Salam Dear Nathaniel,
Thank you for this question that opens the door to clear some of the most important points in Muslims’ faith and practice.
The hadith you referred to is actually not a hadith; it is only a tradition reported from various scholars, but in no way ascribed to the Prophet (peace be upon him).
It is reported that Malik ibn Dinar, one of the successors, said: “Almighty Allah revealed to an angel to destroy one of the villages. So the angel wondered: ‘O my God, there is this slave of yours who has not disobeyed you for a single moment and he lived there.’ Almighty Allah (God) said to him: ‘Start with him, for he has never moved upon seeing other people violating my prohibitions.'”
The whole point in this tradition is the importance of being active in pushing the society forward and bringing people close to Allah. In Islam, worshiping Allah is an individual experience that has to have a collective effect.
When we take steps towards refining our souls and bettering our character, and we manage to achieve something, we should not be greedy to keep this to ourselves. Rather, we should work on how to make the society a better place as well. This has to have a reflection in the way we deal with the people around us.
A Muslim is not an island. He cannot say that he should live only for himself. In fact, a Muslim is required to engage actively in creating a positive change in the society, combating crime, fighting corruption, and preventing anything that will lead to the destruction of the society.
When a person fails to fulfill this task, yet claims that he or she is focusing on worship and developing his or her own self only, such a person is just fake in his or her understanding. Therefore, he or she is not better than those who insist on violating the teachings of Allah. He or she deserves punishment just like them.
Now, coming to the issue of the angels questioning Allah, Islam teaches us that any question that arises in our minds for a purpose should be voiced out and we should work to get an answer for it.
The most important thing here is the clarity of the purpose and the usefulness of the answer. These two points govern any searching or learning process.
Questions that aim at embarrassing the questioned or showing the knowledge of the questioner are not well-purposed, and will never be fruitful. Likewise, questions that try to discover areas that are beyond one’s understanding or mental abilities will not be fruitful; in fact, they may be dangerous.
When the angels asked Allah in the tradition you referred to, their questions were within these two main observations. They aimed at learning something and were trying to discover something not known to them, yet was within the limits of their understanding.
Because any created being is, in the end, limited within the boundaries of creature, there will always be areas that are hidden from our minds. Our minds will never stop generating question marks about things which are not known or understood.
Obviously, this “righteous” man in the village shows worship that will make people think that he deserves the blessed abode of the righteous. To see him facing a different destiny, question marks have to emerge in our minds, and puzzle us as to why such a man is taken in the same manner a wrongdoer is taken.
Of course, this has nothing to do with objecting to the will of God. The angels were wondering, not objecting. They were looking for mental enlightenment and indirectly confessing their limitedness as opposite to God’s limitlessness.
Therefore, Allah gave them the explanation and provided a convincing answer that, in addition to answering their question, added to their mental enlightenment. The Quran, which Muslims believe is the word of God, tells us in many places about angels asking Allah upon the creation of Adam what the purpose of this creation is.
When Allah tells us in the Quran that we cannot question His Commands, it does not mean we are prevented from using our minds. Rather, it refers to the fact that Allah is the absolute Creator, Sustainer and Provider in the universe. Therefore, His Commands are never violated or put to questioning their sensibility.
We try to understand the wisdom behind things that are not known to us. Will we understand that wisdom or not? It is something known to Allah. Yet, we should not stop looking for it within the boundaries of learning, and confessing our limitedness. If we fail to realize it, it does not mean it is not there. It is there; the problem is with our eyes, not with its clarity.
I hope this answers your question. Please, keep in touch.