Excerpts from 'The Angels' by Sachiko Murata

"Islamic Spirituality: Foundations"

The Angels

Angels are unseen beings of a luminous and spiritual substance that act as intermediaries between God and the visible world. Belief in their existence enters into the definition of faith itself: "The Messenger believes in what was sent down to him from his Lord, and the believers: Each one believes in God, His angels, His Books, and His Messengers" (Quran II:285; cf. II:177, IV:136). 

The word for angel, malak, whose root meaning is "messenger", occurs more than eighty times in the Quran and repeatedly in the Hadith.  The Islamic concepts of creation, revelation, prophecy, the events that occur in the world, worship, the spiritual life, death, resurrection, and the central position of man in the cosmos cannot be understood without reference to the angels. 

In philosophical and Sufi texts, angelology is often an essential component of both cosmology and spiritual psychology, since the angels enter into the definition of both the macrocosm and the microcosm.

Angels in Qur'an & Hadith

The angels belong to the "world of the unseen" ('alam al-ghayb). When the unbelievers asked why an angel had not been sent down with the Prophet Muhammad, God replied, "Had We made him an angel, yet assuredly We would have made him a man" (VI, 9). 

Even if the angels were to be seen by the outward eye, they would appear in forms suitable for the visible world (al-shahadah). Moreover, if God had sent down an angel, then "the matter would be judged, and no respite would be given [to mankind]" (VI, 8) 

For, "upon the day when they see the angels -- no good tidings that day for the sinners ... On the day when the heavens and the clouds are split asunder and the angels are sent down in a grand descent, the dominion that day will belong truly to the All-Merciful; it will be a harsh day for the unbelievers" (XXV, 25-26)

The Quran often refers to the angels' eschatological function not only at the resurrection, but also at death and in heaven and hell: "The angel of death, who has been charged with you, will gather you; then to your Lord you will be returned" (XXXII, 11). 

"If you could only see when the evildoers are in the agonies of death and the angels are stretching out their hands: 'Give up your souls!' " (VI, 93). "Believers, guard yourselves and your families against a Fire whose fuel is men and stones, and over which are harsh, terrible angels" (LXVI, 6). 

"Gardens of Eden which they shall enter ... and the angels shall enter unto them from every gate" (XIII, 23). 

Several of these angels are mentioned by name. Ridwan ("Good-pleasure", IX, 21; LVII, 20) is taken to be the proper name of the angel given charge of paradise, whereas Malik ("Master",XLIII, 77) rules over hell. Nakir and Munkar, the two angels who question the dead in their graves, are mentioned in many hadiths; traditions also speak of Ruman, who subjects the dead to various trials.

The sacred history of the Prophet's mission provides many examples of explicit angelic activity in key events. As an infant, the Prophet was visited by "two men clothed in white, carrying a gold basin full of snow." 

In the Prophet's own words, these angelic beings "split open my breast and brought forth my heart. This also they split open, taking from it a black clot which they cast away. Then they washed my breast with the snow." 

God revealed the Quran to the Prophet by means of the angel Gabriel, who also acted as his guide on the Night of Ascension (Laylat al-mi'raj). Many witnesses reported the participation of angels in battles fought by the nascent community. 

Concerning the battle of Badr, the Quran itself says: "When thy Lord revealed to the  angels, 'I am with you, so confirm the believers. I shall cast terror into the unbelievers' hearts, so strike off their heads and smite their every finger'" (VIII, 12).

In this world, before death the angels record the deeds of men: "There are over you watchers, noble writers, who know whatever you do" (LXXXII, 10-12). "Over every soul there is a watcher" (LXXXVI, 4). The Prophet added, "They mind your works: when a work is good, they praise God, and when one is evil, they ask Him to forgive you." 

The Prophet also reported that angels take turns watching over men and assemble together at the afternoon and dawn prayers. "Those who spent the night among you then ascend, and their Lord asks them -- though He is best informed about you -- how they left His servants. They reply, 'We left them while they were praying, and we came to them while they were praying.' " 

In the same way, when people gather together to remember (dhikr) God, "the angels surround them, mercy covers them, peace descends on them, and God remembers them among those who are with Him." Among the important pious acts Muslims perform -- in imitation of God and the angels -- is the invocation of blessings (salat) upon the Prophet: "God and His angels bless the Prophet. Oh believers, you also bless him, and pray him peace" (XXXIII, 56). 

