Argument in a nutshell:
- Premise A: The Qur’an says that the Torah and/or Gospel says there are nineteen angels over hell.
- Premise B: The Torah and/or Gospel does not say this.
- Conclusion: The Qur’an is self-contradictory
As with my last blog post, this one too is sparked by my stumbling upon a passage that caused me to scratch my head:
٣٠ عَلَيْهَا تِسْعَةَ عَشَرَ ٣١ وَمَا جَعَلْنَآ أَصْحَٰبَ ٱلنَّارِ إِلَّا مَلَٰٓئِكَةً وَمَا جَعَلْنَا عِدَّتَهُمْ إِلَّا فِتْنَةً لِّلَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا۟ لِيَسْتَيْقِنَ ٱلَّذِينَ أُوتُوا۟ ٱلْكِتَٰبَ وَيَزْدَادَ ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوٓا۟ إِيمَٰنًا وَلَا يَرْتَابَ ٱلَّذِينَ أُوتُوا۟ ٱلْكِتَٰبَ وَٱلْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَلِيَقُولَ ٱلَّذِينَ فِى قُلُوبِهِم مَّرَضٌ وَٱلْكَٰفِرُونَ مَاذَآ أَرَادَ ٱللَّـهُ بِهَٰذَا مَثَلًا كَذَٰلِكَ يُضِلُّ ٱللَّـهُ مَن يَشَآءُ وَيَهْدِى مَن يَشَآءُ وَمَا يَعْلَمُ جُنُودَ رَبِّكَ إِلَّا هُوَ وَمَا هِىَ إِلَّا ذِكْرَىٰ لِلْبَشَرِ
30 ʿalayhā tisʿata ʿashara 31 wa‑mā jaʿalnā aṣḥāba l‑nāri illā malāʾikatan wa‑mā jaʿalnā ʿiddatahum illā fitnatan li‑lladhīna kafarū li‑yastayqina lladhīna ūtū l‑kitāba wa‑yazdāda lladhīna āmanū īmānan wa‑lā yartāba lladhīna ūtū l‑kitāba wa‑l‑muʾminūna wa‑li‑yaqūla lladhīna fī qulūbihim maraḍun wa‑l‑kāfirūna mādhā arāda allāhu bi‑hādhā mathalan ka‑dhālika yuḍillu allāhu man yashāʾu wa‑yahdī man yashāʾu wa‑mā yaʿlamu junūda rabbika illā huwa wa‑mā hiya illā dhikra lil‑bashari
30 there are nineteen in charge of it–– 31 none other than angels appointed by Us to guard Hellfire- and We have made their number a test for the disbelievers. So those who have been given the Scripture will be certain and those who believe will have their faith increased: neither those who have been given the Scripture nor the believers will have any doubts, but the sick at heart and the disbelievers will say, ‘What could God mean by this description?’ God leaves whoever He will to stray and guides whoever He will- no one knows your Lord’s forces except Him- this [description] is a warning to mortals. (Abdel Haleem is used for all English translations other than my own)
The ‘it’ of v. 30 is clearly referring to hell, as the following and previous verses make clear; to my knowledge this is not a controversial point. We are told that there are nineteen angels literally ‘over it’ (ʿalayhā), translated plausibly by Abdel Haleem as ‘in charge of it.’ Understandably, the strangeness of this number is said to be a ‘test for the disbelievers’ – it seems to be a rather small and arbitrary figure for the numbers of angels guarding hell. But it is not only a ‘test for the disbelievers’; this information is also given ‘[s]o those who have been given the Scripture will be certain and those who believe will have their faith increased: neither those who have been given the Scripture nor the believers will have any doubts’. Why is there such a different response for those in these latter categories?
To summarise the case I’m about to make, I believe it is because they are expected to recognise nineteen angels over hell from their scriptures, the Torah and the Gospel. This fits the overall pattern of the Qur’an appealing to Jews and Christians to see the harmony between their Scriptures and the Qur’anic message, and it ‘is understood by most [commentators] to mean that nineteen was also the number known to the Jews and Christians; therefore the similar enumeration in the Quran should give them greater certainty in the prophethood of Muhammad’ (The Study Qur’an, 2015, 1442).
