Angels

Surah 2 (Al-Baqarah / The Cow): 102

They had also followed the devils (those who cause corruption by inciting illusion) in regards to (denying) the sovereignty of Solomon (formed by his essential reality).

It was not Solomon who disbelieved (curtained from his reality), but the devils who (by following their illusions) disbelieved (denied the reality), teaching people magic and that which was revealed to the two angels at Babylon, Harut and Marut.

But the two angels did not teach anything to anyone without saying: ‘We are but a trial, so do not become a disbeliever by covering that which is in your essence (by resorting to external forces to practice magic).’

And yet they learned from them that which causes separation between a man and his wife.

But they cannot harm anyone except with permission from Allah. They were learning what harms them and not what benefits them.

Indeed, those who purchased it (magic) will have no benefit in the eternal Hereafter. If only they knew how wretched the thing for which they sold the reality of their essence.

[‘Decoding The Quran’, Ahmed Hulusi, 2013 (Turkish Sufi)]

 

Belief in angels is one of the essential articles of faith required of believers by {2.285} and {4.136}, see 〈52.〉 below. Angels are said in hadith to be made from light, but all that the Qur’an tells us of their form is that they have differing numbers of wings: ‘two or three or four’, {35.1}. They appear always to be male, possibly on the basis that if they were female, they would be disqualified from acting as witnesses, 〈78.〉, {37.150} rhetorically asking: ‘Or did We create the angels female while they were witnesses?

 

Seven individual angels are referred to within the Qur’an:

  • Gabriel (Jabril), whom Muslims believe to have transmitted the Qur’an to Muhammad 〈6.〉,
  • Michael (Mikail), who is referred to by name alongside Gabriel in {4.136} (produced in 〈6.〉 above); in Judeo-Christian tradition Michael is the chief warrior angel, invariably depicted wearing a breastplate and helmet and wielding a sword, although, perhaps surprisingly, he is never invoked as such in the Qur’an’s many jihad verses, 〈93.〉, but is, in Islamic angelology, allocated the more peaceable duty of dispensing rainfall,
  • an unnamed angel who will blow the trumpet heralding the Last Day 〈96.〉, traditionally identified with the biblical archangel of healing, Raphael (Israfil) who, it is anticipated, will sound the call from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem,
  • an angel, traditionally given the name of Azrael, who takes the souls of the departed to God {32.11},
  • Malik, (the Arabic word for angel, but here usually treated as a personal name) the keeper of Hell to whom the damned will cry out in vain to end their torment, {43.77} 〈100.〉, and
  • Harut and Marut, {2.102} (produced above), ‘two angels of Babylon’, who were sent down by God in the time of Solomon 〈23.〉 to teach men magic 〈18.〉 but who did not harm anyone ‘save with God’s leave’.

 

Other angels are referred to as carrying out a range of tasks on behalf of God. Some are messengers, {35.1}, or distribute blessings amongst God’s people by His Command, {51.4}. This can include offering military assistance, as occurred at the Battle of Badr where angels emboldened Muhammad’s outnumbered fighters, and ‘cast terror into the hearts’ of the disbelievers, whose necks and fingertips they struck off 〈40.〉. See also the ‘unseen legions‘ of 〈12.〉 above.

 

Each one of us is said to be accompanied throughout their life by a guardian angel (‘mu’aqqibat’) who protects us from death until our allotted hour, {6.61} and {13.11}. Less comfortingly, we are also watched over by the ‘kirqabat katibin’ or ‘honourable recorders‘ who record all our deeds:

{82.10}   And yet truly over you there are guardians:

{82.11}   Noble, writing,

{82.12}   Knowing what you do.

Further details of these watcher angels are provided by {43.80} and {50.18}, in the latter of which they are said to work in pairs ‘seated on the right and on the left’. For the detail of what is recorded, i.e. ‘everything great and small’, see {54.52-53}. In traditional Islamic angelology, the angel on the right records a person’s virtuous deeds and exercises authority over the angel on the left who records sins.

