This is a transcript of a commentary on Sūrah al-Kawthar given by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah over four lessons. The transcripts will be split into two posts – this is part one. Click for part two.
Names, Reasons for Revelation
The chapter has been referred to in four ways in Islamic works:
- Sūrah al-Kawthar – this is what is famous today and has been taken from the word kawthar which appears in the first verse
- Sharīf Raḍī would refer to it as Sūrah allatī dhukira fīhā al-kawthar
- In some of the traditions such as the Shī’ī ones from the Ahl al-Bayt and the Sunnī ones from the companions, it is referred to with the first verse: Innā A‘ṭaynāka al-Kawthar, or just Innā A‘ṭaynāk
- A very few scholars have also referred to it as Sūrah al-Naḥr, although it was very rare. The word naḥr is taken from the second verse
This is the shortest chapter in the Qurān in terms of number of letters and words, but it is not the shortest in terms of its verses, because Sūrah al-Naṣr and Sūrah al-‘Aṣr also have three verses.
Merits of the Chapter and Reasons for Revelation
عَنْ أَبِي بَصِيرٍ عَنْ أَبِي عَبْدِ اللَّهِ ع قَالَ: مَنْ كَانَ قِرَاءَتُهُ إِنَّا أَعْطَيْناكَ الْكَوْثَرَ فِي فَرَائِضِهِ وَ نَوَافِلِهِ سَقَاهُ اللَّهُ مِنَ الْكَوْثَرِ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَة
Abū Baṣir from Imam Ṣādiq (a): One who recites Innā A‘ṭaynāka al-Kawthar in his obligatory and supererogatory prayers, Allah (swt) will quench him with al-Kawthar on the Day of Judgement.
The second tradition is from the Prophet (p):
عَنْهُ ص مَنْ قَرَأَهَا سَقَاهُ اللَّهُ مِنْ أَنْهَارِ الْجَنَّة
He (p) said: Whoever recites it, Allah (swt) will quench him from the rivers of paradise.
The reason why this chapter was revealed is very important because it has a significant impact on our understanding of what the verses mean. The most famous understanding and that which exists in the books of the Muslims is that after the death of ‘Abdullah – or in some traditions Qāsim – the son of the Prophet (p), a disbeliever said the Prophet (p) is abtar (one whose lineage is cut off).
Lineage amongst the Arabs was recognized through a boy and hence the Prophet (p) not having sons implied his lineage will cease at him and he will not be remembered after he dies.
There are different opinions on who exactly said this, the most famous opinion is that it was ‘Āṣ b. Wā’il al-Sahmī. ‘Āṣ was well known amongst the Makkan disbelievers and in many reports where you find the names of those who belittled, cursed or harmed the Prophet (p), you will see his name appearing. His enmity was well known.
Even though this is the famous opinion, there are some other traditions that mention it was Walīd b. Mughīrah, or Abū Jahl, or ‘Uqba b. Abī Mu’ayyt, or Ka’b b. Ashraf, or Abū Lahab, or in some Shī’a works it says it was ‘Amr b. Āṣ.
Another opinion says that this chapter was revealed for another reason altogether and that it was revealed in Medīna. Therefore, it has nothing to do with the above individuals. The story is that it was the year of Ḥudaybīyyah and the Prophet (p) and the Muslims were not allowed to enter Makkah and Masjid al-Ḥarām. The Muslims and the Prophet (p) were sad at the fact that after making a journey to Makkah, they had to return back. Sūrah al-Fatḥ was revealed to describe the event at Ḥudaybīyyah as a clear victory, and then Sūrah al-Kawthar was revealed to give the Prophet (p) comfort and support – that there is a lot of benefit in what occurred during Ḥudaybīyyah.
In other words, as per this opinion, what happened in the event of Ḥudaybīyyah was Kawthar itself, it was a lot of good. They cite the second verse as proof since it says to pray and slaughter – as it is done during the pilgrimage. This opinion was backed by a major scholar like Ibn ‘Āshūr.
When we contemplate a little over the traditions that exist in relation to the first opinion, we will see that majority of them are nothing but the personal opinions and conclusions of the tābi‘īn, they are not from the Prophet (p) or the Ahl al-Bayt. In fact, the reports are not even from the companions, except two, Anas b. Mālik and Ibn ‘Abbās – the former was very young and the latter was not even born if we say the chapter was revealed in Makkah.
