How many angels were talking to Mary?
Since the resurrection of Jesus is the main proof for his claims in regard to his deity, many have tried to disprove this account by pointing to contradictions in it. Since Muslims deny the crucifixion they obviously also have to deny the resurrection. One of the favorite items on the list of Bible contradictions, presented by atheists and Muslims alike, is therefore that in the Gospel according to Mark, chapter 16 [also Matthew 28], the women encounter at the grave on Jesus a man [angel] which is read to mean one and only one angel, while according to Luke, chapter 24 [also John 20], it is explicitely stated that they encountered two angels. I am not concerned about atheists here, but it is most interesting to see that these Muslims do not know their own Qur'an since otherwise they wouldn't make so much noise about things like this.
There are (at least) two passages in the Qur'an relating the announciation of Jesus' birth to Mary.
Behold! the angels said: "O Mary! Allah has chosen thee ...
Behold! the angels said: "O Mary! Allah gives thee glad tidings ...
-- Sura 3:42 & 45
... then we sent to her Our angel, and he appeared before her as a man in all respects.
She said: "I seek refuge from thee to (Allah) Most Gracious: (Come not near) If thou dost fear Allah."
-- Sura 19:17-18
How many angels came to Mary? In Sura 3, the Arabic uses the plural form, which means there were no less than three angels, but this could also mean that there were actually four, or a thousand, or a million etc.!
Why does Mary only seek refuge from one of the angels as she only addresses one in Sura 19:18? Were the others not like men and threatening to her?
Incidentally, this problem in the Qur'an is much harder to resolve for Muslims than the Biblical one for Christians, since in the Qur'an Mary addresses this one angel and it is clear she only speaks to one angel which would be strange if there are three or more around her. In the Bible the angels are not directly addressed by the women. Hence nothing establishes that there is only one. Mark and Matthew might have only mentioned the one who is prominent and who is the one talking while Luke and John make clear there were actually two of them.
After meeting the President and Vice-President on the street somewhere, I might come home and only say, I saw the President today. Nothing in such a statement precludes that I also met the second in command and maybe more people too.
I am happy to accept this same explanation for the Qur'an, but it is less convincing than for the Bible. One would have to explain why Mary twice addresses only one of them and also does not fear the other angels.
Postscript / update / correction : At the time of formulating the above observation, I used the translation of Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Only later it became clear that Yusuf Ali actually mistranslates S. 19:17 where the Arabic text does not speak of an angel, but says that "We sent her our spirit". Although Muslims generally assume that this spirit was the angel Gabriel (so that the above formulation is still relevant under this assumption), this identification is actually questionable, see these articles (1, 2). Fact is, the name Gabriel is not mentioned at all in either one of the quranic accounts. However, since the above version received so many Muslim responses and was discussed in the above stated form, I decided to rather add this note instead of changing the above text. The reader is advised to consult the below listed responses which provide detailed discussions on this and other issues related to these two texts in the Qur'an.
Muslim responses to the above are available from Randy Desmond, Misha'al Al-Kadhi, Moiz Amjad (Understanding Islam), Mahmoud Hussein, Ahmad al-Majed, Ansar Al-'Adl (Load Islam).
Muslim Response by Randy Desmond
Date: Thu, 9 Jan 1997
There is an assumption that the author of the contradiction makes which I can not verify. That assumption is that 3:42-45 and 19:17-18 are the same occasion. Is it not reasonable that Mary (may God be pleased with her) was informed of what was to happen more than once? Keep in mind assumptions which do not contradict the Qur'an and allow an uncontradictory solution, like the one I am entertaining with respect to the number of times Mary was informed angelic beings, may not be the actual truth (and I am not saying that Mary was told this information once, twice, or many times), but nevertheless those assumptions which illustrate that a contradiction has not been proven are just as valid as assumptions which lead to contradictions. Therefore, the contradiction has not been proven at all, and with that I leave it with the following: God knows best how many times Mary was told this information and who told her.
So according to the criteria of proving a contradiction, the contradiction author's argument fails. If the reader is wondering what the criteria of proof of contradiction is, see my response to this web site's page on "Heavens or Earth, Which was created first?" In that response I detail how to determine whether or not a proposed contradiction has proven its point.
We observe that even the responding party is uncomfortable with his own proposed solution. I don't have much more to add. I don't have to prove contradictions in the Qur'an. I leave it to the reader to judge how credible the suggestion of multiple announcements is. After all, this would indicate the lack of belief on the part of Mary to the first announcement. Read the whole passage and observe that both times Mary reacts to the announcement of the son with the same question of "How can this be, having never been with a man". Can we really believe she would have forgotten such a momentous encounter with angelic messenger(s) and the explanation given then to the very same question?
Misha'al Al-Kadhi gave another response which was incredibly verbose (more than a dozen pages) ... maybe in the hope that the reader would be so overawed by his "scholarship" just because of the mere volume of it? Maybe he hoped nobody would read to the end and realize the crucial flaws in his argument? Anyway, I tortured myself and an Arab brother,Bassam Khoury, to study it, and here is the essence of it as well as the rebuttal. Al-Kadhi's full argument is available at this site. Mr. Al-Kadhi's arguments are indented.
- 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.
This is wrong already in English or French and is just as wrong in Arabic. Because in Arabic when using the "royal we" it takes a plural *verb*, but never a plural *noun*. That is exactly as in English, and it was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who announced the birth of a granddaughter by saying: "We are a grandmother," but she did not and could NEVER say "We are grandmothers". And it is the same in Arabic. Only the verb can be plural, not the noun. In the above text the noun is plural: "angels".
