The Noble Qur’an has spoken about the angels on numerous occasions with a great number of verses speaking of their attributes, characteristics and responsibilities. So much so that the Qur’an places the issue of belief in the angels at par with belief in Allah (s.w.t.), the prophets and the Divine books, and this itself is proof of the fundamental importance of this issue.
آمَنَ الرَّسُولُ بِمَا أُنْزِلَ إِلَيْهِ مِنْ رَبِّهِ وَ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ كُلٌّ آمَنَ بِاللٌّهِ وَ مَلاَئِكَتِهِ وَ كُـتُبِهِ وَ رُسُلِهِ
“The messenger believes in what has been revealed to him from his Lord, and (so do) the believers; they all believe in Allah and His angels and His books and His messengers.”1
Undoubtedly, the existence of the angels is one of the issues of the ghaib (Unseen) and therefore, proving their existence and their characteristics cannot be accomplished except by means of transmitted proofs; hence, we ought to accept them according to the ruling of 'believing in the Unseen'.
The Qur’an mentions their characteristics as follows:
1. The angels are entities that possess intelligence and comprehension, and are the honourable servants of Allah (s.w.t.).
بَلْ عِبَادٌ مُكْرَمُونَ
“Nay! they are honored servants.”2
2. They are totally subservient to Allah (s.w.t.) and never exhibit insubordination towards Him.
لاَ يَسْبِقُونَهُ بِالْقَوْلِ وَ هُمْ بِأَمْرِهِ يَعْمَلُونَ
“They do not precede Him in speech and (only) according to His commandment do they act.”3
3. They have been assigned important and greatly varied responsibilities on the part of Allah (s.w.t.).
- A group upholds the 'Arsh (Throne).4
- A group 'regulates the affair'.5
- A group of them are for the seizing of the souls.6
- A group is vigilant of the deeds of the humans.7
- A group protects humans from perils and untoward incidents.8
- A group is responsible for punishing and chastising the rebellious and recalcitrant nations.9
- Some angels are divine helpers for the believers during battles.10
- And finally some of the angels bring down the Revelation and the Divine books for the prophets…11
…And if we were to enumerate each of their duties, the discussion would become greatly protracted.
4. They are perpetually engaged in glorifying and sanctifying Allah (s.w.t.), as we read in verse 5 of Suratul Shura.
وَ الْمَلاَئِكَةُ يُسَبِّحُونَ بِحَمْدِ رَبِّهِمْ وَ يَسْتَغْفِرُونَ لِمَنْ فِي الأََرْضِ
“And the angels sing the praise of their Lord and ask forgiveness for those on earth.”
5. Despite all the above, man, due to his ability to develop and achieve perfection, is superior to them to the extent that all the angels, without exception, fell into prostration when Adam was created and he became their teacher.12
6. Occasionally they take the form of humans and manifest themselves before the prophets and even individuals who are not prophets, as we read in the chapter Maryam (s.a.) that a great angel appeared before Maryam (s.a.) in the form of a 'perfect' man.
فَأَرْسَلْنَا إِلَيْهَا رُوحَنَا فَتَمَثَّلَ لَهَا بَشَراً سَوِيًّا
“Then We sent to her Our spirit, and there appeared to her a well-made man.”13
On other occasions they appeared before prophets Ibrahim and Lut (a.s.) in the form of humans.14
From the end of these verses it can also be inferred that the people of prophet Lut (a.s.) too witnessed them in that 'measured' human form.15
Is this appearance in the human form an objective reality? Or was it an imagination or a kind of seizing of the eyes? The apparent meaning of the verses seem to indicate the first meaning, although some distinguished commentators have opted for the second view.
1. From the Islamic traditions it can be inferred that they are so numerous that their numbers cannot be compared to the humans at all. We read in a tradition that Imam as-Sadiq (a.s.) was asked: Are the angels more in number or the humans? Whereupon he (a.s.) replied: “By Allah, in Whose grasp is my soul! The angels of Allah that are present in the heavens are more than the particles of sand present on the earth; in the heavens there does not exist a place to put one's foot except that there is an angel there, engaged in glorifying and sanctifying Allah.”16
2. They do not eat and drink, and neither do they marry. In a tradition Imam as-Sadiq (a.s.) says: The angels do not eat food, do not drink water and do not marry, rather, they stay alive by means of the zephyr of Allah's 'Arsh (Throne)!)17
3. They are not overcome by sleep, lethargy and heedlessness. Imam 'Ali (a.s.) says: In them there is no lassitude, heedlessness and disobedience. Sleep never prevails over them, their intellects are never overcome by inadvertence and forgetfulness, their bodies never experience lethargy, and they are never ensconced in the loins of fathers and the wombs of mothers.18
4. They possess different grades and varied ranks; some are always in a state of ruku' while others are perpetually in a state of prostration.
وَ مَـا مِنَّا إِلاَّ لَهُ مَقَامٌ مَعْلُومٌ وَ إِنَّا لَنَحْنُ الصَّآفُّونَ وَ إِنَّا لَنَحْنُ الْمُسَـبِّحُونَ
“And there is none of us but has an assigned place, and most surely we are they who draw themselves out in ranks, and we are most surely they who declare the glory (of Allah).”19
Imam as-Sadiq (a.s.) has said: “Allah (s.w.t.) possesses certain angels, who are in (a state of) ruku' (and shall continue to remain so) until the Day of Judgment, and certain angels, who are in (a state of) sajdah, (and shall continue to remain so) until the Day of Judgment.”20
(For further information about their characteristics and categories, refer to 'The Chapter of Angels' of the section السَّماَء وَ الْعَالــم of the book Biharul Anwar (vol. 59, pp. 144-326) and Nahjul Balaghah, Sermons 1, 91, 109 and 171.)
In view of the characteristics that have been mentioned above, are angels corporeal or non-corporeal entities?
Undoubtedly, with the characteristics that they possess, they cannot be constituted of this lowly and elemental matter; nevertheless it is possible for them to have been created out of subtle material elements - material elements that are superior to this ordinary matter familiar to us.
Proving absolute immateriality for the angels - immateriality with respect to place, time and parts - is not an easy task and furthermore, research on this subject does not possess that great a benefit. The important thing is that we recognize the angels according to the attributes that have been mentioned by the Qur’an and the conclusive Islamic traditions, and regard them as a huge assemblage of lofty and preeminent entities of Allah (s.w.t.) without attributing any status to them except that of servitude and slavery (of Allah (s.w.t.) ) and without regarding them as being partners to Allah (s.w.t.) in creation and worship, for then this would be downright polytheism and kufr.
In connection with the angels we content ourselves with what has been discussed and leave the details for books, specifically devoted to this topic.
In numerous expressions of the Torah the angels have been referred to as Gods - an expression enshrouded with polytheism and one of the signs of the distortion of the present Torah. But the Noble Qur’an is pure from such expressions for it does not ascribe to them any rank except that of servitude, worship and execution of Allah's (s.w.t.) commands. Moreover, as we have previously mentioned, it is apparent from various verses of the Qur’an that the rank of the Perfect Man is loftier and more exalted than that of the angels.21