As for the second opinion, there is absolutely no historical backing for it and it is just a personal conclusion arrived at by Ibn ‘Āshūr or some others, by adding a few pieces of evidence together – otherwise, there is no historical record, even a weak one, that alluded to this.
As for whether this chapter is Makkī or a Medanī, then the popular opinion is that it is Makkī and this has been narrated from Ibn ‘Abbās, al-Kalbī and many others. The traditions that speak about the reasons for its revelation and the reference to the person who slandered the Prophet (p) also back this point up.
The second opinion says it is a Medanī and this is narrated from ‘Ikrimah, Ḍaḥḥāk and others. This opinion exists, but they do not clarify when exactly it was revealed in Medina, during the early period or during the year of Ḥudaybīyyah. This opinion is in line with the aforementioned opinion of Ibn ‘Āshūr and as well as the notion of naḥr which is mentioned in the second verse.
A third opinion says it was revealed twice. Some scholars who come across contradicting reports like this, they end up concluding that the chapter was revealed twice.
It seems that the chapter was Makkī as per whatever we have at our disposal. We do not have any historical reason to assume it was Medanī. It does not matter whether we interpret abtar as not having a lineage, or someone who has been cut off from their society, or that his message will cease to exist (we will expand on these meanings soon), as per all meanings a Makkī revelation makes more sense.
The Theme of the Chapter
The theme of the chapter can be deemed to be shukr – gratefulness and being thankful to Allah (swt), and to repay Allah (swt) back with servitude and worship. A second theme of the chapter can be Allah’s (swt) hospitality towards the Prophet (p) and his (p) increase in rank. A third theme is that one who angers the Prophet (p) and belittles him will be doomed and destroyed.
These three themes will be discussed in detail later.
Verse 1 – Innā ‘Aṭaynā-ka al-Kawthar
The most important discussion in this verse concerns two words: al-Kawthar and al-Abtar. The first appears in the first verse and the second appears in the last verse. We will first investigate the meanings of these words independently and then return back to the meaning of the actual verse through the lens of what we investigated so that we can understand the intended meaning of the chapter.
1) Linguistic meaning: what does the word mean in Arabic? It means abundant good or something which brings a lot of good for someone. It is on the paradigm of faw’al which indicates abundance. Sayyid Murtaḍa says that the use of kawthar is indicative of the strong eloquence of the Qurān since it is on a paradigm that is more difficult to pronounce, and it is being used in a place where it is conveying a strong meaning.
A similar word on this paradigm is nawfal which means someone who prays a lot of nawāfil. This is why some grammarians have said kawthar is used to characterize a person who is very hospitable and charitable. Interestingly, some grammarians have said kawthar is a river in paradise, but it seems like they took this meaning from the traditions. Although there also exists the possibility that the word kawthar was used by the Arabs to refer to a river, because a lot of good comes from it – people can drink from it, they can bathe in it and so on. Therefore, it is possible the word kawthar was appropriately used for a river as well and then it was used by the Prophet (p) to describe a river in paradise.
2) Exegetical meaning: The exegetes – as it is their habit – mixed the conceptual meaning of kawthar with some instance of it in external reality, while thinking this is the instance the Qurān is intending. Therefore, they have mentioned up to 26 different meanings of kawthar, while the books of grammar and classical dictionaries do not mention almost any of these meanings. I will mention these meanings:
- A river in paradise
- A pond in paradise or on the Day of Judgement
These two meanings are the most famous. In the traditions, there are a lot of descriptions mentioned for this pond or river as well.
