How Does Archangel Gabriel Quiz Muhammad in the Hadith?

Detail from The Annunciation showing Archangel Gabriel, by Giovanni da Fiesole, known as Fra Angelico, 1437-1445, fresco
The Annunciation showing Archangel Gabriel. Getty Images

The Hadith (a collection of Muslim narratives about the prophet Muhammad) includes the Hadith of Gabriel, which describes how archangel Gabriel (also known as Jibril in Islam) quizzes Muhammad about Islam to test how well he understands the religion. Gabriel appeared to Muhammad over a 23-year period to dictate the Qur'an word by word, Muslims believe.

In this Hadith, Gabriel appears in disguise, checking to make sure that Muhammad has received his messages about Islam correctly. Here's what happens:

The Hadith of Gabriel

The Hadith of Gabriel's tells the story: "Umar ibn al-Khattab (the second rightly guided caliph) reported: One day when we were with Allah’s [God’s] messenger, a man with extremely white clothing and very black hair came to us. No traces of travel were visible on him, and none of us recognized him. Sitting down before the Prophet, (peace and blessings be upon him) leaning his knees against his, and placing his hands on his thighs, the stranger said, 'Tell me, Muhammad, about Islam.'

The Prophet replied, 'Islam means that you should bear witness that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is Allah’s messenger, that you should perform the ritual prayer, pay the alms tax, fast during Ramadan, and make the pilgrimage to the Ka’aba at Mecca if you are able to go there.'

The man said, 'You have spoken the truth.' (We were amazed at this man’s questioning the Prophet and then declaring that he had spoken the truth).

The stranger spoke a second time, saying, 'Now tell me about faith.'

The Prophet replied, 'Faith means that you have faith in Allah, His angels, His books, His messengers and the Last Day and that you have faith in fate as it is measured out, both its good and evil aspects.'

Remarking that the Prophet again had spoken the truth, the stranger then said, 'Now tell me about virtue.'

The Prophet replied, 'Virtue—doing what is beautiful—means that you should worship Allah as if you see Him, for even if you do not see Him, He sees you.'

Yet again the man said, 'Tell me about the Hour (that is, the coming of the Day of Judgment).'

The Prophet replied, 'About that he who is questioned knows no more than the questioner.'

The stranger said, 'Well, then tell me about its signs.'

The Prophet replied, 'The slave girl will give birth to her mistress, and you will see the barefoot, the naked, the destitute, and the shepherds vying with each other in building.'

At that, the stranger went away.

After I had waited for a while, the Prophet spoke to me: 'Do you know who the questioner was, Umar?' I replied, 'Allah and His messenger know best.' The Prophet said, 'He was Jibril [Gabriel]. He came to teach you your religion.'"

Thoughtful Questions

In the preface to the book Questions And Answers About Islam by Fethullah Gülen, Muhammad Cetin writes that the Hadith of Gabriel helps readers learn how to ask thoughtful spiritual questions.

"Gabriel knew the answers to these questions, but his purpose of disguising himself and posing these questions was to help others attain this information. A question is asked for a certain purpose. Asking a question for the sake of displaying one’s own knowledge or asking merely to test the other person is worthless. If a question is asked for the purpose of learning in order to let others find out the information (as in the example of Gabriel above, the questioner may already know the answer) it can be considered a question that has been posed in the correct manner. Questions of this kind are like seeds of wisdom."

Defining Islam

The Hadith of Gabriel summarizes Islam's major tenets. Juan Eduardo Campo writes in the book Encyclopedia of Islam:

"The Hadith of Gabriel teaches that religious practice and belief are interrelated aspects of the Islamic religion – one cannot be accomplished without the other."

In their book The Vision of Islam, Sachiko Murata and William C. Chittick write that Gabriel's questions and Muhammad's answers help people Islam as three different dimensions working together:

"The hadith of Gabriel suggests that in the Islamic understanding, religion embraces right ways of doing things, right ways of thinking and understanding, and right ways of forming the intentions that lie behind the activity. In this hadith, the Prophet gives each of the three right ways a name. Thus one could say that 'submission' is religion as it pertains to acts, 'faith' is religion as it pertains to thoughts, and 'doing the beautiful' is religion as it pertains to intentions. These three dimensions of religion coalesce into a single reality known as Islam."
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Hopler, Whitney. "How Does Archangel Gabriel Quiz Muhammad in the Hadith?" Learn Religions, Apr. 3, 2023, Hopler, Whitney. (2023, April 3). How Does Archangel Gabriel Quiz Muhammad in the Hadith? Retrieved from Hopler, Whitney. "How Does Archangel Gabriel Quiz Muhammad in the Hadith?" Learn Religions. (accessed June 9, 2023).