Gibril Fouad Haddad

Angels—upon them peace—are magnificent supernal creatures that implement the Divine will, “spirits subsisting in subtle bodies of light, able to take on various forms by Divine permission, and not to be described as male or female,” as defined by the late ḥāfiẓ of Aleppo ʿAbd Allah b. Muḥammad Najīb Sirāj al-Dīn al-Ḥusaynī (1343-1422/1924-2002) in his treatise al-Īmān bil-malāʾika (p. 19), which he appears to have based and built upon the same-titled work of another Aleppean scholar, Aḥmad ʿIzz al-Dīn al-Bayānūnī (1913-1975), who gave the very same definition.

They are also known as ahl al-samāʾ or the Dwellers of Heaven (in Bukhārī, Muslim, Tirmidhī, Abū Dāwūd, Ibn Mājah, Aḥmad, Mālik; and Dārimī, Sunan), and their elite are known as al-malaʾ al-aʿlā  as well as al-rafīq al-aʿlā, "the Highest Company" (Bukhārī, Maghāzī, maraḍ al-Nabī wa-wafātuh; Muslim, Faḍāʾil al-ṣaḥāba, faḍl ʿĀʾisha), and al-nadiyyu al-aʿlā or the Highest Council (Abū Dāwūd, Adab, mā yuqālu ʿinda al-nawm).

Definitions and Usage

Malak, the Qurʾānic word for “angel” (used both for the individual and the collective), plural malāʾik(a), is a hamza-suppressed derivation of malʾak, itself a hamza-lām substitute form of maʾlak, the mafʿal form of the root verb ā-l-k, literally “to chew” (aorist yalūku, infinitive nouns alk and ulūk), the nouns alūk(a) and maʾlūk(a) signifying “message,” which indicates the aural nature of messengership and, as for rasūl, “messenger,” and nabī in the sense of “bringer of news,” presupposes the existence of a tremendous unseen but communicative sender (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn, sub m-l-k; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub ā-l-k; Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:30).

Angels are explicitly mentioned 88 times in the Qurʾān, 73 of which in the (mostly definite) plural form (malāʾika), 13 times in the singular, and twice in the dual—besides other-named mentions such as:

  • al-ʿālīn, the supernal ones (Q 38:75);
  • ḍayf Ibrāhīm, Ibrāhīm’s guests (Q 15:51; 41:24), the three archangels Jibrīl, Mīkāʾīl, and Isrāfīl, or a group of ten or more including them (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 51:24; Jalālayn, Tafsīr, sub Q 15:51);
  • ḥāfiẓ, ḥafaẓa, guardian(s) (Q 86:4; 6:61);
  • jund and junūd, combatants (Q 9:26, 40; 33:9; 36:28; 48:4, 7; 74:31);
  • kirāmin barara, noble righteous ones (Q 80:16), kirāman kātibīn, noble scribes (Q 82:11);
  • al-malaʾ al-aʿlā, the Highest Assembly (Q 37:8, 38:69);
  • muʿaqqibāt, shifts succeeding one another in their attendance of each human being (Q 13:11);
  • al-musabbiḥūn, the lauders (Q 37:166);
  • al-Rūḥ, the Spirit (see section viii below);
  • raqībun ʿatīd, Ready Observer (Q 50:18);
  • rusulunā, Our (i.e., Allah’s) messengers (Q 6:61, 7:37, 10:21, 11:69, 11:77, 29:31-33);
  • safara, scribes (Q 80:15);
  • al-ṣāffūn, those who stand in ranks for prayer in a lofty self-description spoken by the angels: And there is none of us but has his known station, and, lo! we are they that stand in ranks, and, lo! we are they that glorify (Q 37:164-166, cf. Q 89:22);
  • al-sakīna, tranquility (Q 2:248; 9:26, 40; 48:26) as made explicit in the hadiths from al-Bukhārī and Muslim cited by al-Qurṭubī (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:248);
  • al-zabāniya, those that push, that is, the angels of punishment (Q 96:18)
  • and, according to the Jalālayn, the list of action-specific names opening Sūrat al-Nāziʿāt:
  • By those that pluck out vehemently (al-nāziʿāti gharqan)! and those that draw out violently (al-nāshiṭāti nashṭan)! and those that swim serenely (al-sābiḥāti sabḥan)! and by those that outstrip suddenly (al-sābiqāti sabqan)! and by those that implement commands (al-mudabbirāti amran)! (Q 79:1-5)


Belief  in the angels is second only to belief in Allah Most High among the pillars of faith (arkān al-īmān). This is shown by the sequences taught in the Qurʾān, Each one believes in Allah, His Angels, His Books, and His Messengers (Q 2:285), and the Prophet’s definition in the famous “Hadith of Jibrīl” narrated from ʿUmar (d. 23/644) and Abū Hurayra (d. 57/681)—Allah be well-pleased with them—in Bukhārī, Muslim, Nasāʾī, Tirmidhī, Abū Dāwūd, and Ibn Mājah (the six authoritative hadith collections together known as the kutub sitta): “Belief is that you believe in Allah, His angels, His books, His Messengers, and the Last Day; and to believe in foreordained destiny, for better or worse,” in Muslim’s wording (Īmān, bayān al-īmān wal-islām wal-iḥsān). It is also obligatory to believe in the inward and outward attributes by which the angels are described in the Qurʾān and which are detailed below. Al-Jurdānī (d. 1913) wrote in his commentary on al-Nawawī’s (631-676/1234-1277) Forty Hadiths:

To believe in His Angels means to believe in beings with bodies of light who are capable of changing form to assume various appearances. “Believe” means to be convinced they exist and are honored servants who do not disobey whatever Allah Most High orders them to do, but do as they are commanded. … We are obliged to know of ten individual angels: (1) Jibrīl; (2) Mīkāʾīl; (3) Isrāfīl; (4) ʿIzrāʾīl; (5) Munkar; (6) Nakīr; (7) Riḍwān; (8) Mālik; and (9 and 10) the two scribes who record one’s good and bad deeds.

al-Jawāhir al-luʾluʾiyya, Hadith of Jibrīl

Attributes of the Angels

The Qurʾān and the Sunna provide a wealth of descriptions of the attributes, functions, and acts of the angels, some of their activities taking place in earthly time (see Life of this World) and others in the hereafter :

Wings. They possess wings in single, double, triple pairs and more (Q 35:1; cf. al-Farrāʾ, Maʿānī 2:366, sub Q 35:1, this sura, Fāṭir, being also named al-Malāʾika, “the Angels”). Jibrīl has six hundred wings (Bukhārī, Badā al-khalq, dhikr al-malāʾika; Muslim, Īmān, dhikr sidrat al-muntahā);

Luminosity. They are made of light, as disclosed by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, while the jinn are made of smokeless fire and human beings of clay (Muslim, Zuhd wal-raqāʾiq, fī aḥādīth mutafarriqa). Because of this spiritual predominance in their constitution, angels do not eat, in contradistinction to the human Prophets of whom Allah said, We did not give them bodies that would not eat food, nor were they immortals (Q 21:8), meaning that the Prophets have bodies of clay—unlike the angels who, when presented food, did not touch it (Q 41:24);

Number. Their number is astronomical and known only to Allah Most High (Q 74:31), both in heaven and on earth (Q 48:4, 7). An authentic hadith states: “Truly I see what you do not see and I hear what you do not hear! The sky groans, and it may well groan: there is not a hand’s span in it but some angel’s forehead occupies it as he prostrates to Allah” (Tirmidhī, Zuhd, fī qawl al-Nabī law taʿlamūna mā aʿlam, hadith classed ḥasan gharīb from Abū Dharr, also in Ibn Mājah and Aḥmad);

