The Number of Wings on Angels
The allegation is as follows:
Angels have 2, 3, or 4 pairs of wings [35:1]. But Gabriel had 600 wings. [Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 54, Number 455]
Verse in question:
35:1 All the praises and thanks be to Allâh, the (only) Originator [or the (only) Creator] of the heavens and the earth, Who made the angels messengers with wings, - two or three or four. He increases in creation what He wills. Verily, Allâh is Able to do all things.
Narration in question:
Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 54, Number 455:
Narrated Abu Ishaq-Ash-Shaibani: I asked Zir bin Hubaish regarding the Statement of Allah: "And was at a distance Of but two bow-lengths Or (even) nearer; So did (Allah) convey The Inspiration to His slave (Gabriel) and then he (Gabriel) Conveyed (that to Muhammad). (53.9-10) On that, Zir said, "Ibn Mas'ud informed us that the Prophet had seen Gabriel having 600 wings."
A number of points can be mentioned here:
1. The remaining part of the verse 35:1 says that Allah swt increases in creation what He wills. It is fascinating that the Qur'an answers the allegation someone might raise against this verse, in the verse itself. So while God creates Angels with two, three or four pairs of wings, He has the power to increase this further and is not restricted at all. This is the strongest interpretation and it is supported in Ibn Kathir who says,
"Among them (angels) are some who have two wings, some have three and some who have four. Some have more than that, as stated in the Hadith mentioning that the Messenger of Allah saw Jibril, peace be upon him, on the Night of the Isra with six hundred wings." (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Abridged, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, 2000, vol. 8, p. 120)
So this is the meaning that has been understood by the earlier Muslims from the beginning. As Mufti Muhammad Shafi, the late Grand Mufti of Pakistan, writes the following in his tafsir:
And the words: (in twos and threes and fours) are, evidently enough, numerical adjectives referring to (wings) in the sense that the number of the feathers angels have varies from angels to angel. Some have only two wings. Others have three. Still others have four. Even the numbers mentioned here are not comprehensive, rather they are mentioned here just as an example, because it is proven by a Hadith in Sahih of Muslim that Sayyidina Jibra'il (as), has six hundred feathers. (Qurtubi, Ibn Kathir). Moreover, it is also possible that these three words are numerical adjectives referring to the word (rusulan: bearers of the message) in the sense that these angels who deliver messages from Allah Ta'ala to this world sometimes come in twos or threes or fours. Once again, in this situation too, the number of four is not intended for restriction. It is there just for example because the coming of angels in a much larger number stands proved from the Qur'an itself. (Abu Hayyan in Al-Bahr ul-Muhit). The next sentence: (He adds to the creation what He wills) means that Allah Ta'ala has the power to increase whatever He wills and as much as He wills in the creation of everything He has originated. This obviously is related to: (ajnihah: wings) in that the feathers and wings of the angels are not something simply restricted to two or four in numbers, for they could be many more than these if Allah Ta'ala so wills. Most commentators say exactly this. (Ma'ariful Qur'an, Maktaba-e-Darul-Uloom, Karachi, 2003, vol. 7, pp. 322-323)
2. We know that human beings cannot see angels in their true form as they are created from light. Therefore, Angel Gabriel assumed an alternative form when the Prophet Muhammad pbuh saw him. This alternate form was described with 600 wings, but it may well be that Angel Gabriel normally assumes a form with less wings. This may have been a temporary state that Angel gabriel was in.
3. It must also be noted that Angel Gabriel is unique in many ways. The Qur'an often mentions him seperately from the other angels for emphasis, and he is referred to in the Qur'an as Ruh Al-Qudus, or the Holy Spirit (not to be confused with the entity bearing the same name from the Trinity). In this verse, Allah describes the Angels who fit into a group called "messengers". it may be that Gabriel is of a group of angels of a higher class.
These three points sufficiently explain this allegation against the Qur'an.
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