By Shaykh Haidar Hobbollah
Transcribed and translated by Ali Jabbar (UK)
This is a transcript of a commentary on Sūrah al-Masad given by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah over four lessons.
The chapter has been referred to as:
- Al-Lahab by a number of scholars and this name is taken from the word Lahab which is mentioned twice in the chapter
- Sūrah al-Masad, due to the last word mentioned in the chapter. This is the famous name of the chapter and what the Qurāns of today have written in them.
- Sūrah Allati Dhukira Fīhā al-Masad
- Sūrah Tabbar or Sūrah Tabbat Yadā Abī Lahab wa Tabb, this can be found in some of the early narrations
- In Majma’ al-Bayān and other Qurānic commentaries it is called Sūrah Abī Lahab
There is a consensus that the chapter was revealed in Makkah, and it is estimated that it was the 4th year after the proclamation of Prophethood based on some historical narrations. That would make it one of the earliest chapters of the Makkan period.
It is very important to know when the chapter was revealed, because it is considered as one of the miracles of the Qurān since it gives information about the future. Hence, determining when the chapter was revealed is important to see whether it really informs of the future or not.
Consensus ought to not scare us – we need to analyse these based on the evidence available, as it will be discussed later.
As for the merits of the chapter, there is a famous tradition from the Prophet (p) and as well as al-Bāqir (a) which says: “Whoever recites it, I hope that Allah will not gather him and Abu Lahab in the same abode.”
The narration regarding the reason for its revelation say that the Prophet (p) had 3 years of secret propagation – assuming this is true, there is dispute on this – after which the Qurān said: [26:214] And warn, [O Muhammad], your closest kindred. The Prophet came out early in the morning at the edges of Mecca and said, ‘O morning!’ The people came – and in another narration it says only the Banū Hāshim came – and gathered around him. When they asked him what had happened, he (p) said, ‘If I were to tell you that you were about to be attacked, or that an event will take place, will you believe me?’ They replied, ‘Yes.’
He (p) warned them of a great punishment and then he announced his prophecy. The reports says, Abū Lahab – who was a prominent person – said to the Prophet, ‘May you perish (tabban lak), is this what you have gathered us for?’
In another report it says Abu Lahab gathered some stones with his hands – and this is important in relation to the Qurānic Sūrah – and threw them at the Prophet (p) causing him to bleed. This second report is a later narration and does not exist in the earliest accounts that narrate the initial event. Based on this event, the chapter came down as a response to what he said to the Prophet and what he did. This is the description that has been reported.
Being absolutely certain of this description is very difficult – in Shī’ī sources it appears in very late works with no chains of narrators, whereas in Sunnī sources there are very reports, some of them narrated by Ibn ‘Abbās who was not even born at the time. Perhaps he or someone else may have been doing some type of ijtihād in order to understand the chapter.
All of the above is of course based on the hypothesis of secrecy of prophecy and then an announcement. On this account, there is no peculiarity to what Abu Lahab did, because this is the first time he hears of the matter. This kind of reaction might even be considered natural to some extent, because there was no miracle presented. But the throwing of stones might be strange considering the Prophet (p) was his nephew. The idea that the Qurān responded in such a harsh manner to what he said, considering this backdrop, may also seem strange. All this requires contemplation. The story unfortunately does not give us enough details for us to deliberate too much – in fact we will later show why this narrative was given. The story most definitely cannot be authenticated in a proper manner.
Who was Abu Lahab and his Wife
Abu Lahab was the direct uncle of the Prophet and his name was disputed. The famous opinion was that his name ‘Abd al-Uzza b. ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib, and that Abū Lahab was his kunya. It is also said that his name was ‘Abd al-Munāf b. ‘Abd al-Muṭṭalib and that Abū Lahab was not his real kunya. Rather, he was called Abū Lahab because of his white skin which was unique in an environment where most were brown-skinned, and that due to the heat his face would turn red as though it was a flame of fire. Hence, he came to be known as Abū Lahab while his real kunya was Abū ‘Utba (since his son’s name was ‘Utba).
He was a staunch enemy of the Prophet for a very long time. As per historical reports, when people would come to ask about the Prophet, Abū Lahab would answer, given his prominence, and tell them to not visit him (p) as he is crazy and a magician. The famous opinion is that he died a few days after the battle of Badr – this would make it after the migration of the Prophet (p). This information is relevant for us as when we want to date the Sūrah.
As for his wife – Umm Jamīl, her name is ‘Arwah bt. Ḥarb bt. Umayya – the sister of Abū Sufyān and aunt of Mu’āwiyah – and there is a consensus on this matter. It is also said that she was called ‘Awrā’ or al-‘Awwā’, though I think taṣḥīf may have occurred on this issue. She is historically known for gathering logs, especially thorns from palm trees and for placing them in the path of the Prophet (p) where he would walk. She would place the logs on her head or her back and tie them with a rope. Though she would feel pain from the gathering of these logs, she would still do it, as per the narrations.
Ḥammālah al-Ḥatab in Arabic can also have another meaning which we will detail later. It can refer to a person who slanders, because a slanderer is like someone who lights a fire. The Arabs call a person who causes conflict (fitnah) between people with that term. She would engage in this with regards to the Prophet, going to others and speaking very bad about the Prophet to cause problems as reported in a number of narrations. Thus, we have two pictures of her. It is also very possible that these narrations are actual fabrications in order to give a reasonable exegesis for this chapter.
In a report it is mentioned that when this chapter was revealed, she came to the Prophet to hurt him, but she did not find him and instead composed a critical poem of him.
In any case, both husband and wife were prominent members of the Quraysh and very wealthy.
Believing these historical narrations, without any chains, from the tābi’īn and the companions, who were exegetes themselves, is very difficult. It is possible that these reports and narrations are a kind of exegesis based on how they understood the story and subsequently they were treated as narrations. This is a very real possibility we need to consider.
The Message of the Chapter
The explicit and clear message of this chapter is that he who has wealth and status will not benefit from it. All of it will perish and bring misery on him.
