Was the First Angel Jibril or Israfil?

Israfil, the Islamic Angel

There are multiple narrations reported that Muhammad’s first interaction with a Power was attributed to an angel called Israfil rather than an angel called Jibril.

Verily the Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, was commissioned to
prophethood when he was forty years old. Saraphel [Israfil] was with him for three years, then he was replaced by Gabriel who remained with him, at Makkah [Mecca] for ten years, and at the city of his migration, al-Madinah, for ten years. The Apostle of Allah, may Allah bless him, breathed his last when he was sixty-three years of age.

al-Tabaqat of Ibn Sa’d, Vol 1, Parts 1.43.5

Note that Israfil is rendered Saraphel in the standard English translation of Ibn Sa’d. There is no consensus on a clear correspondence between Israfil and any Jewish angel, however. Israfil is one of the four archangels in Islam, along with Jibril, ‘Azra’il, and Mikha’il.

The early sources are incredibly uncomfortable with this. Ibn Sa’d immediately follows this up with a correction, a result of his own investigation:

Muhammad Ibn Sa’d said: I related this tradition to Muhammad Ibn
v Umar; he said: The learned men of our city do not know that Saraphel
had been with the Prophet, may Allah bless him. Verily the learned and
those versed in Sirah literature say: From the time the revelations
commenced till he (Prophet) may Allah bless him, breathed his last none
except Gabriel was with him.

al-Tabaqat of Ibn Sa’d, Vol 1, Parts 1.43.5

This, however, cannot be true because there are other ahadith in which Muhammad talks about other angels that he sees and that come to him. For example, Al-Bayhaqī in Shu’ab al-īmān from al-Muṭtalib said that:

The Messenger of God said: I said to Gabriel: ‘Gabriel, why have I not
seen Isrāfīl laughing? None of the angels have come to me without me seeing them laughing.’ Gabriel said: ‘We have not seen that angel laughing since the Fire was created.’

Quoted indirectly through Angels in Islam.

Now, this hadith exists in a number of versions. In al-Zuhd, it is Jibril who has not laughed since the Fire is created, and Muhammad questions him directly. In another hadith, Muhammad asks Jibril about Mikha’il.

This is a very peculiar hadith, regardless, because why should the faithful angels of Allah be worried about Hellfire? They are each already assigned tasks on the Day of Resurrection that speak to their security, and they are supposed to be zealous in the cause of Allah, equally eager for the salvation of the faithful and the punishment of the wicked. The joylessness of whichever angel it is who did not laugh (and I suspect the original was probably Israfil because of the fuller narration in that version) is a detail that is inappropriate to the Islamic worldview. Nevertheless, these traditions persisted.

This is just one thread. There are also a number of other ahadith that show that Muhammad claimed to have interactions with other angels, and of course there were Muhammad’s numerous reported visions of heaven, the past, and the future, many of which have angels in them. While modern Muslims seem to prefer to think of Muhammad having a chat with Jibril to answer every question, that is not in the sources, which instead suggest plenty of actual visions.

From Amir in al-Tabari, we find an editor’s hand fixing the apparent conflict:

It is related on the authority of al-Sha’bi that (the angel) Israfil was associated with the Messenger of God for three years before he received any revelation. [Emphasis added.]

The History of al-Tabari Vol. 6, pp. 155-156.

The fuller version of this narrative goes like this:

Israfil was associated with the Messenger of God’s prophethood for three years. The Messenger of God was aware of him, but could not see his person. After that came Gabriel [Jibril].

The History of al-Tabari Vol. 6, pp. 155-156.

And a third version:

“Prophethood descended upon him when he was forty. Israfil was associated with his prophethood for three years, and used to teach him the word and the deed, but the Qur’an was not revealed by his tongue. After three years had gone by Gabriel [Jibril] was associated with Muhammad’s prophethood and the Qur’an was revealed by his tongue for ten years in Mecca and ten years in al-Madinah.”

The History of al-Tabari Vol. 6, pp. 155-156.

These appear to be edits to make Amir’s narration fit the conventional narrative of Islam. But like the constant cries of “Allah!” in the mouths of polytheists in the early source, it is not very convincing. The constant refrain of “three years” has significance, too, because for three years, Muhammad taught people in secret in Mecca. Then he was ordered by Jibril to teach openly, which he did for ten years before he taught for another ten years in Medina. These divisions are very well established as the traditional chronology, and Israfil lines up with uncomfortable exactness with the transition between Muhammad’s secret and the public teachings.

Despite this, I am going to generally refer to the Power as Jibril, because that is the name and identity accepted by historical Islamic scholarship.

See the main page on Surah 96:1-5 to for more.

Author: Marya Harb