Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – The Muslim twittersphere was on fire this week with the news that Kanye West’s Adidas lines would offer two new sneakers, Yeezy Boost 350 V2 Israfil and Yeezy Boost 350 V2 Asriel. Israfil and Azrael are angels in the Islamic tradition. According to Dubai-based Alarabya, many Muslims found the names distasteful, and some began a petition against the lines with Adidas.
Rapper West just this year became a billionaire, in part on the income derived from the Yeezy sneakers lines at Adidas. A big Trump supporter, he appears to be part of a conspiracy to siphon off African-American votes from the Democrats by running as a third party candidate for president. Although neither outcome (that any substantial number of African-Americans will vote for him or that he will be elected president) seems likely, in this timeline we entered in 2016, nothing can be ruled out.
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WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 11: (AFP OUT) Rapper Kanye West speaks during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval office of the White House on October 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Oliver Contreras – Pool/Getty Images).
The Qur’an 32:11, after reprimanding pagans who did not believe in the Resurrection, says (Arberry): “Say: ‘Death’s angel, who has been charged with you, shall gather you, then to your Lord you shall be returned.'”
What do these angels mean to Muslim folk tradition? The Qur’an itself is a sober document, and while marvels play a part in it, it pays more attention to ethics and has few miracle stories. Medieval Muslim writers elaborated.
Although the Qur’an does not name this angel or say anything else about him, later Muslim tradition called him Azra’il often spelled in English as Azrael in English, as Roberto Tottoli explains in the third edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam. Azrael is one of four angels who bear on their shoulders the throne of God, along with Gabriel, Michael and Israfil.
So Kanye’s sneakers invoke two of the throne-bearing angels.
In Muslim folk tradition, Azrael is enormous. In some traditions he is a cyclops with one eye in the front of this head and one behind, and in some traditions he has four faces. He always got his way in the end, so if I were Kanye I wouldn’t invoke him too much. But sometimes he was thwarted. Bukhari’s collection of sound traditions contains a story that Azrael attempted to take Moses before that prophet was ready to go, and so Moses struck him in the face so hard he put out his eye. God then intervened to give Moses many more days on this earth.
When Azrael comes to pious believers, he comes in a pleasing form, and they greet him.
But when he comes to the wicked, he comes in a monstrous form.
As for his companion, Israfil (Seraphiel), this angel is responsible for blowing the trumpet that announced the day of resurrection. He blows this clarion three times when God signals him to do so. Until then, he waits beneath God’s throne, which some allege he props up on his back.
Israfil is of all the angels closest to God. He has a melodious voice and calls the prayer for the inhabitants of paradise. He has four green wings the color of a peacock’s, which are embedded with emeralds and rubies. Some say that the Preserved Tablet (the preexistent Qur’an) is embedded in his forehead.
But it seems to me that, like Azrael, he is the announcer of bad news, but on a cosmic rather than an individual scale. Azrael is the grim reaper who takes the soul of a person to the next world. Israfil rolls up the entire universe when he blasts his horn, summoning the dead from their graves to be judged and sent either to heaven or hell.
Many prominent rappers have been Muslims (Busta Rhymes, Ice Cube, Mos Def, Freeway, Akon), and Kanye’s former tour manager converted.
Trying to figure out why Mr. West does or says something is sort of like trying to figure out his hero, Donald Trump. I’m not sure what impelled him to commodify these sacred symbols in Muslim traditionalism, but if I were Adidas I’d avoid a consumer boycott by backtracking on this one.