The faith of the People of the Book
Before I make my case, one could suggest it is instead because these groups are greater in faith, and will therefore accept the figure without dispute. This may be true, indeed it is almost true by definition, for ‘those who believe’, but can it be said for ‘those who have been given the Scripture’? It is true that ‘those who have been given the Scripture’ do (sometimes) receive positive mention. We are told in Q 5:82 that ‘you are sure to find that the closest in affection towards the believers are those who say, ‘We are Christians,’ for there are among them people devoted to learning and ascetics. These people are not given to arrogance’.
The same verse does, however, speak less favourably of another group included in the category ‘given the Scripture’, the Jews: ‘You [Prophet] are sure to find that the most hostile to the believers are the Jews and those who associate other deities with God’. Further more both Jews and Christians seem to be chastised in Q 3:19: ‘True Religion, in God’s eyes, is islam: [devotion to Him alone]. Those who were given the Scripture disagreed out of rivalry, only after they had been given knowledge- if anyone denies God’s revelations, God is swift to take account’. The following verses then warn them not to reject Muhammad and his message. Q 9:30, speaking of the errors of both Jews and Christians, says ‘May God thwart them! How far astray they have been led!’ In v. 32 ‘They try to extinguish God’s light with their mouths’. This entire section casts severe doubt upon the honesty and/or spiritual sensitivity of both Jews and Christians.
It could be said in response that Q 74:31 has in mind only those ‘good’ People of the Book, the kind praised in Q 5:82; totum pro parte, the entire category is spoken of to in fact refer to the believing subset. This is in itself quite plausible, as the similar phrase ‘those to whom we gave the Book’ are said without qualification in Q 29:47 to believe in ‘it’, probably the Qur’an, even though we know that not all of the People of the Book in fact did accept it (cf. v. 46).
The Bible-Qur’an overlap
However, why do any of ‘those who were given the Scripture’ come to believe in the Qur’an? I believe there is a broader Qur’anic pattern of the Qur’an expecting Jews and Christians to recognise the truth of the Qur’an not based on their innate virtues (we have seen above the mixed picture in this regard), but because of the agreement between the Bible and the Qur’an. This manifests in at least two ways:
- 1) Recognition of doctrinal overlap (e.g. Q 2:144; possibly Q 2:146 and Q 6:20; Q 9:111; Q 48:29; Q 21:7; Q 16:43; Q 17:101; Q 2:111). The Qur’an also frequently recounts Biblical stories expecting the People of the Book to recognise them, e.g. Q 2:49 and the frequent use of wa-idh, ‘And [remember] when’ in Q 2.
- 2) Muhammad being predicted in the Bible (Q 7:157; 61:6; possibly Q 2:146 and Q 6:20)
In light of this general Qur’anic usage, I understand Q 74:31 to be appealing to ‘those who have been given the Scripture’ to recognise the number of angels over hell from their Scripture.
I have already mentioned that it ‘is understood by most [commentators] to mean that nineteen was also the number known to the Jews and Christians; therefore the similar enumeration in the Quran should give them greater certainty in the prophethood of Muhammad’ (The Study Qur’an, 2015, 1442). Muqātil (150/767) (My translation) says ‘that the believers of the people of the Torah might know that that which Muḥammad said is the truth, because the number of guardians of hell in the Torah is nineteen.’ al-Ṭabarī (310/923) (1968, 160. My translation), giving either his own opinion or Mujāhid’s, says that ‘the people of the Torah and Gospel might be certain of the truth of what is in their books of the matter of the number of guards of hell, as it agrees with that which God revealed in his book to Muhammad.’ Ṭabarī records Ibn ʿAbbās and Qatādah and al-Ḍaḥāk, saying similarly. Al-Biqāʿī (885/1480) (My translation) notes al-Baghawiyy who says: ‘It is written in the Torah and the Gospel that they [i.e. the angels] are nineteen.’
‘those who believe will have their faith increased’
It may be on the basis of their testimony to the contents of their Scripture that ‘those who believe will have their faith increased’; verses mentioned above like Q 21:7, 16:43, 10:94 and Q 17:101 state that the believers may go to the People of the Book to confirm certain truths. Alternatively it could be that the spiritual condition of ‘those who believe’, by definition, is such that they will accept the number 19 without question.
