How many angels were talking to Mary?
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
When the Qur’an speaks about the annunciation of the birth of Jesus to the virgin Mary, Sura 3:42,45 speaks about (several) angels while it is only one in Sura 19:17-21.
The author’s unfamiliarity with the Arabic language, its grammar and usage, is one of the main reasons for his objection. Indeed, one of the major problems with the Bible as it stands today as so graciously demonstrated by him for us in this
Is that our current Bibles force us to study ancient Hebrew and Aramaic scriptures through Greek and Latin glasses as seen by people who are neither Jews, Greeks, nor Romans. Such practices (as demonstrated in the book “What Did Jesus Really Say?”), have seriously handicapped any attempts to faithfully translate the original author’s intended meanings.
This problem, all thanks be to the Almighty, has been completely avoided in the Qur’an, since it has remained from the time of its inspiration to the present day in the same language it was originally revealed in, the language has remained a living language from that day to this, and the book itself has always been in the hands of the people and not “the elite.”
The foremost miracle of the Qur’an is in its text. The text of the Arabic language. You cannot translate a miracle no matter how you may try. The Arabic language cannot be compared to any other language in its intricate complexity, diversity of form, richness of meaning, brevity of parlance, beauty of construct and power of delivery. To give an example of this let us look at the most basic of measures, that of dictionaries:
A comprehensive and authoritative reference on the English language would be the “Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary” tenth edition, in 1500 pages. On the other hand, a common Arabic dictionary is “Lisan Al-Arab” in 18 volumes, each averaging about 650 pages, or about 11700 pages in all.
In other words, even if we were to disregard all of the other aspects of the Arabic language, such as its grammar, we would still be faced with a language which is about eight times as complex as the English language.
It is not at all uncommon in the Arabic language to find over one hundred words that refer to the same entity, each one of them giving a slightly different detailed description than all of the others. This has resulted in a language which can translate complete English sentences into only one Arabic word.
But the Arabic language is not simply a list of words. Far from it, it is a very complex collection of literary sciences which have been developed, refined, and fine-tuned for generations and millennia beyond counting. The end result of this is a group of literary sciences which literally have no parallel whatsoever in the English language, such as the science of “Sarf” or the multifarious sciences of “Balaghah,” among others.
Even when the English language can lay claim to a parallel science to that of the Arabic language, such as for example the science of “grammar,” even in this case anyone who has the slightest understanding of the Arabic language finds that even these equivalent sciences fade nearly into oblivion when faced with the tremendous complexities and
inestimable attention to the minutest detail in Arabic grammar which can literally reverse the meanings of a sentence simply by changing a single squiggle (diacritic) above the last letter of only one word in that sentence (Imagine being able to reverse the meaning of an English sentence by removing the dot over one “i” in that sentence).
William Shakespeare was considered to be one of the leading masters of English literature known to date. However, he never had to deal with the Arabic language. Now, taking into consideration that the Arab nation was one obsessed with literary perfection and refinement of prose, it becomes apparent that what we had here was a nation of literally hundreds of “William Shakespeare’s.
” Indeed, an individual’s mastery of the Arabic language was considered one of the primary distinguishing criteria in selecting tribal leaders. Just as in the wild west people used to have public shoot-outs at high noon, so too did the ancient Arabs have public face-downs in literary composition.
These public confrontations could at times be so scathing and destructive as to totally destroy a given individual or tribe and cause them to disband in shame and humiliation, erased from the pages of history (such as happened with the tribe of “Numair”).
The greatest of these literary masters had their compositions transcribed and hung up on the walls of the noble Kaaba as a badge of honor and an example for future generations. These compositions which were regarded the “best of the best” where given the name of “Al-Muallaqat” (the hanging poems).
These were the people whom God sent Muhammad (pbuh) to, and these are the people whom prophet Muhammad (pbuh) repeatedly challenged, over 23 years, to produce a work similar to the Qur’an, standing alone with no tribe to support him and no ally to defend him but God Almighty. In other words, he was challenging them in a field which they were the world’s foremost authorities in and the source of their greatest strength and pride.
Indeed, all of God’s prophets throughout history have been sent with miracles in the very fields which that prophet’s people excelled in so that they might fully comprehend the magnitude of that miracle and have no excuse in ignorance.
These people whom prophet Muhammad (pbuh) stood alone against and challenged to face the Qur’an were no timid sheep. They were men of great pride, misdirected as it may have been, who would rather go to war and die a slow and torturous death rather than allow the slightest indignity to be attached to their names or the most trivial challenge go
unanswered. These were people who would go to war at the drop of a hat or the slightest disrespectful word. In spite of all that, when prophet Muhammad (pbuh) brought them the word of God in the noble Qur’an they suddenly fell silent and refused to face its challenge.
