Prelude: Belief in the Unseen
Our five senses are powerful means for discovering, observing and experiencing the world we live in. Yet, just as we know that a blind man’s inability to see does not disprove the existence of light, it would be presumptuous for us to insist that nothing exists outside of what we can perceive by our senses. Indeed, our minds can conceive the hypothetical existence of other dimensions and worlds in parallel with our own, or beyond it. Advances in human technology demonstrate to us that human knowledge is limited, and thus give us further reason to be humble. A clear, filtered glass of water may actually contain millions of microscopic organisms, which we can only see through a microscope. A dark room might actually contain infrared light, X-rays, radio waves or electromagnetic fields that are invisible to us, yet quite real. The very existence of matter is based on the arrangements and precise roles of countless subatomic particles.
Belief in the angels is the second pillar of faith.
“The Messenger believes in that which has been revealed to him from his Lord, and [so do] the believers. All believe in Allah, His angels and His messengers.” [Qur’an, 2:285]
Muslim belief in angels is based only on authentic scriptural knowledge. Superstition, fantasy and supernatural speculation are unreliable sources of objective knowledge, and hence are not relied upon for matters of belief.
What are angels?
Angels are invisible beings created from light.
On the authority of `A’ishah : The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, “Angels were created from light, jinn were created from smokeless fire, and Adam was created from that which has been described to you [in the Qur’an].” (Narrated by Muslim)
They do not have desires of their own, nor do they eat or drink. They are honored servants of Allah, and never disobey Him. They are perpetually in His service, in prostration, in a standing posture, or through various other forms of worship.
“And those who are before Him are not scornful of worshipping Him, nor do they tire or get bored. They glorify [Him] night and day; they do not halt.” [Qur’an, 21:19-20]
“They are honored servants, who do not precede Him in speech, and they act according to His command. He knows what is ahead of them and what is behind them, and they do not intercede, except for those whom He approves. [Qur’an, 21:26-27]
They have wings :
“Praise be to Allah, the Originator of the heavens and the earth, the creator of angels having wings – two, three or four.” [Qur’an, 35:1]
However, we should not try to guess the nature or form of these wings. Certainly, there is no basis in Islam for the fanciful notion, prevalent in the West, that angels are like beautiful little girls with a pair of wings on their backs. We should be careful that our children are not exposed to those books which contain such misleading pictures, so that they do not grow up with an incorrect concept of angels.
No gender is attributed to angels, nor do they procreate. Allah has denounced those who
regard them as females. The pagan Arabs, for example, called the angels daughters of Allah, in spite of the fact they themselves were disdainful of female offspring, and were so ashamed of them that they were inclined to bury their daughters alive.
“Those who do not believe in the Hereafter surely call the angels with female appellations.” [Qur’an, 53:27]
“Or, has He taken, out of that which He [Himself] created, daughters, and honored you with sons?! And, when one of them receives tidings of that which he sets up as a likeness to [Allah] Most Gracious, his face becomes black, and he is full of rage. . . . And they consider the angels, who are worshippers of Allah, to be females. Did they witness their creation?! Their testimony shall be recorded, and they will be asked.”[Qur’an, 43:16,17,19]
Hence to insist on angels being female is unbelief because it goes against the clear import of the Qur’an. At the same time, it is not warranted to call them male either, because there is no proof of that.
Prophets can see angels in their natural form. `A’ishah has narrated that the Prophet twice saw Gabriel in his natural form. (Narrated by Bukhari) However, ordinary human beings (i.e. non-prophets) cannot see them unless they take on a visible form. Angels can indeed materialize, and when they do so it is in a pleasant form, such as a handsome man. An example of this is found in the Qur’an [Qur’an, 11:69-83], where Allah sent angels to firstly give Prophet Abraham (peace be upon him) glad tidings of a son, and then to assist the Prophet Lot (peace be upon him). The men of Lot’s people lusted after these angels and were intent on committing an sinful action with them, but Allah destroyed them for their sins. Also in the Qur’an [Qur’an, 19:17-21] is the incident in which the angel Gabriel came to Mary, the mother of Jesus (peace be upon him) to inform her that she would miraculously give birth to Jesus. And, in the sunnah, we have the Gabriel hadith, in which Gabriel came to the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) in the form of a man, and asked him about Islam, Iman and Ihsan. This was done in public view, and its purpose was to teach the people about their religion. [Narrated by Muslim]
Duties of Angels
Angels have various duties, with each having a well-defined role.
“And there is not any among us, except that he has a known position. And we are indeed the ones who are arranged in ranks [for prayer]. And we are indeed the ones who glorify [Allah].” [Qur’an, 37:164-166]
They thus serve as role models for us, teaching us that specialization leads to greater efficiency. So, in the Islamic society, some must specialize in the Qur’an and its sciences, some in hadith science, others in medicine, still others in agriculture and so on and so forth, so that the Muslim community is efficient and well-balanced. Similarly, in the home, the responsibilities are divided. While the man is responsible primarily for financially supporting the family, the woman has an important role in the upbringing of the children.
Only Allah knows all the details and roles of all the angels :
“And none know the hosts of your Lord except He.” [Qur’an, 74:31] but He has told us about some of these through the Qur’an and sunnah.