Here the angels also perform a second function; in the words of the Prophet, "God has angels who travel about in the earth and convey to me greetings from my people." As for the evildoers, they call down upon themselves the angels' curses. 

According to a hadith, "If anyone sells a defective article without calling attention to the defect, he will be the object of God's anger and the angels will curse him continually." 

The angels are worthy of special veneration; when the name of a major angel is mentioned in Islamic texts, it is usually followed by the same formula ('alayhi's-salam, "upon him be peace') that follows the name of a prophet. 

In his Sahifat al-sajjaiyyah, the fourth Shi'ite Imam, Zayn al-'Abidn 'Ali ibn al-Husayn (d. 95/714), has left a remarkable prayer, often recited by the pious, asking God to bestow blessings upon the various angels.

The Qur'an provides many keys to the nature and ontological status of the angels. A verse constantly quoted represents the words of the angels themselves: "None of us there is but has a known station" (XXXVII, 164).  God also says, "They are honored servants who precede Him not in speech and act as He commands" (XXI, 27). 

Basing themselves on these and other verses, the Quran commentators were able to discern a hierarchy of different kinds of angels, each performing a specified task. The Sufi 'Izz al-Din Kashani (d. 735/1334-35), author of the well-known Persian paraphrase of Abu Hafs Suuhrawardi's 'Awarif al-ma'arif, summarizes these discussions as follows:

All believers have faith in the existence of the angels, who dwell in the monasteries of holiness and the communities of divine intimacy ... Some of them are more excellent, others lower in degree. Their stations are various and their ranks multiple, as is explained by the verse, "By the rangers in their ranks" (XXXVII, 1). 

Some have been brought nigh to the Presence of Majesty and cling to the Threshold of Perfection; these are alluded to in the words, "Then those who are foremost in going ahead" (LXXIX, 4). Others govern the affairs of creation: "Then those who govern the Command" (LXXIX, 5). 

Another group guards the doorway to the Court of Magnificence: "By the drivers driving" (XXXVII, 2). Others sing the praises of the Presence of Kingship and the Divine Books: "By the reciters of a Remembrance" (XXXVII, 3). 

Others carry news and relay reminders: "By those who deliver a reminder" (LXXXVII, 5). Many are their levels and ranks; each busies himself with a specific command and possess a known station: "None of us there is but has a known station" (XXXVII, 164).

In his 'Aja'ib al-makhluqat (Marvels of Creation) the famous cosmographer al-Qazwini (d. 682/1283) utilizes the Quran, the Hadith, and the later tradition to provide a detailed description of fourteen kinds of angels.

Angelic Hierarchy

1. The Bearers of the Throne

Mentioned in the Quran (XL, 7), these are called "Those brought nigh" (IV, 172). According to Ibn 'Abbas, God will add four more to their number on the Day of Resurrection; hence, the Quran says, "On that day the Terror shall come to pass and heaven shall be split ... ; the angles shall stand upon its borders, and on that day eight shall carry above them the Throne of thy Lord" (LXIX, 15-17).

2. The Spirit

He occupies one rank, and the remaining angles together occupy another rank, a fact alluded to in the verse, "On the day the Spirit and the angels stand in ranks..." (LXXXVIII, 38). He is charged with governing the spheres, the planets, and everything beneath the moon -- in other words, all the affairs of heaven and earth. Certain traditions place all the angels under his control, making him correspond to the Creative Principle itself.

3. Israfil

He delivers commands, places spirits within bodies, and will blow the trumpet on the Last Day. With one of his four wings he fills the west, with the second he fills the east, with the third he descends from heaven to earth, and with the fourth he keeps himself veiled. His two feet are below the seventh earth, and his head reaches the pillars of the Throne. When God wants something to happen in creation, He causes the Pen to write upon the Tablet, which is situated between Israfil's eyes, and then Israfil relays the command to Michael.