- 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" ...
Wrong again because:
"Al majaz al mursal" means "A word used in a different way than its original like saying "the fire has eaten the wood" the word "eaten" here is not in the normal use as eating is for human and animals but not for fire. There are two kinds of Majaz:
1- majaz aqli `logical metaphor'
2- majaz lughawi `lingustic metaphor'
(Quote translated from "Student reference in the Arabic language" by Raajee al Asmar, Beirut 1995 pg 381)
"Majaz mursal" is a type of the latter. "If there is no similarity between the new word and the referent (original word), it's called "majaz mursal". An example would be: I have drunk one glass". There is no similarity between the glass and what is in it; we drink what is in it not the glass itself (example also found in the above quoted text).
I cannot see how the above falls under this heading. Continuing where we left off:
- ... and which we can not 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.
In the orginal Arabic text of the Qur'an it is clear that the "He" refers to God. At-Tabari in his comment on this verse 3:47 says: "Allah said to her "Even so; Allah createth what he willeth"
But even if it should refer to one angel here (against the witness of at-Tabari), then it only means that his particular answer to Mary's question was spoken by only one angel, and the others might have been silent. Plural nouns still can't be interpreted to be singular.
- 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 an 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....
I found this a lot these days: Muslims use Yusuf Ali's translation when they like what he says and they ignore it when they don't like it.
If we look at Ali's translation of this verse, we see that he says: Sura 16:120 - "Abraham was indeed a model..." Jalal as-Suyuti in his comment on this verse says: "Umma" - which Al Kadhi translates as nation - means "Imaman", i.e. a model/example/leader:
Truly Abraham was a community, a leader (imām), a [good] example, comprising [in his character] all the good traits, obedient to God, a hanīf, inclining towards the upright religion, and he was not of the idolaters; (Tafsir al-Jalalayn)
Ibn Abbas interprets similarly:
(Lo! Abraham was a nation) a leader who was emulated (obedient to Allah, by nature upright) sincerely surrendered to Allah, (and he was not of the idolaters) he did not follow the idolaters in their religion; (Tanwîr al-Miqbâs min Tafsîr Ibn ‘Abbâs)
Moreover, the Quran may be using the word "Umma" in reference to Abraham being the federal head of a community of believers. The plural may be including the multitudes of believers from the descendants of Abraham, with Abraham standing in their place as their corporate head. This concept is not foreign to either the Holy Bible or the Quran since both books teach the concepts of federal headship and corporate solidarity, just as the following texts demonstrate:
"One might even say that Levi, who collects the tenth, paid the tenth through Abraham, because when Melchizedek met Abraham, Levi was still in the body of his ancestor." Hebrews 7:9-10
When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam - from their loins - their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying): "Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?"- They said: "Yea! We do testify!" (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: "Of this we were never mindful": Or lest ye should say: "Our fathers before us may have taken false gods, but we are (their) descendants after them: wilt Thou then destroy us because of the deeds of men who were futile?" S. 7:172-173
Yet such a usage provides no support for al-Kadhi's argument, since "Umma" is being used for Abraham and his seed whereas "angels", according to al-Kadhi, refers to Gabriel alone.
It is also possible that Sura 16:120 contains a grammatical error, that the author wrongly used a plural for a singular subject. That this is a plausible interpretation can be readily seen from the fact that the Quran contains dozens of grammatical errors, see this section.
Whatever the case maybe, Sura 16:120 does not support al-Kadhi's position.
- 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)..."
So why doesn't the Qur'an say then: "We sent unto her our spirits"? Since elsewhere the singular word malaak (angel) becomes malaa'ika (angels)? The one with the highest honor among the angels is left in the singular?
Furthermore, it does only say "Spirit" and not "Holy Spirit".
- 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).."
No, we do NOT say "I sent THEM (him).." in Arabic. I wish he could find for me one single example of someone saying "we sent our ambassadors" when he means one man. This is a propaganda trick and plain false. "Bring your proof if you are truthful," is the charge of the Qur'an to you.
I have heard statements made by Arab leaders or even individuals using the pronoun "WE" for just themselves.
I have heard individuals addressing leaders, religious people, or even government employees, with "YOU" (in the plural form, like "Sie" in German or "Vouz" in French), or with words like "your majesty" or "excellency" in the plural form. But I never heard anybody using the third person pronoun in the plural form even if the third person was a king or president.
Arabs may address a president or anybody by the word "Hadratoukom", "Seyadatoukom", Jalalatoukom" ... but when mentioning those people as a third person, it is never said, "Hadratouhom, "Seyadatouhom", or Jalalatouhom", but in the singular third person form, i.e. "Hadratouhou", "Seyadatouhou" or "Jalalatouhou", regardless of the importance of that third person.
The use of the plural form when talking about the angel in 3:42 & 45 does not make any sense unless the Qur'an really means that there were more than one angel speaking with Mary. The Verse 47 in Sura 3 uses the verb "Qala" in the singular form refering to one angel.
And my Arab friend who wrote up this rebuttal, concludes:
Finally: it is *our* opinion that his argument does not hold water (or should that be *their* argument, or arguments, doesn't or don't hold water or waters) ??
My conclusion: The difficulty remains. I still think it is relatively weak in comparison to some of the others on this site, but it is nevertheless real.
The response by Mr. Al-Kadhi though is worth pondering well since it shows what amount of false propaganda some people are ready to produce in order to defend the indefensible and to deceive those whom they think cannot see through their schemes. The rebuttal fraud was worse then the difficulty we started out with. It certainly would have deserved an entry in the "Dictionary of Misinformation" by Tom Burnam, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1975.