Following death, the spirit is taken to the Presence of God. If it led a good, virtuous life and refined itself, the angels charged with taking it there wrap it in a piece of satin and bear it, through the heavens and all inner dimensions of existence, to His Presence. During this journey, angels welcome it in every mansion or station it passes and ask: “Whose spirit is this? How beautiful it is!” The angels conveying it introduce it with the most beautiful titles it had while in the world, and answer: “This is the spirit of the one who, for example, prayed, fasted, gave alms, and bore all kinds of hardship for God’s sake.” Finally, God Almighty welcomes it and tells the angels: “Take it back to the grave where its body is buried, so that it can answer the questions of Munkar and Nakir, the interrogating angels.”
All human beings have an intrinsic feeling of eternity, and so feel imprisoned in the narrow confines of the material world and yearn for eternity. Whoever can hear our conscious nature will hear it pronouncing eternity over and over again. If we were given the whole universe, we would still hunger for the eternal life for which we were created. This natural inclination toward eternal happiness comes from an objective reality: the existence of eternal life and our desire for it.
The spirit is from the world of Divine Commands. There are many other worlds than those we commonly think of, such as those of plants, animals, human beings, and of the world of jinn. Our visible, material world addresses itself to our senses. From tiny particles to galaxies, this world is the realm where God Almighty gives life, fashions, renews, changes, and causes things to die. Science concerns itself with its phenomena.
Satan, the Arabic word for Satan, means “being cast down from the Divine Presence, driven away in disgrace from God’s mercy.” Satan is like one who had all the trump cards but played them against himself, or like one who lost everything while on the verge of winning.
The Jinn we know as Satan was created from fire. Before his obedience and sincerity were tested through Adam, he had been in the company of angels, acting and worshipping as they did. Unlike angels, however, who cannot rebel against God (66:6), Satan (called Iblis prior to his test) was free to choose his own path of conduct. When God tested him and the angels by commanding them to prostrate before Adam, the seeds of his self-conceit and disobedience blossomed and swallowed him. He replied in his vanity: “I am better than him. You created me from fire, whilst him you did create of clay” (38:76).
In fact, the guile of Satan is ever feeble (4:76). It is like a cobweb appearing before you—it cannot prevent you from going forward, and you do not have to attach any great importance to it. Satan only suggests or whispers, gilds sinful acts and presents them in falsely ornamented wrappers. Believers must never accept his invitations. When Satan resorts to whispering, we should realize that he is using his weakest strategy and ignore him. If we pay attention to these whisperings, we may be defeated. Like a commander whose fear causes him to hallucinate and then dispatch his soldiers to the wings, thereby leaving the center exposed, believers who listen to Satan weaken their ability to resist both him and their carnal selves. In the end, such believers are defeated.
Involuntary evil thoughts, fancies, or associations of ideas usually are the result of Satan’s whispering. Just as a battery has two poles, so do our hearts have two central points or poles. Like the two poles of a battery, there are two central points or poles in man’s heart: One receives angelic inspiration, and the other is vulnerable to Satan’s whispering.
Satan attacks those believers who are trying to deepen their belief and devotion. If they are scrupulous and delicate in feeling, he attacks them from different directions. When confronted with unbelievers, who follow him voluntarily by indulging in passing fancies and bodily pleasures, he whispers to them new and original ideas. In this way, he encourages them to increase their unbelief and learn new ways of struggling against true religion and all believers.
Satan’s attacks come from different directions.
When God cursed Satan because of his haughty disobedience, Satan asked for respite until the Day of Judgment and permission to try to seduce human beings. God granted his request, and Satan retorted: Then I shall come upon them from before them and from behind them and from their right and from their left, and you will not find most of them grateful (7:17).
Satan does everything he can to seduce us. We are very complex beings, for God manifests all of His Names on us in this world of testing. We are sent here to be trained so that we can serve as a mirror to God and earn eternal happiness. In order to do this, we must train and develop all of our God-given feelings, faculties, and potentials. If some of these are not trained (e.g., intellect, anger, greed, obstinacy, and lust) and directed to lofty goals, but abused and used for disagreeable purposes, we will place our present and future life in danger. This is also true if we do not restrict our natural desires and animal by satisfying them in acceptable ways.
Approaching us from our left, Satan uses our animal aspect’s feelings and faculties to tempt us into sin. When he approaches us from the front, he drives us to despair over our future, whispers that the Day of Judgment will never come, that whatever religions say about the Hereafter is mere fiction, and that religion belongs to the past and so is irrelevant to our present and future. When he comes upon us from behind, he tries to make us deny Prophethood, God’s Existence and Unity, Divine Scriptures, angels, and other essential matters of belief. Through such whispers and suggestions, Satan tries to sever our connections with religion and steer us toward sin.
Satan cannot seduce devout, practicing believers in these ways. Rather, he approaches from the believer’s right and encourages him to display and ostentation, to taking pride in their virtues and good deeds. He whispers that they are such good believers, until the believers’ feelings of self-conceit and desire for praise are aroused. When this point is reached, believers begin to travel the road to perdition. For example, if we pray the superrogatory late night prayer and then proclaim it so that others will praise us, and if we begin to take credit for our accomplishments and good deeds while criticizing others behind their backs, it means that we have fallen under Satan’s influence. We must do our best to resist Satan when he comes upon us from this direction.
Another of Satan’s ruses is to make unimportant things seem important and vice versa. If believers dispute with each other over a secondary matter (e.g., using a rosary when glorifying God after the daily prescribed prayers) while their children are being dragged along ways of unbelief and materialism, or are drowning in the swamp of immorality, this indicates that Satan has seduced them.