3. Intercession (Shafā’ah)
4. Children of the Prophet (p) and their lineage – not restricted to the Ahl al-Bayt as defined by the Imāmī Shī’a. Fakhr al-Rāzī says in v. 13 in his Tafsīr al-Kabīr: How many of the Ahl al-Bayt have been killed, yet the world is still populated with them (kam qutila min ahl al-bayt thumma ‘ālim mumtaliun bihi…)
5. The companions and followers of the Prophet (p) until the day of Judgement. In other words, all of the Muslims
6. Scholars of the Prophet’s nation
7. The Qurān
8. The light of the heart of the Prophet (p)
9. Good moral conduct
10. The popularity of his mention amongst the people
12. The enlightenment of the Sharī’ah
15. Merits of the Prophet (p)
16. Maqām al-Maḥmūd
17. Knowledge and wisdomFāṭima al-Zahrā’ (a)
When we look at the above, we realize that most of them are all real instances of the linguistic meaning of kawthar (abundant good). However, so far we have nothing by which we can restrict the meaning of kawthar in this verse to mean only one of the instances above and claim that the verse only intended this one specific instance. Perhaps the general meaning was intended, including all of its instances, or perhaps only one specific instance was intended. We will come back to this discussion later.
3) Kawthar in the Ḥadīth literature: All the traditions that speak about this chapter, whether from the Prophet (p), the companions, or the Ahl al-Bayt (a), only define the word kawthar in two ways.
The first meaning is abundant good (al-khayr al-kathīr). This is reported from Ibn ‘Abbās and the traditions are very little on this. The second set of traditions say kawthar here means a pond or a river in paradise or on the Day of Judgement. Majority of the traditions – around thirty of them – say the second meaning and they are mostly Sunnī, while others are Shī’ī. These traditions also have descriptions of this pond and river.
There is absolutely no mention of a third meaning in any tradition or report in Shī’ī or Sunnī works, after my research and investigation. Of course, most average Shī’a today will be wondering about kawthar meaning Fāṭima al-Zahrā’ (a), and we will discuss later on how this interpretation came to be attributed to this verse and what were the arguments behind it – otherwise, in the ḥadīth literature, there is no mention of her alongside this chapter.
1) Linguistic meaning: Linguistically it means the cutting off of something, especially before something has come to a completion. It is also used for someone who does not have any sons because it is presumed the person’s lineage is cut off. In addition, it is also used for someone who has had a loss in business, or one who cuts ties with their blood relatives. It is also used to refer to anything from which no good comes forth.
Amongst the Arabs, someone who is not remembered by people and is forgotten is also called abtar. Perhaps the reason why someone who does not have a son is called abtar is due to this reason, as they will not have anyone to keep their memory alive.
There is a term called al-ṣalāt al-batra, which refers to sending a ṣalawāt on the Prophet (p) but not on his progeny, meaning his progeny has been cut off. The Arabs would call a sermon in which Allah (swt) is not praised or the Prophet (p) is not praised as al-khutbā al-batra.
Finally, al-Butrīyyah (not al-Batrīyyah as it is commonly pronounced by people) were a Zaydī sect that would say ‘Alī (a) had the right to the caliphate, but after the first two caliphs usurped it, ‘Alī (a) himself was fine with it and approved of it. In conclusion, they would argue that we have no issue with the first two caliphs. However, they opined that ‘Alī did not approve of ‘Uthmān’s caliphate and so they were called al-Butrīyyah by the Ahl al-Sunnah as they were accused of cutting off the line of the righteous caliphs at ‘Alī and did not consider ‘Uthmān as part of the group.
2) Exegetical meaning: In the works of exegesis, the famous opinion is that it is someone who does not have a son and therefore no lineage. ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī strongly defends this meaning and we will discuss this opinion shortly.
A second opinion – to which Shahid al-Ṣadr al-Thānī leans towards – says abtar means someone who is cut off from all goodness.
A third opinion is that it means someone whose memory is lost and they are not remembered after their death.
Sayyid Murtaḍa opined that abtar in this verse means someone who has no authority, no goodness, and no hope.
A final meaning which has also been mentioned by a number of scholars is that it means someone who is banished in their community and whose words and personality have no value.
After having observed the meanings of these two words linguistically, in the words of the exegetes, and also in the ḥadīth literature, we can begin to investigate what it means in this chapter. The reason why we approached the discussion in this manner is because other exegetes usually use one of these words as an alibi to interpret the second word. Some arrived at the meaning of abtar first and then interpreted the meaning of kawthar at the beginning of the chapter, while others arrived at the meaning of kawthar and then interpreted the meaning of abtar. We wanted to lay out all these meanings in the beginning and then begin seeing what the most prominent, probable and reasonable interpretation of these verses are. Of course, we will not be covering interpretations whose weakness is way too clear.
