Can Angels Disobey? The case of Harut and Marut
Ansar Al 'Adl
The allegation is as follows:
Can angels disobey? No angel is arrogant, they all obey Allah [16:49-50], but verse [2:102] relates the story of two angels who sinned.
Verses in question:
16:49-50 And to Allâh prostate all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth, of the live moving creatures and the angels, and they are not proud [i.e. they worship their Lord (Allâh) with humility]. They fear their Lord above them, and they do what they are commanded.
2:102 They followed what the devils gave out (falsely) against the power of Solomon: the blasphemers Were, not Solomon, but the devils, teaching men Magic, and such things as came down at babylon to the angels Harut and Marut. But neither of these taught anyone (Such things) without saying: "We are only for trial; so do not blaspheme." They learned from them the means to sow discord between man and wife. But they could not thus harm anyone except by Allah's permission. And they learned what harmed them, not what profited them. And they knew that the buyers of (magic) would have no share in the happiness of the Hereafter. And vile was the price for which they did sell their souls, if they but knew!
1. The allegation is based on a misunderstanding of verse 2:102 and the story given of Harut and Marut. Many false interpretations of the above verse arise from Christian/Jewish myths and legends that have been recorded in some books of Tafsir. These narrations are known called Iraeliyyat which Mufti Muhammad Shafi describes as follows:
Judaica or Isra'iliyyat are narratives which have reached us through Jews and Christians. It may be noted that the early commentators used to write down all sorts of narrations which reached them from an identified source. Many of these narrations were straight from Judaica.(Shafi, Ma'ariful Qur'an, Maktaba-e-Darul-Uloom, Karachi 2003, vol. 1, p. 411)
The scholars who wrote these books of tafsir recorded such narrations in order to provide a comprehensive record of narrations on a certain verse, which were intended to be investigated and scrutinised later to determine their authenticity. For more information please refer to our previous response on Can Angels Disobey?. We shall proceed, God willingly, by discussing the false interpretation of the verses based on weak and fabricated reports and then we shall present the true interpretation of the verses based on authoritative sources.
2. There are numerous absurd tales that have been transmitted about these verses, yet they all center around the same basic story. To summarise the (false) story, the angels had become astonished at the acts of disobedience committed by the human beings on earth. They began to curse the humans and could not understand how they could be so sinful. According to the story, God informed the angels that they would have also sinned if they were in the position of human beings. So the angels elected Harut and Marut from amongst themselves and God gave tem human attributes and sent them to earth after commanding them to avoid wine, idolatry, fornication and murder. However, Harut and Marut eventually succumbed to their human lusts and fell into all of these sins. Consequently, God punished them for their transgressions.
Such ridiculous tales have been rejected by all knowledgeable scholars of Islam as fabrications which have no place in the religion. Shaykh Abdul Hamid Kishk discusses these narrations and tales in detail in his book on Angels:
All this is part of myths and lies of the tribe of Israel and is not corroborated either by intellect or transmission or Shari'a. Some of the transmitters of this false fiction even go so far as to ascribe its transmission to some of the Companions and Followers but in doing so they enter the arena of sin and shameful crime and at the same time connect this lie to the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him peace, by taking it back to him. Glory be to You, my Lord, above and beyond this terrible lie!
Imam Abu'l-Faraj ibn al-Jawzi gave a judgement about this story, and ash-Shihab al-'Iraqi writes that anyone who believes that Harut and Marut were angels who are being punished for their sin has disbelieved in Allah Almighty.
Qadi 'Iyad said in Ash-Shifa', "What is said in the reports and commentaries about the story of Harut and Marut does not relate to anything, either sound or weak, from the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace) himself, and there is nothing which is taken by analogy." A similar judgement was made by Ibn Kathir in respect of tracing the material in this story back to the Prophet.
As for what does not go back to the Prophet, it is clear that it originates in the transmissions of the Judaica taken from Ka'b and others. It is the heretics of the People of the Book who connected them to Islam. Thus accurate commentators, who are skilful in recognising the sources of the deen (religion), refute them. Their intellects refuse to accept these myths, as do those of others such as Imam ar-Razi, Abu Hayyan, Abu's-Su'ud, al-Alusi, and others.
