The existence of angels is a universally accepted doctrine in different countries and different religions. However, they are sometimes discussed under other titles, the distinction being only one of nomenclature. Similarly, the nature of angels is understood differently among the followers of different religions.
Islam speaks of angels as celestial beings of a spiritual nature who have their own entity as persons. The major role they play is the transmission of messages from God to human beings. But they are misunderstood by many, even within Islam, as having human shape or some shape and form, which in fact is an inseparable idea from that of material existence. Matter must have shape and a well defined boundary. But spirit lies beyond the five dimensions of man’s understanding. One can only believe in the existence of spirit if he is a religious person; otherwise it is beyond his reach to conceive the shape and form of spirits. Perhaps to resolve this problem and to make it easier for man to visualise angels, they are sometimes mentioned in religious books as appearing to holy people in the form of human beings. Not only that; they are also known to have appeared to some messengers of God in the form of certain birds. The Holy Ghost appeared to Jesus in the form of a dove:
As soon as Jesus was baptised, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. (Matthew 3:16)
These various references found in religious books were perhaps largely responsible for the misperceptions about the form and nature of angels prevailing among the adherents of various religions. Out of angels, in some religions, deyotas and gods were created, while the original books may have only mentioned them as agencies specifically created by God for performing certain tasks in the universe; of this we have ample evidence in many divine books. So, it is not unlikely that some people misunderstand the significance of these statements and start treating angels as junior partners of God.
Let us now try to comprehend the nature of angels with reference only to the Quran and the traditions of the Holy Prophet(sa) of Islam, and not with reference to commonly held views. According to the Quran, the entire material universe as well as the entire religious universe is governed by certain spiritual powers, which are referred to as angels. Although some angels are referred to as single person, such as Gabriel, Michael or Israel, they in fact do not work alone. For each function there is one leader or one supreme angel who governs that function and under him works a host of angels, who are referred to in the Holy Quran as the Junood of the Lord. Whatever they do is completely subject to the will of God and the design that He has created for things. They cannot make the slightest deviation from the set course of functions allocated to them, or from the overall plan of things made by God.
According to the Quran, for each human being two angels are appointed to record good deeds and misdeeds, as the case may be. In this way the task of the angels is to organise the most intricate and profound system of recording. It does not mean that each has a book in his hand, jotting down in it whatever he observes. In fact, angels are responsible for a very complex system of registering the effect of man’s deeds on his soul and personality so that a good man develops a healthy soul and a bad man breeds an unhealthy one.
The soul, as it is takes shape in every man till his death, needs a conscious organiser who transfers the effects of human thoughts, actions etc. to the soul. This is an intricate process not fully comprehended by man. However, we do partially witness this in the case of criminals acquiring a different visage from people of noble conduct. It is not at all impossible for anyone to observe such a difference, although it cannot be described in terms of black and white or other material terms. In fact the administration of the huge universe, right from its inception through the entire course of the billions of years of its evolutionary history, requires an enormous organisation of constant attention and control. This is performed by innumerable angels, who literally govern the vast universe and its intricate system of laws, as agents of God.
As far as the traditions go, we can comprehend to a degree the versatility of angels in being able to materialise in various forms or apparitions, which have no relation to their real form of existence which is beyond man’s comprehension and has different dimensions from those known to us.
Once it is reported that a stranger suddenly entered the mosque where the Founder of Islam was sitting along with his companions. This man approached the assembly, sat respectfully in the front row and started to ask questions regarding the nature of Islam. Having finished his list of questions, he took leave and departed. Those present were amazed because first this man was a complete stranger who must have travelled some distance to reach the mosque. In small townships the knowledge of such visits does not remain a secret and everybody seems to know who has arrived and for what purpose. In his case, the arrival was so sudden that it appeared mysterious. Secondly, there were no marks of a journey on his bearing or his clothes. A fresh looking gentleman, he was of immaculately clean dress. Moreover the manner in which he began to ask questions without any introduction, and his abrupt departure, was extremely unusual to say the least.
Before the companions of the Holy Prophet(sa) could say anything, the Holy Prophet(sa) himself informed them that the person had actually been the angel Gabriel, who had asked the leading questions so that the companions could become acquainted with the facts contained in the answers given. Some companions ran out of the mosque to meet the angel in disguise, as they thought, but there was no trace of him anywhere. No-one in the township admitted to seeing such a man. As this incident is reported in the highly authentic books of tradition, we can safely infer that angels sometimes appear in ordinary human form for the purpose of discharging sundry errands. We find mention of angels in many other traditions, particularly in relation to the battles of Badr and Uhad, but it would be inappropriate perhaps to enter into a lengthy discourse on this issue.
As against the Quranic view explained above, almost in every country the commonly held view about angels among followers of various religions is more on the pattern of fairy tales than of them belonging to a celestial form of existence. They are said to have wings like birds or fairies, flapping them about as they fly from place to place. This misconception is perhaps born out of over-much literalising of religious terminology, which is cryptic and has, most often, metaphorical allusions. Thus we also find mention in the Holy Quran of wings in relation to angels, which speaks of them as having wings in twos, threes and fours:
All praise belongs to Allah the Maker of the heavens and the earth, Who employs the angels as messengers, having wings, two, three and four. (Quran 35:2)
The Holy Quran has a very special style of elucidating all such passages where there lies a danger of obscurity. It does this with the help of other similar usages. The wings, for instance, are also mentioned in relation to a son’s attitude towards his elderly parents. Building this subject, the Holy Quran admonishes the son to lower his wing of mercy over his parents, as they brought him up from the time of his infancy. Wing only means attributes and powers and we believe it is in this sense that wings are attributed to angels, or to persons claiming divine manifestation from among the various religions. For instance, in Gita, Krishna is known to have possessed four arms instead of two. There the extra pair of arms serves the same purpose as the wings found in other divine books.
Angels are responsible for controlling and maintaining the laws of nature. Virus and bacteria are governed, organised and maintained by specific angels, who work in harmony with each other to maintain a perfect balance. Similarly, eco-systems are not accidental or chaotic, but are regulated by the invisible, spiritual beings that we call angels.
The Case of the Fallen Angel
There is another very much misunderstood episode concerning Satan. It is said, and it is believed, that prior to his fall he belonged to the category of angels. The Holy Quran rejects this view and presents Satan as possessing a fiery nature, thus belonging to such forms of life as are created from fire, for example the Jinn.