The implicit message is that the Qurān generally does not mention names of contemporaries of the Prophet, not his supporters, or detractors. This is very different to the Old Testament and the Bible. The Qurān only mentions names of such individuals in two instances, [33:37] in the story of Zayd b. Ḥāritha and the second time is in this chapter of Abū Lahab.
It is possible that the reason why Abū Lahab’s name is mentioned is to point out that being a relative of the Prophet (p) is not a means of salvation. Here is uncle, who is a person very close to the Prophet, will end up in hellfire. For Arabs, this would come as a big surprise, given how they would generally treat their relatives and tribe members. This chapter helps breaks the idea that being close to someone will bring salvation. The opposite of this was also seen in the case of Salman al-Farsi and Bilal al-Ḥabashī who were not relatives nor even Arabs, yet their deeds and character allowed them to be from amongst the noble ones.
Shaykh Qarā’atī says this chapter tells us that rules and regulations are prior to connections and relationships. Unfortunately, this culture which prioritizes connections and relationships over rules and regulation still exists. For example, there is this insistence amongst some that the story of Imam Ḥusayn (a) was a type of battle between two families and some narrations helped deepen this picture. There is also a letter attributed by Imam ‘Alī (a) to Mu’āwīyah saying “…and from us is the greatest of women and from you is ḥammālah al-ḥatab.”
If we are to accept such narrations, then we should read these reports as the Imams (a) trying to use the logic of the opponent, by bringing themselves down to their way of communication, or else this logic is faulty.
There are two important topics worth highlighting delving into this chapter:
1) Is this chapter an example of a miracle foretelling the unseen?
2) Some have said this chapter is one of the chapters where the Qurān resorts to insults and abuse. Two groups are united in this view, one of them who defend the Qurān and the others being the Orientalists who are against the Qurān. The latter say that the Prophet was affected by the Makkan society, a society which was rough and low in civility and its language was uncivilised, compared to the Medinan society, which was civilised and polite.
The Qurānic verses in Mecca use this type of language. Whereas the verses that came down in Medina use different language because the Prophet was affected by the Medinan society. Furthermore, some Muslims who apostatized also focus on this element of the Qurān, and since they claim to be against insults and abuse, they were naturally against the Qurān as well.
From amongst those who defend the Qurān some also believe this chapter contains insults. They say the Qurān established this method and that it is civilised method, one of its instances being this chapter. Thus, these two conflicting groups are united on this view. This is an important topic that we must address to see whether this chapter is even relevant to this issue or not. This will come later in detail.
Verse 1 – Tabbat Yadā Abī Lahab Wa Tabb
What Does Tabb Mean?
Linguistically is means loss and destruction. Some say it is losing continuously until reaching the end point of destruction while others say it is continuous loss. Others say it is despondency, but this seems to be the result of continuous loss. The Arabs also say for a woman: shābbah am tābbah – is she young or nearly perishing?
The Qurān also uses the term in some other verses.
[40:37] And the plan of Pharaoh was not except in ruin (tabāb).
[11:101] And they did not increase them in other than ruin (tatbīb).
Hence, the initial meaning of the verse becomes, the hands of Abū Lahab are in loss, he is in such a loss that will perish him, and he will end up despondent.
Why the Hands of Abu Lahab?
Why does the chapter begin with reference to Abū Lahab’s hands? Based on historical narrations, it would be based on the fact that he threw stones at the Prophet (p). But let us look only at the Qurān to see what it means for the hands to be in loss. We do not need such narrations to understand it. Yadd in the Arabic language is the means by which we attain and obtain things and power. Given that a lot of the times what we obtain is through our hands, it is often used to symbolise what we obtained and did. Hence yadd here is representative of the actions of a person. Tabbat Yadda Abī Lahab means thus the actions of Abū Lahab are in loss. What is the evidence for this?
In Arabic when we want to lament a person, we say to them, this is what your hands brought you, metaphorically speaking to say that this is the result of your own actions, i.e. you are blameworthy. In the Qurān we see instances of this as well:
[3:73] Indeed, [all] bounty is in the hand of Allah
[5:64] And the Jews say, “The hand of Allah is chained.”
[17:29] And do not make your hand [as] chained to your neck.
Here the word hand is a reference to actions of man. Do not make your actions that of a stingy person and not that of someone who is wasteful.
[22:10] That is for what your hands have put forth.
That is to say, it was your deeds that did this. Hence in Arabic yadd is not limited just to the physical organ but speaks of a person’s actions and powers.
[18:57] and forgets what his hands have put forth?
This verse is referring to all of man’s deeds, not just what his physical hands did.
[78:40] We have warned you of a near punishment on the Day when a man will observe what his hands have put forth.
[30:41] Corruption has appeared throughout the land and sea by [reason of] what the hands of people have earned.
Hence, this verse relates to all of the actions of Abū Lahab – this is a very natural expression and we ought not to focus specifically on something his hands performed. Thus, this composition itself does not provide any support to that historical narration – which comes in later sources – that says he threw stones at the Prophet (p). The Qurānic picture is thus much wider than this.
Repetition of Tabb
Why is there a repetition with the verb tabb? The first use of it seems enough and is very understandable. There are various answers given to this:
1) This relates to the composition of the chapter. If it was deleted, the first verse would end on Lahab akin to the third verse and this is ineloquent in the Arabic language and would not accord with the musical composition of the verse and hence tabb was placed.
This is possible but we do not propose it as we shall see.
2) A universal condemnation is mentioned after a particular one. The first mentions a particular – his hands – and then the entirety of him is mentioned, given that they understood his physical hands from the verse. This is a form of advancement in condemnation, to say not only his hands lost, but he also lost too.
3) The interpretation perhaps closest to the truth is that the first part is that his actions are in loss and in addition to that, he himself is in loss and going to perish. Sometimes we can say that a person’s actions are in loss with no benefit without the person himself being in loss or perishing. However, this verse is saying not only are his actions without value, but he himself is also at loss.
Similar to [11:21] Those are the ones who will have lost themselves, and lost from them is what they used to invent, and [5:53] Their deeds have become worthless, and they have become losers.
Hence the repetition of the verb would render the meaning of the verse as: the entirety of his actions are in loss and fruitless, but beyond that he himself is lost, because he will be placed in hellfire.
