Azrail and Death

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Although Azrail is One, How does He Capture the Souls of Many People Who Die at the Same Instant?

By the angels who tear out (the souls of the wicked). By those who gently draw out (the souls of the blessed). And by those who glide along (on errands of mercy). (Nazi’at 79:1-3)

With this question, we again face a subject which, if we tackle it by making human analogies, will mislead us. It is a mistake to liken an angel to a human being, just as it is a mistake to seek the mind in the brain, or the emotions in the heart, or the soul in the body, or—in the language of philosophy—to seek the noumenal in the phenomenal. It would be improper to attempt this question without first pointing out that mistake in thinking and terminology which (probably) is what gives rise to it and other questions like it.

Angels are, as regards their creation and essence, the realm they exist in, and their responsibilities and duties, creatures wholly different from all others. Any argument or judgment made without taking full account of that difference is bound to go wrong. The nature of angels should therefore be approached through consideration of their different creation and essence, their different realm of existence, and their different responsibilities and duties.

Malak (angel) in Arabic relates to malk which has the meaning power, or to mal’ak which has the meaning messenger. The shared point of reference is to one most powerful or to the power itself or to one who, as messenger, holds and carries that power: thus, an angel comes to mean one who, as messenger, holds and carries the divine commands. Such an elevated rank belongs to all angels as such. For the angel commissioned to convey the Divine Message to humankind, it is necessary to have the most elevated rank and the most superior attributes of all. Angels are commissioned to oversee all kinds of events—from supervising birth, life, and death to carrying the Throne (arsh) and observing the Divine Actions in wonder, admiration and praise. All so-called natural laws, from attraction and repulsion between masses to the principles that regulate electrons spinning around the nucleus, and the putting into effect of these laws, and all changes and transformations, compositions and decompositions, exist under the administration of angels, who are the medium of the messengership and power. Angels are so related to things and events that neither a drop of rain nor a clap of thunder can ever be conceived without them. The laws operating in the universe (shari’at al-fitriyya) are the manifestation of the limitless power of the Creator, the All-Mighty, the Absolute Sovereign, on angels according to their skills and capacities. Similarly, all legislative (tashri’i) commands to humankind from the attributes of kalam are conveyed by angels. Since humanity is the focus of all great and majestic manifestations of the Creator, the Divine inspiration and revelation that come to humanity to guide and regulate his actions are nothing other than the manifestations of God to angels. In this respect, it is ignorance and an error in thinking to liken to human beings, the angelic beings who are a medium or a means between God and His servants, who are charged with supervising or administering all things from atoms to nebulae in dependence on the power of the All-Mighty. It is likewise a misjudgment and an error to consider restrictions by which human existence is bound as applicable also to angels. If the angels had a physical form like that of humankind and were subject to decay and decomposition, if they too were aged and eroded by time, we might use the same criteria for both. However, there is a world of difference which makes such a comparison impossible.

As regards their creation and nature, the angels are different from humankind. The powers and responsibilities of angels are not bounded by space and time. The purity, light (nur) and splendor in their essence make them more powerful, influential, quick and active. They can be in touch with many souls, be seen by many eyes, and manifest their oneness in plural forms, at any instant of time or space, even though they are one. In a hadith narrated by ‘Aisha, Prophet Muhammad said: “The angels were created out of light (nur).”[1]That is why, they are given and thus manifest all the attributes of light.

Luminous things, like the sun, though single, are reflected by and so seen in each transparent object; they can reach and be seen by each and every eye. Similarly, the angels, who are created out of light, can meet and be reflected in many souls; and they can deal with thousands of them at an instant. The angels, whose essence is latif (fine, subtle), are very different from what has material form and is therefore heavy and dense. The angels can take different shapes and forms; also, they can be seen in different shapes and forms at the same instant. Tamassul, the souls’ or angels’ assuming visible forms, has long been known among religious people, and there are many examples of it. It is even now not uncommon to hear claims (something, alas, of a pastime among the so-called “idle rich”) of some individual’s “spirit” or “double” being in a place separate and distant from where the body is and able to produce material effects. Whatever the truth of such reports and claims, they indicate that all fine beings like souls, in comparison to physical beings, are more capable, quick and active. Angels are far more capable, quick and active than souls, which is another indication that angels operate beyond the bounds of physical nature.