Seniority in creation and inclusion in the Umma (see Community). They were created before human beings but Ādam,upon him peace, received knowledge directly from Allah Most High which they did not possess, and taught it to them in turn (Q 2:31-32). Some scholars inferred, as cited by al-Suyūṭī (849-911/1445-ca.1505) and al-Haytamī (909-973/1503-1565), that the Seal of Prophets was sent not only to humankind and jinn as unanimously held, but also to the angels (al-Ḥabāʾik p. 256; al-Fatāwā ḥadīthiyya p. 62). Ādam shared their company, communicating with them and also learning from them. Abū Hurayra—Allah be well-pleased with him—reported from the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace: “Allah Most High created Ādam in his form and his height was sixty cubits. When He created him He said: ‘Go and greet that assembly’—of the angels—‘who are sitting, and listen to what they will say when they greet you, for it is your greeting and the greeting of your offspring.’ He said, ‘al-salām ʿalaykum.’ They said, ‘al-salām ʿalayk wa-raḥmat Allāh,’ adding to his words the words wa-raḥmat Allāh” (Bukhārī, Istiʾdhān, badā al-salām; Muslim, Janna, yadkhul al-jannata aqwām) (see Greetings);

Limited knowledge. They do not know the future (Q 27:65; 72:26-27), however, according to the majority of scholars, they are aware of the innermost thoughts of human beings on the basis of the ḥadīth qudsī: “When My servant wants to do an evil deed, do not record it against him until he does it...” (Bukhārī, Tawḥīd, qawl Allāh yurīdūna an yubaddilū kalām Allāh; Muslim, Īmān, idhā hamma al-ʿabd bi-ḥasana; cf. Sirāj al-Dīn, al-Īmān p. 146-152);

Form. They are invisible—and He sent down legions you did not see (Q 9:26) at the battle of Ḥunayn—but sometimes take on attractive human forms, unrecognizable as angels even to Prophets and the foremost friends of Allah such as the perfect man sent to Maryam (Q 19:17), Ibrāhīm’s honored guests (Q 51:24; 11:69-70), and Lūṭ’s visitors (Q 11:77; 15:61-62). According to the Sunna they may be:

selectively visible. The angel Jibrīl at times appeared to the Prophet—upon them blessings and peace—in the form of the handsome Companion Diḥya b. Khalīfa al-Kalbī and was seen thus by Umm Salama (Bukhārī, Manāqib, ʿalāmāt al-nubuwwa fī-l-Islām; Muslim, Faḍāʾil al-ṣaḥāba, faḍāʾil Umm Salama) and ʿĀʾisha (Aḥmad, Ṭabarānī, and Bayhaqī as cited in Ibn Ḥajar, Fatḥ al-bārī, Maghāzī, marjiʿ al-Nabī ṣallā Allāh ʿalayh wa-sallam min al-aḥzāb) as well as Ibn ʿAbbās which, according to a weak report, ultimately caused his blindness (al-Haytamī, Fatāwā ḥadīthiyya p. 64); he appeared to the Prophet in his angelic form twice: once in Makka at the beginning of revelation, and another time at the Lote-Tree of the Farthest Boundary, above the seventh heaven, during the Ascent (see Night Journey and Ascension) (Bukhārī, Badā al-khalq, dhikr al-malāʾika; Muslim, Īmān, dhikr sidrat al-muntahā and the Qurāʾn commentaries, sub Q 53:8 and 81:23).

invisible to all including the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—though audible to him. “At times it (revelation) comes to me like the clashing of a bell, and this is the most difficult for me. Then it tears itself from me after I have retained from it what it said. And at times the angel takes the likeness of a man for me and addresses me so that I retain what he says” (Bukhārī, Badā al-waḥy, badā al-waḥy; Muslim, Faḍāʾil, ʿaraq al-Nabī fī-l-bard wa-ḥīna yaʾtīh al-waḥy).

indiscriminately visible but incognito. The same angel once appeared as a traveller with intensely white garments and intensely black hair (or beard as in Ibn Ḥibbān), “the most handsome, most fragrant of people, and his clothes looked immaculate,” before the Blessed Prophet surrounded by the unsuspecting Companions in the Hadith of Jibrīl already mentioned.
Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ (471-544/ca.1078-1149), al-Suyūṭī, and al-Haytamī cited reports of angel sightings by over two dozen Companions, including Tamīm b. Salama, Ḥāritha b. al-Nuʿmān, Ibn ʿAbbās, Muḥammad b. Maslama, ʿĀʾisha, Ḥudhayfa, Usayd b. Ḥuḍayr, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAwf, Abū Usayd al-Sāʿidī, Abū Burda b. Niyār, Abū al-Yasar Kaʿb b. ʿAmr, Ḥamza b. ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib, ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿUmar, al-ʿIrbāḍ b. Sāriya, ʿImrān b. Ḥuṣayn, and an unnamed Anṣārī (Shifā 1:4, Fī akhbārih ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayh wa-sallam maʿ al-malāʾika; al-Ḥāwī 2:266-269; al-Fatāwā ḥadīthiyya p. 217).

selectively audible. Among the Companions who were reported to have heard the angels are the paternal uncle of Abū ʿUmayr ʿAbd Allāh b. Anas b. Mālik al-Anṣārī, Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq, Ḥudhayfa b. al-Yamān, Abū Hurayra, Ubayy b. Kaʿb, Anas b. Mālik, and ʿImrān b. Ḥuṣayn—Allah be well-pleased with all of them (Shifā 1:4, Fī akhbārih ṣallā Allāhu ʿalayh wa-sallam maʿ al-malāʾika; al-Ḥāwī 2:266-269; al-Fatāwā ḥadīthiyya p. 217). The angels’ loud spurring of their horses was heard during the battle of Badr (Muslim, Jihād wal-siyar, imdād bil-malāʾika).

Sinlessness. They do only the Divine bidding, never disobey orders, and are immune from sinning (Q 19:64; 21:19-20; 21:27; 66:6; 80:16), and they are not proud. They fear their Lord above them, and do what they are bidden (Q 16:49-50). Al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) said, “the verse is an overwhelming, categorical proof of the immunity of angels from all sins” (Tafsīr, sub Q 16:49-50);

Unaccountability. Accordingly, it was inferred that their deeds are not recorded, they are not taken to account, and they are not rewarded (al-Haytamī, al-Fatāwā ḥadīthiyya p. 63-64);

Knowledge of Allah. Their Godfearingness is a proof of their knowledge of Allah Most High, as implied by the sequence of witnesses in the verse Allah bears witness that there is no god but He—and the angels, and those possessed of knowledge (Q 3:18) and our reading the verse and they tremble in awe of Him (Q 21:28) in light of the verse Those truly fear Allah, among His Servants, who have knowledge (Q 35:28), both verses using the root kh-sh-y. This knowledge, furthermore, mutually supports the aspect of volition mentioned in the following paragraph;

Volition. They possess free will. According to Abū Isḥāq al-Ṣaffār (d. 534/1140):

The position of the generality of the orthodox community (ahl al-Sunna wal-Jamāʿa) is that Allah Most High created them endowed with the faculty of choice and able to understand their Lord, the proofs for this being Any one of them who should say: Lo! I am a god beside Him, that one We would repay with hell (Q 21:29) and They do not disobey Allah in that which He commands them, but do as they are commanded (Q 66:6). If they were forced to believe while unbelief was inconceivable for them, He would not have said that one We would repay with hell, since the requital matches the act; and if they did not have free choice in their pure monotheism and obedience, the Most High would not have commended them by saying They do not disobey Allah in that which He commands them, but do as they are commanded.

al-Suyūṭī, al-Ḥabāʾik p. 252

Asexuality. They are genderless. This aspect is inferred contextually and by the counter-implication (mafhūm al-mukhālafa) of the verses that deride the pre-Islamic cult of female angels (Q 17:40; 37:150, 43:19). They are, furthermore, devoid of sexuality and do not procreate. Hence, in doctrine, the status of anyone who claims femaleness for the angels is unbelief (kufr), while claiming maleness for them constitutes depravity (fisq) and an innovation of misguidance (bidʿa) (Sirāj al-Dīn, al-Īmān p. 22, 265, citing al-Rāzī, Arbaʿīn fī uṣūl al-dīn; al-Haytamī, al-Fatāwā ḥadīthiyya p. 63).