Furthermore, even from a rational point of view these transmissions are unsound. The angels are protected from all wrong action let alone these things which would not even issue from an evil human being. Allah informs us that the angels "do not disobey Allah in anything He commands them and they do everything they are commanded to," as is related in some transmissions which I indicated previously and in the words of Allah Himself.(Kishk, The World of The Angels, Dar Al-Taqwa Ltd. 1994, pp.39-40)
As Shaykh Kishk has pointed out, these myths are rejected outright by the scholars of Islam and are not even entertained as a possibility. As Imaam Abu Abdullah Al-Qurtubi (d. 1273CE) mentions in his tafsir, Al-Jaami` le Ahkaam al-Qur'an:
We say [Qurtubi]: This is all very weak and far from Ibn 'Umar's words and others, none of it has been authenticated. It is a saying which contradicts the fundemental understanding of the angels who are Allah's trustworthy messengers and the ambassadors of Allah to His prophet's and Messengers, Allah says "They do not disobey Allah in what He commands them, and do as they are commanded" [Surat at-Tahrim, verse 6] Evenmore, Allah says, "Nay! they are honored servants. They speak not before He speaks, and they act (in all things) by His Command" [Surat al-Anbiyaa, verses 26-27] However, if we were to leave the Intellect to judge, it wouldn't object to the possibility of angel's being prone to disobedience and of them may be those who oppose what they have been created to do, and it can believe that the temptation is an innate characteristic in them since Allah is capable of creating what the mind cannot imagine. Similarly, we know that even Prophets, the friends of Allah [awliyaa], and the the scholar's worry of falling into temptations. Yet, for this occurence [the claim against Harut and Marut falling into sin] cannot be deemed possible unless there is sound evidence [transmission through listening or chain of narration] and there isn't anything that has been authenticated....And we have shown them to be upright [the angels] and they are indeed upright against all that has been said from the [false] Interpreters .(Tafsir Al-Qurtubi, ARABIC SOURCE)
As Imaam Al-Qurtubi mentions, there is not a single authentic narration whic supports this story, hence it is unanimously rejected by Muslim scholars as false.
3. Critics quote narrations from At-Tabari in order to lend support to this false tale about Harut and Marut. They also project this story as the view of Imaam Ibn Jarir At-Tabari (d. 923CE) himself. Yet this is evidently false, as Ibn Kathir quotes the following on Ibn Jarir At-Tabari:
Ibn Jarir continued; "If someone asks about explaining this Ayah in this manner, we say that,
(They followed what the Shayatin (devils) gave out (falsely) in the lifetime of Sulayman.) means, magic. Solomon neither disbelieved nor did Allah send magic with the two angels. However, the devils disbelieved and taught magic to the people in the Babylon of Harut and Marut, meaning Gabriel and Michael, for Jewish sorcerers claimed that Allah sent magic by the words of Gabriel and Michael to Solomon, son of David. Allah denied this false claim and stated to His Prophet Muhammad that Gabriel and Michael were not sent with magic. Allah also exonerated Solomon from practicing magic, which the devils taught to the people of Babylon by the hands of two men, Harut and Marut. Hence, Harut and Marut were two ordinary men (not angels or Gabriel or Michael).'' (fn. At-Tabari 2:419) (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Abridged, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, 2000, vol. 1, p.315
Thus, Imaam At-Tabari did not believe that Harut and Marut were angels who sinned, but that they were ordinary humans who taught magic. This also resolves the alleged contradiction as it is known that human beings are prone to sin while angels are not. However, Ibn Kathir and other scholars have mentioned that the view of At-Tabari is weaker than the most common interpretation (explained under #4). Nevertheless, it demonstrates that Imaam At-Tabari did not support the view which critics falsely attribute to him. Therefore, we find that no scholars support this erroneous myth that two angels came down to earth and sinned. There are some other scholars who share Imaam At-Tabari's view that Harut and Marut were two ordinary humans. As Shaykh Abdul Aziz Humud Al-Harbi, Professor at Umm Al-Qura University, explains the viewpoint of At-Tabari in the following words:
Another saying tells that [Harut and Marut] were ordinary men who pretended to be pious in the city of Bâbil. They used to teach people sorcery. People thought they were angels descent from the Heavens because of the piousness they observed from them.
Their cunning was so clever that when they noticed what people thought about them of piety, they used to tell everyone who wants to learn from them: "Surely we are only a trial, therefore do not be a disbeliever." [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 102]
They did that to show people that their knowledge is divinely inspired knowledge and that they only sought goodness, just as liars claim in every era.
They were called as angels because people called them that. In another reading by al-Hasan they were called kings. (SOURCE)
Muhammad Asad also gives a similar explanation in his commentary of the Qur'an:
As regards the designation of Harut and Marut, most of the readings of the Qurlan give the spelling malakayn ("the two angels"); but it is authentically recorded (see Tabari, Zamakhshari, Baghawi, Razi, etc.) that the great Companion of the Prophet, Ibn `Abbas, as well as several learned men of the next generation - e.g., Al-Hasan al-Basri, Abu '1-Aswad and AdDahhak-read it as malikayn ("the two kings"). I myself incline to the latter reading; but since the other is more generally accepted, I have adopted it here. Some of the commentators are of the opinion that, whichever of the two readings is followed, it ought to be taken in a metaphorical sense, namely, "the two kingly persons", or "the two angelic persons": in this they rely on a saying of Ibn'Abbas to the effect that Harut and Marut were "two men who practiced sorcery in Babylon" (Baghawi; see also Manar I, 402). At any rate, it is certain that from very ancient times Babylon was reputed to be the home of magic arts, symbolized in the legendary persons - perhaps kings - Harut and Marut; and it is to this legend that the Qur'an refers with a view to condemning every attempt at magic and sorcery, as well as all preoccupation with occult sciences in general.(Asad, Message of the Qur'an, The Book Foundation 2003)
So even the scholars who supported this interpretation did not view Harut and Marut as fallen angels but ordinary people who taught magic and may have claimed to be angels.
