A traveller entered an aeroplane in order to make a short trip to Friedrichshafen in Germany. He took a seat next to a woman who was reading a book. There was nothing much to do during the flight. The woman next to him was not open to talking to the traveller as she was engrossed in her book. He wondered what she was reading, but couldn’t see the title. About a week later, the traveller left Friedrichshafen. To his surprise, the same woman was sitting next to him in the aeroplane. She was reading the same book. Shortly before arriving at his destination, the traveller was able to read the title of the book. The book was about angels.
What are angels? Shah Wali Allah has written about angels in his Lamahat, saying that he has seen “many a wonder in the case of these angels.” He states that the word ‘angel’ has different meanings with regard to different realities. It makes a difference if you view angels from a macrocosmic or a microcosmic point of view. Do angels exist as a separate kind of creation unlike human beings, animals, plants, etc. or should we see angels as being the higher faculties of human beings or are both options possible?
Ridhwan is an angel who guards the gates of heaven. Ridhwan and ridha’ [contentment of the heart with the Divine decree] are both derived from the root r.dh.w. By means of inward purification, lower faculties can be transformed into angelic ones. Khwaja Hafez Shirazi writes about the microcosmic experience of contentment:
Seek the Beloved’s contentment:
What difference do union and separation make?
It seems such a shame to seek anything
But Himself from Him.
The angel Ridhwan doesn’t appear in the Qur’an, but is mentioned in the heavenly journey of the Prophet. The guardian of Paradise, Ridhwan, showed him its marvels and then presented him with four beautiful earthen vessels. He asked the Prophet to drink therefrom. The first vessel contained a drink that tasted like milk, the second vessel contained something that tasted like honey, the third vessel contained a drink that tasted like fragrant, clear and delicious water, while the fourth vessel contained wine. The Prophet emptied the first three vessels but did not drink wine.
Ridhwan then explained to the Prophet that just like the milk feeds and governs the body, Allah will feed and govern his people. The honey has healing qualities, symbolizing that Allah will offer healing to his community until the end of times. The water has been offered because it purifies, and thus Allah will purify his people.
Ridhwan finished his explanation by saying to the Prophet [Jamel Eddine Bencheikh: Le Voyage Nocturne de Mahomet; p. 118]:
“As for the wine that makes people behave like fools so much and pushes them into baseness, since you disdained it and did not want to drink it, Allah will deliver you from folly and turpitude. Therefore, wine is forbidden to you and your people forever, and you shall not drink it except in the glory of paradise.”
Al-Qazwini doesn’t mention Ridhwan in his Marvels of Creation but provides a detailed description of fourteen kinds of angels. Here is an abridged version of this text:
1. The Bearers of the Throne
These are four angels in the form of an eagle, a bull, a lion and a human being; they are also called “Those brought near” [Q. 4:172].
Commentary: The angel with the human form is constantly praying on behalf of the human race. The ‘lion’ prays for the provision to each beast of prey. The ‘bull’ intercedes on behalf of the domestic animals and the pasturing beasts. The eagle-shaped angel prays for the benefit of the birds and all winged creatures.
2. The Spirit
He occupies one rank, and the remaining angels occupy another rank [Q. 78:38]. He is charged with governing the spheres, the planets, and everything beneath the moon; in other words, all the affairs of heaven and earth. He corresponds to the Creative Principle itself.
Commentary: Shaykh al-Jili says that Allah creates from His faculties the archangels and angels, who in turn preside over the principles of the universe. In the Sufi system of shaykh al-Jili, the Spirit is the highest and the mightiest angel. He is made from Allah’s light and from him, Allah created the world and made him His organ of vision in the world. Israfil comes from His heart, Gabriel, the treasurer of Divine knowledge, comes from His intelligence, Azrael, the angel of death, comes from His judgment, while Michael is the angel who metes out the fate of everyone.
From His thoughts come all the celestial and terrestrial angels, i.e. the souls of the spheres and mankind. From His imagination comes the very stuff of the universe itself, which is imagination within imagination within imagination. From His self come both the sublime and contemplative angels, Satan and his hosts [Peter Lamborn Wilson: Angels; p. 52].
He places spirits within bodies and will blow the trumpet on the Last Day. With one of his four wings, this majestic archangel 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. When Allah 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.