Their Functions

Messengership. They convey—principally Jibrīl, but not exclusively—the communications and revelations of Allah Most High to His elect servants among Prophets and Messengers including non-Prophets such as Maryam as well as, according to the hadiths, Hājar (cf. Bukhārī, Aḥādīth al-anbiyāʾ, qawl Allāh taʿālā wa-ittakhadha Ibrāhīma khalīlan) and Mūsā’s mother (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 26:7-9). A handful of scholars—among them al-Ashʿarī (260-324?/874-936?), Ibn Ḥazm (384/994-456/1063), and al-Qurṭubī (d. 671/1273)—deemed such communications proofs for the prophethood of women, “a rare and weak position” according to al-Nawawī (Sharḥ Muslim 15:198-199; cf. Ibn Fūrak, Maqālāt p. 180; Ibn Ḥazm, al-Fiṣal 5:119-121; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 3:42);

Record-keeping. They are tasked with writing down the deeds of every human being (Q 10:21, 43:80)—Over you stand watchers, noble, recording, who know what you do (Q 82:10-12)—into a clear register (Q 36:12) that shall be produced in full on the Day of Judgment (Q 18:49, 45:29), in pairs of which each is called a Ready Observer (Q 50:18);

Giving testimony. Closely connected with record-keeping is the angelic function of witnessing, already mentioned with regard to (i) pure monotheism (tawḥīd) (Q 3:18), which applies also to (ii) momentous events and objects such as the descent of the Qurʾān (Q 4:165-166) and the record of the destinies of the just: A written record attested by those who are brought near (Q 83:20-21); (iii) crucial moments of Divine proximity to human times and events such as the dawn prayer: Lo! [the recital of] the Qurʾān at dawn is ever witnessed (Q 17:78); “the angels of the day and the angels of the night witness it” (Jalālayn, Tafsīr); and the Day of ʿArafa (see ʿArafāt) for pilgrims—the climax of the Ḥajj —according to the exegesis of the mashhūd or that whereunto testimony is borne (Q 85:3);

Guardianship. There are appointed angelic guardians over every individual: No human soul but has a guardian over it (Q 86:4). They are called muʿaqqibāt, succeeding one another at the front and back of each human being—For every one [of you] there are angels replacing one another, in front of him and behind him, who guard him by the command of Allah (Q 13:11)—such guardianship being of course entirely dictated by the Divine Decree;

Companionship and inspiration. An angel has been assigned to each human being, enticing all that is right and good. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “There is none of you but has been entrusted to his mate (qarīn) of the jinn and his mate of the angels” (Muslim, Ṣifat al-qiyāma, taḥrīsh al-shayṭān), and the following hadith:

“Truly, the devil at times approaches a person and the angel at times approaches a person. The devil’s approach whispers evil and the denial of truth, whereas the angel’s approach whispers goodness and the confirmation of truth. Whoever finds the latter, let him know that it comes from Allah Most High; and whoever finds the other, let him seek refuge in Allah from the devil.” Then he recited, The devil promises you destitution and enjoins on you lewdness. But Allah promises you forgiveness from Himself with bounty. Allah is All-Embracing, All-Knowing (Q 2:268).

Tirmidhī, Tafsīr, Sūrat al-Baqara, hadith classed ḥasan gharīb

To illustrate the above description, al-Ghazālī (450-505/1058-1111) relates the following explanation from al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (d. 110/728):

Two thoughts roam over the soul: one from Allah, one from the enemy. Allah shows mercy to a servant who settles at the thought that comes from Him and embraces it while fighting against the one from his enemy. Describing the heart’s attraction to both these powers, the Prophet said: “The heart of the believer (correct version: “of the human being”) lies between two fingers of the Merciful” (Muslim, Qadar, taṣrīf Allāh taʿālā al-qulūba kayfa yashāʾ and the Sunan and Musnad)... The fingers stand for upheaval and hesitation in the heart... If a person follows the dictates of anger and appetite, the dominion of Satan appears in him through idle passions (hawā) and his heart becomes the nesting-place and container of shayṭān (see Satan) who feeds on hawā. If he does battle with his passions and does not let them dominate his psyche, imitating in this the character of the angels, at that time his heart becomes the resting-place of angels and they alight upon it.

Iḥyāʾ, Sharḥ ʿajāʾib al-qalb, bayān tasalluṭ al-shayṭān ʿalā al-qalb

Ontogenic imprint and apportionment. This attendance begins even before birth, the angels being in charge of (i) fashioning and (ii) imprinting the embryo with all the facets of its destiny here and hereafter: “The sperm-and-ovum drop falls into the uterus [and remains] for forty nights, after which the angel in charge of fashioning it (al-malak al-ladhī yukhalliquhā) descends upon it and says, ‘Lord, is it to be wretched or happy?’ Then this is inscribed. Then he says, ‘Lord, is it to be male or female?’ Then this is inscribed, together with its deeds, its progeny, its term of life, and its sustenance. Then the records are folded up and nothing more is added or subtracted” (Muslim, Qadar, kayfiyyat khalq al-ādamī) (see ʿAlaqa);

Intercessorship. The Throne-Bearers and those around them are inherent and constant intercessors for the believers among human beings (Q 40:7-9) (see Intercession), and the generality of the angels are bringers of blessings and bounties to all human beings (al-Suyūṭī, al-Ḥabāʾik p. 110, 114, 117, 128, 132). Their special propitiations are connected to certain categories, such as students: “The angels lower their wings out of pleasure with one who seeks knowledge” (Dārimī, Sunan, Muqaddima, faḍl al-ʿilm and the Sunan and Musnad), among many other categorical directives such as:

the Heavenly Kaʿba or “Inhabited House” (al-Bayt al-maʿmūr), as related in the hadith of Miʿrāj: “Every day seventy thousand angels enter the Inhabited House, who never return to it again” (Bukhārī, Badā al-khalq, dhikr al-malāʾika; Muslim, Īmān, isrāʾ bi-Rasūl Allāh);

prayer, especially the first row, those who complete rows, those lingering in their prayer-spots, those calling to prayer and worshipping in desert areas; Qurʾān reading, recitation, and memorization, and since they were not given the gift of reciting the Qurʾān, they are eager to hear it recited by human beings (al-Haytamī, al-Fatāwā ḥadīthiyya p. 62); dhikr, its gatherings, and its people; the speech and deeds of those who speak and do good; circles of learning and admonishment; the pre-dawn meal (saḥūr) for those intending to fast; and, according to some reports, hosts feeding their guests (cf. Sirāj al-Dīn, al-Īmān p. 168-207);

the Prophet’s grave, according to the strong hadith of Kaʿb al-Aḥbār’s statement to ʿĀʾisha—Allah be well-pleased with them: “Not one day dawns but 70,000 angels descend to encompass the grave of the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—and spread their wings over it, invoking blessings upon him…” (Dārimī, Sunan, Muqaddima, mā akrama Allāhu taʿālā bihi Nabiyyah baʿda mawtih) and the anonymous-chained report (balāgha) of Ibn Abī Fudayk (d. 200/815) cited in the manuals on invoking blessings, visitation, and Prophetic attributes (cf. ʿIyāḍ, Shifā 2:4, fī ḥukm ziyārat qabrih);

the land of al-Shām (Syro-Palestine (q.v.)), “Because the angels of the Merciful spread their wings over it” (Tirmidhī, Manāqib, faḍl al-Shām wal-Yaman).