Is This Verse Creative (Inshā’) or Declarative (Ikhbār)?
This is a very important question to tackle.
One group of scholars believes this verse is creative (inshā’) – as it is a form of cursing (la’n). It was through this position that the idea of insult and abuse came about. It is akin to me saying to someone, may you perish (tabban lakk). Some have even said that the chapter does not begin with qul (say) because Allah did not want the Prophet (p) to curse Abū Lahab and so He (swt) did it Himself.
The second group of scholars believes that it is declarative (ikhbār) and the previous issue of insult and abuse is not raised at all.
What is more likely? Since the prima-facie of the sentence is declarative, we need additional evidence to claim it is creative – and we say there is no such evidence. The reason why the first group of scholars understood it as creative is based on the historical sources because they say Abū Lahab said tabban lak to the Prophet, and the Prophet replied back to him through this verse with a similar response.
However, the verse does not speak directly to Abū Lahab and rather mentions him in third person which aids our view that it is not creative. Further, the subsequent verse relates to it being a report and declarative statement. The later verses imply that this person’s actions are in loss and he is in loss, his wealth did not benefit him at all neither what he accrued. Hence, the understanding of this verse as declarative is very natural and reasonable.
Use of Kunya
We see that the verse uses a kunya, whereas when the Arabs wanted to respect someone, they would not use their name, rather the person’s kunya. This does not seem to accord with the context of this chapter, which is to criticise Abū Lahab. It seems more suitable to use his name rather than his kunya. In response, exegetes gave different answers:
1) One answer was that whilst the verse does use a kunya, it accorded perfectly with the chapter, which is lahab – meaning flame. Such a kunya is implicitly a critique, like calling someone Abū Jahannam. Moreover, if we look at the subsequent verse, it mentions that he will be in a fire of flame, and thus it accords in this respect.
Such an answer is possible, but it seems unlikely that it is being used as a critique given that this was a kunya he was well known for and this is an unlikely ta’wīl.
2) The second view is that this is not a kunya rather it is his name. Some people’s names are similar to kunyas, like people are called Abū al-Qāsim, Abū al-Faḍl and so on. As such, the use of Abū Lahab is not for respect, rather it is simply his name, and thus the objection does not exist.
This is also possible, but based on historical sources Abū Lahab’s name has been mentioned as ‘Abd al-‘Uzza.
3) Some later exegetes have questioned whether kunya even implies respect. In Islam, kunyas are for respect, based on Islamic narrations and Islamic education, but this is not something in the Arabic culture. When this chapter was revealed, the kunya did not have any such connotation of respect, and hence the objection does not have a basis.
Once again, this response is possible but based on historical evidence, it seems that the kunya was for respect even in the pre-Islamic Arab culture. In traditions, what exists is the recommendation of giving children a kunya so that they are not given a bad nickname by someone and they become well known for their kunya.[note]Shaykh Haider references vol. 17 of Turāthuna where Sayyid Muḥammad Riḍā Jalālī has an article on kunyas and its history among the Arabs.[/note]
Moreover, even if we grant this third point validity, why would the Qurān use the kunya when in an Islamic culture it is considered a sign of respect? As such, this response is inadequate.
4) Historical sources tell us his name was ‘Abd al-‘Uzza. If the Qurān used his name, then there would be an unwanted mentioning of the fact there is servitude and servanthood to something other than Allah. Allah in the Qurān wants to establish that servanthood is only to him. The Qurān thus does not want to mention his name, lest it remains established through time. In other words, it does not want to mention a name that ideologically conflicts with the intention of the Qurān, since names have real importance.
Therefore, in narrations we have been recommended to name our children after the saints and friends of Allah, and to avoid using names of enemies.
Although, once again, there is no real evidence for this view, it does offer a reasonable explanation and if conjoined to the fifth response, we might have a complete answer.
5) Abū Lahab was not known by any other name or kunya. He was known by this and thus the Qurān wanted to refer to him so had to use his kunya. In history, there are many personalities whose names are heavily disputed, but their kunyas are very well known. For example, there are twenty opinions on the real name of Abū Ḥurayrah. One scholar says that there is no person whose name has been disputed more in Islam than Abū Ḥurayrah’s. Today when we refer to him as Abū Ḥurayrah, it is not because of respect, but rather simply because this is the only way we can refer to him.
If we combine the fourth and fifth response together, we may be able to come up with a plausible and reasonable justification for why the Qurān uses Abū Lahab to refer to him.
Verse 2 – Mā Aghna ‘Anhu Māluhu wa Mā Kasab
His wealth will not avail him or that which he gained.
Mā in this verse is for negation, i.e. his wealth did not avail him. It is not conjunctive (mawṣūla) meaning alladhī, or else it would grant the exact opposite meaning of what is intended. Furthermore, it is not a word to indicate a rhetorical question – as some exegetes have said – which would mean in this instance, ‘Did his wealth avail him?’ This would be a kind of condemnatory rhetorical question.
The reason why it cannot be the other types of Mā is because the sentence is declarative (khabarīyyah), preceded and succeeded by a sentence that is also declarative. Hence, there is no need to suppose something else and this is the majority opinion.
Meaning of Aghna
The verb aghna implies someone or something did not benefit a person in such a way that it removed their needs. If I say ‘ilmī aghnanī ‘anka – it means my knowledge has made be needless of you and that I am self-sufficient. Thus, Abū Lahab’s wealth did not benefit him and prevent him from reaching the blazing fire. He remains in need and requires saving from the fire. It is negating his self-sufficiency and the idea that he lacks need.
Al-Māl in Arabic means all kinds of possessions that a person owns. If that is the case, then why does the verse subsequently mention what he gains (kasab)? A person gains wealth, so what is the need to mention “what he gained” in addition to “wealth” that has already been mentioned? Everything a person gains, in the Arabic language, is a form of wealth. Is this not a form of repetition?
Over here, there are two views:
1) They are of the same meaning. What a person gains is his wealth and his wealth is what he gains. The repetition is either for emphasis or a meaning akin to saying, ‘His wealth will not avail him, wealth which he gained.’ In other words, it is an exegetical conjunction (‘atf al-tafsīr).
