Can Angels Disobey? The case of Iblis




Ansar Al 'Adl



The allegation is as follows:

Can angels disobey? No angel is arrogant, they all obey Allah [16:49-50], but: "And behold, we said to the ANGELS: 'Bow down to Adam'. And THEY bowed down, EXCEPT Iblis. He refused and was haughty." [2:34].

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.

2:34 And (remember) when We said to the angels: "Prostrate yourselves before Adam.". And they prostrated but not Iblîs (Satan), he refused and was proud and was one of the disbelievers (disobedient to Allâh)

1. The confusion stems from the misconception that Iblis (satan) was an angel. In fact, he was not an angel but another species known as the Jinn, as clarified in the Qur'an:

18:50 Behold! We said to the angels, "Bow down to Adam": They bowed down but not Iblis. He was one of the Jinns, and he broke the Command of his Lord. Will ye then take him and his progeny as protectors rather than Me? And they are enemies to you! Evil would be the exchange for the wrong-doers!

There is no doubt about this point, as it is something which has been unanimously affirmed by the Muslim scholars. The Jinn are a seperate creation from the Angels.

Imaam Ibn Kathir Ad-Damishqi (d. 1372CE) distinguishes Iblis from the angels in his tafsir of verse 18:50:

[Iblis] had been created from smokeless fire, whereas the angels had been created from light, as is stated in Sahih Muslim where it is reported that `A'ishah, may Allah be pleased with her, said that the Messenger of Allah said:

(The angels were created from light, Iblis was created from smokeless fire, and Adam was created from that which has been described to you.) When matters are crucial, every vessel leaks that which it contains and is betrayed by its true nature. Iblis used to do what the angels did and resembled them in their devotion and worship, so he was included when they were addressed, but he disobeyed and went against what he was told to do. So Allah points out here that he was one of the Jinn, i.e., he was created from fire... (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Abridged, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, 2000, vol. 6, p.171)


Shaykh Abu Ameenah Bilal Phillips explains the Islamic belief on Jinns and why they cannot be held to be angels:


[The Jinn] are created from fire according to Allaah's statement in the Qur'aan; "The Jinns were created from the fire of a scorching wind." (Soorah Al-Hijr 15:27). They are not "fallen angels", as angels are made from light according to the following statement of Prophet Muhammad saws narrated by his wife 'Aa'eshah: "The angels were created from light and the Jinn from a fiery wind" (Sahih Muslim [English Trans.], vol. 4, p. 1540, no. 7134) and angels can not disobey God according to Allaah's statement in the Qur'aan, "...angels stern and severe, who do not disobey Allaah in what He orders them, but do whatever they are commanded." (Soorah at-Tahreem 66:6) (Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips (Ed.), Ibn Taymeeyah's Essays On The Jinn, 1996, 3rd Edition, International Islamic Publishing House, pp. 1-2, See footnote 1.)


The same thing is mentioned by Shaykh Abdul Majid Daryabadi (d.1977CE) in his commentary on verse 2:34:

Iblis, literally, being the disappointed one. He was not an angel but a jinn, as expressly mentioned in the Qur'an (Surah Al-Kahf, verse 50). (Daryabadi, The Glorious Qur'an: Text, Translation & Commentary, The Islamic Foundation 2001, p.13)


Abul 'Ala Maududi (d. 1979CE) makes the same point as well, in his commentary:

Moreover, one should not make the mistake of considering Satan an angel. Elsewhere the Qur'an itself clearly states that he was a jinn and jinn, as we know, are an independent species, distinct from angels. (see Qur'an 18:50) (Maududi, Towards Understanding the Qur'an, THe Islamic Foundation 1995, vol. 1, p.63 ftn. 46)


Shaykh Umar Sulayman Al-Ashqar, Professor at the University of Jordan, explains the background behind Satan/Iblis's presence in paradise:


Satan, which Allah mentions to us many times in the Qur'an, is from the world of the Jinn. He used to worship Allah at the beginning of his creation. He lived among the angels in the heavens. He entered paradise, but then he disobeyed Allah when he refused to prostrate to Adam, out of pride, arrogance and envy. Therefore Allah cast him out from His mercy. (Al-Ashqar, The World of the Jinn and Devils, Al-Basheer Company for Publications and Translations 1998, p.13)


From the above statements it becomes clear that the scholars are agreed that, based on the Qur'an and authentic narrations, Iblis was a Jinn who was living amongst the angels in paradise. He had within him arrogance which became manifest in his refusal to bow down to Adam when Allah gave the command.

