The Quran claims that Allah has created angels to have up to four wings, no more than that:
All praise belongs to ALLAH, the originator of the heavens and the earth, Who employs the angels as Messengers, having wings, two, three, and four (mathna wa thulatha wa rubaAAa). HE adds to HIS creation whatever HE pleases; for ALLAH has power over all things. S. 35:1 Sher Ali
The Arabic expression for "two, three, and four" is identical to what is stated in Sura 4:3:
And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four (mathna wa thulatha wa rubaAAa); but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course. S. 4:3
No Muslim denies that this text is limiting the number of wives that a man can have at any given time to four, provided that the person can deal fairly with them. In light of this, consistency demands that one understands Sura 35:1 in the same way, that angels have no more than up to four wings.
However, by making this claim, the Quran contradicts the Holy Bible regarding this issue since there are angels that actually have six wings:
"In the year that King Uzzi'ah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts! Then flew one of the seraphim to me, having in his hand a burning coal which he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth, and said: Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin forgiven." Isaiah 6:1-7
Moreover, the so-called sound narrations also contradict the Quran at this point since the ahadith state that Gabriel has six hundred wings!
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." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 54, Number 455)
Regarding the Verses: 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). Ibn Mas'ud narrated to us that the Prophet had seen Gabriel with six hundred wings. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 379)
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. (53.10) He said, "Abdullah (bin Mas'ud) informed us that Muhammad had seen Gabriel with six hundred wings." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 380)
(One version says:) At the Lote-tree of the Farthest Limit the Prophet saw Gibril (in his angelic form): He had six hundred wings. Every single wing could cover the entire firmament. From his wings embellishments were strewn in all directions, such as rare pearls and sapphires of a kind Allah alone knows (Islamic Doctrines and Beliefs: Volume 1: The Prophets in Barzakh, The Hadith of Isra and Miraj, The Immense Merits of Al-Sham, The Vision of Allah, Al-Sayyid Muhammad Ibn Alawi al-Maliki, translation and notes by Dr. Gibril Fouad Haddad [As-Sunna Foundation of America 1999], p. 85)
According to Aisha this happened to be one of the times that Muhammad supposedly saw Gabriels true form:
I said to 'Aisha, "O Mother! Did Prophet Muhammad see his Lord?" Aisha said, "What you have said makes my hair stand on end! Know that if somebody tells you one of the following three things, he is a liar: Whoever tells you that Muhammad saw his Lord, is a liar." Then Aisha recited the Verse:
No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision. He is the Most Courteous Well-Acquainted with all things. (6.103) It is not fitting for a human being that Allah should speak to him except by inspiration or from behind a veil. (42.51) Aisha further said, "And whoever tells you that the Prophet knows what is going to happen tomorrow, is a liar." She then recited:
No soul can know what it will earn tomorrow.' (31.34) She added: "And whoever tell you that he concealed (some of Allah's orders), is a liar." Then she recited: O Apostle! Proclaim (the Message) which has been sent down to you from your Lord. (5.67) Aisha added. "But the Prophet saw Gabriel in his true form twice." (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 6, Book 60, Number 378)
Whoever claimed that (the Prophet) Muhammad saw his Lord, is committing a great fault, for he only saw Gabriel in his genuine shape IN WHICH HE WAS CREATED covering the whole horizon. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 54, Number 457)
I asked Aisha "What about His Statement:-- "Then he (Gabriel) approached And came closer, And was at a distance Of but two bow-lengths Or (even) nearer?" (53.8-9) She replied, "It was Gabriel who used to come to the Prophet in the figure of a man, but on that occasion, he came in his actual and real figure and (he was so huge) that he covered the whole horizon." (Sahih Al-Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 54, Number 458)
A narration by al-Tirmidhi from al-Shabi cites two positions in context:
