I had the honour of attending Bayyinah Institute’s ‘Story of Gibreel‘ in Austin. It was a fresh experience in many ways, especially the presentation and format that was in tune with the intended audience of younger generation. Indeed, the scholars of Bayyinah itself are from this new American raised generation, including the gifted orator Noman Ali Khan, and Umar Suleiman.
Coming back from the gathering, however, I could not help but notice the ‘cosmopolitan’, ‘common core’ version of events that were related in the story. Having a narrow, sectarian perspective on Islam (at least according to some of my closest friends), I usually find this universally appealing theology to be more akin to the thinned down, puritanical character of Middle East based modern day Islam, which I openly and unabashedly oppose. So, for the rest of the folks who share this streak, I would like to share a few more radical ‘Stories of Gibreel’. Radical because the well-funded, (literally and metaphorically) well-oiled, official Islam has now become the norm, and the Islam of the Sufis has now become a ‘stranger’. But like our Prophet (sm) said, ‘blessed are the strangers’.
All sufi stories begin and end with a simple preamble, beautifully articulated by Mian Muhammad Bakhsh that ‘Zabran zeran, shaddaan maddaan, sub shaan unhaan dee aiyaan’. The Sufi focuses on the person and personality of the Prophet (sm), as a paragon of human excellence. The bottom line is always to enunciate how Syedna Awal(sm) and Syedna Aakhir(sm) represents the most consummate manifestation of God, beyond all others. Beyond the Angels. Beyond Gibreel. And beyond all creation. When Gibreel brings the message, he is temporarily holding a superior position of someone who knows, telling someone who apparently doesn’t. But the Prophet represents, not just the recipient of the message, but the very subject and substance of the message itself, for the Kalima is not complete without his name. He, and his name, is the message, far superior to the position of the message bearer i.e. Gibreel. In these other stories of Gibreel, well known for ages in Sufi circles, we explain a little more about the true nature of this relationship of this leader of all angels, with the leader of all creation.
Regarding the Knowledge of the Prophet(sm)
Maulana Ahmed Yaar Khan Naeemi relates in his Tafseer that during one revelation, Gibreel brought down the opening verses of a Surah starting with the Muqattaat letters, Alif Laam Meem. As always, Gibreel started the recitation, for the Prophet (sm) to repeat and learn after him. When Gibreel said ‘Alif’, the Prophet (sm) exclaimed, ‘I have known’. Gibreel must have been a little confused at a strange response that he could not have expected, but he nevertheless continued. He announced the second letter, ‘Laam’, to which the Prophet(sm) again exclaimed, ‘I have believed’. Gibreel continued with the third letter, ‘Meem’, to which the Prophet exclaimed, ‘He is generous’. Gibreel, now thoroughly surprised, asked him, O Prophet of Allah, tell me, what does this mean, and how have you replied to it thus? The Prophet replied, paraphrasing, that ‘This is our own communication’. You just do your job. I have a channel of understanding and inner revelation open to me, that is only my own! I know what the Friend is saying!
Regarding the Physical Form of the Angels
As correctly pointed out by Sheikh Umar Sulaiman also, Gibreel rarely appeared in the world in his angelic appearance. The presence of an Angel in its original form is so luminescent and overwhelming, that earthly creatures cannot withstand such an experience. Indeed, just the mere touch of an angels’ feet was enough to turn the golden calf of the Jews into a magnificent, wondrous phenomenon. So it was only a few times that Gibreel appeared in his real form. But during one time that he did, his aura was so overwhelmingly resplendent, that the Prophet(sm) fell down unconscious. This was because the physical manifestation of the Prophetic reality was done through a mortal human being, Muhammad Ibne Abdullah. Maulana Rum, however, is quick to explain, that had it been the other way, that the heavenly light of the Prophetic reality were to be shown to Gibreel, then the poor angel would have been lying down unconscious, unable to withstand the ‘Noor’ that were to emanate from just a tip of the Prophetic light.
Regarding the Life of Gibreel
Sheikh Umar Sulaiman correctly reminded the audience that Gibreel was created well before the creation of heaven and earth. For when God created the Heaven and Hell, then he asked the archangel to go and visit them. And Gibreel after seeing the Heaven, mentioned that I swear none will fail to attain it, for it is so beautiful that they will all want it and work for it. But when shown the encumbrances i.e. the hardships in life that are placed around it, he exclaimed that I swear, none will be able to enter it. And when he saw Hell, he exclaimed that I swear none will enter it, for it is so terrible that everyone will avoid having it as his fate. However, when shown the attractions of worldly things that have been placed around it, he exclaimed that I swear none will be able to avoid it.