2. We now come to the heart of the issue being discussed, which is the reason Iblis is misunderstood to be an Angel when, in reality, he is a Jinn. The source of the confusion is the fact that verse 2:34 states that all the angels bowed down except Iblis which seems to imply that Iblis was an angel. However, this is not the case as the Qur'anic commentators and Islamic scholars have explained. Hasan Al-Banna (d. 1949CE) clarifies some points on this issue:


The context reveals that Iblis was not one of the angels though he was with them. If he had been one of them, he would not have rebelled. Their primary quality is that "they do not rebel against Allah in what He commands them and they do as they are commanded." The word "except" here does not show that he was one of them. The fact that he was with them allows this exception to be used. Iblis was one of the Jinn according to the text of the Qur'an. Allah created the jinn from smokeless fire. This is a clear statement that he was not one of the angels.(Quoted by M. Ashour in The Jinn in the Qur'an and the Sunnah, Dar Al Taqwa Ltd. 1989, pp. 11-12)


Similarly, Syed Qutb (d.1966CE) comments in his prominent commentary, Fi Dhilalil Qur'an:


The general drift of the narration suggests that Iblis was not of angelic species but merely associated with the angels. For, had he been of similar kind, he would not have disobeyed God, since the angels' foremost characteristic is that they "never disobey whatever God commands them and do as they are bidden" (al-Tahrim 66:6). The fact that Iblis had been singled out does not mean that he is, or was, one of their number. The exception is justified on the basis that he was with the angels, as well as by Arabic syntax, which allows the construction "the whole clan arrived but not Ahmad" without implying that Ahmad is a member of the clan.

Furthermore, the Qur'an specifically identifies Iblis as belonging to another type of extra-terrestrial creatures, the jinn, who are created out of fire, eliminating the idea that he was angelic (al-Hijr 15:27, al-Kahf 18:50, al-Rahman 55:15).
(Qutb, In The Shade Of The Qur'an, The Islamic Foundation 1999, p.49)


Thus, the scholars mention that although the verse states that the angels bowed down 'except' (Ar., Ilaa) Iblis, this does not necessitate that Iblis was amongst the angels according to the arabic language. The specific arabic syntax referred to by Syed Qutb is explained by Dr. Zakir Naik, a famous orator on Islam, who states:


The English translation of the first part of the verse 'We said to the angels bow down to Adam: they bowed down except Iblis', gives us the impression that Iblis was an angel. The Qur'an was revealed in Arabic. In Arabic grammar there is a rule known as Tagleeb, according to which, if the majority is addressed, even the minority is included. If for example, I address a class containing 100 students of whom 99 are boys and one is a girl, and if I say in Arabic that the boys should stand up, it includes the girl as well. I need not mention her seperately.

Similarly in the Qur'an, when Allah addressed the angels, even Iblis was present, but it is not required that he be mentioned separately. Therefore according to that sentence Iblis may be an angel or may not be an angel, but we come to know from Surah Al Kahf chapter 18 verse 50 that Iblis was a Jinn. No where does the Qur'an say Iblis was an angel. Therefore there is no contradiction in the Qur'an.


This issue is also dealt with by Shaykh Umar Sulayman Al-Ashqar in his book on the Jinns, in which he writes:


[Some writers quote] verses in which Allah makes an exception from the angels of Iblis. And they argue that if he is being excepted from this group, it must have been that he was a member if that group as this is the customary mode of speech.
...Concerning their proof that Allah excepted Iblis from the angels, it is not a definitive proof. Such statements may be disjunctive.
(Al-Ashqar, The World of the Jinn and Devils, Al-Basheer Company for Publications and Translations 1998, p.16)


In his translation of Shaykh Al-Ashqar's book, Shaykh Jamal Al-Din Zarabozo adds the following explanation of the above quote in a footnote:


Al-istithnaa al-munqata is a case where someone states, for example, "Everyone except so and so," while in reality "so and so" was no a member of the original group. Such a form of speech is acceptable and not uncommon in Arabic. However, such would probably be objectionable if stated in english. (Al-Ashqar, The World of the Jinn and Devils, Al-Basheer Company for Publications and Translations 1998, p.16)

For this reason, we can understand that any translation of verse 2:34 (and similar verses) into english should use the phrase "not so Iblis" or "but not Iblis" as oppose to "except Iblis", in order to retain the correct meaning of the verse.