Their deeds of worship are an avenue of Divine forgiveness for whoever succeeds in mingling his or her own worship with it: “When the imam says wa-lā-ḍ-ḍāllīn (during ṣalāt at the end of the recitation of Q 1), let all of you say āmīn, for the angels do say āmīn (“amen”) and whosoever’s āmīn coincides with that of the angels, all his past sins are forgiven” (Bukhārī, Adhān, jahr al-maʾmūm bil-taʾmīn; Muslim, Ṣalāt, al-tasmīʿ wal-taḥmīd wal-taʾmīn; and Abū Dāwūd, Aḥmad, Nasāʾī, Tirmidhī, Ibn Mājah; and Dārimī, Sunan);

Aid and support. They may attend battles on the believers’ side, whether to actually fight by the thousands as in the Battle of Badr (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 3:124-125, cf. 8:11-12 (see Badr)); as non-combatant supporters as in Ḥunayn (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr, sub Q 9:26) (see Ḥunayn); or as lone riders to rescue a supplicating traveler from a highway robber, as related by Abū Muʿallaq al-Anṣārī—Allah be well-pleased with him (al-Lālakāʾī, Karāmāt al-awliyāʾ p. 154-155 §111). Of the identifying marks mentioned in the verse, Your Lord shall help you with five thousand angels bearing marks (Q 3:125), Ibn ʿAbbās reportedly said: “The marks were that they wore turbans” (Qurṭubī and Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrs, sub Q 3:125). Among their great works is also their fortifying the believers’ hearts in such battles and in good deeds in general: When your Lord was revealing to the angels, “I am with you; so confirm the believers. I shall cast into the unbelievers’ hearts terror; so smite above the necks, and smite every finger of them!” (Q 8:12). At the Battle of Badr the enemies’ heads were observed flying off their shoulders from invisible sword-blows (Aḥmad, Musnad al-Anṣār, ḥadīth Abī Dāwūd al-Māzinī and Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 3:124). This strength is also the meaning of the spirit in the verse He has written faith upon their hearts, and He has confirmed them with a Spirit from Himself (Q 58:22) and some commentators saw in it a reference to Jibrīl (Sirāj al-Dīn, al-Īmān p. 73). This is supported by the supplication of the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—for Ḥassān b. Thābit and the latter’s poetry on behalf of the Prophet specifically: “O Allah, support him with the Holy Spirit  (rūḥ al-qudus)!” (Bukhārī, Masājid, al-shiʿr fī-l-masājid; Muslim, Faḍāʾil, faḍāʾil Ḥassān);

Friendship and patronage. They descend in throngs upon the believers on specific great occasions such as the Night of Qadr (Q 97:4) or in their lives generally speaking and at the times of death and resurrection: Those who say: “Our Lord is Allah,” then act rightly, upon them do the angels descend, saying: “Do not fear or grieve, but receive the glad tidings of the Garden you were promised before! We are your protecting friends in this life and the next, where you shall have all that your souls desire and whatsoever you request—hospitality from One Forgiving and Merciful!” (Q 41:30-32).

In connection with patronage, support, and intercessorship, the following have been described as the recipients of Divine blessings followed by angelic blessings in various hadiths beginning with the words “Lo! Allah and His angels invoke blessings on…”: (i) those praying in the front prayer-rows (Nasāʾī, Imāma, kayfa yuqawwim al-imām al-ṣufūf; Abū Dāwūd, Ṣalāt, taswiyat al-ṣufūf); (ii) their right sides especially (Abū Dāwūd, Ṣalāt, man yustaḥabb an yaliya al-imām; Ibn Mājah, Iqāmat al-ṣalāt, faḍl maymanat al-ṣaff); (iii) those who join up the rows and fill gaps (Ibn Mājah, Iqāmat al-ṣalāt, iqāmat al-ṣufūf; Aḥmad, Bāqī musnad al-Anṣār, bāqī al-musnad al-sābiq); and (iv) those who take a pre-dawn meal intending to fast (Aḥmad, Bāqī musnad al-mukthirīn, musnad Abī Saʿīd al-Khudrī). The reports that add Jumuʿa (Friday) congregants (see Friday) who wear turbans or white turbans are forged, according to the treatises on forgeries;

Reward and punishment. They assist the Angel of death at the time of a person’s death (Q 4:97, 6:61, 7:37) bringing a foretaste of reward (as in Q 41:30-32 cited above) or punishment: If you could but see, when the wrongdoers are in the overwhelming pangs of death, while the angels extend their hands [striking them], saying: Yield up your souls! Today you are awarded the punishment of humiliation (Q 6:93; cf. 8:50). In the latter case they are called al-zabāniya (Q 96:18), “their feet are on earth and their heads in the sky” (Ṭabarī), “fierce, brutal angels who inflict destruction” (Jalālayn, Tafsīr) and who almost killed Abū Jahl (d. 2/624) at the Kaʿba as the latter was approaching the Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—to do him harm, whereupon he rushed backwards, arms raised to protect himself from something invisible: “Between me and him there was a moat of fire and horror and wings!”—after which the Prophet said: “Had he come near me, the angels would have taken him apart limb by limb” (Muslim, Ṣifat al-qiyāma wal-janna wal-nār, inna al-insāna la-yaṭghā);

Caretakers of Paradise and Hell . Some are responsible for Paradise and its blessings (Q 13:23-24; 39:73), some for Hell and its torments (Q 39:71; 40:49; 67:8; 74:28-31), among them Mālik (Q 43:77) and nineteen fierce, merciless angels (Q 74:30).

Their Dislikes

Angels find the following offensive:

Offensive smells, in particular the smell of onion, garlic, and leek, and the breath of those who eat them raw (Muslim, Masājid, nahī man akala thūman; Nasāʾī, Masājid, man yumnaʿ min al-masjid), its status hovering between slight offensiveness (karāhat tanzīh) and worse. The hadith to that effect also forms one of the inferential proof-texts for the proscription of smoking, as in the numerous treatises to that effect—such as Marʿī al-Karmī’s (d. 1032/1623) Taḥqīq al-burhān fī shaʾn al-dukhān and notably Muḥammad b. Jaʿfar al-Kattānī’s (1273-1345/1857-1927) Iʿlān al-ḥujja wa-iqāmat al-burhān ʿalā manʿ mā ʿamma wa-fashā min istiʿmāl ʿushbat al-dukhān;

Pictorial or other representations of living creatures: “Truly, a house in which images are found is shunned by the angels,” the Prophet told ʿĀʾisha (Bukhārī, Buyūʿ, tijāra fī-mā yukrah; Muslim, Libās wal-zīna, taḥrīm taṣwīr ṣūrat al-ḥayawān). A modern scholar has argued that the hadith conveys absolute prohibition of any photographic or other representation, whether on garments, furniture, hanging frames, or in three dimensions, especially of the face, unless the latter is suppressed (Ḥamūd b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Tuwayjirī, Iʿlān al-nakīr ʿalā al-maftūnīn bil-taṣwīr).

