I NEVER CEASE to marvel at those who think that the angels are better than the prophets and friends of Allah (awliyâ’, sing. walî). If they claim that the angels are better based on their appearance, then the appearance of man is better than creatures with wings. Even if you set aside the claim that the human form is more beautiful than the angelic form—since the human form is associated with some impurities—the human form is not the person himself. It is just a mold [in which the person himself resides].
Moreover, some of what we generally consider repulsive about man—like the breath of the fasting person, the blood of the martyr, or even falling asleep in [one’s night] ṣalâh [because of exerting oneself in worship]—Allah holds attractive in us. That is, something repulsive in its physical form becomes attractive because of the meaning behind it.
Do the angels attain a station wherein Allah loves them? Or do they have virtues that Allah extols? However one may describe it, it matters not, for the angels were made to bow before us, a direct indication that we are better than they are. Yet if preference accrues to knowledge, then you know the story: On the day when [the angels] said: “We have no knowledge…,”Allah said: “O Adam! Tell them!”
Or if you accord the angels preference because of the essence from which they are created, then the essence of our souls is of the same composition as theirs, all the while that the burdens of a clay body weigh down upon us.
By Allah! Had it not been that the rider needs a mount, and that he must stop for that mount to be grained along a journey, and that he must go easy on his mount in its travels, I would reach any land before the ten days of Thul-Ḥijjah were out. [That is, the rider is like the soul. The mount is like the body. If man did not have the care of his clay body, feeding it against hunger, pacing and resting it against fatigue, man would traverse great distances in the worship of Allah. Hence, the worship [performed by] the angels—who do not have the burdens of clay-fashioned bodies—cannot be judged on the same scale [used to judge] man.]
Here is the marvel! Will you give preference to the angels over man by the measure of their worship? They have nothing to block or restrict them. Does one marvel at the speed of water, or something else, as it runs downhill? Rather, the marvel is in one who ascends, one who carves out a path and overcomes obstacles.
Indeed, it is conceivable that the angels [were they burdened morally like man] would do great wrong and claim divinity in their capacity to pulverize rock or split the earth, which may be the cause for the divine threat leveled against them in the Quran:
And if ever one of them should say: I am a god apart from Him!—then such a one would We recompense with Hell. For thus do We recompense the wrongdoers. (Sûrat Al-Anbiyâ’, 21:29).
As for us, the distance placed between us and true recognition, the feebleness of our certitude about the ultimate end, the overwhelming nature of our desires coupled with a heedlessness—all of this means we must struggle [in belief, in worship, and for goodness] on a scale far greater than that of the angels.
By Allah! Had Allah tested those drawn near Him, I mean the angels, with the likes of what He has tested us with, the angel would not be able to hold themselves together!
One of us wakes up, and the address of Allah is to him: “Earn for your family, and be cautious from where your earning comes!” Moreover, the human being has things attached to him that he did not bring about himself—like the love of his family, like his children being close to his heart, like his bodily needs that cannot be denied.
Then also, behold, from time to time, it is said [to one or another human being]:
To Ibrâhîm, the Friend of God: “Slaughter your son with your own hand. Cut the fruit of your heart with your own hand. Stand firm in the catapult and be thrown into the fire.”
And to Moses: “Fast a month, day and night.”
And to the angry one: “Suppress!”
And to the seeing one: “Avert!”
And to the one that can speak: “Be silent!”
And to the one that is rapt in sleep: “Awaken!”
And to the one whose beloved has died: “Be patient!”
And to the sick and injured: “Be grateful!”
And to him who stands before the blaze of battle: “Fleeing is forbidden you!”
And know that death comes with the harshest bitterness, stripping the soul from its body. Yet when it comes, be steadfast.
And know that you will disintegrate in your grave. Yet do not become displeased with Allah, for such is His decree.
And should you fall ill, complain not to people.
Do the angels bear any of this? Is their worship, therefore, not utterly easy? Nothing against their nature to resist. No whims to reject. Is their worship more, then, than a form of bowing down, or prostrating, or mentioning the remembrances of Allah? There is no comparison between their spiritual struggle and ours. Moreover, most of the angels are put at our service. Some are writing for us, that is, our deeds. Some are defending us. Others are subjugated to the task of the blowing of the winds and sending down the rain. The most important of their duties is to seek forgiveness for us. How, then, without clear argument, can one judge them to be better than us?[i]
Indeed, among the angels some have grazed the touchstone of testing—as in the account of the angels Hârût and Mârût—when their ugliness exceeds that of Buhrûj [a byword of horridness in Ibn Al-Jawzi’s time]. Yet think me not one who holds the worship [performed by] the angels in small esteem. They are filled with awe and feeling for the Divine, out of their true knowledge of the greatness of the Creator. The peace of mind of one who has never made a mistake makes him strong, while the disturbance of one who has delved deeply in mistakes makes his soul rise up to his breast bone.
Know, then, my brothers in faith, know your own dignity and keep clean your spirits from all the dirt that comes from the self-blame of sins. For, indeed, you are the showcase creation, the one displayed as better than the angels. So beware the sins that will bring you low as cattle.
And no preventive power or enabling strength is there, save with Allah, the Most High, the Most Magnificent.
[i] The compiler of the edition from which this piece was translated takes issue with the author’s strong use of language about the angels. Note, however, that Ibn Al-Jawzi relies upon the assumption that his Muslim reader has a proper respect for and understanding of the angels, enough to recognize that his fierceness of argument intends to convey his message about the dignity of the human condition.