I work in the poorest part of San Francisco, also known as the Tenderloin. On any given day, I walk past needle caps, people with needles hanging out of their hands, arms, and legs. I walk past people with pipes, severe decay of body, mind, and spirit. People with nothing, living on or in cardboard boxes.
Unfortunately, we all see this everywhere on earth. Poverty is rampant, in spite of all the resources we have. What to think of poor people when I walk by them? As a way to remain informed, I was reading the Bible on the train on the way to work this morning and read something very interesting.
The Book of Hebrews in the New Testament of the Christian Bible states:
“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2)
This has a very interesting parallel in the hadith. Some say this is the single most important hadith of the entire collection of hadith. This is because it contains the entire religion of Islam in its most succinct form. However, it is important for another reason.
The Hadith of Gibreel
The Hadith of Gibreel reads:
“Also from ‘Umar’, there is that he said, ‘While we were sitting with the Messenger of Allah, may Allah bless with him and grant him peace, one day a man came up to us whose clothes were extremely white, whose hair was extremely black, upon whom traces of traveling could not be seen, and whom none of us knew, who sat down knee-to-knee with the Prophet, may Allah bless with him and grant him peace.[The man] said, ‘Muhammad, tell me about Islam.’ [Muhammad, may Allah bless with him and grant him peace,] said, ‘Islam is that you witness that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and you establish the prayer, and you give the Zakat, and you fast Ramadan, and you perform the hajj to the House if you are able.’ He said, ‘You have told the truth,’ and we were amazed at him asking him and [then] telling him that he told the truth.
He said, ‘Tell me about Iman.’ He said, ‘That you affirm Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers, and the Last Day, and that you affirm the Decree [predestination], the good of it and the bad of it.’ He said, ‘You have told the truth.’
He said, ‘Tell me about Ihsan.’ He said, ‘That you worship Allah as if you see Him, for if you don’t see Him then truly He sees you.’
He said, ‘Tell me about the Hour.’ He said, ‘The one asked about it knows no more than the one asking.’ He said, ‘Then tell me about its signs.’ He said, ‘That the female slave should give birth to her mistress, and you see poor, naked, barefoot shepherds of sheep and goats competing in making tall buildings.’
He went away, and I remained some time. Then he asked, ‘Umar, do you know who the questioner was?’ I said, ‘Allah and His Messenger know best.’ He said, ‘He was Jibril who came to you to teach you your deen’.” – From Sahih Muslim
What Does This Hadith Mean for Us?
When Gibreel (AS) came to speak with the Prophet (PBUH), the companions (RA) all thought he was a human being. What does this mean for our day to day lives?
A story for you is that I was walking down the street while I was working, again, in the Tenderloin, and a lady walked up to me and began screaming at me. She took her bag — which had clothes or something in it — and swung it around at me, bashing me in the head with it. Needless to say I was shocked, and thought, “Wow, that’s really not okay.” But who was that woman? Why did she hit me? What if she was actually an angel and I needed to slow down because I was going to be in greater danger ahead?
It is so important to me when I go around in my daily life to remember, we can’t tell people’s station with Allah just by looking at them.
One of my favorite parts of the Quran in the Surah IRON (57) says:
( 22 ) No disaster strikes upon the earth or among yourselves except that it is in a register before We bring it into being – indeed that, for Allah, is easy.
( 23 ) In order that you not despair over what has eluded you and not exult [in pride] over what He has given you. And Allah does not like everyone self-deluded and boastful.
You know, we don’t really know clearly what is good or bad, and we also don’t know who people are. I try to remind myself of this when I see people on the street. There are so many stories about how the poor have an elevated station with Allah, but what if they’re not even actually what they seem? What if they are actually angels? According to our religion, angels are among us. Who are they? We know they appear as strangers, people we don’t know. It is so important to me when I go around in my daily life to remember, we can’t tell people’s station with Allah just by looking at them. We can’t even tell if they are human.
In the Hadith of Gibreel, the companions (RA) thought he was human. They thought he was a man. When Ibrahim (AS) received news from the angels about the destruction of Lut’s people, he thought they were human at first. There’s a wonderful old James Stewart movie, called “It’s a Wonderful Life,” about this exact ideal: How angels appear in human form to help us.
Sometimes, I can get discouraged or feel hopeless. I was talking to a friend and she was saying, “Focus on the positive. Visualize angels around you.” And it’s a good point. At any given time we have, at a minimum, three angels around us. In the masjid, or at a spiritual gathering, there could be thousands, hundreds of thousands of angels in the air. Or maybe even next to us in salaat?
Angels are among us. It’s something to think about, to be more vigilant, to be more humble, to be more grateful. Alhamdulilah!
Sarah is a social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area with at-risk and homeless youth. She likes to paint, drum, sing, and spend quality time with her family and God in her free time. She is currently working on a book on Sufism, mindfulness and recovery from co-occurring disorders and on an album with her band EYETestify.