Says the Shaykh Abu Ja'far: Our belief concerning the prophets (anbiya') and apostles (rusul) and Imams (hujaj) is that they are more excellent than angels.2 And what the angels said to Allah3 the Mighty and Glorious when He said to them:
“. . . Lo! I am about to place a viceroy in the earth; they said: Wilt thou place therein one who will do mischief therein and will shed blood, while we, we hymn Thy praise and sanctify Thee? He said: Surely I know what ye know not” (Qur'an 2:30)
Was due to their envy4 of Adam. And they did not desire aught except a position higher than their own, for superiority is due to knowledge. Allah, Exalted is He, says:
“And He taught Adam all the names, then showed them to the angels, saying: Inform Me of the names of these, if ye are truthful” (Qur'an 2:31).
“Glory be to Thee! We have no knowledge save that which Thou hast taught us. Lo! Thou, only Thou, art the Knower, the Wise” (Qur'an 2:32). “He said: O Adam! Inform them of their names, and when he had informed them of their names, He said: Did I not tell you that I know the secret of the heavens and the earth? And I know that which ye disclose and that which ye hide” (Qur'an 2:33).
Now the superiority of Adam over the angels, on account of his position as nabi (prophet), follows from the saying of Allah the Mighty and Glorious:
“Inform them of their names” (Qur'an 2:33).
And among the proofs of the superiority of Adam over. the angels is the command of Allah to the angels to prostrate themselves before Adam, in accordance with His words:
“So the angels fell prostrate, all of them together” (Qur'an 15:30).
And Allah commands prostration only before one who is superior. Their prostration to Allah was due to their utter subjection and obedience, and their prostration to Adam was out of respect for the prophets and Imams whom He had placed in his loins. And the Prophet said: I am superior to Gabriel and Michael and Israfil and to all the angels who are near (to Allah), and I am the best of mankind and the leader (sayyid) of the sons of Adam.
And as for the saying of Allah the Glorious and Mighty:
“The Messiah will never scorn to be a slave to Allah, nor will the favored angels” (Qur'an 4:172).
This does not prove their superiority over Jesus, on whom be peace. Allah the Mighty and Glorious said this only because there are among the people some who believe in the divinity of Jesus and worship him, and these are a class amongst the Christians; and there are others who worship the angels, and they are the Sabaeans and some others.
And Allah the Mighty and Glorious said: “The Messiah will never scorn to be a slave of Allah...” (Qur'an 4:172).
Meaning that the Messiah and those who are worshipped, except Myself, will never scorn to be slaves to Me. Angels are spiritual beings (not possessing gross bodies) and are sinless (ma'sum). They never disobey Allah in what He commands them, and act as they are commanded. They neither eat, nor drink; neither pain nor disease ever comes upon them; nor does old age or decrepitude.
Their food and drink consists of the glorification (tasbih) and sanctification (taqdis) of Allah. (The breath of) their life is the zephyr of the Throne of Allah ('arsh); and their beatitude is in (the acquisition) of different kinds of knowledge. Allah the Exalted created them by His Power, in the shape of lights and spirits5, as He willed and desired; and each class among them guards a species of created things.
And we asserted the superiority of some (Prophets, Imams) over others (angels) because the position accorded to them amongst the varieties of things created by Allah is greater and more excellent than the position given to angels. And Allah knows best.6