4. As for the strongest and most widely-accepted interpretation of this verse, then scholars have agreed on some aspects yet differed on the minor details. Most scholars have agreed that Harut and Marut were two angels sent by Allah to test the people of Babylon with magic, and these angels were only acting upon the order of Allah and commited no sin, nor even the slightest error. However, they differ as to the nature of the test.
As Syed Qutb (d. 1966CE) mentions in his famous tafsir, Fi Dhilalil Qur'an:
[The Qur'an] further refutes the allegation that the two Babylonian angels Harut and Marut, were sorcerors or taught witchcraft. It confirms that they were testing people's faith, for a purpose that has not been identified. Again, associating sorcery, black magic and witchcraft with disbelief in God, the Qur'an exonerates the two angels, confirming that they had explained the nature of their work to the people and given them fair warning, neverhteless, some people persisted with learning and practising sorcery, thus falling to temptation and causing harm. (Qutb, In the Shade of the Qur'an, The Islamic Foundation 1999, p.99)
And Shaykh Saalih Al-Fawzaan explains in his response to the following question:
[Question]:How is it that angels taught magic when teaching magic is a form of disbelief?
[Answer]: This was a trial and a test for the people to see who was going to believe and who was going to disbelieve. So Allah sent these two angels to teach the people magic to test them and see who was going to believe and who was going to disbelieve, Accordingly, they did not teach any of the people, as Allah the Exalted has said:
'Except that they said: "Verily we are only a trial, so do not disbelieve."' (2:102)
So they would advise the student to abandon the learning of magic, while clarifying that it is disbelief. They were not just teaching people and remaining quite (about the disbelief of magic), rather they were advising them that it was disbelief. So when someone came forth by his own choice he disbelieved.
Allah had the two angels teaching people magic as a test for them, not that magic is acceptable or that it is permissible. It was only to distinguish those who were going to disbelieve from those who were going to believe and accept the advice. (Al-Fawzaan, Duroos fee Sharh Nawaaqidh Al-Islaam, p.145)
So when the angels began to teach magic, the devils spread the teachings to others and encouraged them to partake in this evil practice. As Shaykh Abdur-Rahman As-Sa'di (d. 1956CE) comments in his authoritative commentary on the Qur'an:
[the devils disbelieved, teaching mankind magic] by their misguidance and keenness to deviate the son of adam and It was the Jews who followed/pursued this magic which Allah brought down with his two angels [Harut and Marut] in the lands of Babil in Iraq. Magic was brought down upon them as a test and a trial from Allah to his slaves. (Tayseeru al-Karim Ar-Rahman fee tafseer kalamil manan)
There are some who say that the angels were sent by God as a temptation for mankind, offering them lessons in black magic after warning them of God's wrath upon those who practiced it. Nevertheless, people didn't heed the warning and succumbed to their desires to practice the magic. Other scholars say that the angels were sent, disguised as men, offering to teach magic and catching those who accepted their offer. Shaykh Abul 'Ala Maududi (d. 1979CE) gives the following conclusion on this verse:
...at the time when the whole Israelite nation was chained in slavery and captivity in Babylonia, God sent two angels in human form to test the Jews...These angels at once began working their magical wonders but they warned the people that their presence among them was designed to test their faith, and that they ought not to jeopardize their After-life by the practice of magic. Despite the warning it seems that the Israelites had become so fond of their magical artifices that they continued to resort to talismans and sorcery.
...One might also wonder why angels would teach people magic, which is after all intrinsically evil. In order to understand this we must remember that the nature of their tasks was no different from that of an undercover policeman who hands over marked currency notes to a corrupt official as a bribe with the aim of ensuring that he is caught red-handed.(Maududi, Towards Understanding the Qur'an, The Islamic Foundation 1995, vol. 1, p.97 ftn. 105)
Other scholars feel that it is more likely that Harut and Marut were teaching magic for educational purposes, so that the people could recognize its symptoms, properties and effects and avoid it. As Shaykh Abdul Hamid Kishk explains:
By "what had been sent down" He means the science of magic, which was sent down so that they could teach it to people and warn them against it. The reason the two of them were sent down was to teach people what magic was so that they would know the difference between magic and prophethood, and therefore that Sulayman was not a magician. It was to ensure complete understanding.
