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These angels are described as having solid black eyes, having a shoulder span measured in miles, and carrying hammers "so large, that if all of mankind tried at once to move them a single inch, they would fail". When they speak, tongues of fire come from their mouths. If one answers their questions incorrectly, one is beaten every day, other than Friday, until Allah (God) gives permission for the beating to stop.
Muslims believe that after a person dies, his soul passes through a stage called barzakh, where it exists in the grave (even if the person's body was destroyed, the soul will still rest in the earth near their place of death). The questioning will begin when the funeral and burial is over. Nakir and Munkar prop the deceased soul upright in the grave and ask three questions:
A righteous believer will respond correctly, saying that their Lord is Allah, that Muhammad is their prophet and that their religion is Islam. If the deceased answers correctly, the time spent awaiting the resurrection is pleasant and may enter heaven. Those who do not answer as described above are chastised until the day of judgment.
Muslims believe that a person will correctly answer the questions not by remembering the answers before death but by their iman (faith) and deeds such as salat (prayer) and shahadah (the Islamic profession of faith).
Munkar and Nakir bear some similarity to Zoroastrian divinities. Some of these, such as Mithra, Sraosha and Rashnu have a role in the judgement of souls. Rashnu is described as a figure who holds a set of scales, like some angels of the grave. E.G. Brown has suggested that a continuity exists between Rashnu and Munkar and Nakir. A mythical figure in Mandaean religion, Abathur Muzania is similar to Rashnu. He holds the same position in the world of the dead, and also holds a set of scales. Muzania means scales (mizan) in Aramaic. According to recent research, Munkar and Nakir are originally astrological figures and a transformation of the Mesopotamian astral god Nergal. Aksoy shows in his new research that the Mesopotamian god Nergal has almost the same characteristics as Munkar and Nakir. He begins with Nakru which is an epithet of Nergal and means 'enemy'. The Assyrian nakru, like the names Munkar and Nakir, comes from the same root, from the proto-Semitic NKR. Some scholars use a different spelling; nakuru. which is almost the same as Nakir. Moreover, Nergal is a lord of the Underworld and the grave (Assyrian qabru: grave). Like Munkar and Nakir, he has a terrifying voice that can cause panic among men and gods. He holds a shining mace and his breath can burn his enemies. Because he is related to fire most scholars suggest that he was originally a sun god. Furthermore, he is identified with the celestial twins (Gemini) in the Babylonian astral mythology which forms a direct link to Munkar and Nakir. There is no reference to Munkar and Nakir in the Quran. Their names are first mentioned by Tirmidhi in the hadith tradition. Tirmidhi is known to have visited Iraq. This suggests that the names of Munkar and Nakir are introduced to Islamic beliefs during an early stage in the Islamization of Mesopotamia (or Iraq). The Mesopotamians still believed in the sun god Shamash, as well as Nergal and several other Babylonian gods at the time Islam was introduced. Thus, Nergal the god of the Underworld who is symbolized by the planet Mars, is a possible prototype for Munkar and Nakir. Astrologically, Munkar and Nakir share more clues in their Martian characteristics which connect them to Nergal.