Commentary: Shaykh al-Jili describes seven heavens, the fourth of which is the heaven of the sun, which is created from the light of His heart. Israfil presides in this fourth heaven over the host of the prophets in a golden glow [Ibid.; p. 76]. The fourth wing wherewith Israfil keeps himself veiled, serves as a protection against the Divine majesty [Ibid.; p. 87].
According to A’ishah and others, the Prophet saw him in his true form only twice. The first vision took place during the revelation of the first signs of the Qur’an when the Prophet was meditating in the cave of Hira’. The second vision took place during his heavenly journey.
Commentary: Shaykh Kashani in his Sufi commentary [volume II; p. 205] on the surat al-Mala’ika, chapter 35 of the Qur’an, called The Angels, writes that the Prophet related that he saw Gabriel on the night of the ascension bearing six hundred wings. The angelic wings represent the directions of the influence that exists in the heavenly and earthly dominions.
Allah has appointed the angels as messengers [angelos is Greek for ‘messenger’]. The angels are sent to the prophets bearing revelation, to the friends of Allah bearing inspiration, and to ordinary people and all other things to ordain and destroy them. According to A’ishah and others, the Prophet saw him in his true form only twice. The first vision took place during the revelation of the first signs of the Qur’an, when the Prophet was meditating in the cave of Hira’. The second vision took place during his heavenly journey.
Whenever their influence reaches its target, it does so by means of a wing, and every direction of influence is a wing. Their wings are countless. Shaykh Kashani gives examples of the microcosmic view regarding angels by pointing to the two intellects, the cognitive and discursive, which are two wings of the human soul; perception, impulsive motion and active motion are three wings of the animal soul; nourishment, growth, reproduction and formation are four wings of the vegetable soul.
The following question stems from shaykh Suhrawardi’s tale The Sound of Gabriel’s Wing: “What form does Gabriel’s wing have?” I asked the shaykh. He answered: “O ignoramus! Don’t you know that all these are symbols? If you take them at face value, then they are idle chatter and quite useless.”
Michael is charged with providing nourishment for bodies and knowledge for souls.
Commentary: The heaven of Jupiter is blue with the light of the spiritual power [himma] and is lorded over by Michael [Peter Lamborn Wilson: Angels; p. 77]. No words can do justice to the glory of Michael [Ibid.; p. 10]. The Prophet is said to have met Michael during his heavenly journey [Ibid.; p. 139]:
“… I saw an angel in meditation, perfect in majesty, glory and beauty. When he saw me he called me to him. When I had come close I asked, ‘What is your name?’. He answered: ‘Michael. I am the greatest of the angels. Whatever difficulty you conceive, question me; whatever you desire, ask of me.’”Peter Lamborn Wilson: Angels
“I said to him, ‘To come here I have undergone many toils and sufferings. But my purpose was this: to attain to gnosis and the vision of Truth. Show me the direction that leads to Him, so that perhaps I may attain the goal of my desire and receive a portion of His universal grace.’ Then that angel took me by the hand, he made me enter and led me through so many veils of light that the universe I saw had nothing in common with everything I had previously seen in these worlds.”Peter Lamborn Wilson: Angels
The angel of death.
Commentary: Baba Afdal of Kashan pays attention to the microcosmic role of the angel of death by describing the ascending movement of the soul. Each time you pass on to a higher level of inward development, from the period in the womb through the mineral, vegetal, animal and human stages until the meeting with Allah, you meet the angel of death. You then experience the taking of your soul:
“The angel of death, the taker of the mineral soul, is the vegetal soul, which delivers the mineral soul over to Allah’s forgiveness by removing it from its mineral form and displaying it in a nobler form. The taker of the vegetal soul is the animal soul, which delivers the plant’s soul out from vegetal clothing into Allah’s forgiveness [because the soul moves on to a higher level of being and consciousness] by dressing it in an animal robe. The taker of the animal soul is the human soul, which separates the animal soul from the animal’s form and body through the act of knowing and which displays it in a more lasting form.”
“At every station the soul passes through these transformations, it never desires to return to the previous state, since no mature person wants to go back to childhood, nor does a man who has knowledge desire to return to ignorance… Hence you should know that the angel of death brings good news.”[see pp. 337-338 of The Angels by Sachiko Murata in Islamic Spirituality – Foundations]
They have withdrawn into the precinct of holiness and turned their attention away from all but Allah; they are drowned in the contemplation of His Beauty.