Angels whose function is to seek mercy and forgiveness shun (i) houses containing dogs, except for those allowed by Law (Bukhārī, Libās, taṣāwīr; Muslim, Libās wal-zīna, lā tadkhu al-malāʿika baytan fīhi kalb wa lā ṣūra); (ii) someone in a state of major impurity (janāba) (see Ablution; Ritual Purity and Impurity); (iii) caravans in which there are animals with bells around their necks (since they give the enemy advance warning); and (iv) someone inebriated (al-Suyūṭī, al-Ḥabāʾik p. 156-159). The only times that the attending angels part with their human charge is when the latter is in the latrine, in the bath, or having sexual intercourse (al-Haytamī, al-Fatāwā ḥadīthiyya p. 64).

Their Perfection and the Superiority of the Prophets

Angels are honored servants (Q 21:26) endowed with perfections that make them “the most honored creatures of Allah in His sight” (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 43:19). The greatest among them all is Jibrīl, upon him peace, who is described with seven lofty attributes in Sūrat al-Takwīr: a Messenger, honorable, one with might before the Owner of the Throne, staunch, obeyed in those parts, and trusted (Q 81:19-21), and elsewhere as one of mighty powers, very strong (Q 53:5-6). “The best of the angels in absolute terms is the Trusted Spirit Jibrīl, followed by Mikāʾīl, Isrāfīl, and ʿIzrāʾīl” according to al-Qasṭallānī (851-923/1448-1517), while al-Suyūṭī stops short of confirming this hierarchy for lack of indisputable proof (al-Zurqānī, Sharḥ al-Mawāhib al-lāduniyya 6:167).

Yet the angels in their entirety were ordered to prostrate to Ādam, either literally as a mark of respect (cf. Tafsīrs of Rāzī and Ibn Kathīr; Shawkānī, Fatḥ al-qadīr, sub Q 2:33-34) or to Allah in intention but toward Ādam as their qibla (cf. Tafsīrs of Bayḍāwī and Qurṭubī, sub Q 2:33-34 and 7:11, 17:61, 18:50, 20:116) (see Ādam, upon him peace; Prostration). In either case this is one of the proofs for the Sunni consensus that the most honored of all creatures in the Divine sight are the Prophets. Al-Laqānī (d. 1041/1631) states in his doctrinal primer: “The best of creatures in absolute terms is our Prophet, so steer clear of dissent / and the Prophets follow him in merit and, after them, the angels—excellent ones. / That said, some have detailed their hierarchy in that one part of any group may be better than another” (Jawharat v. 65-67). This assertion of superiority (tafḍīl) is by consensus of the Muslims including the Muʿtazila except for al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143) in his Kashshāf (sub Q 4:172 and Sūrat al-Takwīr) and the Greek-influenced philosophers (al-Falāsifa).

Al-Rāzī had propounded this position before them in his Arbaʿīn fī uṣūl al-dīn and Maḥṣūl fī uṣūl al-fiqh, as cited by al-Zurqānī (1055-1122/1645-1710), and it had already mustered consensus by the time of Ḥusayn b. Yaḥyā al-Bukhārī al-Zandawīstī (d. 382/992), who consigned it in his Rawḍat al-ʿulamāʾ according to al-Nābulusī (d. 1143/ca.1730) (Sharḥ al-Mawāhib 6:162; al-Ajwiba p. 146-147).

Abū al-ʿAbbās al-Uqlīshī (d. 550/1155) says in his book on the Divine Attributes, as quoted by al-Qurṭubī in his Asnā (chapter on the Divine Name al-Ṣabūr):

Some ulema have said that a human being who subdues the lust of his ego becomes superior to an angel who is created free of lusts. In this respect, only human beings can be described as possessing the ṣabr (see Perseverance, Patience, and Fortitude) to stay away from lusts. Others have said the angels are superior in the first sense of ṣabr, namely steadfastness in undivided obedience to and vision of Allah Most High—that is the state of the dwellers of Paradise.

Al-Suyūṭī made a long and thorough hadith-based presentation of the issue entitled Masʾala fī-l-tafḍīl bayn al-malāʾika wal-khalq in his angelologic encyclopedia al-Ḥabāʾik fī akhbār al-malāʾik (p. 203-255), concluding with this exhortation of al-Qarāfī (626-684/1229-1285): “It is obligatory for every legally responsible person to venerate the totality of the prophets as well as the angels, and whoever disrespects them in the least commits unbelief.”

The Most Prominent Angels

The first four angels below are among the “angels brought near” (al-muqarrabūn in Q 4:172, 83:18)—also known as the karūbiyyūn and “the Highest Assembly” (al-malaʾ al-aʿlā)—which include the Throne-Bearers (Q 69:18, cf. Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub k-r-b and m-l-ā). The human muqarrabūn, likewise, are the highest of their kind (Q 56:10-11, 56:89). In both cases the term means “brought near [to Allah Most High]” (cf. Abū al-Suʿūd, Irshād, sub Q 3:45). These four are the exception cited in the verse the Day the trumpet is blown and fright seizes those in heaven and those on earth except whomsoever Allah wills (Q 27:87) (Jalālayn, Tafsīr).

Jibrīl (Q 2:97-98, 66:4), glossed as “slave (ʿabd) of Allah” by the lexicographers, and also known as the Spirit (al-rūḥ), the Holy Spirit (rūḥ al-qudus), and the Trusted Spirit (al-rūḥ al-amīn) (Q 2:87, 253; 5:110; 26:192-195; 40:15; 70:4; 78:38; 97:4 and al-Shinqīṭī’s Aḍwāʾ on those verses) in charge of all the revealed Books. His name has over a dozen lexical forms and canonical readings: Jibrīl (read thus by the Ḥijāzīs), Jabrīl, Jabraʾīl, Jabrāʾil, Jabraʾil, Jabraʾill, Ja/ibrāʾīl, Ja/ibrāyīl, Jabrayl, while the Banū Asad substituted n for the final l yielding the (impermissible) readings Ja/ibrīn and Ja/ibrāʾīn (al-Khaṭīb, Muʿjam al-qirāʾāt 1:157-159). The Jews deemed him their enemy and Mikāʾīl their ally, according to the glosses on Q 2:97 and the disclosure of the Companion and former rabbi ʿAbd Allāh b. Salām—Allah be well-pleased with him—to that effect (Bukhārī, Badā al-khalq, dhikr al-malāʾika);

Mīkāl (Q 2:98), read thus by the Ḥijāzīs; also read as Mīkāʾil, Mīkāʾīl, Mīkyīl, Mikayl, Mīkaʾil, Mīkāyīl, Mīkāyil, Mikull, Mīkall, Mīkaʾīl, and Mīkāʾal (al-Khaṭīb, Muʿjam al-qirāʾāt 1:159-161), and glossed as “the humble slave (ʿubayd) of Allah” (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:97; al-Suyūṭī, al-Ḥabāʾik p. 29) in charge of vegetation and precipitation according to some reports (see Sirāj al-Dīn, al-Īmān p. 96). Jibrīl and he—in that order—are the ministers of the Messenger of Allah—upon them blessings and peace—in heaven corresponding to Abū Bakr and ʿUmar on earth (Tirmidhī, Manāqib, manāqib Abī Bakr wa-ʿUmar, hadith classed ḥasan gharīb), which is why they fought right next to him at Uḥud as witnessed by Saʿd b. Abī Waqqāṣ (Bukhārī, Maghāzī, idh hammat ṭāʾifatān and Muslim, Faḍāʾil, qitāl Jibrīl wa-Mīkāʾīl). It is related that when the Prophet conquered Makka, he turned to Ḥassān b. Thābit, asking him to recite something extemporaneously, whereupon Ḥassān said:

Pillar oft-visited, surety of refuge-seekers,

Resort of the parched and protecting neighbor!