2) There is a distinction between wealth and what he gains. What is it that he gains that is different?
- a) The kasb refers to his children – ‘Utbah and ‘Utaybah – they will not help him from the hellfire. Some critics of the Qurān even used this understanding to say that the Prophet (p) hated Abū Lahab because he (p) was poor and had no children so the chapter showed that Abū Lahab’s children will be of no benefit.
This view is weak because the Arabic language, nor the composition of the sentence, or the Qurān itself, use such a term to refer to children. Perhaps one reason for why this view was held is because of the presumption some hold that there is no repetition in the Qurān. We have previously discussed this in our commentary on Sūrah al-Inshirāḥ
- b) Kasb is a reference to one’s actions and this is how the Qurān has used the term repeatedly. The verse means that neither his wealth nor any deed that he performs will save him from fire. Some verses which use it to mean actions are:
[52:21] Every person, for what he earned, is retained
[5:38] …amputate their hands in recompense for what they committed as a deterrent…
[2:134 and 141] It will have what it earned
This view accords perfectly with the verse and with the language.
Verse 3 – Sayaṣla Nāran Dhāta Lahab
He will burn in a Fire of [blazing] flame
This verse demonstrates to us perfectly how Abū Lahab is in loss and how his wealth and actions will not help him. Yaṣla can come from a root which can have two different meanings and perhaps they can both bought to a single meaning.
One meaning is that of praying and comes from Ṣalāt – which is worship. The second meaning is related to fire. We say, ṣallayto al-‘ūd bi al-nār (صَلَّيْتُ العُودَ بالنار) which translates to ‘I burnt the stick with fire’, but more literally means I connected the stick with the fire, conveying the notion of the stick being next to the fire. Thus, to use yaṣla here means Abū Lahab will burn in the fire such that he and the fire will be together.
In the story of Mūsa, when he (p) sees the fire, he wants to go near it either to get some news or bring some burning wood back so [28:29] …that you may warm yourselves. It is as though he (p) was lost while traveling and it was cold, so he was searching for his route, and if he was unable to find the route he (p) would bring back some burning wood to keep his family warm. In this verse, the verb taṣṭalūn is used, which means to get very close to the fire, to the extent that it warms you up. In our verse, Abū Lahab will touch the fire and be connected with it.
The opposite of ṣalā is thus to be far from, or to avoid. Janābah actually means distance, and in the legal sense it means to be distant from a state of purity. This opposite between ṣalā and janābah is seen in Sūrah al-Layl very clearly:
[92:14] So I have warned you of a Fire which is blazing.
[92:15] None will burn (yaṣlā) therein except the most wretched one.
[92:16] Who had denied and turned away.
[92:17] But the righteous one will avoid it (yujannibu)
The nouns fire (nār) and flame (lahab) are made indefinite to magnify them. Keeping nouns indefinite – as we have mentioned elsewhere – allows the imagination go far and thus makes the matter more grand and more intimidating.
All fires naturally have a flame (lahab), so mentioning it in this verse so explicitly is also either to make the ending of the verse in accord with the rest of the verses or to further the intimidating picture that the verse is trying to paint. Or it could eve just be for both these reasons.
Verse 4 – Wa Amra’atuhu Ḥammālah al-Ḥaṭab
And his wife – the carrier of firewood
The “and” in this verse is connected to what will happen with Abū Lahab – meaning Abū Lahab will taste the fire and so will his wife. This is not disputed.
Why Is Her Name Not Mentioned?
Some have said because the Arab culture does not mention names of females, her name has also therefore not been mentioned. Perhaps this was indeed a custom, but to say that is the reason why her name has not been mentioned is just a supposition when attributed to the Qurān, because the Qurān mentioned the name of Maryam many times. Furthermore, we have endless narrations mentioning the names of females.
Instead we can say that her name was not mentioned because as noted previously, it is the general custom of the Qurān to not mention the names of those contemporary to it.
Meaning of Ḥammālah al-Ḥaṭab
There are two possibilities of what this phrase means:
1) It is being used in its literal meaning, carrier of wood, as per the historical report. Also, since ḥammālah is on the pattern of fa’aālā, it implies that she was doing this action repeatedly.
2) Some have said the woman’s very job was to gather logs and it has nothing to do with her gathering them to annoy the Prophet (p). The Qurān wanted to mock her for such a profession because it is a lowly one. As such, this is an instance of an insult and vilification in the Qurān.
While the Arabs did have a culture where they would call lowly professions as Arabs did have a culture where they would call lowly professions mihan which comes from mahānah – that is disgraceful (hawān). Therefore the Arabic language has this word to refer to lowly professions, and such a culture exists today in the world, amongst different cultures.
However, Islam does not hold such a worldview. There is no embarrassment to any lawful profession which brings one’s family sustenance. On the contrary, the Qurān says [49:11] and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames.
Yes, according some narrations, there are some jobs which are disliked, but those traditions also provide reasons. For example, selling coffins is disliked as a profession because one would come to love the death of Muslims just so they can sell coffins.
Or for example, it is mentioned in the traditions that people of dignity and nobility have an agent (wakil) to carry out certain duties and tasks, but once again this was for the reason that a respected person does not end up in ethically questionable positions.
In any case, there is no historical evidence whatsoever that she had this job. She was the sister of Abū Sufyān so she could not have been poor that she would have had to work. She was one of the nobles of her tribe and her husband had a lot of wealth as mentioned in the chapter itself. Historical narrations only mentioned she gathered wood to place them on the path of the Prophet (p), and not that this was her profession.
3) The Arabs call those who gossip and slander as the carrier of wood. This is because gossip creates fire between people, which leads to conflicts and problems. Hence, they coined this term as a metaphorical description for one who engages in gossip. This is a critical description of her and explains why she will go to hell, because of this specific crime. There are narrations that support the fact that she would cause enmity against the Prophet (p) in the community.
The first and third interpretations are possible, while the second one has no evidence.
Some have argued that Abū Lahab was stingy and would not spend on his wife, so she was forced to gather logs, due to which the verse has mentioned this description of her. However, this has no historical evidence whatsoever.
