vol. 5, p. 292.
  3. Makārim Shīrāzī, Payām-i Imām Amīr al-Muʾminīn (a), vol. 1, p. 161.
  4. Majlisī, Biḥār al-anwār, vol. 56, p. 202-203.
  5. Makārim Shīrāzī, Payām-i Imām Amīr al-Muʾminīn (a), vol. 1, p. 161.
  6. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān, vol. 17, p. 13.
  7. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān, vol. 17, p. 13.
  8. Majlisī, Biḥār al-anwār, vol. 58, p. 306.
  9. Qur'an 2:285.
  10. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān, vol. 2, p. 442.
  11. Rustamī et. al, Siyrī dar asrār-i firishtigān, p. 47.
  12. Nahj al-balāgha, p. 128-131
  13. See: Majlisī, Biḥār al-anwār, vol. 56, p. 144-326.
  14. al-Ṣaḥīfa al-Sajjādīyya, p. 36-40
  15. Baḥrānī, al-Burhān, vol. 4, p. 535.
  16. Majlisī, Biḥār al-anwār, vol. 15, p. 8 and vol. 18, p. 345 and vol. 24, p. 88.
  17. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān, vol. 19, p. 38.
  18. Makārim Shīrāzī, Tafsīr-i nimūna, vol. 19, p. 171.
  19. The Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 1, p. 2830.
  20. Qur'an 16:2 and 102; Qur'an 80:16.
  21. Qur'an 79:5; Qur'an 70:4.
  22. Qur'an 23:7.
  23. Qur'an 21:28.
  24. Qur'an 3:124 and 125.
  25. Qur'an 2:141; Qur'an 3:87.
  26. Qur'an 10:21; Qur'an 43:80; Qur'an 82:11.
  27. Qur'an 6:62; Qur'an 4:97.
  28. Qur'an 21:19-20.
  29. Qur'an 16:28,32.
  30. Qur'an 39:72; Qur'an 21:103
  31. Qur'an 74:20.
  32. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān, vol. 17, p. 12.
  33. Qur'an 81:21.
  34. Qur'an 32:11; Qur'an 6:62.
  35. Mullā Ṣadrā, Mafātīḥ al-ghayb, p. 350-351.
  36. Imām Khomeinī, Ādāb al-Ṣalāt, p. 339-342.
  37. Majlisī, Biḥār al-anwār, vol. 11, p. 124.
  38. Zarkashī, al-Baḥr al-muḥīṭ, vol. 6, p. 21.
  39. Qur'an 21:27.
  40. Qur'an 66:6.
  41. See: Lāhījī, Guhar-i murād, p. 426.
  42. Makārim Shīrāzī, Tafsīr-i nimūna, vol. 1, p. 375.
  43. Lāhījī, Guhar-i murād, p. 426
  44. Muṭahharī, Majmūʿa-yi āthār, vol. 4, p. 280.
  45. Makārim Shīrāzī, Payām-i Imām Amīr al-Muʾminīn (a), vol. 1, p. 168.
  46. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān, vol. 17, p. 12.
  47. Qur'an 17:70.
  48. Makārim Shīrāzī, Tafsīr-i nimūna, vol. 12, p. 199-200.
  49. Ḥasanzāda Āmulī, Mumidd al-himam, p. 367-369.
  50. Ḥasanzāda Āmulī, Mumidd al-himam, p. 367-369.
  51. Ṣadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-karīm, vol. 2, p. 370.
  52. al-Ḥillī, Kashf al-murād, p. 360; Ījī, Sharḥ al-mawāqif, vol. 8, p. 285.
  53. Ījī, Sharḥ al-mawāqif, vol. 8, p. 283-285.
  54. Ashqar, ʿĀlam al-malāʾika al-abrār, p. 92.
  55. Qur'an 19:17.
  56. Imām Khomeinī, Ādāb al-Ṣalāt, p. 342.
  57. Majlisī, Biḥār al-anwār, vol. 12, p. 74.
  58. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān, vol. 17, p. 13.
  59. Ashqar, ʿĀlam al-malāʾika al-abrār, p. 11.
  60. See: Lāhījī, Guhar-i murād, p. 427.
  61. al-Ḥillī, Kashf al-murād, p. 360.
  62. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān, vol. 17, p. 13.
  63. Ashqar, ʿĀlam al-malāʾika al-abrār, p. 5.
  64. See: Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān, vol. 17, p. 176; Fakhr al-Rāzī, Mafātīḥ al-ghayb, vol. 26, p. 362.
  65. Ṣadr al-Dīn Shīrāzī, Tafsīr al-Qurʾān al-karīm, vol. 2, p. 371.
  66. Qummī, Tafsīr al-Qummī, vol. 2, p. 207.
  67. Ṭabrisī, Majmaʿ al-bayān, vol. 8, p. 625.
  68. Ṭabāṭabāʾī, al-Mīzān, vol. 17, p. 7.
  69. Imām Khomeinī, Sharḥ-i chihil ḥadīth, p. 414.
  70. Muḥyi al-Dīn al-ʿArabī, Tafsīr Ibn ʿArabī, vol. 2, p. 167.
  71. Sabziwārī, Irshād al-adhhān, p. 440.
  72. Makārim Shīrāzī, al-Amthal, vol. 14, p. 13.
  73. Ḥusaynī Hamadānī, Anwār-i dirakhshān, p. 259.
  74. Rustamī et. al, Siyrī dar asrār-i firishtigān, p. 5-29.
  75. Rustamī et. al, Siyrī dar asrār-i firishtigān, p. 4.
  76. Rustamī et. al, Siyrī dar asrār-i firishtigān, p. 46.

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