As we said, tamassul of souls and angels is a phenomenon that has long been known and reported. The Prophets in the first place and then the saints have recounted their experiences, and many ordinary people around them witnessed such incidents. The coming and appearance of the archangel Gabriel, in different guises and personalities, according to the reasons and missions he was given, such as being a messenger while conveying the Revelations and being a warrior during battles, are good examples of tamassul: Gabriel appeared in the form of Dihya[2]; as another angel, whose name we do not know, fought till evening in front of the Prophet as Mus’ab ibn ‘Umayr[3]; many angels took part in the battle of Badr in the guise of Zubayr ibn Awwam to boost the morale of the Muslims.[4]

There are many incidents which indicate that some saints are in touch with the heroes of the Unseen, among them former saints and Companions of the Prophet. Also, their appearance to ordinary people in dreams and trance-like states supports the argument. A number of godly men and women have testified that, in their dreams, particular noble souls always keep in touch with them, and give them guidance. To be sure, there will be people who refer all such experiences to the “subconscious” and so make the whole subject incomprehensible. Alas for their ignorance and arrogance!

To sum up what we have said so far: just as all beings are seen reflected in a mirror, so angels are seen in everything that can be a mirror to them, but with this difference that angels are not merely a picture or image, as a reflection in a mirror is, but are as themselves, with all their powers and faculties. Like a beam of light, angels can reach and be in various places at the same time and carry out their duties, the distance of the place or the number of people concerned are of no relevance and can present no hindrance. The sun is single but is reflected, seen, and its effects are felt, everywhere on every object according to the object’s qualities. Similarly, the angels, being created of light, can be seen, breathe life into human beings or recapture their souls or carry out any other of their duties everywhere at any time.

In reality it is, of course, God who gives and takes life. Azrail is only a medium and means, commissioned to superintend the giving of life and recapturing of souls and to praise the All-Mighty in His Divine Actions. As God is everywhere at every instant and performs innumerable actions beyond the power of our imaginations to conceive, it is not difficult to accept that He can create, give and take innumerable lives all in a single instant. Such omniscience and omnipotence can undoubtedly see, administer and govern the deeds, and give and take the lives, of as many people as there may be particles in the whole universe, at the same instant, though some unfortunate atheists may refuse to believe.

Whether God or Azrail captures the souls, each soul whose time of death has come turns to God at its last moment and then is taken. We can make this more comprehensible by an analogy. Let us suppose that there are thousands of radio-like receivers operating on the same frequency. If any transmitter sends signals on that frequency, they will be heard on all the receivers. In the same way, all beings live in dependence for everything on the All-Mighty, All-Generous Creator, and when they ask for anything from Him, they do so through their poverty, that is, through their needs, their helpless impotence. And when they reach the last minute of their life and turn to God by, as it were, switching on to their life-ending frequency, they begin to perceive the signals of death. If a weak, powerless human being can make contact with systems hundreds of miles away simply by pressing a button, why cannot the All-Mighty Creator, who is free from all our weakness, impotence and deficiencies, make contact with souls, each of which is, in a sense, a living machine? Why cannot He make them all start or stop functioning in an instant?

Summary

1. It is God who gives and takes life. Azrail is only an agent who is commissioned to oversee and administer and praise the work of God.

2. While carrying out his task, Azrail acts only with the permission and approval of God.

3. As a great number of angels administer tasks in the universe as representatives of the Divine Authority, Power and Will, there are many angels that can help Azrail with his work. They are even grouped into classes according to their tasks. Some of them take the lives of people without causing them any distress or hurt—they carry out their task peacefully. After souls have been recaptured, other angels at once take the souls before the Divine Presence, and so on. The Qur’an refers to all of them: By the angels who tear out (the souls of the wicked). By those who gently draw out (the souls of the blessed). And by those who glide along (on errands of mercy) (Nazi’at 79:1-3).

Thus there are different angels dispatched according to the level of the people they will deal with. They are all under the supervision of Azrail, and God commissions them according to whether the individuals concerned were good or wicked.

In conclusion, we can say that the understanding which gives rise to such questions begins in an error of thinking in that it mistakenly likens angels to human beings. We have pointed out that angels are quite different from beings with physical form; not only in their essence and creation but also in their tasks, servanthood and responsibilities, angels are quite different from other creatures. Angels can assume different forms (tamassul), be in many places, and do many things, as human beings’ souls can. What is popularly read about in our day in connection with spirit-mediums, necromancy, and other such efforts to communicate with the Unseen, are in their way evidence of metaphysical elements operating in the physical universe. Angels, as beings far superior to these elements, can function and carry out their missions in a way far superior to all other beings. And certainly, at the time of death, when people share the same “frequency” with the angels, an angel can deal with thousands of people at the same instant. Finally, we must remember that the angel for death is not alone; rather, there are innumerable angels appointed for taking souls, and when we consider that there is an angel for each individual death, no further point remains to raise the kind of doubts expressed in the question.

God knows best.


[1] Muslim, Zuhd, 10; Musnad, 4/168.

[2] Bukhari, Manaqib 22; Muslim, Fadail al-Sahaba, 100.

[3] Ibn Sa’d, Tabaqat, 2/121.

[4] Muslim, Jihad and Siyar 58, Ibn Kathir, Tafsir, 3/560-561.