Ibn Abbas met Kab [al-Ahbar] in Arafa and asked him about something, whereupon Kab began to shout Allahu Akbar! Until the mountains answered him. Ibn Abbas said: "We are the Banu Hashim!" Kab said: "Allah has apportioned His vision and His speech between Muhammad and Musa. Musa spoke with Him twice and Muhammad saw him twice." Masruq said: "Later I went to Aisha and asked: Did Muhammad see his Lord? She replied: You have said something that makes my hair stand on end. I said: Do not rush! and recited [the verses which conclude with] the verse <Verily he saw one of the greater revelations of his Lord> (53:18). She said: Where is this taking you? It was about Gibril. Whoever tells you that Muhammad saw his Lord, or concealed something which he was commanded [to reveal], or knew the five things which Allah mentioned <Lo! Allah! With Him is knowledge of the Hour. He sends down the rain [and knows that which is in the wombs. No soul knows what it will earn tomorrow, and no soul knows in what land it will die. Lo! Allah is Knower, Aware]> (31:34) he has told an enormous lie. Rather, he saw Gibril, who he did not see in his ACTUAL FORM except twice: once at the Lote-Tree of the Farthest Boundary (sidra al-muntaha) and once in Jiyad [in Mecca], WITH HIS SIX HUNDRED WINGS, he had filled the firmament." (Islamic Doctrines and Beliefs: Volume 1: The Prophets in Barzakh, The Hadith of Isra and Miraj, The Immense Merits of Al-Sham, The Vision of Allah, pp. 147-148; capital emphasis ours)
Now some try to work around this by saying that the text of Sura 35:1 isnt necessarily implying that angels have either two, three or four wings, but that Allah sends down groups of angels consisting of either two, three or four. In other words, the passage is referring to the number of angels which are dispatched together. This interpretation, if correct, contradicts the following verses:
When you said to the believers: Does it not suffice you that your Lord should assist you with three thousand of the angels sent down? Yea! if you remain patient and are on your guard, and they come upon you in a headlong manner, your Lord will assist you with five thousand of the havoc-making angels. S. 3:124-125 Shakir
When ye sought help of your Lord and He answered you (saying): I will help you with a thousand of the angels, rank on rank. S. 8:9 Pickthall
In fact, we are not aware that there is even one passage in the Quran that speaks of an incident in which angels that are sent down by Allah are said to be two, three, or four. Usually their number remains unspecified. The only time we read of two angels together is the story of Harut and Marut. On the other hand, the above verses specify numbers that are much higher.
Still, others try to get ingenious and claim that the last line of the verse clarifies the meaning of the text:
Praise be to GOD, Initiator of the heavens and the earth, and appointer of the angels to be messengers with wings - two, three, and four (wings). He increases the creation as He wills. GOD is Omnipotent. Khalifa
It is proposed that the last part indicates that Allah can increase the wings of an angel if he so desires.
The problem with this assertion is that it takes for granted that this line is actually qualifying what precedes it regarding the angels, as opposed to simply stating that Allah can add more to his creation as he deems fit, since the text mentions Allah as the initiator of the heavens and the earth. In light of this, one can validly assume that Allah increases his creation not in reference to the wings of the angels, but in connection with an increase of human beings, animals, vegetation, formation of stars etc. This interpretation makes perfect sense in light of what follows right after:
O men! Call to mind the grace of God unto you! is there a creator, other than God, to give you sustenance from heaven or earth? There is no god but He: how then are ye deluded away from the Truth? It is God Who sends forth the Winds, so that they raise up the Clouds, and We drive them to a land that is dead, and revive the earth therewith after its death: even so (will be) the Resurrection. If any do seek for glory and power,- to God belong all glory and power. To Him mount up (all) Words of Purity: It is He Who exalts each Deed of Righteousness. Those that lay Plots of Evil,- for them is a Penalty terrible; and the plotting of such will be void (of result). And God did create you from dust; then from a sperm-drop; then He made you in pairs. And no female conceives, or lays down (her load), but with His knowledge. Nor is a man long-lived granted length of days, nor is a part cut off from his life, but is in a Decree (ordained). All this is easy to God. Nor are the two bodies of flowing water alike,- the one palatable, sweet, and pleasant to drink, and the other, salt and bitter. Yet from each (kind of water) do ye eat flesh fresh and tender, and ye extract ornaments to wear; and thou seest the ships therein that plough the waves, that ye may seek (thus) of the Bounty of God that ye may be grateful. He merges Night into Day, and he merges Day into Night, and he has subjected the sun and the moon (to his Law): each one runs its course for a term appointed. Such is God your Lord: to Him belongs all Dominion. And those whom ye invoke besides Him have not the least power. S. 35:3, 9-13 Y. Ali
Seest thou not that God sends down rain from the sky? With it We then bring out produce of various colours. And in the mountains are tracts white and red, of various shades of colour, and black intense in hue. And so amongst men and crawling creatures and cattle, are they of various colours. Those truly fear God, among His Servants, who have knowledge: for God is Exalted in Might, Oft-Forgiving. S. 35:27-28 Y. Ali
After all, there is a difference between creation and a creature. The phrase does not say: He adds to his creature(s) whatever he pleases, i.e. putting more wings on them later on (after they were created), but it means he can add more/other/different creatures to his creation at any time.