Commentary: The cherubim can be divided into the enraptured angels and the angels of the world of power. A certain dervish must have been in an enraptured state himself when a voice of a singer appeared to him as the voice of an angel. The Prophet described the enraptured angels by saying:
“Allah has a white earth in which the sun takes thirty days to cross the sky… That earth is filled with creatures who don’t know that Allah has been disobeyed in the earth or that He has created Adam and Iblis.” The cherubim of the world of power are enthralled by the vision of Allah and act as chamberlains for the Divine court and as intermediaries for the effusion of Lordship.”[Ibid.; p. 328 and p. 330]
Shaykh Ibn al-’Arabi describes how Allah as al-Malik, the King, sets up His kingdom in a series of levels, wherein he also writes about the role of chamberlain of the cherubim:
“Since Allah is named the King, He arranged the cosmos in the hierarchy of a kingdom. Hence He appointed certain of His servants to be His favourites, and these are the enraptured angels, Allah’s sitting companions through dhikr. […] Then Allah chose one of these cherubim to be the chamberlain [hajib], giving Him knowledge concerning His creation.”
The chamberlain then appoints a scribe, the ‘Pen’, who writes down the details of the aforementioned knowledge on the ‘Tablet’. Allah “commanded to write within it everything that He willed to bring about in His creation until the Day of Resurrection specifically. He made the Tablet the student and the Pen the teacher.”[Sachiko Murata: The Tao of Islam; p. 168]
8. The chief angel in charge of each heaven
There are seven angels in charge.
Commentary: Shaykh Nasafi in the tenth chapter of his Kitab al-Insan al-Kamil combines a microcosmic view with a macrocosmic one about angels [Nasafi: Le Livre de l’Homme Parfait; translated by Isabelle de Gastines, pp. 128-130]. He holds the opinion that the microcosmos and the macrocosmos correspond with each other:
a. The lungs correspond with the first heaven. The angel that is in charge of air and water temperance is its chief angel. The shaykh doesn’t mention a name. Ibn ‘Abbas mentions Isma’il.
b. The brain corresponds with the second heaven. Gabriel, the angel of knowledge, is involved in the study of science, the study of written texts and the acquisition of the means of livelihood. Ibn ‘Abbas mentions Mikha’il.
c. The kidneys correspond with the third heaven. The angel that is in charge of vividness, joy and sensual pleasure is its chief angel. The shaykh doesn’t mention a name. Ibn ‘Abbas mentions Sa’idya’il.
d. The heart corresponds with the fourth heaven. Israfil is the angel in charge of life. Ibn ‘Abbas mentions Salsa’il.
e. The bladder corresponds with the fifth heaven. The angel that is in charge of domination, anger, violence and death is its chief angel. The shaykh doesn’t mention a name. Ibn ‘Abbas mentions Kalka’il.
f. The liver corresponds with the sixth heaven. Michael is the angel in charge of the sustenance of human beings. Ibn ‘Abbas mentions Samkha’il.
g. The spleen corresponds with the seventh heaven. ‘Izra’il is the angel in charge of death. Ibn ‘Abbas mentions Rufa’il.
9. The guardian angels
They are called the ‘noble recorders’ in Qur’an 82:11. Two guardian angels are charged with each human being.
Commentary: Gabriel is the archon of all guardian angels. When an angel appears to you, he is Gabriel or is sent by Gabriel. When you open your heart, for even an instant, the figure you perceive – or the intuition you receive – is your guardian angel. When you hear the call to the spiritual life, when you meet certain mysterious figures in dreams, or even in waking day, who act out for you the drama of your own inner life, then this is your guardian angel at work.
10. The attendant angels
They descend upon mankind with blessings and ascend with news of their works.
Commentary: The attendants [mu’aqqibat] are mentioned in Qur’an 13:11 like this:
“For him are attendants in front of him and behind him, guarding him by Allah’s command.”
Shaykh at-Tustari explains:
“The meaning of mu’aqqibat is the angel of the night and day, which come one after the other in succession.”
Thus the word mu’aqqibat, with the root ‘.q.b, is related to the idea of one angel’s ‘watch’ succeeding the other as day succeeds night and day night. Shaykh at-Tustari comments thus on
“Guarding him by Allah’s command”: that is preserving all the good and evil that He has determined for His servant.”