Ḥammālah also has two readings, one with a ḍamma (ḥammālatu) and one with a fatḥa (ḥammālatah). The reading of ‘Āṣim present in most Qurāns today is with fatḥa, but the rest of the readings are with ḍamma.
If the word is read with a ḍamma then it is to be considered the beginning of a new sentence. In which case it would read as, ‘and she is the bearer of wood,’ while this new sentence tells us why she will enter the hell-fire. However, if we read it in the recital of ‘Āṣim – with a fatḥa – there are different ways to interpret it:
1) The fatḥa can be a result of the deleted verb “I mean” which would read as: ‘and his wife, I mean by his wife the bearer of wood’. This would be done to critique her and mention what exactly she did wrong. Some have opined that this was done to signal which wife is intended because Abū Lahab had three wives, but this is a very unlikely possibility, since this description tells us precisely why she deserves to go hell and not intended to pick out which wife, especially given she was known for her enmity.
2) Some have said ḥammālah is read with fatḥa because it is a ḥāl (circumstantial clause). Meaning, the verse is saying, Umm Jamīl will be burnt in the fire with a blazing flame, while she is carrying wood.
If this is the case, the question remains whether this burning whilst carrying wood is occurring in this world or in the hereafter? How are we to understand it? The answer will come in the next verse
Verse 5 – Fī Jīdihā Ḥabl Min Masad
Around her neck is a rope of [twisted] fiber.
Jīd is the neck, and its plural is Ajyād, al-jaydā’ is a woman with a long neck and al-ajyad is a man with a long neck.
As for Masad, some have said it means fibre, hence a rope made of fibre which would be bought from Yemen. Others have said this description tells us the way the rope had been strung, and not the type of rope. As per the second understanding, masad would be a rope that is strung so well such that it becomes wide and strong.
Nevertheless, what is important is that it means there is a rope around her neck, either a specific type of fibre, or a rope tied together very strongly.
What do these last two verses – bearer of wood and around her neck is a rope of fibre – actually mean? Is this description referring to something occurring in this world or the hereafter. There are a number of views on this:
1) The common view is that this is a depiction of her life, that is, she gathered wood and then would carry them by wrapping a very strong rope around her neck. This image is conjured up to depict the acts of enmity that she carried out in her life. And thus the verse fī jīdihā ḥabl min masad becomes a circumstantial phrase, meaning she would carry wood while there would be a rope tied strongly around her neck.
Such a view is not problematic in terms of the Arabic sentence structure and is also in line with the historical reports.
2) The other view is that this picture depicts her in the afterlife. That is, she will be punished in hellfire and there she will be forced to carry wood while there is a thick rope around her neck.
This view was adopted by some major Qurānic exegetes. It is as though this is a form of embodiment of one’s actions in the hereafter, the deeds she performed in the world are being embodied in the hereafter. This makes both these sentences circumstantial clauses for what will occur in the hereafter.
3) This is an image of her both in this world and the hereafter. Just like in the world she would carry logs with a rope around her neck, she will do the same in the hereafter. This position is difficult to accept because the language does not support it discussing both the world and the hereafter.
Miracle by Foretelling the Future
One of the important question is whether this chapter contain a miracle concerning it its conveyance of what will occur in the future? We will assume that in the Qurān there is such a type of miracle, otherwise this itself is a subject that needs to be studied and researched in the Qurānic sciences. Assuming that there is such a thing, is this verse an instance of it?
Many scholars considered this chapter to be an instance of such a miracle, which then a common issue discussed by exegetes. This is because when the chapter was revealed, it is possible that Abū Lahab could have converted to Islam and not be worthy of punishment, at least even by hearing this chapter alone. Despite this he did not convert and died on his disbelief, deserving of hellfire. This reveals that Allah (swt) knew that even after the revelation of this chapter Abū Lahab will die a disbeliever. Therefore, this is an instance of a miracle by foretelling the future.
Analysis: if we were to stick solely with the chapter and ignore the historical reports and what exegetes have said, is there a way to know whether this chapter came down before or after Abū Lahab’s death? Someone could claim that this chapter was revealed in Medina after the death of Abū Lahab.
Someone can say that there is a letter used in this chapter which indicates this chapter was revealed during his lifetime. The letter sīn in sa-yaṣla would not have been used if he was already dead when the chapter was revealed. If he was already dead, the verse should have just used the present tense yaṣla, like it does in another verse [40:46] The Fire, they are exposed to it. That is to say, they are in hell now, and then the verse speaks of their subsequent punishment on the Day of Judgement. This tells us that the chapter came down during his life.
One way to respond to this argument is to deny there is life in Barzakh or that only some people will have Barzakh, but we cannot be sure of who.
There are three major views on the topic of Barzakh:
1) Everyone will either be in heaven or hell during Barzakh, this is the most prevalent view
2) The theologian Ḍirār b. ‘Umar said there is no life in Barzakh. People are asleep and they are awakened on Day of Judgement.
3) A third view adopted by some scholars such as Shaykh Mufīd and others is that some people will have life in Barzakh – the extremely good and the extremely bad one. The rest will be asleep until the Day of Judgement.
So prior to accepting this argument the topic of Barzakh must be investigated and one must arrive at a conclusion.
Moreover, it is possible that since Abū Lahab died he has been in the hell of Barzakh, whereas the verse is referring to the hellfire of the Day of Judgement. This is backed up with the alibi of the indefinite use of the noun previously, or else how do we know this is referring to the hell of Barzakh? One cannot be certain of this matter.
So from the chapter alone we cannot have certainty even if there are some indicators suggesting it was revealed during his life.
If we go outside the chapter and look at the historical reports and the words of the exegetes then we will find a consensus that this chapter was revealed in Makkah, during the lifetime of Abū Lahab himself. The historical narrations and reports on reasons for its revelation all say this, while there is no narration that tells us this chapter was revealed in Medina. If we add all these reports to the use of sīn in the very sa-yaṣla, we have good reason to believe that the chapter was revealed during his life time and that it is an instance of a miracle. Even if we do not have complete certainty, we can still say we have a high degree of assurance.