Furthermore, this interpretation ignores the fact that the same exact construction is found in Sura 4:3 where no one denies that the plain meaning of that text is that the most number of wives that a person can have is four. Since the same construction is used in Sura 35:1 it becomes rather difficult to avoid the conclusion that this reference is expressly stating that four is the most wings that an angel can have. That is unless, of course, a Muslim wants to be consistent and contend that neither of these texts actually suggests that four is the maximum number, and thereby imply that a man really can have more than four wives at the same time!
Moreover, even if we were to assume for arguments sake that the last clause of the sentence does refer to Allah creating additional wings for angels, this still wouldnt prove the Muslim point. All this would mean is that Allah could increase the wings of an angel without exceeding four, i.e. he could cause an angel with two wings to have three, another that has three to have four but not go beyond this point since he has designed it so that the most wings an angel can have at one time is four.
Besides, it seems that the real reason why Muslims came up with this response is because they clearly saw the contradiction between this verse in the Quran and the ahadith. It is highly doubtful that anyone would have connected the last part of the sentence regarding Allah increasing his creation with Allah increasing an angels wings beyond four had the hadith not mentioned that Gabriel had six hundred wings.
It seems more likely that if there werent any narrations regarding Gabriel having so many wings that the Muslims would have no problem admitting that the most number of wings an angel can have is four. This is all the more so when the Arabic construction is the same as what is found in Sura 4:3 which clearly place the maximum number of wives a person can have at four.
We contend that this Muslim response is simply ad hoc, a contention supported by the comments of renowned Sunni scholar Ibn Kathir who wrote the following concerning Sura 35:1:
<two or three or four.> means, among them 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. Between each pair of wings was a distance like that between the east and the west. Allah says
<He increases in creation what He wills. Verily, Allah is Able to do all things.> As-Suddi said, "He increases their wings and creates them as He wills." (Source; bold and italic emphasis ours)
Notice that Ibn Kathir states that some angels have more than four wings on the basis of the hadith, not because of the text itself. This highlights the truly ad hoc nature of the Muslim argumentation.
More importantly, if Muslims still insist that their interpretation of Sura 35:1 is correct then they only compound the problem. After all, the assertion that Muhammad saw Gabriels true shape emphatically contradicts the Quran which expressly says that men cannot see the true form of angels which is why they take on human appearance!