So far so good. From the subject of the story, it was great to learn about the life of Gibreel, and how he was one of the first to be created by God, well before the heavens and earth and Paradise and Hell. But there is also another interesting dimension to this story about the life of Gibreel, which is well known and commonly recited in Sufi Qawwalis. Gibreel was once sitting with the Prophet (sm), and the Prophet (sm) asked him about how old he was. Gibreel told him, that he was born well before everything else was created, and when there was nothing in the physical and spiritual universes. He said that one of my earliest memories, is that when I was born, soon after I saw a great and piercing light, which was like none other. This light shines once in seventy-thousand years, and my age is such that ever since being born, I have seen that light seventy thousand times. At this, the Holy Prophet (sm) removed the turban from his head, and there, in his forehead, Gibreel saw the same light that he used to see after his birth. So he knew then, that the light was the ‘Noor’ of the Prophet, and that it was him, rather than anything else, that preceded Gibreel and everybody else in being the first to be created.
Regarding the Night Ascension
This story, related in the Mathnawi of Maulana Rum, is perhaps one of the most intriguing stories regarding the relationship between Angels and Humans, and specifically, that between the Holy Prophet(sm) and Gibreel.
On the night of Miraaj, as the Holy Prophet(sm) and Gibreel ascended to the highest heavens, there came a point, which we all know as Sidratul-Muntahaa, the farthest Lote Tree, ‘parlee beri’ as it is translated in Urdu. This is the point at which Gibreel stopped, and the ascension afterwards was entirely of the Prophet(sm) himself. Many of the basic elements of what transpired here are well known to all students of Islam. The Tree marked the barrier of how far Angels could ascend to Allah, and if they ventured further, they would burn down by the radiance of the Almighty. So he stopped there, and the Prophet(sm) alone ventured further, until the ‘Qaaba-Qauseen’. Maulana Rum, however, has given some additional, very interesting details on the events that night.
The Prophet(sm)’s love for all of Allah’s creation, and his own Ummah, and his longing and desire to see everyone forgiven, is a great comfort for all those who aspire for his intercession. For those who know him, know well that this is his character. You leave hold of the ‘Urwatul Wusqah’, but the Urwatul Wusqah itself does not break or leave you. Loyalty to one’s companions is a noble virtue peculiar not only to Prophets, but all humans. The Movie, Saving Private Ryan, beautifully portrays this great human emotion of ‘No man left behind’. Our Holy Prophet(sm) leads us all in this beyond compare. He will not leave his Nation behind on the day of Judgement. He never left his people in his world either. He did not emigrate until each of his companions had. He swore not to leave Mecca until Uthman was returned or avenged. So he is like this. He does not leave his lovers behind.
On the night of ascension, Gibreel stopped at the Lote Tree. ‘I cannot proceed further, O Prophet of Allah’.
The cause of Gibreel’s refusal was reasonable. He was simply following the rules set forth for him. And any reasonable person would have accepted this excuse of not going forward. Unless, there was a reason even better than his dissent!
Maulana Rum says that when the Prophet heard this, (and obviously understood its full import and context), even then, he turned around to Gibreel, and said, ‘Come!’.
Forget about all that logic and reasoning, Come!.
In the Mathnavi, he paraphrases the thought and intent behind this invitation. ‘I am not of those who leave his compatriots behind. You have brought me so far along with yourself. Now I will take you further along with myself!’ But beyond being just a display of emotion and comradeship, it is also the display of his spiritual authority. Mevlana continues to paraphrase: ‘This is my Friend’s home, who has invited me to it. I choose who comes along with me, and who doesn’t. Do you not know Gibreel, that who you are talking to, and who you are with?’
Gibreel, however, declined the second time also. ‘I cannot proceed, O Prophet. For my wings will burn down if I take a step beyond’.
Mevlana writes, on behalf of the Prophet(sm), ‘If you are with me, what fire is it that dares to burn the wings of my companion?’.
But Gibreel declined for the third time. Alas, he was just an angel!
Had it been one of us, Mevlana writes, one of us humans, then we would never have left him. Had it been one of the Auliya Allah, or one of the noble companions of the Prophet(sm), then we would have accepted the burning of our wings, and becoming a charred coal, then to consider the possibility of leaving that companionship. We would have died, we would have gotten burnt, but we would never have left the side of the Prophet(sm)! Subhan Allah. Such are those whom Allah blesses with the love of His beloved. And it is this love, to which the Story of Gibreel brings us to.
Sheikh Umar’s recitation was moving. He brought us all to tears. But these tears come forth every time when the beloved is mentioned. May Allah reward the Sheikh, and accept the love of all those who were present.