Of course, someone may dispute all this by saying that the consensus of exegetes has no value in of itself for they relied on the historical narrations that we have at our disposal. A lack of narration telling us it came in Medina is also not problematic as there are many verses and chapters in the Qurān for which we have no narrations telling us when they were revealed.
As for the narrations discussing the causes of its revelation then the Shī’ī traditions are all weak and the rest are all rooted in Sunni traditions. The overwhelming majority of the Sunni traditions return to Ibn ‘Abbās. There is a huge discussion on the different dimensions of his personality. He was born around the time of migration and the famous view is that it was during the very last period of Makkah. When the Prophet (p) died, Ibn ‘Abbās was about 10 years old. If that is the case, how was he able to see and narrate all these events, particularly when he had not even witnessed many of these events?
Anas b. Mālik is another person like Ibn ‘Abbās who narrates many traditions, but at the very least he was a servant of the Prophet (p) and lived very closely to him (p) so would have heard and seen the events occurring around the Prophet. Ibn ‘Abbas is not known for being close to the Prophet (p) during his life and was a young child.
Some researchers believe Ibn ‘Abbās was a personality made by the ‘Abbāsid dynasty, so they can claim they also have a kind of ‘ḥibr al-ummah’ (doctor of the nation) who can resolve academic issues – similar to how the Imāmīs have Imam ‘Alī (a) and consider him to be the most knowledgeable one who could resolve problems.
It is also possible that Ibn ‘Abbās did a lot of ijtihād in his views. We are not saying – God forbid – that he is a liar, however, he was not alive when this claimed event took place and it is possible he heard about such a story and made the link himself as to how the chapter was revealed. There is a possibility that a large amount of his narrations are ijtihādāt, or they are narrations from the companions, but he does not make it clear.
If you accept the view of ‘adālah al-ṣaḥāba like the Sunnīs do, that Ibn ‘Abbās’ reports may not be problematic, however, if you do not accept this principle like the Shī’a then it is a problem, because he could have narrated narrations from companions who were young like him or did not have good memories or were simply not trustworthy.
The entire topic of Ibn ‘Abbās is really important and worthy of a proper analytical study.
Insult and Vilification
Some Muslim scholars have claimed this chapter contains insult, abuse and vilification of Abū Lahab and his wife, which legitimises such an act against deviants. In other words, it is a Qurānic edict. This is different than cursing (la’n) which is considered permissible in exceptional cases, rather they are saying insulting and abusing are also permissible in exceptional cases.
There are also those who have critiqued the Qurān in light of this chapter.
You have some Orientalists who say the Prophet (p) was influenced by the Makkans and as per their claim given the Qurān is by the Prophet (p), the language is also influenced by his time in Makkah. The Makkans were tough not famed for civility, so abuse and insults were common and hence why the Prophet also used these terms. In Medina, there was many more civilised people, particularly with the presence of Jews, and as such he was influenced by their speech. Subsequently, the Prophet’s speech became more civilised. These Orientalists cite this chapter as evidence for their claim.
Some others who belong to the Muslim world also cited this chapter to critique the Qurān. Rachid Hammami, a Moroccan, is a Muslim son of an Imām, but he later became Christian. He is a televangelist and presents on a Christian TV programme, focusing on critiquing Islam. He wrote a critical article of Sūrah al-Masad and said the Prophet (p) used all kinds of insults in this chapter and later discussed this article on his programme which is called Su’āl Jarī.
Rachid offers a number of arguments for his view:
1) He says this is a chapter in which the Prophet reveals and makes his hatred for his uncle explicit, using abusive and insulting terms. While at the same time he (p) does not offer any religious knowledge in this chapter. Where are the ethical and spiritual teachings in this chapter? This chapter is merely a personal battle between the Prophet and his uncle.
2) The Qurān is full of violence, harshness, anger and this chapter is a mere example of this, for it is full of threats of violence and insult.
3) The chapter paints a picture of God as if He has no other business other than worrying about the fact that Abū Lahab said tabban lak to the Prophet. Abū Lahab. God left all the major issues of the cosmos just to threaten Abū Lahab. This is damaging to the image of God and does not depict an exalted God.
4) The harshness and violence are manifested in the picture of his wife hanging by a thick rope on the Day of Judgement. This makes it very clear that the Qurān is a book of violence etc.
5) Why did the Prophet have enmity for Abū Lahab? Firstly, Abū Lahab was wealthy and had two boys whilst the Prophet had neither, therefore he began to hate his uncle. This goes back to the interpretation of kasab to mean children, he utilised this understanding of the word kasab to make this argument.
Secondly, Abū Lahab belittled the Prophet. Abū Lahab and ‘Abdullah the father of the Prophet (p) were brothers from different mothers, but the same father. Abū Lahab refused to adopt the Prophet when ‘Abdullah died whilst Abu Ṭālib – who was also really poor – accepted to adopt him. This left a bitter taste in the Prophet – according to the objector – and hence he hated his uncle.Thirdly, Abū Lahab had three sons Mu’attib, ‘Utba and ‘Utaybah. ‘Utba married Ruqayyah the daughter (or adopted daughter) of the Prophet. After the Prophet (p) claimed prophecy, Abū Lahab ordered his son to divorce her. ‘Utayba who was married to Umm Kulthūm, similarly, was asked to divorce her. She was divorced and subsequently married ‘Uthmān. This also increased the hatred of the Prophet (p) towards his uncle. The objector even says that the chapter was revealed after the divorce and it shows us why there was anger towards his uncle. He says, even if it was revealed before divorce then it shows us why Abū Lahab acted in this manner by asking his sons to divorce their wives – who were the daughters of the Prophet (p).
6) The Prophet (p) had a problem with many of his uncles. He had 11 uncles, but only two of them became Muslim. ‘Abbās became Muslim when he was captivated and scared for his life. Hamzah on the other hand became Muslim because of his family prejudice. Abū Jahal hit the Prophet (p) one day and Hamzah found out and became angry, so he claimed, “I am on the religion of my nephew.” This was out of anger and family prejudice.
So the Prophet (p) expressed his anger to some of his family members in this chapter. This chapter is the chapter of someone who is powerless against his powerful uncle and is expressing his anger.