They did not, in any case, teach anyone magic until they had first cautioned him saying to him, "We are merely a temptation and a trial and a test, so do not become unbelievers by teaching it and using it." Part of the point of the teacing was to warn people against it and to teach them the difference between it and and prophethood and prophetic miracles.(Kishk, The World of The Angels, Dar Al-Taqwa Ltd. 1994, p. 41)
And Shariq Khan writes:
Imam Laqani mentions in his primer in Islamic beliefs, Jawharat al-Tawhid ('Jewel of Divine Oneness'), that both prophets and angels are protected from sin. As such, it is sinful to believe that angels sin.
Harut and Marut were two angels that taught people magic. Their story is mentioned in verse 102 of Sura Baqara. Jewish scholars call these the sinful Angels (see the Midrash). We believe that they were commanded by Allah to teach people magic, and so not sinful in doing so. There are two opinions about why the angels were sent.
The first opinion, mentioned in the Tafsir al-Jalalayn, is that they were sent as a temptation and trial from Allah. Those who learned magic from them disbelieved, and those who did not, believed. This is why the angels warned the people before teaching them magic. The angels said, "We are only a trial; so do not disbelieve." (Quran 2:102)
The second opinion about why the angels were sent is explained by Shaykh Sabuni in his Safwat al-Tafasir. He says that during their time there were many magicians claiming Prophethood, and people needed to be able to distinguish between the miracles of Prophets and the magic of magicians. The magic they taught could have been used to do this, or, it could have been used for evil.(SOURCE)
Similarly, Mufti Muhammad Shafi gives the following comments:
Allah sent down to Babylon two angels, Harut and Marut, for informing the people as to the true nature of magic and as to its different forms, so that they should distinguish it from the miracles of prophets, and keep away from obeying magicians and practising magic themselves.
...In short, the two angels came down to Babylon, and started the work assigned to them -- that is to say, they used to explain the basic principles of magic, its different forms and the specific formulas, and then used to dissuade the people from getting themselves involved in these activities or with the magicians. Their work was exactly like that of a scholar who, finding that illiterate people sometimes fall into uttering heretical words or phrases on account of their ignorance, should collect in his speeches or writings all such phrases that have gained currency, and inform them as to what they must carefully avoid.
Now, all sorts of people started coming to the angels for seeking information about the nature and the specific formulas of magic lest ignorance should lead them into error, in the matter of doctrines or that of deeds. In order to provide the correct teaching on this subject and to protect the people from error, the angels were scrupulous enough to make it a point to warn them of possible dangers in giving them the information. They insisted on making it quite clear that in allowing them to provide this kind of information to the people, Allah intended to put His servants through a trial, for He would see who uses this knowledge for protecting his 'iman (faith) by recognizing evil and avoiding it, and who falls into misguidance by adopting evil that he has come to recognize as evil -- a choice which can easily lead one into kufr (infidelity) in the matter of deeds or in that of doctrines. The angels repeatedly advised them to seek this dangerous information only with a good intent and to remain steadfast in this good intent, and not to misuse the knowledge so as to earn perpetual damnation.
The angels could not be more honest and forthright. So, they explained the basic principles of magic and even the subsidiary details to all those who were ready to take the pledge to remain steadfast in their faith. Of course, if anyone broke the pledge and fell into transgression or infedility, it was his on business, and the angels could not be held responsible for it. Some were true to their promise, while many did not fulfill the pledge, and made their knowledge of magic a means of doing harms to people -- this in itself is a sin and transgression, while some modes of magic actually involve infidelity (kufr). Thus, through a misuse of their knowledge of magic, some turned into sinners and others into infidels.
Let us repeat that the angels had taught magic for the purpose of reforming the people and helping them to the straight path. but those who misused this teaching did so out of their own perversity.(Shafi, Ma'ariful Qur'an, Maktaba-e-Darul-Uloom, Karachi 2003, vol. 1, pp. 266-268)
This lengthy quote demonstrates several points. First of all, it explains the idea of angels teaching magic for the purpose of educating the public about this evil so that they would avoid it. It also mentions that the angels were sent as a test for the people to distinguish those who would succumb to the temptation of using magic from those who restrained themselves from such evils. Therefore, it is entirely possible that the angels may have been sent for all the purposes mentioned by scholars, including as a temptation to catch those who practiced sorcery, as a test for the people, and for educational purposes to distinguish good from evil.
From the above discussion it becomes clear that the angels were acting as servants of Allah and were only carrying out their mission as commanded by Allah. The question of disobedience doesn't even arise, and consequently there is no contradiction between this verse and the verse which states that all angels are obedient.
The author would like to thank Abu Abdullah Al-Kuwaitee for his contributions to the article, May Allah bless him.
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