God continued to reduce the challenge to them, from challenging them to produce a book like the Qur’an, to challenging them to produce a single surah (chapter) like it, to finally challenging them to produce even a few verses like it. And still, no one was able to face the challenge.
On the contrary, those who were the best versed in these issues were among the first to convert to Islam and accept God’s message. Some of them even went so far as to completely give up altogether on their previous literary work and to publicly declare that faced with the utter perfection and completion of this book that there was nothing left to say, and nothing left to compose. Perfection had already been achieved (3).
Why did I get into all of this?
Well, it is in order to make it easier to understand some of the reason why the noble words of God in the Qur’an can never be faithfully translated into English and why the first thing most converts to Islam do is to learn Arabic.
For example, as seen in chapter 14 of the book “What Did Jesus Really Say?” we find that many people when reading the Qur’an mistakenly understand the plural references to God through the use of the words “We” and “Us” to mean that God is “many” or “triune” etc. As seen in that book, this has indeed been the very reason why some people of little knowledge of ancient Hebrew even go so far as to claim that the OT Bible’s use of such constructs implies a similar “plurality” of God in a “Trinity.
” Our current author himself at one time defended this belief. However, as seen in that book, this is far from the true meaning. Informed Christian scholars and dictionaries readily recognize the plurals used there as being plurals of respect reverence and exaltation, not plurals of multiplicity.
For example, one of the quotes presented in that book is quoted from the Eerdmans Bible Dictionary where we read the following explanation of the word “Elohiym” (God):
“As a name or designation of the God of Israel, the term is understood as a plural of majesty or an intensive plural, indicating the fullness of the supreme (or only) God … the canonical intent is clearly monotheistic, even where the accompanying verbs or adjectives are grammatically plural (e.g., Gen. 20:13, Exod. 22:9 [Mt 8])”
Eerdmans Bible Dictionary, edited by Allen C. Myers, William B. Eerdmans Publishers, p. 331
This is why to this day we find the Queen of England, French dignitaries, and most Arab leaders referring to themselves, or referred to by others in the plural sense. When the Queen of England refers to herself in her official speeches as “we” does this mean that she too is “a Trinity”?
Sadly, even to this day we still can find people of little experience in these issues continuing to insist on their personal forced interpretations of these matters in spite of what they truly mean and in spite of what those who speak the language, or their own scholars, say they mean.
A similar case to the above is the one presented by our current author. The first three verses (Aal-Umran(3):42-45) do indeed use the word “angels.” However, this plural form of the word is used to describe only one angel, specifically, angel Gabriel. Such constructs are used in the Arabic language as a symbol of dignity and respect for that person.
This is a popular Arabic grammatical construct called “al-majaz al-mursal” which falls under the subheading of Arabic grammar titled “Balaghah” and which we cannot get into here since it requires a basic knowledge of the Arabic language and its grammar.
Suffice it to say that there are at least two quick clues to this matter which even non-Arabic speaking people can appreciate. The first one is that in the first set of verses, verses 46-48 say: “The angels said… Mary said… HE replied,” meaning that we are speaking about an angel designated as “he” and not “they,” in the same very verses themselves.
Secondly, a similar construct can be found elsewhere in the Qur’an which can hopefully clarify this construct to non-Arabic speakers. For example, in Al-Nahi(16):120 we read: “Verily Abraham was a nation obedient to Allah and he was not of the polytheists.”
We notice here that prophet Abraham (pbuh) is described as a “nation.” Does this mean that he is literally a few hundred thousand people? No. This is a Qur’anic term of exaltation and elevation for Abraham above all humans such that he is higher in regard and reward with God than an entire nation of mortals. In the same manner, the status of the angel Gabriel with God is of a similar stature among the angels.
There are many other similar constructs in the Arabic language, many of which are applied to angel Gabriel in more than one location in the Qur’an to set him apart from all other angels. These examples include special grammatical constructs as well as special titles (such as the title of “Holy Spirit”).
For example, President Clinton is a Washington politician. No one doubts this fact. However, have you ever heard someone say: “President Clinton has just concluded a meeting with senior advisors and other Washington politicians”? Obviously, this is a “contradiction” right?
If we refer to these other men as “Washington politicians” then we cannot then claim that president Clinton too is a “Washington politician.” That would contradict this statement. He must be something “other than” a Washington politician, right?
Obviously, this is faulty logic. Such constructs are used even in the English language to “set apart” or “dignify” a given individual of special importance over a group of his peers. The fact that President Clinton was mentioned separately from the other Washington politicians is only intended to convey a special status for him over and above “run or the mill” Washington politicians.
He is the “President.” He is “special.” This and other similar constructs are used numerous times in the Qur’an in reference to Angel Gabriel in order to set him apart as a very special and highly esteemed angel with God. For example, in Al-Nahil(66):4 we read:
“If you both repent unto God then your hearts have indeed heeded. But if you assist one-another against him (Muhammad, pbuh) then verily Allah is his Patron, and Gabriel, and the righteous believers, and the angels after that shall come to [his] aid.”