7) There is no notion of love, mercy or freedom in this chapter. Abū Lahab is not convinced, why should be forced to convert and be convinced? The chapter is demonstrating the attitude of either you believe me or else you burn in hellfire. There is no freedom in this chapter and does not grant anyone any freedom or right to hold an alternative view.
8) This chapter is an example of a personal invective (hijā’) which is the most severe form of criticism in the Arabic culture, capable of destroying someone’s reputation. The Prophet failed to be a masterful poet and resorted to invectives in the Qurān. The proof to demonstrate that this was an invective is that the wife of Abū Lahab came to the Prophet (p) after this chapter was revealed, but he was not there and met Abū Bakr instead. She said to him, ‘Muḥammad has ridiculed us,’ and responded to him in a famous statement attributed to her: ‘He criticizes our father, and his religion is our scorn, and his command is to disobey us.’
9) ‘Utba and Mu’attib became Muslims during the year of the conquest of Makkah, and then were forced to curse their father in their prayers when reciting this chapter – after already having been forced to convert to Islam. Imagine how difficult that must have been for them? We can only be sympathetic to them, while Islam teaches them to curse their father.
The objector then goes on to say it is possible for these aforementioned reasons that some Mu’tazli scholars believed this chapter was not part of the Qurān. I (Shaykh Haider) however was not able to find out who these scholars were.
Let us also briefly look at two other groups – the Orientalists and some Muslim scholars – who believed this chapter is an example of vilification and insults and then we will respond to the above arguments. The evidence they give is comprised of two instances:1) The first verse is a creative (inhsā’) sentence and is wishing for his hands to perish. Since it is a supplication it is therefore an instance of abuse. However, we have already proven that this first verse is declarative (khabarīyyah) and there is no evidence for it being a creative statement.
The reason why they most likely thought it was a supplication – in my opinion – is because they were looking at Ibn ‘Abbās’ tradition – who was not even born when the incident occurred – which says Abū Lahab said tabban lak to the Prophet (p) and that this chapter was a response to his supplication with a supplication by the Prophet (p).
2) The term “carrier of wood” is a term that is ridiculing and criticising the wife of Abū Lahab for her work. We already said there is no evidence to say this was her job, rather she was from an extremely rich family, so this term cannot be referring to a job she would perform.
As such, we cannot use this chapter as evidence to establish the legitimacy of insulting and vilifying someone, and neither does the Qurān use this method. In addition, we also cannot say that this chapter is evidence of the Prophet (p) being influenced by his environment in Makkah in the type of language used in the Qurān.
Response to Rachid’s Critiques1) We already said there is no evidence to say that this chapter is an instance of using abusive and insulting language. So the first point regarding the Prophet (p) wanting to reveal and express his personal hater by insulting his uncle is resolved.
2) He said this chapter contains on ethical or religious teachings and that it is merely a personal battle. However, we can think of a number of teachings present in this chapter.
Firstly, the chapter conveys that salvation is through faith and good deeds only and it is not based on one’s relationships and family ties. This is something of vital importance and many exegetes have highlighted this point. This has been emphasised in other verses of the Qurān as well, like in the case of the son of Prophet Nūḥ, the wife of Lūṭ, or the wife of Nūḥ. These teachings within the Qurān do not always have to be direct; sometimes indirect methods are more effective. In fact, it is very common for religious teachings – no matter what religion – to be taught and conveyed through stories and metaphors.
Moreover, the chapter teaches us that those who oppose the truth and the way of the Prophets, then they are worthy of divine wrath. T
Thirdly, the chapter tells us that neither his wealth nor his actions benefited him. The criterion for God is simply one’s faith and good deeds, regardless of your financial status. Wealth has no value whatsoever in and of itself and this is an extremely important teaching, also mentioned in Sūrah al-Humazah and other verses of the Qurān. This tells us that we ought to respect people for their deeds and not their wealth.
3) He said this chapter is one of violence and harshness. We say that this chapter does not convey this. Firstly, it contains no abuse or insults, and secondly if by violence he means the consequence of sinning and disbelief, then this is something present in all religions. As a matter of fact, all legal systems tell us that there are consequences and punishments for people who commit crimes. This chapter is simply telling us about the consequence of Abū Lahab and his wife’s actions.
4) The claim that God left all his works and came to focus on Abū Lahab, then this is nothing but an an over-simplification of the matter. Religious teachings do not often speak in universal statements – such as ‘doing good is beautiful,’ ‘stealing is wrong,’ and so on. Such statements do not help build religions, and Prophets (p) cannot just speak in universals, rather they have to deal with the day-to-day events. All reformers do this, they are not and cannot just be theorists, rather they must be actively involved in the daily events.
They have to be also involved in particular events, especially when trying to establish and solidify a message. Look at all the stories, whether in the Bible or the Qurān, they are full of stories. In fact, there are more stories in the Bible than in the Qurān. These are all particular events, and we should care about these stories because though stories are particular events, they also carry universal messages.
This is the very point to note within literature, because literature tells us about moral values through particular stories. Mere theory is the work of philosophers, not the Prophets (p). We also mentioned that religious texts are not books of mere information, but of moral training.[note]This is covered in Shaykh Haider’s commentary on Surah al-Inshirah.[/note] To speak to people in such a way has a huge impact, much like a psychologist assisting his patients by developing a personal and influential relationship with them.
Moreover, this story is no different than the story of Pharaoh, or other stories in the Qurān. So why act like this one chapter happens to be one major battle that concerns God and the Muslims in an exaggerative manner? Just consider it a story like the other stories in the Qurān or stories in religious texts. Thus, religious texts respect the time and place they are revealed and respects the universal message that it wants to carry on to later generations.
5) He said the image of Abū Lahab’s wife is of her choking with a thick rope. Whilst some exegetes did say that, we also mentioned that this is a picture of what she would do by gathered logs and using a rope to carry them. In which case this verse can be depicting her state in this world, and not her state in the hereafter.
6) He says there was enmity between the Prophet and his uncle. These are all suppositions assuming that the objector knows exactly what the Prophet was thinking, otherwise there is no evidence for these claims.