The reason why Iblis was expected to bow down, even though the command was given to the angels, is explained by many scholars. Moiz Amjad writes about why Iblis was expected to prostrate:


In my opinion, the answer to this question is that according to the Qur'an, although it was primarily the angels who were directed to prostrate before Adam, it was, nevertheless, expected of the jinn who were in the court at that time to follow suit. In other words, by directing the angels to bow down before Adam, God had directed a higher cadre of His creation to submit to a command, the lower cadre creations like jinn and any others that may have been present at the time, were expected to do the same. This style of speech is used in almost all human languages. For instance, when someone says: "When the Chief Justice enters the hall all the parliamentarians shall pay their respects by standing up for him", he generally implies that all those present in the hall (personnel of the press, the foreign diplomats, the media personnel and guests of the members) should stand to pay their respects to the Chief Justice. The word 'parliamentarians' in such a sentence is not to signify that the directive is given only to those who are members of the parliament, but is a generalization in which a higher cadre of personnel is given a directive with the implication that others are also expected to follow suit. (SOURCE)


Mufti Muhammad Shafi, the late Grand Mufti of Pakistan, writes a similar explanation in his monumental commentary:


If we go by the words of the Holy Qur'an, the command was given to the angels alone, but, in excepting Iblis from those who obeyed, the text also suggests that the command was given to all the created beings that existed at that time and possessed understanding, including the Jinn as well as the angels. But the Holy Qur'an mentions the angels alone, because when superior beings like the angels were required to show their respect for Adam (peace be upon him), inferior creatures like the Jinns must, it goes without saying, have been ordered to do the same. (Shafi, Ma'ariful Qur'an, Maktaba-e-Darul-Uloom, Karachi 2003, vol. 1, p. 171)


And Mohammed Fareeduddin Siddique offers some more analogies:


Satan is not an angel; rather he is of the Jinn as stated in Al-Kahf (18):50. Why then did he need to obey the command which was directed to the angels [specially when men and Jinns have the right to choose]? This is because; he was raised with them and required to obey the laws applied to them while in their [Angels] company. This is similar to requiring that a foster son obey the rules of his foster father while living within his house. It is not necessary for the foster father, whenever he commands his sons to do something, to follow up with an explicit "and my foster son too must do this," rather, it is implicitly understood that so long as the foster son lives in this house he shall follow the same rules and commands as apply to the other sons.

If a politician declares that "any American who drinks and drives shall be thrown in jail," then does this mean that any non-American who is visiting the USA then drinks and drives shall be immune to this law? No. The law includes him by default; however, they are the minority so the command is issued to the majority with the implication being that anyone in their company is implicitly included.


From the above discussion we have established the following points:
a) Iblis was a Jinn, distinct from angels
b) Iblis was expected to bow down as well, when the command was given to the angels
c) The phrase "they (the angels) bowed down, except Iblis" should be properly translated as "they (the angels) bowed down, but not Iblis" because according to the arabic syntax, the phrase does not necessitate that Iblis is an angel, and indeed we know that he is not from other verses in the Qur'an, ahadith, and authentic explanations of the early muslims.

3. Muslims have also raised another important point in response to this allegation. If Iblis truly believed that that the command to bow down was solely directed towards the angels, he should have said so when God asked him "why did you not bow down?". Instead, we find that he made claims that he was superior to Adam because of the nature of his creation. (Cf. Al-Hijr 15: 30 - 33, Al-A`raaf: 7: 11 - 12, Sa'd 39: 73 - 76)

4. Critics intend to confuse readers by quoting narrations of the early Muslims, especially those from the collection known as Tarikh At-Tabari which states that the Jinn were from amongst the angels. There are several errors with this method.


a) First of all, At-Tabari is a collection that contains many narrations that were not authenticated, intended to be recorded for future investigation. It contains many weak and fabricated narrations in addition to some authentic ones. Imaam Ibn Jarir At-Tabari (d. 923CE), himself, mentioned this in his work:


Let him who examines this book of mine know that I have relied, as regards everything I mention therein which I stipulate to be described by me, solely upon what has been transmitted to me by way of reports which I cite therein and traditions which I ascribe to their narrators, to the exclusion of what may be apprehended by rational argument or deduced by the human mind, except in very few cases. This is because knowledge of the reports of men of the past and of contemporaneous views of men of the present do not reach the one who has not witnessed them nor lived in their times except through the accounts of reporters and the transmission of transmitters, to the exclusion of rational deduction and mental inference. Hence, if I mention in this book a report about some men of the past, which the reader of listener finds objectionable or worthy of censure because he can see no aspect of truth nor any factual substance therein, let him know that this is not to be attributed to us but to those who transmitted it to us and we have merely passed this on as it has been passed on to us. (bû Jacfar Muhammad bin Jarîr al-Tabarî, Târîkh al-Tabarî: Târîkh al-Umam wal-Mulûk, 1997, Volume I, Dâr al-Kutub al-cIlmiyyah, Beirut (Lebanon), pp. 13.)


