“As for those who say, ‘Our Lord is God,’ and take the straight path towards Him, the angels come down to them and say, ‘Have no fear or grief, but rejoice in the good news of Paradise, which you have been promised. We are your allies in this world and in the world to come, where you will have everything you desire and ask for as a welcoming gift from the Most Forgiving, Most Merciful One.’” (Al Quran 41:30-32)
Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times
The short verses in the epigraph talk about how Allah grants the devout believers peace of mind and freedom from undue fear and grief.
In this article, I propose to examine that for such purposes, does Allah need to employ invisible agents like angels or could He use laws of nature, including the recently discovered laws of biology, especially neurology, psychology and psychiatry?
There are more than 20 types of endorphins in our body.
Endorphins are chemicals (hormones) your body releases when it feels pain or stress. They’re released during pleasurable activities such as exercise, massage, eating and sex too. Endorphins help relieve pain, reduce stress and improve your sense of well-being.
Endorphins are created in your pituitary gland and hypothalamus, both located in the brain. Endorphins are a type of neurotransmitter, or messenger in your body. They attach to your brain’s reward centers (opioid receptors) and carry signals across your nervous system.
Endorphin comes from the words “endogenous,” which means within the body, and “morphine,” an opiate pain reliever. Put together, that means endorphins are natural pain relievers. They are “feel-good” chemicals because they can make you feel better and put you in a positive state of mind.
The greatest difficulty that many Muslim readers may have in freely examining the concept of angels may be the concern that if they do not believe in traditional beliefs, they may be violating the essentials of Islam.
I can almost read devout Muslim reader’s mind. May I respectfully suggest, perhaps, you did not like the heading. If you came so far, you may be desirous to refute the findings of my article. If so, may I add in the words of Sir Francis Bacon, “Read not to contradict … but to weigh and consider.”
So, first a little about the demographics of belief in angels.
The Quran makes multiple mentions of angels, both collectively and individually, as in the case of the angel Gabriel.18 In light of this, it is perhaps not surprising that in most countries surveyed, a majority of Muslims say they believe in angels; in some regions this belief is nearly universal.
Across Southeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East and North Africa, nine-in-ten or more Muslims affirm the existence of angels. In the Central Asian countries of Turkey (96%), Tajikistan (89%) and Azerbaijan (88%), overwhelming numbers also say they believe in angels. However, acceptance of angels is slightly less prevalent elsewhere in Central Asia, including in Kyrgyzstan (77%), Uzbekistan (74%) and Kazakhstan (66%).
Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa also vary in their attitudes toward angels, though more than half in all countries surveyed affirm this belief. In seven of the 16 countries in the region, eight-in-ten or more say angels exist, including as many as 97% in Tanzania. In the remaining nine countries surveyed in the region, belief in angels ranges from 72% in Mali to 52% in Djibouti.
Among those surveyed, Muslims in Southern and Eastern Europe are generally the least likely to believe in angels. Fewer than two-thirds of Muslims embrace this article of faith in Russia (63%), Kosovo (60%) and Bosnia-Herzegovina (50%), while Albania is the only country in the study where fewer than half of Muslims (42%) believe in angels.
In general, Muslims who are highly committed to their faith, as measured by frequency of prayer, are more likely to believe in angels. The gap on this question between those who are highly committed (they pray several times a day) and those who pray once a day or less is particularly large in Southern and Eastern Europe and in Central Asia. In Kosovo, for example, highly committed Muslims are 32 percentage points more likely to believe in angels; in Russia, the gap is 28 points. Among the Central Asian countries surveyed, the gap is 20 percentage points in Uzbekistan and 15 points each in Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan.
Now let us examine the belief in jinns and its demographic.
According to the Quran, God created jinn as well as angels and humans. Belief in jinn is relatively widespread – in 13 of 23 countries where the question was asked, by Pew Research Center, more than half of Muslims believe in these supernatural beings.
In the South Asian countries surveyed, at least seven-in-ten Muslims affirm that jinn exist, including 84% in Bangladesh. In Southeast Asia, a similar proportion of Malaysian Muslims (77%) believe in jinn, while fewer in Indonesia (53%) and Thailand (47%) share this belief.
Across the Middle Eastern and North African nations surveyed, belief in jinn ranges from 86% in Morocco to 55% in Iraq.
Overall, Muslims in Central Asia and across Southern and Eastern Europe (Russia and the Balkans) are least likely to say that jinn are real. In Central Asia, Turkey is the only country where a majority (63%) of Muslims believe in jinn. Elsewhere in Central Asia, about a fifth or fewer Muslims accept the existence of jinn. In Southern and Eastern Europe, fewer than four-in-ten in any country surveyed believe in these supernatural beings.
In general, Muslims who pray several times a day are more likely to believe in jinn. For example, in Russia, 62% of those who pray more than once a day say that jinn exist, compared with 24% of those who pray less often. A similar gap also appears in Lebanon (+25 percentage points), Malaysia (+24) and Afghanistan (+21).
The survey also asked if respondents had ever seen jinn. In 21 of the 23 countries where the question was asked, fewer than one-in-ten report having seen jinn, while the proportion is 12% in Bangladesh and 10% in Lebanon.
With increasing education of the Muslims the jinns are disappearing, only ten percent of the Muslims have encountered them, just like fewer demons exist in the universities of Europe and a lot more in the villages of South America.
Would the same happen to angels?
Jean-Martin Charcot (French: [ ʃaʁko ]; 29 November 1825 – 16 August 1893) was a French neurologist and professor of anatomical pathology. He worked on hypnosis and hysteria, in particular with his hysteria patient Louise Augustine Gleizes. Charcot is known as “the founder of modern neurology”, and his name has been associated with at least 15 medical eponyms, including various conditions sometimes referred to as Charcot diseases.
Neurology, psychology or psychiatry did not exist in the 7th century Arabia. So, the holy Quran had no choice but to speak in the contemporary language.
Charcot has been referred to as “the father of French neurology and one of the world’s pioneers of neurology”. His work greatly influenced the developing fields of neurology and psychology; modern psychiatry owes much to the work of Charcot and his direct followers. He was the “foremost neurologist of late nineteenth-century France” and has also been called “the Napoleon of the neuroses“.
As you can see that for more than a thousand years after the revelation of the Quran, we did not know anything about neurology.
There are more than 40 neurotransmitters in the human nervous system; some of the most important are endorphins, acetylcholine, norepinephrine, dopamine, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), glutamate, serotonin, and histamine.
The study of these neurotransmitters has led to countless medication and treatment of several neurologic and psychiatric disorders.
Invoking the name of angels does not advance any human understanding, but studying the intricate details of neurotransmitters does, and scientific progress will continue in decades and centuries to come.
I present the whole fields of neurology, psychology and psychiatry as evidence for my way of understanding the angels in Islam and other Abrahamic faiths.
But, as suggested in the very verse quoted in the beginning, the devout believers need not have fear or grief. “There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” as suggested by a famous US President, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Discovery of neurotransmitters does not take away from Omnipotence or Providence of Allah. It merely adds to our awe about his wonders as suggested in the last verse of Surah Naml: “Say Muhammad, ‘Praise belongs to God: He will show you His wonders so that you will recognize them.’ Your Lord is never unmindful of what you all do.” (Al Quran 27:93)