 

Based upon:

{7.1}   By those who wrest violently,

{7.2}   By those that draw out quickly,

{7.3}  By those that glide serenely,

{7.4}  By those that race to the fore, outstripping,

{7.5}  And by those that govern affairs,

{7.6}  On the Day that the quaker quakes,

{7.7}   And the successor follows upon it.

the principal angel of death, Azrael, is said to be assisted in his grim work by the ‘naziat’ (‘wresters’, i.e. those that physically pluck men’s souls out of their chests) and the ‘nashitat’ (‘those that draw out’), these being two orders of angels who for some, execute a violent or unexpected death or arrange for others a more peaceful passing, as they are directed. {23.99-100}, {32.12} and {63.10} describe disbelievers, at the moment when death (in {32.12} the Angel of Death) comes to them, begging for the chance to return to life and do more good works. Islamic tradition has it that such requests are received – and denied – by two angels called Munkar and Nakir (described as having blue faces, long teeth and wild hair) who confront each person in their grave with their life’s deeds prior to their resurrection and judgment. For similar forlorn requests, see {2.167}, {26.102}, {35.37} and {39.58}.

 

On the Last Day, ‘drivers‘ will escort the resurrected to the place of judgment. Those whose sins condemn them to the Hellfire, will find awaiting them there Malik’s subordinates, the ‘zabaniyah’ (wardens of hell): ‘angels, stern and severe, who do not disobey God in what he commands of them and who do what they are commanded’, {66.6}, see also {96.18}.

 

Yet more angels ‘glorify God night and day without tiring’, {21.20}, some, as noted above, encircling His throne which eight of their number shall carry on the Last Day. Whilst the Qur’an tells us that angels normally have no power of speech, other than as God commands them, {26.27}, these throne-bearers alone, are permitted to intercede with God, {40.7-9}, on behalf of believers.

 

Permission to speak in their own right must also have been given to some messenger angels, since two verses of the Qur’an, {19.64-65}, are phrased as though spoken by angels rather than by God Himself, see 〈4.〉

 

Angels, when they are now thought of at all, are generally conceived as obedient, and therefore sinless, agents of God’s will, with the exception of one or more who have ‘fallen’ to evil, see 〈17.〉 Imagined in these terms, it is hard to rationalise what benefit these celestial functionaries might ever have brought to an omnipotent God. However, the above array of angels includes traces of a mythology long predating the Qur’an, in which angels were closer to God than the bland attendants, messengers and servants they later became. This earlier understanding of angels is reflected in the Genesis stories  of the sons of God (‘bene Elohim‘) who descended to earth without permission to lie with  mortal women, or the three visitors to Abraham in Genesis chapter 18, who are eventually revealed by the author (at least in the final version of the text) to be the Lord and two angels, but who initially speak and act as a group 〈21.〉 Similarly in the occasional appearance of a figure in the Torah described interchangeably as ‘the Lord’ and ‘the Angel of the Lord’ who does not merely deliver messages in the name of God, but speaks as God in the first person (Genesis 16.7-13 , 22.11-18 , 31.11-13 and Exodus 3 ). In making sense of these ancient passages, it should be borne in mind that in Judaism angels tend to take names suggesting that they are not independent beings so much as emanations of God Himself, for example ‘gabri-el’ (‘Strength of God’), ‘rafa’el‘ (‘Healing of God’) and ‘mikh’el’ (‘Who is like God?’)

 

Angels in Enochic literature

The bene Elohim’ of Genesis 6.1-4 are generally deemed to be angels:

When men began to multiply on earth and daughters were born to them, the sons of God [alternatively ‘the sons of heaven’] saw how beautiful the daughter of men were and so they took for their wives as many as they chose …

At that time the Nephilim [literally ‘the fallen’, later commonly translated as ‘giants’] appeared on earth, as well as later, after the sons of God had intercourse with the daughters of man who bore them sons. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown.