4. Gabriel

According to 'A'ishah and others, the Prophet saw him in his true form only twice, as is indicated by the Quran: "this is naught but a revelation revealed, taught him by one terrible in power, very strong [i.e., Gabriel]; he stood poised, being on the higher horizon ... He saw him another time by the Lote Tree of the Far Boundary" (LIII, 4-14). The first vision took place at the cave of Hira', during the revelation of the first verses of the Quran, the second during the mi'raj. 

According to another account, having seen Gabriel in his true form, the Prophet fainted. Regaining consciousness, he said, "Glory be to God! I did not know that any of the creatures were like this!" Gabriel replied, "What if you had seen Israfil? He has twelve wings, one of which is in the east and the other in the west. The Throne rests upon his shoulders, yet he shrinks because of God's tremendousness until he becomes like a suckling child."

5. Michael

Mentioned by name once in the Quran (II, 98), he is charged with providing nourishment for bodies and knowledge for souls. He stands above the "Swarming Sea" (LII, 6) in the seventh heaven, and if he were to open his mouth, the heavens would fit within it like a mustard seed in the ocean. 

According to a hadith, "Every prophet has two viziers from the inhabitants of heaven and two from the inhabitants of earth; my two from heaven are Gabriel and Michael." When Israfil blows the trumpet, Gabriel will stand at his right hand and Michael at his left.

6. Izra'il

He is mentioned by the Quran as the "angel of death"; his name is supplied by the commentators.

7. Cherubim (al-karrubiyyun)

They have withdrawn into the precinct of Holiness and turned their attention away from all but God; drowned in the contemplation of His Beauty, they "glorify Him by night and day, never failing" (XXI, 20).

8. Angels of the seven heavens

Ibn 'Abbas mentions the form of these angels and the name of the angel in charge of each heaven as follows (beginning with the sphere of the moon): cattle, Isma'il; eagles, Mikha'il; vultures, Sa'idya'il; horses, Salsa'il; houris, Kalka'il; heavenly youths (ghilman), Samkha'il; mankind, Rufa'il.

9. The guardian angels

They are also called the "honored writers" (LXXXII, 11); two of them are charged with each human being.

10. Attendant angels (XIII, 11)

They descend upon mankind with blessings and ascend with news of their works.

11. Nakir and Munkar

They question the dead in their graves.

12. Journeyers (sayyahun)

They visit assemblies where men remember the Name of God.

13. Harut & Marut (II, 102)

When the sons of Adam were given the earth, the angels marveled at their iniquities and protested to God: "Our Lord, Thou hast favored these dust-creatures of the earth, but they disobey Thee." God replied, "If that sensuality that is within them were within you, your state would be the same." The angels said, "We would not rebel against Thee and disobey Thy command." 

At God's request they chose two of their number to be sent to the earth possessing sensuality and the other attributes of man. Harut and Marut were the most worshipful and humble of the angels; sending them down to the earth, God commanded them to avoid idolatry, fornication, wine, and the unjust spilling of blood. Eventually they committed all these sins and God gave news of their state to the angels in heaven. 

From that day on, the angels have continued to "ask forgiveness for everyone on earth" (XLIII, 5), for they realize that man's sensuality is a tremendous burden, and those able to overcome it are truly the best of creatures.

14. Angels charged with every living thing

They keep things in good order and ward off corruption. The number of them charged with each thing is known only to God.

Islamic spirituality can only be envisaged in connection with the angels, who are intertwined with all dimensions of human life as seen by Islam. The key events of sacred history, such as the Revelation itself, the Prophet's Nocturnal Ascent, and the battle of Badr, are explicit instances of angelic intervention. 

The angels record the deeds of each individual from birth to death. They are the constant companions of the faithful, participating with them especially in their prayers, and play a soteriological and illuminative function for those who follow the path of spiritual realization. 

By God's leave they govern all macrocosmic and microcosmic forces, and they accompany man to the next abode on his departure from the earthly plane. To speak of Islamic spirituality from its most popular to its most esoteric level is to call attention to the role of the angelic hierarchy.


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