Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

The Arabic term for belief in the sense of a creed, aside from the five pillars to all denominations of Islam, is aqida. The most basic element of Islamic belief is that God is the only Divine being, that he has no partners or co-Creators or co-sharers in his divinity.  According to Sunni belief, other non-earthly beings that do exist, such as angels, are not considered divine, but neither are they human. 

Sunnism is distinguished by six articles of faith (not to be confused with the five pillars), which include the Oneness of God, a belief in the Prophets and Messengers sent to humankind, a belief in revealed scriptures (including but not limited to the Quran), a belief in Angels, a belief in the Last Judgment, and a belief in predestination. The most relevant Sunni theological school in regard to these issues is the Ashari school, founded by founded by the theologian Abu al-Hasan al-Ash'ari (d. 936 C.E.).

Six core beliefs of Islam
  1. Reality of one God
  2. Existence of angels of God
  3. Authority of the books of God
  4. Following the prophets of God
  5. Preparation for the Day of Judgment
  6. Supremacy of God’s will

Asharis believe that a full understanding of the true and singular nature of God falls beyond the scope of human comprehension. In this sense, while humans and the world they inhabit are a part of reality, the Ultimate Reality is only God. This is not to say that Asharis believe in a blind faith with no understanding of what they worship. Rather, by putting the nature of God above the human realm of understandings, Ashari thinking underscores the absolute otherness of the Divine (God) from the mundane reality of human life.

Asharis are sometimes labeled "traditionalists" for their adherence to established doctrine and practice. This label is meant to contrast them with other schools of thought not generally accepted as Sunni, such as the Mutazili system of theology, which developed in the 8th-10th centuries.  Mutazilis are sometimes labeled "rationalists" for their insistence on the application of human reason to discern the nature of religion and to interpret scripture. These oversimplifications are misnomers, however, since Asharis did not reject reason and Mutazilis did not reject tradition.

Asharis, like those who disagreed with them, sought to articulate their understanding of God based on what they perceived to be overall Islamic principles, and in doing so, prioritized God's Reality as a singular nature that is ultimately beyond the scope of human comprehension. For them, the influx of Greek philosophy that came into the Islamic world in the 9th century, and which influenced rationalist approaches, was not the ideal source for religious or spiritual authority.

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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