Satan suggests disagreeable thoughts and desires
If Satan fails to seduce devout believers, he whispers some disagreeable thoughts and fancies to them. For example, through the association of ideas, he pushes believers toward having some negative conceptions of the Divine Being or of thinking about unbelief or disobedience. If we dwell on such thoughts, Satan pesters us until we fall into doubt about our belief or despair of a virtuous life.
Another ruse is to cause good, devout believers to suspect the correctness or validity of their religious acts. For example: Did I pray perfectly? Did I wash my face and hands completely while making abolition’? Have I washed the specific bodily parts the required number of times? Believers pestered with such involuntary thoughts, fancies, and doubts should know that their hearts have no part in them. Just as thieves attempt to rob rich people and strong countries try to control rich countries, so does Satan make a last-ditch effort to seduce believers by troubling their hearts.
This is similar to a sick person having a high temperature. We know that antibodies formed in a patient’s blood to inhibit or destroy harmful bacteria or germs. This causes the body’s temperature to rise. Similarly, a heart troubled with Satan’s evil suggestions defends itself by fighting against them. Thus, the heart does not generate such thoughts, and neither does it approve of or adopt them. A reflection of something foul is not itself foul and cannot make us foul. In the same way, thinking about unbelief is not the same thing as actual unbelief.
We might even say that Satan’s evil suggestions actually benefit believers, for they cause us to remain alert, to struggle against our carnal selves and Satan, and to progress toward ever-higher spiritual ranks.
How to Keep Free of Satanic Suggestions
In fact, the guile of Satan is not great (4:76). It is like a cobweb that appears in your path—it cannot prevent you from progressing, and you should not attach any great importance to it. Satan only suggests or whispers, he dresses up sinful acts as something desirable, presenting them in cheap, shiny paper. Believers must never accept his invitation. When Satan resorts to whispering, we should realize that he is using his least powerful weapon and ignore him. If we pay attention to these distractions, we may be defeated. As a commander whose fear causes him to hallucinate and dispatch his soldiers to the front, leaving the flanks exposed, believers who listen to Satan weaken their ability to resist not only him, but also their carnal selves. In the end, these are the believers who are defeated.
Believers who want to avoid this trap should distance themselves from sins, all of which Satan tries to make attractive. Heedlessness and the neglect of one’s worship open the way to Satan’s “arrows”: If anyone withdraws himself (or herself) from remembrance of the All-Merciful, We assign unto him (or her) a devil as a comrade (43:36).
In order to protect ourselves from Satan’s attacks we should remember the All-Merciful, think about holy and blessed events, and try to live a pious life. If you hear Satan whispering to you, then seek refuge in God. He is All-Hearing, All-Knowing. Those who fear God and ward off (evil) when a passing notion from Satan troubles them, they remember, and behold, they see (7:200–1).
The Messenger advised: “If you become angry while standing, sit down; if you are sitting, lie down or stand up and make wudu’.” Once while returning from a military expedition, the Prophet called for a halt in a certain place. His companions were so tired that they slept through the dawn prayer. When everyone awoke, the Prophet said that they should leave immediately, for “Satan rules here”.
Satan also uses indecent thoughts and events to lead believers astray. He torments us by enticing us with illicit pleasures. On such occasions, we must remind ourselves that indulging in any such pleasure will engender remorse and may endanger both our present and future lives. We must never forget that life in this world is no more than a passing toy, a comforting illusion, and that the real or true life is that of the Hereafter.
When Satan whispers evil thoughts, believers should realize that he is at his weakest and that he can be ignored. Dwelling on such thoughts only exaggerates and aggravates our weakness and susceptibilities. We also must avoid being careless and be sure that we do not neglect any aspect of our worship; such oversights attract the attention of Satan. If we remember the All-Merciful, focus on holy and blessed events and live a pious life, then will we be able to resist Satan’s call.
Since all angels were created from light, they can be present in any place and in any form simultaneously. They also can perform countless tasks at the same time. Therefore, Azrael can take millions of souls simultaneously and without any confusion. Each Archangel has subordinates that resemble him and are supervised by him. When believers die, angels come to them with smiling, radiant faces. Azrael and his subordinates charged with taking these souls, or by one of his subordinates. The Qur’anic verses: By those who pluck out violently; by those who draw out gently (79:1–2) indicate that the angels who take the souls of believers differ from those who take the souls of unbelievers. The souls of the latter, who have embittered and frightened faces at death, are plucked out violently.
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). (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.
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 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 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 commands to humankind from the attributes of the Word 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 misjudgement 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 (noor) 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. “The angels were created out of light (noor).” 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 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. 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.
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. Azrael 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 Azrael 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?
- It is God who gives and takes life. Azrael is only an agent who is commissioned to oversee and administer and praise the work of God.
- While carrying out his task, Azrael acts only with the permission and approval of God.
- 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 Azrael 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) (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 Azrael, 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, 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.
Angels and jinn can assume any form or shape and appear in this world. Here, we observe movement from the visible to the invisible: water evaporates and disappears into the atmosphere, solid matter becomes a liquid or a gas (steam), and matter becomes energy (nuclear fission). Likewise, we observe movement from the invisible to the visible: gases become fluids, evaporated water becomes rain (as well as snow or hail), and energy becomes matter. Similarly, intangible thoughts and meanings in our minds can appear in the tangible form of letters and words in essays and books.