These angels thereby administer what is conferred on them by Israfil [see the commentary ad 3] from the Guarded Tablet. “Furthermore,” says shaykh at-Tustari,
“they bear witness for the servant with fidelity [wafa’], and against him with severity [jafa’] on the Day of Resurrection.”
11. Nakir and Munkar
These two angels question the dead in their graves.
Commentary: Shaykh Fariduddin ‘Attar tells this anecdote about Hazrat Rabi’a of Basra in his Memorial of the Friends:
“It is related that she was seen in a dream after her death. She was asked: ‘Tell us about Munkar and Nakir!’ She answered: “When those young men [jawan mardan] came to me and asked: Who is your Lord? I said: ‘Go back and say to God [Haqq]: ‘Out of so many thousand creatures, You wouldn’t forget an old woman. Out of the world, I have only You. Do I ever forget You that You need to send someone to ask: Who is your Lord?’”
12. The travellers
The sayyahun are angels who travel all over the earth in order to join dhikr-Allah circles.
Commentary: Shaykh Ibn al-’Arabi has collected a number of ahadith in his Mishkat al-Anwar. This one is about the travellers:
“Indeed Allah has angels who roam the roads, seeking out the people of invocation [dhikr]. When they find a group invoking Allah, they call out: ‘Come here to what you have been looking for!’ And they surround them with their wings, reaching up to the lowest heaven.”
Muslim has quoted an authenticated hadith that makes clear that the presence of Allah confers deep inward peace [sakina]:
“No group of people sits and remembers Allah Most High but they are surrounded by angels and enshrouded in mercy and there descends upon them serenity [sakina] as they remember Allah, and Allah mentions them to those who are near Him.”
13. Harut and Marut
These two angels were the most worshipful and humble of the angels.
Commentary: The angels didn’t understand why Allah had such a high opinion of human beings who, after all, disobeyed Him. Allah replied: “If the sensuality that is within them were within you, your state would be the same.” The angels responded that they would never rebel against Allah and disobey Him. At Allah’s request, the angels chose two of their number to be sent in a test to the earth. He equipped the chosen angels, Harut and Marut, with the sensuality and the other attributes of human beings.
Allah commanded them to avoid idolatry, fornication, wine and the unjust spilling of blood. Eventually, Harut and Marut committed all these sins and Allah gave news of their state to the angels in heaven. From that day on, the angels are occupied with asking forgiveness for every human being. They realize that this sensuality is a tremendous burden.
14. The angels charged with each existing thing
They keep things in good order and ward off corruption. Their number is known only to Allah.
Commentary: As you can imagine, very many angels are needed to perform this task. That’s why you are invited to become an angel. Why not try to emulate the qualities of each of the kind of angels as mentioned by al-Qazwini?
Ad 1 Pray for mankind, just like one of the Bearers of the Throne.
Ad 2 Be a witness of the Divine unity, just like the Spirit.
Ad 3 Get acquainted with what is written on your heart by Israfil.
Ad 4 Become one with the angel of your being, Gabriel.
Ad 5 Provide material and spiritual food to others, just like Michael.
Ad 6 Learn that you will never become less by dying from ‘Izra’il.
Ad 7 Become enraptured by the Beloved, just like the Cherubim.
Ad 8 Study the microcosmos of your body to become acquainted with the angels in the macrocosmos.
Ad 9 Protect the ones near and dear to you, just like a guardian angel.
Ad 10 Come at the heel of your partner to watch over that which needs to be guarded, like one of the attendant angels.
Ad 11 Remember the Beloved constantly, so that there is no need for the questions of Nakir and Munkar.
Ad 12 Travel in order to deepen your experience, just like the Travellers.
Ad 13 Purify your lower qualities in order not to repeat the mistake of Harut and Marut.
Ad 14 Become an angel or even more than an angel as taught by shaykh al-Jili [R.A. Nicholson: Studies in Islamic Mysticism; ch. The Perfect Man; pp. 107-108]:
And whatsoever you see of spiritual forms and of things visible
whose countenance is goodly to behold
and whatsoever you see
of thought, imagination, intelligence, soul and the heart with its secret
and whatsoever you see of angelic aspect
or things whereof satan is the spirit,
Lo, I the Perfect Man,
am that whole, and that whole is my theatre…
The sensible world is mine
and the angel world is of my weaving and fashioning.