“Angels, we have heard on high…”—what have we heard? Arab perspectives on Angels
By John Mason,/Arab America Contributing Writer
Angels are not simple. They embody all kinds of purposes and motives, not all coming from “on high.” Angels occur across all three Abrahamic faiths, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Some overlap among the three religions, while others are distinct from each other.
What we know about Angels
Among the three major religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, there are about as many different kinds of angels a there are human personality types and actions. Thus, there are angels of death and destruction, weighing of souls, joy and pleasures, removal of grief, strength, courage, and war, solitude and tears—something for everyone! Then there are angels for the natural world, including lightning, water, fire, night, and light.
While angels have a religious purpose, they also are used by people for spiritual and psychological reasons. They are purported by their devotees to bridge the gap between a humdrum, earthly existence and the world of the heavenly and divine. Angels serve as messengers for people who believe they help to comfort, reassure and guide them. Just to be clear, however, angels are not believed to be able to interfere with a person’s free will.
Many religions and cultures around the world have a sense of angels or some similar religious form. Angels are depicted as human-like, sometimes with wings, often enshrouded in halos. People purport to communicate with angels, often through awe-inspiring messages. They believe angels can bring hope and heal the body and soul. Here, we can see the emergence of a grouping of angels based on three human needs: healing, guiding, and guarding.
Arab perceptions of Angels
Based on its older historic roots, we look at Christian angels first. Angels in the Bible are not like artists’ depictions of them over the centuries, these usually being youthful and cherubic children, smiling and with folds of flesh. Most angels in the Bible are winged creatures, often in the shape of a male human, though some can have multiple qualities depending on the angle of view. Thus, they appear as a man from one angle but as a lion or eagle from another.
A basic premise about biblical angels is that they were created by God, as part of the creation story, prior to humans and to creation itself. Angels do not die in this biblical narrative but are eternal. Poor things, angels do not marry but, making up for that shortcoming, they are wise and intelligent and, according to angel expert, Mary Fairchild, they can intervene in human lives. Since they can fly, of course, angels are faster than humans, especially since they carry the “good news” of their religion around the world. Thus, they are like the internet but from an earlier era.
Not to state the obvious, angels are spiritual in nature and do not have a literal physical form, though they do have the ability to exercise their own will. They also have emotions and can be joyful. Because they are servants of God, however, they are not worshiped. Thus, angels do not have the all-seeing qualities of God.
Most angels are faithful to God, but one angel, in particular, was not; his name is none other than Lucifer, otherwise known as Satan. Good angels help humans and are believed by some people to have a special relationship with individuals. In that sense, we hear some people refer to “my guardian angel.”
Angels in Islam
In Islam, according to The Qur’an and the sayings of the Prophet Mohammed, angels are considered heavenly beings that were created by God from light. They have a slightly more functional role in Islam than they do in Christianity, such as interacting with humans in their everyday life and are considered to have bodily form but also an abstract form. Angels are seen as possessing the spiritual character of virtue, in contrast to the many impure beings, such as demons.
To distinguish angels in Islam, they are defined to lack bodily desires, such as fatigue, hunger, thirst, and they never get angry. To maintain their closeness to God, angels must retain their purity; otherwise, they can fall from grace, as the saying goes, and thus become “fallen.” There has been a debate among theologians of Islam about who ranks higher: angels or humans, though angels are often seen as superior because of their pure spirit versus the body and flesh needs and temptations of humans. However, Islamic philosophy suggests that each human has its own angelic and demonic characters, so depending on how the soul develops, it can become an angel or a demon.
The Prophet Muhammed encountered several angels on his journey through the “celestial spheres,” the seven levels of heaven. Islam has a two-part hierarchy of angels, angels, and archangels, the latter being of a higher level. An important archangel in Islam is Jabril or Gabriel, who revealed the Qur’an to the Prophet. Another is Maalik, who is chief of the angels who govern hell and boss of the nineteen angels of hell who govern the punishment of sinners.
In Islam and Christianity, the faith of each of these religions requires a belief in an unseen world, including angels. Each religion reveals a place for angels in the lives of its devout adherents. Religion aside for a moment, angels are sometimes spoken of in philosophical terms, such as the question that asks, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” This question derives from an allusion to medieval religious controversies over theological minutia. Its use was based on the understanding that since angels don’t have bodies that occupy space, an infinite number of them could be present simultaneously at a single point in space.
However, we do not make light of angels in the lives of the religious, whether Muslims, Christians or Jews.
“5 Important Roles of Angels: Do you know why your angels are so important? Find out how your angel is making a difference! Angela Guzman
“The Existence of Angels in Islam,” Huda, 1/19/2019
“What Does the Bible Say About Angels? 35 Facts That May Surprise You About Angels in the Bible,” Mary Fairchild
“Angelsmenu, AtoZ”. hafapea.com.
Gibb, Hamilton Alexander, Rosskeen, The Encyclopaedia of Islam: NED-SAM. Brill.
John Mason, who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi and the American University in Cairo, served on the United Nations staff in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively with USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries on socioeconomic and political development.