The Nephilim, who were the offspring of the bene Elohim and their human mates, are mentioned again in Numbers 13.33 , where they were observed in Canaan by Moses’s spies, who felt ‘as grasshoppers’ compared to them, and may be the ‘fallen warriors of old’ of Ezekiel 32.27 . These brief references to angel-human hybrids are expanded upon in a collection of writings that known collectively as the Books of Enoch. Enoch is listed in the Book of Genesis as part of the seventh generation after Adam and the grandfather of Noah (Genesis 5.18-24 ). His short and otherwise unremarkable entry ends with the mysterious words: ‘Then Enoch walked with God and he was no longer here, for God took him , which came to stimulate a very substantial amount of later mystical exegesis.

 

The First Book of Enoch (1 Enoch) , which reached its final form no later than the first century BC, but which may record traditions as old as the Book of Genesis, describes how Enoch, after having been raised to heaven, learns of a group of two hundred angels, ‘the watchers’, who, as they gazed down upon the earth below them, had become overcome with lust for mortal women. Led by an angel called Semjaza, they had descended from heaven and mated with women, and it was their children who had been the Nephilim of Genesis 6. Whilst they were on earth, these angels taught mankind many things including, of particular significance to the Qur’an, one Azazal who taught men how ‘to make swords and knives and shields and breastplates’, and women how to create make-up including colouring for ‘the beautifying of the eyelids’. Semjaza had also taught men the casting of spells. Eventually, this chaotic mix of lust, war, magic and unnatural couplings had prompted God to send more angels, led by Uriel, Gabriel and Michael, to destroy the renegades and the bodies of their hybrid offspring, which reduced the Nephilim to ‘evil spirits upon the earth’ (15.8).

 

The Qur’an’s Babylonian angels, Harut and Marut, almost certainly take their names from two of Zoroastrianism’s seven ‘holy immortals’, Haurvatat (meaning ‘Wholeness’) and Ameretat (’Immortality’), which names, at the time of the Qur’an’s composition, were rendered in Armenian translation as ‘Haurot’ and ‘Maurot’. Their story in the Qur’an, though, has nothing to do with those two personifications of virtue, but seems to retell the tale of fallen angels and the illicit education of man described in The Book of Watchers, with the two hundred angels reduced to just two, and their role sanitised by the statement that they had only taught man magic with God’s permission as a test. The tradition that the manufacture of armour and cosmetics were skills that had been taught by angels appears elsewhere in the Qur’an – see 〈23.〉 (re armour) and 〈79.〉 (re make-up).

 

In the first century AD, a Second Book of Enoch was compiled (possibly by an early gnostic Christian sect ) elaborating upon the stories of 1 Enoch. In this sequel, Enoch travels through the heavens and is himself transformed into an angel. According to this expanded version it was through Enoch’s intervention that his great grandson, Noah, came to be alerted to the impending flood. In a Third Book of Enoch, written after the second destruction of the Jewish Temple, one Rabbi Ismael ascends to heaven and is greeted by the most powerful of all the angels, a being called Metatron (possibly from the Greek ‘metatar’, ‘the measurer’ ) that reveals himself to be Enoch. Scandalously, Metatron is described as crowned by God, enthroned in God’s presence and afforded the title ‘the lesser Yahweh’.

 

Although the Enochic literature was never accepted as part of the Hebrew Bible, these books were known to the early Christians, with 1 Enoch being cited in the New Testament by St Jude (Jude 1.14-15 ) and The Book of Watchers included in the biblical canon of the Ethiopian Orthodox (Tewahedo) Church. The Enochic literature generally is associated with the Jewish Merkabah mystical traditions which include the ‘test of water’ that the Babylonian Talmud, and later the Qur’an, insert into the account of the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon, see 〈23.〉

Enoch is thought by some to be the Qur’an’s Idris (from the Arabic ‘dars’: ‘to study’), a prophet whom God states He ‘raised up to a sublime station’, {19.56-7} (see also {21.86}.)

 

For a possible conflation of Enoch with Ezra in {9.30}’s accusation that ‘the Jews say Ezra is the son of God’ see 〈88.〉