You whom the One God chose for His creatures
then granted perfection and pure character—

You are The Prophet, you are the best of Ādam’s kind!

Open-handed, like the outpouring of a swelling sea—

Mīkāl is with you and Jibrīl, both helping you to victory, sent by One Mighty, Irresistible!

Ibn ʿAbd al-Barr, al-Istīʿāb s.v. Janāb al-Kalbī

Isrāfīl, “the slave of the Most Merciful” (ʿabd al-Raḥmān in Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:97). He is not mentioned by that name in the Qurʾān but, as shown by the Jalālayn, by the acts or names that describe his role on the Day of Resurrection in ten places: the day it is blown into the trumpet (Q 6:73); the day He calls you and you shall respond (Q 17:52); that day they shall follow the herald without swerving (Q 20:108); and the day the trumpet is blown (Q 27:87); (Q 30:25; 36:49; 50:41-42; 54:6; 78:18). Ibn Ḥajar (773-852/1371-1449) cites consensus over his being the great “Horn-Blower” mentioned in several hadiths which he sources (Fatḥ al-bārī, Riqāq, nafkh al-ṣūr). Either he or Jibrīl is the greatest of all the angels (al-Haytamī, al-Fatāwā ḥadīthiyya p. 64-65). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, frequently invoked Allah by the name of “Lord of Jibrīl and Mīkāʾīl and Isrāfīl!” (Muslim, Ṣalāt al-musāfirīn, duʿāʾ; the Sunans of Nasāʾī, Tirmidhī, Ibn Mājah, and Dārimī; and Aḥmad), highlighting the greatness of these three angels (see Beautiful Names of Allah);

The Angel of Death, thus named in the Qurʾān (malak al-mawt, Q 32:11) and most of the reports. He is in charge of seizing the souls of all living beings—including animals (on the basis of Q 39:42), or of human beings and angels only—while lesser angels are in charge of jinns and animals (al-Haytamī, al-Fatāwā ḥadīthiyya p. 5, 28, 71). Qāḍī ʿIyāḍ, toward the very end of al-Shifā (4:3, fī ḥukm man sabba sāʾir anbiyāʾ Allah wa-malāʾikatah), cites “the common knowledge and agreement by categorical consensus” that the name of the angel of death is ʿIzrāʾīl (or ʿAzrāʾīl, both vocalizations being used: see Zabīdī, Tāj, sub ʿ-z-r), which al-Qurṭubī glosses as “the slave of Allah” (Tafsīr, sub Q 32:11). This name is found in several early hadith compilations (Ṭabarānī, Ibn Abī al-Dunyā, Abū al-Shaykh al-Aṣfahānī’s ʿAẓama, Ibn Abī Ḥātim’s Tafsīr, and Abū Nuʿaym’s Ḥilya, among others). The arch-master of hadith, Ibn Ḥajar, was specifically asked about this issue and replied: “The collected weight of the reports indicates that there is an established basis to the name ʿIzrāʾīl for the Angel of Death” (in Imtāʿ p. 108). He is identified thus in the commentaries on Q 32:11, including those of Muqātil, Ibn al-Kalbī, al-Thaʿlabī, al-Baghawī, Ibn Juzayy, al-Qurṭubī, Ibn Kathīr—the latter stating, “This is well-known, and it was related by Qatāda and others”—al-Khāzin and al-Shawkānī who both categorically assert it, the Javanese exegete Nawawī al-Jāwī, and al-Suyūṭī in his angelology al-Ḥabāʾik fī akhbār al-malāʾik, his Ḥāwī lil-fatāwā, his Itqān fī ʿulūm al-Qurʾān, his Durr al-manthūr, his commentaries on Muslim and al-Nasāʾī, as well as in the Jalālayn. Sulaymān al-Jamal (d. 1204/1790) states in his commentary on the latter:

In reality it is Allah Most High who causes decease by creating death and ordering those He employs to seize the soul, other than the Angel of Death, as helpers for him, who draw out the spirit from the fingernails to the throat…. It is narrated that the whole world was made as it were the palm of the hand for him, and he takes the soul of anyone he wishes, from east to west, without difficulty. He has helpers in this from the angels of mercy and the angels of torment…. It has been said that he has a spear that reaches from East to West. He inspects the faces of people and there is not a single household whose faces the Angel of Death does not inspect every day twice. Whenever he sees someone whose term is over, he strikes his head with that spear and tells him, “Now shall the soldiers of death descend upon you!”

Futūḥāt 3:437-438

Munkar and Nakīr (Dreadful and Ghastly): They are the two angels who interrogate the deceased in the grave immediately following burial (Bukhārī, Janāʾiz, al-mayyit yasmaʿ khafq al-niʿāl; Muslim, Janāʾiz, al-masʾala fī-l-qabr; the Sunans and Aḥmad), thus named and described: “When the deceased is buried, two black and blue angels come to him, one named al-Munkar and the other al-Nakīr, and they say: ‘What did you use to say concerning this man?’...” (Tirmidhī, Janāʾiz, ʿadhāb al-qabr, hadith classed ḥasan gharīb; for other reports naming them see al-Qurṭubī, al-Tadhkira 1:222-224).

The Qurʾānic proof that the graves—before Paradise or Hell—are also, like this world, a venue of trial and examination is in the words and in the Hereafter in the verse Allah makes firm those who believe with a firm saying in the life of the world and in the Hereafter, and Allah lets wrongdoers go astray. And Allah does what He will (Q 14:27), the “firm saying” being the witnessing of faith in the grave, in connection with which the above verse was revealed (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, yuthabbitu Allāh al-ladhīna āmanū; Muslim, Janna, ʿarḍ maqʿad al-mayyit).

Specific belief in these two angels and their interrogation is an obligatory part of the creed of Islam and was stipulated in the doctrinal texts such as the early Ḥanafī and Ḥanbalī creeds, the Ṭaḥāwiyya, al-Ashʿarī’s al-Ibāna and Risālat ahl al-Thaghr, al-Ghazālī’s Qawāʿid al-ʿaqāʾid, the Nasafiyya, and the ʿAḍudiyya. Therefore, “Allah Most High does not accept one’s faith until one believes in the questioning of the dead by Munkar and Nakīr” (ʿAbd Allāh b. ʿAlawī al-Ḥaddād, ʿAqīda p. 22-23);

Riḍwān (Contentment): famously known as the Keeper of Paradise, with which he shares his name since it is the abode of contentment (cf. Sirāj al-Dīn, al-Īmān p. 120). The angelic keepers of Paradise are mentioned anonymously (Q 13:23-24, 39:73) and there is no reliable report linking Riḍwān’s name to that role. Ibn al-Qayyim (691-751/1292-1350) positively states that “Allah Most High named the chief of those keepers Riḍwān” but offers no proof. An inauthentic long report in a compilation attributed to Dāraquṭnī (306-385/918-995) and which Ibn al-Qayyim reproduces has “Riḍwān, the keeper of Paradise;” but the authentic ones leave the keeper unnamed (Bukhārī, Badā al-khalq, dhikr al-malāʾika; Muslim, Īmān, qawl al-Nabī Anā awwal al-nās yashfaʿ; Dāraquṭnī, Kitāb al-ruʾya p. 179-182 §64; Ḥādī al-arwāḥ p. 87, 226);

Mālik, the Keeper of Hellfire (Q 43:77 and commentaries) as identified by Jibrīl to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, who then saw him during his Ascent to Heaven (Bukhārī, Badā al-khalq, dhikr al-malāʾika; Muslim, Īmān, al-isrāʾ);

The two recording angels already discussed (see Functions above) are also a point of consensus among Muslims, per the same sources cited for Munkar and Nakīr.