Gabriel is the most distinguished of the angels, and is entrusted with carrying revelation to prophets. This included bringing the Qur’an to Prophet Muhammad sallallahu alayhe wasallam, which is referred to in the following:
“And it is surely the revelation of the Lord of the Worlds. The trusted spirit has brought it down to your heart, in order that you might be one of the warners, in clear Arabic speech.” [Qur’an, 26:192-195]
Gabriel is also called “the Holy Spirit”, as mentioned in the Qur’an.
“And We gave Jesus, son of Mary, clear proofs, and supported him with the Holy Spirit.” [Qur’an, 2:253]
Michael is entrusted with the sustenance of creatures, and is also one of the most prominent angels.
Every human being has two angels who accompany him and record his deeds. The generous one records his good deeds, and is so named because each good deed is rewarded ten times over or even more. The recorder of evil deeds is called simply the recorder, because each evil deed counts only onefold.
“And, indeed, there are over you scribes, generous and recording. They know what you do.” [Qur’an, 82:10-12]
These angels record our deeds, words and thoughts.
“He utters not any word except that there is with him an observer, ready.” [Qur’an, 50:18]
The system for recording of deeds is detailed in the Hadith Qudsi, narrated by `Abdullah ibn `Abbas : The Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) said, regarding that which he narrates from his Lord, the Possessor of Blessings, the Exalted, “Indeed, Allah has defined the good and the evil deeds, and then explained them. So, whoever had the thought to do a good deed, but did not do it, Allah writes it for him as a complete good deed, while if he [actually] did it, Allah writes it for him as ten good deeds, [or] upto seven hundred fold, [or] upto [even] many times [more over]. And, if he had the thought to do an evil deed, but [dispelled the thought and] did not do it, Allah writes it for him as a complete good deed, while if he [entertained the thought and] acted on it, Allah writes it as a single evil deed.” (Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim)
In addition to the recording angels, we have with us other angels who protect us from whatever evil Allah wills to save us from.
“He has a succession of angels in front of him and behind him, who guard him by Allah’s command.” [Qur’an, 13:11]
The succession of angels referred to here is clarified by a hadith, which tells us that the angels of the day and the angels of the night succeed one another, meaning that they perform their duty in shifts. At the time of the dawn (Fajr) and `Asr prayers, both the angels of the night and the angels of the day are present. Then, the angels of the night ascend, and their Lord asks them, although He is the All-Knowing, “How did you leave my servants?” They say, “We came to them while they were praying, and we left them while they were praying.” (Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim)
The Fajr prayer, then, is of special blessing, and we should take great care to perform it on time, and to recite long portions of the Qur’an, for “indeed, the recitation of Fajr is witnessed.” [Qur’an, 17:78] i.e. it is witnessed by the angels of the night and the angels of the day. The protecting angels only leave us when we answer the call of nature and when we are have conjugal relations, and so we should recite the appropriate supplications from the sunnah prior to performing these acts. Angels do not enter a house in which there is a dog or pictures. (Narrated by Bukhari and Muslim)
[NOTE: The majority of scholars agree that three-dimensional representations of animate beings, with head and facial features present, are prohibited, with even more reproach in the case of images used for worship. There is difference of opinion about flat drawings, photographs and digital images (provided the subject matter in these cases is not religiously objectionable).]
The angel of death is entrusted with taking the souls of creatures. [Qur’an, 32:11] There are angels who torture wrongdoers at the time of death. “If only you could see, when the angels take the souls of those who disbelieve, [the angels are] beating their faces and their backs.” [Qur’an, 8:50] Munkar and Nakeer are the two angels in charge of questioning people in their graves about their faith. Israfil will blow the Horn to mark the end of this world. There are angels associated with Heaven, welcoming the believers and greeting them with peace [Qur’an, 13:24]. The zabaniyah are angels who drag people to Hell [Qur’an, 96:18]. Hell has nineteen angels who watch over it [Qur’an, 74:30], and the chief angel of them is named Malik [Qur’an, 43:77]. Eight angels will carry the `Arsh, which is Allah’s greatest creation, on the Day of Judgement. [Qur’an, 40:7]
It is disbelief to have hate or animosity towards any of the angels. Similarly, it is disbelief to curse them. Some wretched, ignorant individuals curse the angel of death when they are angry. It is obligatory, and in fact an essential part of faith, to respect all of the angels, and particularly Gabriel and Michael. Some Jews once came to the Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) and told him that they had five questions for him, which were such that if he were to answer them all satisfactorily, they would follow him. The Prophet answered the first four to their satisfaction, and then they asked the final question; they said, “There is not any prophet except that he has an angel [assigned to him] who brings him news [from Allah], so tell us, who is your companion?” The Prophet (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) replied, “Gabriel, alayhissalam.” They said, “That is the one who brings down war, fighting and punishment; our enemy. If only you had said Michael, who brings down mercy, rain and vegetation, it would have been [that we follow you]!” Then, Allah revealed a reply. “Say : Who is an enemy to Gabriel? For, it is he who has brought it down to your heart, by Allah’s leave, confirming that which was before it, and as a guidance and a mercy to the believers. Whoever is an enemy to Allah, and [to] His angels, and [to] His messengers, and [in particular to] Gabriel and Michael, then [let him know that] Allah is an enemy to the disbelievers.” [Qur’an, 2:97-98] (Narrated by Ahmad, Tirmidhi and Nasa’i)