In fact, there is evidence against it. We said kasab does not mean children and Arabs do not use the term to refer to children. Moreover, he did not manage to prove that this chapter was revealed after Abū Lahab’s sons divorced the Prophet’s (p) daughters – because we do not even know when this chapter was precisely revealed – though he confesses that he does not know whether it came before or after the divorce. Hence, this is once again mere supposition and a possibility used to paint a dramatic picture of the events.
What is strange is that he says if the chapter was revealed after the divorce, then it explains the Prophet’s (p) enmity and if it was revealed before the divorce, it explains Abū Lahab’s rationale for enforcing the divorce. In other words, he finds Abū Lahab justified in his actions, but not the Prophet (p) in expressing his anger at his uncle’s oppressive behaviour of enforcing his sons to divorce two girls for a crime they did not commit, simply because the Prophet (p) held a different opinion to Abū Lahab. However, Abū Lahab is somehow justified in telling his sons to divorce two girls because the Prophet had expressed a different opinion to him in the chapter. This is a very strange double standard.
In any case, the link of their divorce to this chapter is not even established, so his very initial point has no value and there is no evidence for it.
7) With regards to the prophet and his family and uncles, he does not prove that the Prophet’s (p) 11 uncles – if they were indeed 11 – were all alive when the Prophet (p) claimed prophethood. There is a lot of historical research done on this issue and it has been said only a few of them were alive during that period. However, the objector painted a picture that they were all alive and opposed to him (p), but it is likely that many were not even alive.
He also said Hamza’s Islam was due to prejudice, because his nephew was being insulted. If that is the case, then why did the other 10 – assuming they were alive – not feel the same prejudice towards their family member and become Muslims? Why were some behaving in the exact opposite manner, like Abū Lahab – while they ought to have supported him (p), given that they could have said that there is a Prophet from amongst us and that it would be a source of pride.
This picture of Hamzah is not accurate and moreover, the story does not say that it was during the event he became Muslim. When he said, “I am on the religion of Muḥammad,” it could be that the anger he was feeling gave him the courage to express his Islam and that he had already been a Muslim before the event. Based on the Sunnī narration he uses, that Abū Ṭālib did not become a Muslim, why couldn’t Hamza follow Abū Ṭālib’s strategy? Abū Ṭālib eventually lost his life defending the Prophet (p), and that is a much better strategy for someone to follow if they truly did not convert, instead of faking their conversion out of prejudice.
Moreover, if the Prophet (p) had genuine hatred for his uncles, then why does he only specify one of his uncles – Abū Lahab – and his wife. Why are the rest not mentioned in this chapter or some other chapter where they could have been attacked?
8) He said there is no freedom of opinion as per this chapter, and rather Abū Lahab was promised punishment simply because he did not believe. However, this is an inaccurate representation of the chapter, which does not even speak about lack of belief. The chapter talks about two individuals who displayed enmity, fought the message physically by placing obstacles in the way and so on. Moreover, it was Abū Lahab and his followers who were the oppressors, because they are the ones who were attacking a religious minority. If one fights against this oppression, how can they be considered the oppressor? The Prophet (p) is the one resisting oppression and fighting for his religious view and freedom. Hence, they were promised punishment because of their actions, not because they simply did not believe. We cannot isolate the story from its historical context
9) There is no invective in this chapter, because all the verses are declaratory statements informing us about a reality. His sole evidence is a historical report.
His citation of this historical report itself is interesting, because you see sometimes when you want to respond to critics of the Qurān with narrations, they will say we do not accept narrations, but when they want to critique the Qurān with narrations they will even cling on the weakest of narration to make their point. Of course, such a phenomenon exists within us as well.
10) I do not want to discuss the issue of conquest of Makkah and the way he discussed it, despite its notoriety in historical works. Rather, I want to discuss the issue of Abū Lahab’s sons having to recite the chapter of the Qurān.
Firstly, as far as religious teachings are concerned, there is no issue for one to recite something like this, even if it is against their own father. The religion and its message are much larger than one’s family, relations and so on. There is nothing wrong with this and this exists in all ideologies. If your father is an oppressor, there is no issue in you to speak against him and criticise him. The value is in the message and the nobility of the goals. We do not consider this a blemish in the Qurān, rather we believe it is a good thing. To recite against a major oppressor that he will be punished, because this isn’t mere hatred, but sticking to principles.
1) It is important to understand the Qurān in its linguistic and historical context and to avoid imitating the exegetes, especially the tābi’īn whose ijtihād was later presented as traditions. One has to follow their own ijtihādī conclusions, even if it opposes the earlier views. A lot of the time, it is the earlier exegesis that causes problems, not the text itself.
2) This chapter tells us that we ought to critically assess the reasons for revelation, and not just accept it because there happens to be a narration on it. Many exegetes made this same point, including ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī and Jawād Mughnīyah.
3) In order for discussions to be fruitful, whether they are between religions, or between sects, or between religions and atheists, we must avoid the language of mockery, like it was used by Rachid occasionally. Such language places a veil which prevents your message from reaching your audience and their message from reaching you and prevents both sides from reaching a middle ground. These are all psychological tactics, but have no place in academic discourse as they prevent one from thinking clearly and calmly.
4) A call for fairness and justice. A Shī’ī will say that the Sunnīs have no positives and vice versa. A Muslim will say the same about a Christian and vice versa, or a theist about an atheist and so on. We need to have two eyes – one for seeing positives and one for seeing negatives. If one only sees positives, then they will never be able to see the defects. If one only sees negatives, then they will see negativity even in the brightest of things. One can easily gather the negatives of any school of though and paint a very dark image of them.
We must remove our psychological prejudices and see both the positives and negatives. This critic, who has 100s of episodes, you will rarely find him mentioning even one positive about Islam. You see the same behaviour from some Muslims regarding other religions, or that others cannot possibly be forgiven by God. Furthermore, even those who claim they are free of religion or do not believe in any God, you will find them often to be the worse in their mannerism, always mocking and ridiculing others.It is only with these two eyes that we can really convince ourselves of our beliefs and hold a fruitful discussion with others.