The Prophet’s Relationship with the Angels

Angels were created to practice uninterrupted worship of God, as creatures of perfect obedience. In addition,  the Qurʾān describes two main functions in the service of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, both of which follow the lead of the Creator Himself and are to be emulated by human believers. The first function is his extollment: Allah and His angels send blessings on the Prophet… (Q 33:56). The second function is unconditional aid to the Prophet: Allah, even He, is his protecting Friend, and Jibrīl and the righteous among the believers; and furthermore the angels are his helpers (Q 66:4) in every sense of the word—whether by providing tranquility of heart or invisible military support (Q 9:40; 33:9; 48:4, 26). By extension, the angels support all believers (Q 8:12, 9:26, 48:4).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, dearly loved Jibrīl and asked him: “What prevents you from visiting us more?” whereupon was revealed the verse We [angels] come not down save by commandment of your Lord (Q 19:64) (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, wa-mā natanazzalu; Tirmidhī, Tafsīr, Sūrat Maryam, hadith classed ḥasan gharīb). Jibrīl has a pre-eminent role as the angel of revelation, from the time he brought the Prophet Sūrat al-ʿAlaq and Sūrat al-Muddaththir (Q 96 and 74)—the first two suras revealed (Bukhārī, Tafsīr, qāla Ibn ʿAbbās “ʿasīr: shadīd”)—to the last time he rehearsed the Qurʾān with him (Bukhārī, Istiʾdhān, man nājā bayn yaday al-nās; Aḥmad, Bāqī musnad al-anṣār, aḥādīth Fāṭima bint Rasūl Allāh). The Prophet—upon him blessings and peace—had encountered the archangels from a young age, as is narrated in the account of their splitting and cleansing of his chest when he was still a child in the care of Ḥalīma al-Saʿdiyya (Muslim, Īmān, Isrāʾ; cf. al-Qasṭallānī, Mawāhib, I, dhikr raḍāʿih). The same incident took place years later, at the onset of his greatest “inimitable miracle” (muʿjiza) after the Qurʾān, namely, the Night Journey to Jerusalem and the heavenly ascent to the Seven Heavens and beyond, together known as al-Isrāʾ wal-Miʿrāj (see Night Journey and Ascension):

As the Prophet was in al-Ḥijr at the House, reclining between two men (Ḥamza b. ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib and Jaʿfar b. Abī Ṭālib), Jibrīl and Mīkāʾīl came to him. With them was a third angel (Isrāfīl). They carried him until they brought him to the spring of Zamzam, where they asked him to lie on his back and Jibrīl took him over from the other two. (Another version says: “The roof of my house was opened and Jibrīl descended.”)

He split the Prophet’s chest from his throat to the bottom of his belly. He took out his heart and washed it three times, removing from it what was unseemly. Mīkāʾīl went back and forth to him with the vessel of water from Zamzam three times.

Then he brought him a golden vessel filled with wisdom and belief, which he emptied into his chest. He filled his chest with ḥilm (intelligence, patience, gentleness, and good character), knowledge, certainty, and submission, then closed it up. He sealed it between his shoulders with the seal of Prophethood.

Then he brought the Burāq, handsome-faced and bridled, a tall, white beast, bigger than the donkey but smaller than the mule….

Jibrīl departed with him. He placed himself on his right while Mīkāʾīl was on his left. (In Ibn Saʿd’s version: The one holding his stirrup was Jibrīl and the one holding the reins of the Burāq was Mīkāʾīl.)

Bukhārī, Tawḥīd, wa-kallama Mūsā taklīman; Bukhārī, Ṣalāt, kayfa furiḍat al-ṣalāt; Bukhārī, Manāqib, miʿrāj; cf. Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr and Suyūṭī, Durr, sub Q 17:1, and Muḥammad b. ʿAlawī al-Mālikī, Wa-huwa bil-ufuqi al-aʿlā p. 259-263

The Question of Fallen Angels

There are three famous fallen angels mentioned in the Qurʾān according to numerous authoritative scholars in Islamic tradition: Iblīs, Hārūt, and Mārūt. To quote al-Qurṭubī:

Iblīs was one of the angels according to the vast majority of scholars—including Ibn ʿAbbās, Ibn Masʿūd, Ibn Jurayj, Ibn al-Musayyab, Qatāda, and others; and it is the preferred position of the Shaykh Abū al-Ḥasan [al-Ashʿarī]. Al-Ṭabarī considered it the preponderant one, and it is the apparent meaning of the verse [And when We said unto the angels: Prostrate yourselves before Ādam, they fell prostrate, all save Iblīs]. Ibn ʿAbbās said: “His name was ʿAzāzīl and he was among the nobility of the angels; he possessed four wings. Then after that he despaired (ablasa).”

Tafsīr, sub Q 2:34

The latter is narrated by Ibn Abī Ḥātim (d. 327/939) in his Tafsīr on the same verse. According to this explanation, the verse that states that he was of the jinn (Q 18:50) means that he was not “one of” but “among” the jinn, whom he was teaching at the time (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 18:50).

Taking the opposite position, Ibn Kathīr adduces al-Ṭabarī’s narration from al-Ḥasan al-Baṣrī that “Iblīs was not in the least an angel” since he himself says he was created from fire (Q 7:12; 38:76), while ʿAbd al-Qāhir al-Baghdādī (d. 429/1038) considers the exceptive particle illā in the verse And when We said unto the angels: Prostrate yourselves before Ādam, they fell prostrate, all except Iblis (Q 2:34) to denote what the grammarians call a “disconnected exception” (istithnāʾ munqaṭiʿ), that is, that Iblīs was with the angels at the time they were commanded to prostrate and thus was included in the command despite his not being one of them (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 2:34; al-Baghdādī, Uṣūl al-dīn p. 296-297, Fī bayān jins Iblīs al-laʿīn).

Al-Bayḍāwī (d. 685/1286) resolves the contradiction with the view that Iblīs was a jinn in his deed although he had been created as an angel. As for the creation of the angels out of light, it does not preclude that some of them be created otherwise, “especially since fire and light are synonymous and identical from certain perspectives.” Another sign that Iblīs was originally an angel is that all commentaries agree that his name was originally ʿAzāzīl, the suffix -īl being typical of angels (Tafsīr, sub Q 2:34). Al-Ālūsī (1217-1270/1802-1854) further resolves the issue by making it hinge on the Divine power and foreordained Decree, in that Azāzīl/Iblīs was first an infallible angel, then Allah Most High removed his angelic nature and replaced it with satanic attributes, whereupon he sinned (Rūḥ, sub Q 2:34).