And in Al-Baqarah (2):98: “Whosoever is an enemy to Allah, His angels, His Messengers, Gabriel, Michael (the angel of the rain), then verily, Allah is an enemy to the disbelievers.”
Here we see angel Michael too set apart with a special status and mention. Angel Gabriel is an angel. So is angel Michael. Muslims have no doubt about that. However, Gabriel is not just any angel.
He is a special angel. An angel with a special purpose, unique titles, high stature with God and the patron of the prophets. This is how God dignifies and exalts those who serve Him in truth, integrity, and sincerity.
Similar to these examples, we find in the Qur’an that not all prophets are alike. For example, some prophets have been given distinction over others and are mentioned in isolation from the rest as a sign of exaltation for them. For example, God says in the Qur’an in Al-Baqarah (2):253:
“Those messengers! We preferred some of them over others. Some were those who were spoken to by God, others He raised by degrees. And unto Jesus the son of Mary We bestowed the clear proofs and assisted him with the holy Spirit (Gabriel)…”
And in Al-Isra (17):55:
“And your Lord knows best who are in the heavens and the earth. And indeed, we have preferred some of the prophets above others, and to David We gave the Psalms.”
Also, in A’al-Umran(3):84:
“Say: ‘We believe in Allah and in that which was sent down upon us and that which was sent down upon Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob, and the sons of Jacob, and that which was given unto Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord….”
Does this mean that Moses, Jesus, Abraham, etc. are not “prophets”? No. This is simply the nature of the language of the Qur’an and one of the methods used to distinguish them above the rest.
Getting back to our current example, we find that in both of the quoted verses angel Gabriel is referred to through popular Arabic constructs of respect and exaltation. In the first it is demonstrated in the use of the plural construct, in the second it is demonstrated in the use of his official title of “Holy Spirit,” where we see that the verse says that “We (God) sent unto her (Mary) Our Spirit (Gabriel)…”
Even in English is not too much of a stretch to understand the intent. If a president has a highly esteemed ambassador whom he has entrusted with a significant task, and this president wishes to bestow upon this ambassador and his message an air of importance, then he would not say “I have sent some guy….” or “I have sent one of my people..” since this
would reflect badly on that ambassador as someone who is not even worthy to remember his name or his service. It would also reflect badly on the message itself since it would imply that the message was of such little importance that it was entrusted to someone of such little merit.
Rather, one way to convey an air of dignity and importance to the messenger as well as the message would be to mention the man’s office, such as to say, “I sent my ambassador.” Another way would be to directly exalt him such as saying “I sent my most trusted and faithful aid…” And finally, in Arabic one could use the plural form such as to say “I sent THEM (him)”
Actually, I believe that this might even answer another question I seem to remember being presented a little farther down as another “contradiction.” In any case, we can deal with that as we reach it, by the will of Allah.
For more on this issue, you can read “Safwat Al-Tafaseer,” by Al-Sabooni, “Rooh Al-Maani fi tafseer Al-Qur’an al-Adheem wa al-Sab’a al-Mathani,” by Abi Al-Fadhil Al-Aloosi, “Aldur Al-Manthoor fi Al-Tafseer bilmathoor” by Abdulrahman Al-Suyooti, or “Tafseer Al-Manar” by Muhammad Rasheed Ridha, among others.
Now, the author also draws attention in his commentary that some Muslims have pointed to the various accounts of “how many angels” were present at the alleged resurrection of Jesus (pbuh) in the various narrations of the four Gospels of the Bible.
He attempts to reduce the tens upon tens of discrepancies which Christian scholars have discovered in this story to only one and then to quickly explain it away by giving his example of one who meets the President and Vice President and only says:
“I met the President.” Rather than getting into the further details of the many additional problems with only this one story, I shall simply leave it up to him to resolve this issue quite thoroughly by claiming the $2000 “Easter Challenge” prize and posting the check on his “Answering Islam” web page.
Since the issue of the resurrection in so critical to trinitarian Christianity (I Corinthians 15:14-15) but at the same time directly flies in the face of everything God has said in the noble Qur’an, therefore, his complete harmonization of these narrations, and his claiming of this prize, shall indeed constitute a substantial step forward towards exonerating the Church from all claims that they fabricated this story as part of their continuous campaign of tampering with the text of the Bible.
Almighty Allah is the highest and most knowledgeable, and the attribution of knowledge to him is the safest.
Right from Almighty Allah and wrong from me and Satan
Prepared by Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
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Arrogance is not only a sign of insecurity, but also a sign of immaturity. Mature and fully realised persons can get their points across, even emphatically without demeaning or intimidating others.