And Dr. M.S.M. Saifullah comments by stating:


Thus, al-Tabarî faithfully displayed the accounts in the exact manner through which he received them. Can he then be held liable or attributed if any objectionable accounts should arise? To translate this into laymen's terms, al-Tabarî has simply refused accountability by avoiding the task of historical as well as hadîth criticism. Therefore, any spurious/objectional accounts are not to be attributed to him. He only faithfully transmitted what he received, whether authentic or spurious. To say that al-Tabarî said such-and-such about "fallen angels" and Iblîs (and claiming it to be authentic!) simply shows one inability to grasp the fundamentals of al-Tabarî's book Tarîkh al-Tabarî: Tarîkh al-Umam wal-Mulûk. (SOURCE)


It is amazing to note that these critics simply cite the narrations and then immediately accept them as valid without any thought to authenticity. As Shahid bin Waheed mentions


In brief, readers must know that narrations of all sorts, sound and weak have found a place in his commentary, because of this not every narration presented by al-Tabarî can be relied upon. In reality, Al-Tabarî was aiming through his commentary to collect and compile all narrations that could become available to him, so that this collected material could be put to use later on. Conceded is the fact that he has given the chain of reporters along with each narration so that whoever wished to investigate into the chain of narrators could do so and decide for himself if the narrations are true of false. (SOURCE)


We challenge such critics to provide evidence that scholars of hadith have accepted the narrations, which they have quoted from At-Tabari, as authentic. It should be noted that the only collections of narrations that Muslims accept as fully authentic are Sahih Bukhari and Sahih Muslim.

b) The same critics attempt to defend their use of narrations from At-Tabari by citing evidence which demonstrates that Imaam At-Tabari could distinguish between weak and authentic narrations. Of course, their evidence only demonstrates that Imaam At-Tabari authenticated and examined some specific narrations, not that he authenticated his entire collection! No Muslim scholar would accept such a claim. Moreover, there is a narration mentioned in Ibn Kathir that completely falsifies the view that Imaam At-Tabari believed the Jinn (or Iblis) to be from the Angels. Ibn Kathir cites a narration from a renowned scholar amongst the early Muslims (tabi'een), Imaam Hasan Al-Basri:


Al-Hasan Al-Basri said, "Iblis was not one of the angels, not even for a second. He was the origin of the Jinn just as Adam, upon him be peace, was the origin of mankind.'' This was narrated by Ibn Jarir with a Sahih chain. (ftn. At-Tabari 18:506) (Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Abridged, Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, 2000, vol. 6, p. 171)


Thus, not only do we have an authentic narration from one of the early Muslims stating that Iblis was a Jinn, distinguished from the angels, but we also have Imaam Ibn Jarir At-Tabari affirming this narration in his collection! Therefore, since Imaam At-Tabari narrates one authentic narration stating that Iblis was not an angel, and he also narrates some unauthentic narrations stating that Iblis was an angel, it is obvious which narration takes precedence. The narrations cited by critics have never been labeled as authentic by scholars, whereas the above narration clearly has. It is safe to conclude that this authentic narration properly describes the Islamic belief that Iblis was a Jinn, not an angel.

c) One last point should be made about the usage of narrations from At-Tabari. It is obviously fallacious to use such narrations to prove a contradiction in the Qur'an since the Qur'an supercedes all narrations in any case.

Shaykh Mustafa Ashour, an Egyptian Islamic scholar, also explains the origin of the view that Iblis was an angel:


...the books of Qur'anic commentary and history have transmitted to us statements from a group of scholars who mention that Iblis was one of the angels. These scholars say that he was a guardian of the Garden or the lower heaven and that he was one of the noblest tribe among them, etc.

Ibn Kathir, however, points out that the early scholars related many traditions about this point. Most of them came from Jewish sources which were quoted so that they could be investigated. (Ashour, The Jinn in the Qur'an and the Sunnah, Dar Al Taqwa Ltd. 1989, p. 12)


He then goes on to cite the evidence quotes earlier which demonstrates that Iblis was a Jinn and not an Angel.

The narrations of Judaic influence found in commentaries are classifed as Israeliyyat. Mufti Muhammad Shafi describes the Israeliyyat 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 above explanation should clarify that narrations claiming that Iblis was an angel have no solid origin in Islam, while those that state that he was a Jinn are confirmed through many authentic channels.





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