As for the two angels Hārūt and Mārūt (Q 2:102), the account of their being fallen angels is mass-narrated (mutawātir) according to Ibn Ḥajar in al-Qawl al-musaddad; al-Suyūṭī in al-Zahr al-mutanāthir, al-Durr al-manthūr, al-Ḥabāʾik, and Manāhil al-ṣafā; and al-Kattānī in Naẓm al-mutanāthir, and is adopted by many of the commentaries. Nevertheless, al-Qurṭubī and Ibn Kathīr consider them both jinns while al-Ṭabarī avers that “the two angels” mentioned in the story were “Jibrīl and Mīkāʾīl or some other two angels,” Hārūt and Mārūt being two men from Bābil (Babel) who were called “angels” because of their righteousness. The latter is the position of several latter-day scholars, among them al-Nibrāwī (d. after 1257/1842) in his commentary on al-Arbaʿīn al-Nawawiyya (p. 27), Taqī al-Dīn al-Hilālī (1311-1407/1893-1987) in his Sabīl al-rashād (1:164-166), Muḥammad Nasīb al-Rifāʿī (1333-1413/1915-1992) in his abridgment of Ibn Kathīr entitled Taysīr al-ʿAlī al-Qadīr (1:84), and ʿAbd al-Qādir b. Aḥmad Badrān (1267-1346/1848-1927) in Jawāhir al-afkār wa-maʿādin al-asrār (p. 281-290).

Jāhiliyyan and Judeo-Christian Angelolatry

The Qurʾān denounces the pre-Islamic worship of angels (Q 4:117; cf. 25:17; 34:40; 39:3 and Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr on these verses) and, even more emphatically, the aggravated Makkan claim that angels are the daughters of Allah (Q 2:116; 2:172; 6:100; 10:68; 19:88; 39:4; 43:15)—an aspect that made such worship a worse offense since the masculinist Arabs preferred sons to daughters (Q 16:57; 37:149, 152; 43:16; 53:27). This claim even involved the jinn according to the glosses, for they imagine kinship between Him and the jinn, whereas the jinn know well that they will be summoned (Q 37:158): “According to Mujāhid, the pagans of Quraysh said, ‘the angels are the daughters of Allah and their mothers are the daughters of the noblewomen (sarawāt) of the jinn’” (Bukhārī, Badā al-khalq, dhikr al-jinn; Tafsīr al-Qurʾān, sūrat al-Ṣāffāt). Ibn ʿAbbās said: “The enemies of Allah Most High have claimed that He and Iblīs were brothers[-in-law]! Exalted is He beyond any such ascription!” (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 37:158). Indeed, angelolatry is in reality demonolatry for the most part (Q 34:40-41).

Al-Shahrastānī (469-548/ca.1076-1153) attributes the doctrine of feminization of the angels to the star-worshipping Sabeans (cf. Q 27:24) (see al-Ṣābiʿūn) due to “their belief that spiritual entities are receptive and passive” and describes them, moreover, as known jinn-worshippers (Milal wal-niḥal 2:14, 238). Abū Ḥayyān (d. 745/1344) deemed the denounciation of angelolatry in Q 3:80 to be addressed to the Sabeans (and not to the Christians) (Baḥr, sub Q 3:80), while al-Rāzī and the early commentaries aver that it addresses Quraysh, as does another remonstrance in Sūrat al-Nisāʾ (Q 4:172). Other exegetes comment on Judeo-Christian angelolatry and lore, including (for instance) the story of Jacob’s wrestling-match with God and subsequent name-change to “Israel,” glossed in Jewish and Christian sources as “He has been strong against God” (Genesis 32:23-29)—whereas the Muslim scholars gloss it as “Allah’s elite” (ṣafwat Allāh) (i.e., among His servants) according to al-Bayḍāwī and others (cf. al-Suyūṭī, Nawāhid 2:215). Of note also is the Christian worship of “the Holy Spirit” (al-rūḥ al-qudus in Arabophone liturgies), a designation the Qurʾān identifies only as a Divinely-sent helper to ʿĪsā (rūḥ al-qudus, Q 2:87; 2:253; 5:110), specified as being the very angel of revelation (Q 16:101) who addressed Maryam (Q 19:17) and conveyed the Book to the Prophet Muḥammad (Q 26:193)—upon all of them blessings and peace—and thus, like Lady Maryam and her son, created and distinct from Allah. The correspondence thus appears to be purely homonymic.

Heterodox Interpretations

Despite both the clarity and abundance of their Qurʾānic proofs, not to mention the extra-Qurʾānic, the reality of the angels and of their attributes has been contested by certain modernists eager to promote Islam purely as a science-friendly, rational ideology devoid of any supernatural elements, especially miracles, which they have tried to dismiss and over-interpret at one and the same time, straddling the two extremes of Orientalism and material Batinism. Their interpretations show ignorance of the Islamic criteria of verification together with a propensity for speculation, wielding educated vocables as long as they can eliminate the “irrational” agency of ghayb. The Egyptian Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal (1305-1376/1888-1956), for example, indiscriminately paints the reports of isrāʾ and miʿrāj as “example[s] of the reporters’ imagination...much of which being the product of pure imagination,” while himself summoning all his authorial skills to construe the Night Journey and Ascent to Heaven not as a Prophetic miracle but as a vision of “the details of space-time and problems of worldly living as mathematical atoms...not opposed to reason, especially when the moral of it is the figurization of Divine truths,” inherently replicable by science, born out of the thought of a genius through something akin to hypnosis (Life of Muḥammad p. lxxvii, 143-147; emphasis added). Another construes the events as “the types of mythology instituted by the Qurʾān” and argues against the “dangers of concrete images,” advocating free-thinking under the guise of a deconstructive approach he calls “derision” (Arkoun, “Comment lire le Coran?” p. 8-9).

Similarly, the unknown author of al-Hidāya wal-ʿirfān fī tafsīr al-Qurʾān bil-Qurʾān—a book suppressed by al-Azhar upon its publication—called the angels “the envoys of order and the world of natural customs, their prostration to the human being signifying that the world is at his command” (in al-Dhahabī, al-Tafsīr 2:391). The Egyptians Muḥammad ʿAbduh (1265-1323/1849-1905) and his students Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā (1282-1354/1865-1935) and Aḥmad b. Muṣṭafā al-Marāghī (d. 1371/1952) all relegate the angels to metaphorical status as “disembodied spirits” or “forces” and “powers” manifesting themselves in the heart, denying any objective reality to the external embodiments described by the Qurʾān and Sunna (Riḍā, Manār 1:267; 4:112; 9:612; al-Marāghī, Tafsīr 1:82-84). Both Riḍā and Marāghī defended Haykal’s book and praised his innovative views (Life of Muḥammad, p. xxiii-xxx, lxxxv).

Other modernists adopted this divestive interpretation of the angels. In the Indian subcontinent and English-speaking world, these include Muḥammad Aḥmad Khalaf Allah and Maḥmūd Abū Rayya, Sayyid Aḥmad Khan (1817-1898), Muhammad Asad—formerly Leopold Weiss (1900-1992)—who misrepresents al-Rāzī’s explication of the Nineteen Angels of Hell (Q 74:30) as “powers within man himself,” and Ghulam Ahmad Pervez (b. 1903), who describes angels and devils as humanly-controllable cosmic forces and psychological states (al-ʿAql, al-Ittijāhāt p. 294; al-Ghāmidī, al-Inḥirāf 2:978-1045; Asad, Message, sub Q 3:125, 9:26, 43:80, 48:4 and p. 1038 n. 15; Pervez, Lughāt al-Qurʾān, sub ā-l-k).


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See also

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