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    The Angel Gabriel

    The Angel Gabriel in Islam is an archangel that is primarily known as the messenger of divine revelation during the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s mission, which lasted 23 years in late antiquity. Gabriel (Arabic Jibril) is the emissary of God in that first dramatic encounter with Muhammad who is told to preach. Over the course of the next few decades, the angel Gabriel is a key teacher of the human Muhammad about the mysteries of the Divine, the nature of the world, and the hereafter. It is the Angel Gabriel who leads the Prophet Muhammad early on in his mission into the heavens as part of the Night Journey and Ascension where the Prophet converses with God and is given the daily prayers for his nation. The angel Gabriel is also central in the Muslim understanding of the project of Islam itself because of a famous Hadith, or prophetic story.

    The famous Hadith of the angel Gabriel provides a teaching lesson for the Prophet Muhammad, and his followers, about the three domains of religion when in the form of a human he has a public 1-on-1 Q&A about the religion: “Islam” (worship); “iman” (belief); and “Ihsan” (spirituality). At one point, the archangel asks a question about when Doomsday will occur. The Prophet correctly answers that the questioner (meaning Gabriel) and the one being questioned are both not privy to this divine secret. It is this delineation of religion into three parts that has also enabled specialization. Beyond the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, all three parts (worship, belief, and spirituality) were scarcely combined in single personalities. Generally speaking, establishing worship and upholding divine commandments became the purview of the sultans; the nuances of belief and legal rulings were elaborated by scholars; and the spirituality was the focus of Sufi sheikhs over the centuries. But in the Gabriel Hadith you have everything outlined.

    That motif of teaching and transcending the teaching has an echo in the Night Journey and Ascension. It is reported that after leading the previous prophet’s in prayer in Jerusalem, and after ascending through the seven heavens one by one, the Holy Prophet is brought by Gabriel to a sacred tree. Beyond this tree is the Divine Presence, but the angel asserts he will burn up were he to progress beyond this point. At this point the Prophet Muhammad advances alone.

    The angel Gabriel in the Islamic tradition is the same one referenced in Christianity and Judaism. It follows then that Muslims believe in the angel’s role in the stories of Moses and Jesus.

    The angel Gabriel is mentioned in several places in the Koran (alternatively spelled Qur’an or Quran). He is thus very well-known as are the other archangels Michael (Arabic Mika’il, the angel of rain and accounting), Azrail (the angel of death), and Raphael (Arabic Israfil, the angel whose trumpet will signal the coming of Judgment Day).

    This lineage with the previous divine dispensations of Christianity and Judaism has an interesting emphasis in the very early beginnings of Muhammad’s mission as a prophet of God. It occurs shortly after the angel Gabriel appears to Muhammad who is meditating alone in a cave on the side of a mountain. The details of the encounter, involving the command of “Read!” given to the meditating human who is in shock at the appearance of this enormous being, have reverberations throughout the lifetime of the Prophet and beyond as the desert Arabs soon become champions of literacy. But shortly after the encounter in the cave, the Prophet descends the mountain and sees his wife to question what is going on psychologically; questions of sanity arise, as well as affirmations of good character. Muhammad’s wife has an aged relative who is learned and is one of the few who, in fact, can read and write. Told of the vision of the angelic being the aged relative affirms that this vision is from the same source that called Moses to be a prophet; the old relative wistfully longs to be young enough to partake in the new era. Soon afterwards, the aged man passes away.

    The archangel Gabriel has a lofty status and is especially related with the Koran, the holy book of the Islamic tradition. Consider the Islamic conception of angels generally. There are some that are in constant praise of God, while others carry out divine commandments, and still others that have a degree of autonomy to roam the earth seeking out the sounds of benedictions to God Almighty.

    It is said by some that during the Night Journey and Ascension, when the two reached the tree beyond which Gabriel would burn up, the archangel should have advanced with the Prophet nevertheless.

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