Searching for angels
The problem with expecting the Torah and/or the Gospel to teach that there are nineteen angels over hell is that nowhere do they do so. Before someone suggests that they originally were but have since been expunged, ‘those who were given the Scripture’ at the time of Muhammad were expected to recognise the reference, and we know what the Scripture looked like at that time – in matters of substance it was the same as the Scripture that Jews and Christians possess today (cf. e.g. the Dead Sea Scrolls, Codex Sinaiticus, dated centuries before Muhammad).
The best explanation I have come across is that put forth by Gabriel Said Reynolds (2018, 869) in his magisterial The Qurʾān and the Bible: text and commentary. After noting that ‘The Qurʾān’s declaration that there are nineteen angels (v. 30) who watch over hell has confused both traditional Islamic and academic scholars’, he offers his own proposed solution. He notes that in certain manuscripts of 1 Enoch 6:7, nineteen angels are listed as the leaders of two hundred angels descending down to earth (cf. Genesis 6).
Despite being the best proposed solution, there are a number of problems with this interpretation, both in its own right and for our Muslim friends:
- 1) The setting is different, and they are not said to watch over hell. The story in 1 Enoch 6 is based on Genesis 6, the sinful descent of the ‘Sons of God’ (understood here as angels) to procreate with the daughters of men.
- 2) The angels in 1 Enoch 6 are clearly sinful; their desire to lay with women is portrayed as evil, and their leader Semjâzâ in v. 3 fears that if he does this deed alone then he ‘alone shall have to pay the penalty of a great sin.’ However there is no hint of wrongdoing from the angels in Q 74:30-31; they are guardians performing a valid task, ensuring the penalty of hell cannot be escaped.
- 3) 1 Enoch 6:7 does not actually number the angels, but lists them. It would take an astute reader to notice that there are nineteen.
- 4) The number depends on the manuscript evidence, as noted by Reynolds.
- 5) The nineteen angels are the leaders of two-hundred. One might have thought the two-hundred would receive a similar fate to the nineteen, though this cannot be guaranteed.
- 6) By no accounts can 1 Enoch be considered compatible with Islamic theology given its exalted ‘Son of Man’ figure. Though a theological problem it is not, however, necessarily a historical one; the Qur’an frequently seems to be aware of and utilises non-canonical, apocryphal and pseudepigraphical works (e.g. Q 18:83ff. on Alexander the Great and the affinities with Christian tales about Alexander. Cf. van Bladel, Kevin ‘The Legend of Alexander the Great in the Qurʾān 18:83-102’, BSOAS 70 (2007): 223-46).
Given these differences in content and context, and the fluctuation in numbers between different manuscripts, and the large wealth of canonical and non-canonical literature from which to draw (providing a large sample size), it is not surprising that certain manuscripts of 1 Enoch 6:7 would list nineteen angels but that this is not related to Q 74:30-31. In such a corpus of literature, replete with numbers and lists, such non-related similarities might be expected.
If there is no scriptural backing for the number 19, why then would the number be used? And why would appeal be made to ‘those who have been given the Scripture’? My theory is that the number may have been chosen somewhat at random to fit the rhyme scheme, either with fore-thought or as an ‘on-the-spot’ composition (for evidence of the orality of the Qur’an, cf. Andy Bannister’s An oral-formulaic study of the Qur’an).
