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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Nancy Khalek

The other element of the Ashari creed that pertains to otherworldly beings is the belief in angels. According to Sunnis, angels are beings made of light, which God created to worship and obey him. As such, they do not possess free will, and are intangible beings that occupy a place in the divine realm, though they are not divine themselves. As in Christianity, angels are often used as emissaries by God and can appear to humans in the form of humans (as with the three visitors to Abraham) or in their own form (as when Gabriel appeared to Muhammad on the occasion of the first revelation of the Quran). Unlike in developed Christian theology, however, Islamic theologians never established a complex hierarchy of angels. Some are singled out, however, by their role as emissaries, or agents of God's desires, including:

  • Jibril (Gabriel) - communicates with Prophets and was responsible for conveying the Quran to Muhammad.
  • Mikail  (Michael) - responsible for rewarding good deeds in this life.
  • Israfil (Raphael) - will blow a horn heralding the Day of Judgment.
  • Israil (Azrael) - also called Malak al-Mawt (the angel of death), is responsible for the parting of the soul from the body.

Other duties assigned to angels according to tradition are guarding the gates of hell, recording the good and bad deeds of people, and interrogating the soul after a person has died. Another category of otherworldly being important in Islam, though not considered an essential element of aqida, is the jinn, supernatural creatures that do have free will, and as such, may either be good or evil. Iblis, the name attributed to a jinn who disobeyed God and eventually was cast out and became Satan, is one such creature. As in familiar Christian narratives, traditional interpretations of Satan paint him as the enemy of God, a demonic force intent on luring humans away from pious worship and good deeds.

A belief in angels is actually intimately connected to the Ashari belief in the Ultimate Reality of God. Throughout the stories in the Quran and hadith, angels act as emissaries, agents, communicators, and envoys on God's behalf. They comprise a bridge between the human and the divine, and facilitate the cosmology by which Muslims organize the universe. Ultimately, what distinguishes Sunni creeds, especially the Ashari creed, from other Islamic denominations or theological perspectives, is not so much the substance of what they believe, but the methods and parameters they choose to explain those beliefs.

Study Questions:
     1.    What is aqida?
     2.    What are the six articles of faith to Sunni Islam? How do they differ from the five pillars?
     3.    Who are the Asharis? What do they believe?
     4.    What is the role of angels within Islam? How do they differ from Christianity’s understanding of them?

 

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