And they say: "Why has not an angel been sent down to him?" Had We sent down an angel, the matter would have been judged at once, and no respite would be granted to them. And had We appointed him an angel, We indeed would have made him a man, and We would have certainly caused them confusion in a matter which they have already covered with confusion (i.e. the Message of Prophet Muhammad SAW). S. 6:8-9 Hilali-Khan
The two Jalals provided the reason why angels must assume human guise:
And had We appointed him, the one who is sent down to them, an angel, We would assuredly have made him, the angel, a man, that is, [We would have sent him] in the form of a man, so that they would be able to see him, since no human being is capable of seeing an angel; and, had We sent him down and made him a man, We would have assuredly confused, obscured, for them what they are confusing, for themselves, when they say, 'This is but a mere mortal like the rest of you.' (Tafsir al-Jalalayn; source; bold and underline emphasis ours)
Ibn Kathir writes:
<And had We appointed him an angel, We indeed would have made him a man, and We would have certainly caused them confusion in a matter which they have already covered with confusion.>
meaning, if We send an angel along with the human Messenger, or if We send an angel as a Messenger to mankind, he would be in the shape of a man so that they would be able to speak to him and benefit from his teachings. In this case, the angel (in the shape of a human) will also cause confusion for them, just as the confusion they caused themselves over accepting humans as Messengers! Allah said,
<Say: "If there were on the earth, angels walking about in peace and security, We should certainly have sent down for them from the heaven an angel as a Messenger."> [17:95]
It is a mercy from Allah to His creation that He sends every type of creation, Messengers from among their kind, so that they are able to call their people to Allah, and their people able to talk to them, ask them and benefit from them. In another Ayah, Allah said
<Indeed Allah conferred a great favor on the believers when He sent among them a Messenger from among themselves, reciting unto them His verses (the Qur'an), and purifying them.> [3:164]
Ad-Dahhak said that Ibn `Abbas said about the Ayah [6:9 above], "If an angel was sent to them, he would come in the shape of a man. This is because they will not be able to look at the angel due to light." (Tafsir Ibn Kathir (Abridged)(Surat An-Nisa, Verse 148 to the end of Surat Al-Anam), abridged by a group of scholars under the supervision of Shaykh Safiur-Rahman Al-Mubarakpuri [Darussalam Publishers & Distributors, Riyadh, Houston, New York, Lahore, First Edition: January 2000], Parts 6, 7 & 8, Volume 3, pp. 317-318; bold and underline emphasis ours)
Regarding this Sura the late Muhammad Asad said:
8 Lit., "We would have made confusing to them that which they are making confused". Since it is impossible for man to perceive angels as they really are, the hypothetical angelic message-bearer would have to assume the shape of a human being - and so their demand for a direct "verification" of the message would have remained unfulfilled, and their self-caused confusion unresolved. (Source; bold emphasis ours)
He repeats this point in his commentary to Sura 19:17 which mentions Gods Spirit appearing to Mary as a man:
14 As pointed out in surah 2, note 71, and surah 16, note 2, the term ruh often denotes "divine inspiration". Occasionally, however, it is used to describe the medium through which such inspiration is imparted to God's elect: in other words, the angel (or angelic force) of revelation. Since - as is implied in 6:9 - mortals cannot perceive an angel in his true manifestation, God caused him to appear to Mary "in the shape of a well-made human being", i.e., in a shape accessible to her perception. According to Razi, the designation of the angel as ruh ("spirit" or "soul") indicates that this category of beings is purely spiritual, without any physical element. (Source; bold emphasis ours)
This, perhaps, explains why the Quran mentions angels appearing to prophets in the form of men such as the following:
When Our messengers came to Lut, he was grieved on their account and felt himself powerless (to protect) them. He said: "This is a distressful day." And his people came rushing towards him, and they had been long in the habit of practising abominations. He said: "O my people! Here are my daughters: they are purer for you (if ye marry)! Now fear God, and cover me not with shame about my guests! Is there not among you a single right-minded man?" They said: "Well dost thou know we have no need of thy daughters: indeed thou knowest quite well what we want!" He said: "Would that I had power to suppress you or that I could betake myself to some powerful support." (The Messengers) said: "O Lut! We are Messengers from thy Lord! By no means shall they reach thee! now travel with thy family while yet a part of the night remains, and let not any of you look back: but thy wife (will remain behind): To her will happen what happens to the people. Morning is their time appointed: Is not the morning nigh?" When Our Decree issued, We turned (the cities) upside down, and rained down on them brimstones hard as baked clay, spread, layer on layer,- S. 11:77-82 Y. Ali
Yet if no human can see an angel except in the form of a man then this means that Muhammad could not have seen Gabriels true form. But if he didnt see Gabriels true form then all those narrations that claim that he did must be wrong! Thus, no matter how one tries to harmonize these conflicting claims there will still be problems between what the Quran and hadiths say.
Contradictions in the Qur'an
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