١٨ إِنَّهُۥ فَكَّرَ وَقَدَّرَ ١٩ فَقُتِلَ كَيْفَ قَدَّرَ ٢٠ ثُمَّ قُتِلَ كَيْفَ قَدَّرَ ٢١ ثُمَّ نَظَرَ ٢٢ ثُمَّ عَبَسَ وَبَسَرَ ٢٣ ثُمَّ أَدْبَرَ وَٱسْتَكْبَرَ ٢٤ فَقَالَ إِنْ هَٰذَآ إِلَّا سِحْرٌ يُؤْثَرُ ٢٥ إِنْ هَٰذَآ إِلَّا قَوْلُ ٱلْبَشَرِ ٢٦ سَأُصْلِيهِ سَقَرَ ٢٧ وَمَآ أَدْرَىٰكَ مَا سَقَرُ ٢٨ لَا تُبْقِى وَلَا تَذَرُ ٢٩ لَوَّاحَةٌ لِّلْبَشَرِ ٣٠ عَلَيْهَا تِسْعَةَ عَشَرَ
18 innahu fakkara wa‑qaddara 19 faqutila kayfa qaddara 20 thumma qutila kayfa qaddara 21 thumma naẓara 22 thumma ʿabasa wa‑basara 23 thumma adbara wa‑istakbara 24 fa‑qāla in hādhā illā siḥrun yutharu 25 in hādhā illā qawlu l‑bashari 26 sa‑uṣlīhi saqara 27 wa‑mā adrāka mā saqaru 28 lā tubqī wa‑lā tadharu 29 lawwāḥatun lil‑bashari 30 ʿalayhā tisʿata ʿashara
You will notice that including ‘nineteen’ in v. 30 (tisʿata ʿashara), thirteen consecutive verses have the rhyming ending ‘ar’ (note: in Arabic the final vowel, which might indicate a host of grammatical features, is not pronounced). It is possible that God ensured that the number of angels he in fact appointed over hell would match with the rhyme-scheme used in Surah 74. It is also possible that it is a fortuitous coincidence; as will be discussed below, any number between 11-19 would rhyme, and so the possibility of coincidence is increased (though it is still perhaps coincidental that there are between 11-19 number of angels over hell and not 0-10, 20-infinity). It is perhaps simpler to invert the order; the number of angels was chosen to fit the rhyme scheme.
It is important to highlight, especially to the non-Arabic reader, that ’tisʿata’ means nine and ‘ʿashara’ means ten. Any number between 11-19 would fit the rhyme scheme, and I do not have any particular insight into why 19 was chosen; there may have been a reason, or it may have been randomly selected. The latter possibility makes sense if the number was chosen mid-performance (see above on orality), and there is some evidence that v. 30 was in fact mid-performance. We highlighted above that vv. 18-30 all end in ‘ar’, but so too do vv. 32-37. It looks like vv. 18-30, 32-37 were all performed as one unit with the same rhyme scheme, but that v. 31 was a later addition; it stands out due both to its enormous length and because it seems to be responding to confusion amongst the audience.
I am not suggesting that the creation of the number 19 was necessarily an act of deception. If it was composed to fit the rhyme scheme it may have been a case of ‘poetic licence’, not necessarily to be taken literally. If it was trying to communicate a fundamental theological truth, it could be that even a few angels appointed by God are powerful enough to restrain the damned mass, so weak is the resistance of humankind.
Why appeal to ‘those who were given the Book’?
As previously mentioned, v. 31 seems to be a later addition. Indeed, Nicolai Sinai’s (2017, 96) The Qur’an: a historical-critical introduction describes Q 73:20 and Q 74:31 as ‘arguably the two most obvious cases of later interpolation in the entire Qur’an.’ Such ‘interpolation’ need not be after the lifetime of Muhammad, nor is it incompatible with Muslim belief; Muslim scholars have recognised revelations from different occasions being put together in the Qur’an.
v. 31 seems to be responding to confusion over the number nineteen – certain unbelievers are puzzled by its meaning, and ask ‘What could God mean by this description?’ In response to such challenges, it is suggested that the number can be found in the former Scriptures, as ‘those who have been given the Scripture will be certain’ when they see the harmony between the revelations on the number of angels. This appeal may have been made out of convenience, to get out of a tight spot in the face of rising opposition, or perhaps out of what I have called ‘the prophetic assumption’, the assumption that whatever Muhammad teaches must in fact have been taught in the previous scriptures (I may write a blog post on this principle). Whatever the motive, the plausibility of this suggestion is increased by the fact that the Qur’an elswhere clearly does state that the previous Scriptures teach things which it is not clear they in fact do (e.g. possibly Q 2:146 and Q 6:20; esp. Q 9:111 and Q 48:29; Q 7:157; 61:6).
In conclusion of this article, I ask my Muslim friends, do you think Q 74:31 is saying that nineteen angels over hell can be found in the Torah and/or the Gospel? And if so, where can you find this? Let me know in the comments below.
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