If we contemplate over the interpretations of this chapter, what we will realize is that there are two overall approaches taken by scholars. One approach understands the absence of a relationship and connection between kawthar and abtar in this chapter – as we will see. The second approach understands that there is a relationship between the two words, and amongst them is one group who takes the meaning of the word kawthar to explain the meaning of abtar, and a second group who takes the meaning of abtar to explain the meaning of kawthar.
As such, there are four possible interpretations given for this verse. We will not be mentioning the possibilities for which the proponents did not bring any evidence whatsoever:
1) The meaning is that kawthar is a lot of good. Indeed, we have given you a lot of good, and hence, your enemy is deprived – abtar – of this good. This is all that the chapter intends on saying, nothing more or less.
The proponents of this interpretation – who are many, both Shī’ī and Sunnī – say that our argument is essentially to resort back to the very basic and original meaning of both the words kawthar and abtar. Secondly, the proponents take the beginning of the chapter which employs the verse kawthar, to explain the meaning of abtar. For example, Zayd has wealth, but ‘Amr is abtar – meaning he does not have wealth.
Thirdly, as per this interpretation, this chapter is not saying anything special or unique rather it is conveying a concept that is reiterated numerous times all over the Qurān. The Prophet (p) and the believers received the blessings of Allah (swt) and the disbelievers are cut off from it. The Qurān itself speaks about many different blessings and favours Allah (swt) has bestowed upon the Prophet (p), and his enemies being accursed.
Lastly, this is the most general interpretation of the chapter and is inclusive of all other interpretations that are given for it. Whether you believe kawthar means Prophethood, or the Qurān, the ability to intercede, Fāṭima (s), knowledge and wisdom, and so on, all of these are kawthar and the enemies of the Prophet (p) are deprived of it.
If it were to be just us and this chapter, the above explanation is very justifiable and reasonable. There is only one way to discredit it and that is if we can establish some specific qualities for this word which would limit and restrict the general meaning of kawthar. This is what the proponents of the next three interpretations have done – as we will see.
2) A group of scholars have said the meaning of kawthar is knowledge and wisdom. Indeed, We have given you knowledge and wisdom – and your enemies have been deprived of it. Proponents say we agree kawthar means abundant good, but we must look at the Qurān to see what it has identified as abundant good. They bring two alibis:
[2:269] …and he who is given wisdom, is certainly given an abundant good…
[4:113] … Allah has sent down to you the Book and wisdom, and He has taught you what you did not know, and great is Allah’s grace upon you.
However, this interpretation does not nullify the first interpretation and in fact, this approach to restricting the meaning of a word in the Qurān to a specific instance is incorrect. All that the two verses used as alibis prove is that wisdom is an instance of abundant good, not that abundant good is wisdom alone. This is similar to if someone says, “akrim al-‘ālim” (respect the scholar) and a few moments later says “Zayd ‘alim” (Zayd is a scholar) – does this mean that Zayd is the only instance of a scholar and other scholars are excluded from the first general phrase? No – there could be other scholars as well and the only thing the second phrase conveys is that Zayd is one instance of a scholar.
All that the two verses are saying is that wisdom and knowledge are some of those instances of abundant good. They would fit in perfectly fine under the general statement of Sūrah al-Kawthar. Therefore, this interpretation has not given us a strong enough argument for their position.
3) A group of scholars claim that kawthar means a river or pond in heaven or a pond on the Day of Judgement – as per differences in traditions, we do not want to get into those details.
There is absolutely no Qurānic or linguistic argument for this. The only argument for this are the traditions and the vast majority of the traditions regarding this chapter – in both Shī’ī and Sunnī works – all say that kawthar is a pond or a river in the afterlife. Proponents say there are tens of traditions on this chapter and that is the best argument to restrict the meaning of kawthar in this chapter to just a river or a pond. To read some of them one can refer to al-Āmālī of both Shaykh Mufīd and Shaykh Ṭūsī, Ṭabrasī in his Majma’ al-Bayān, Qumī in al-Tafsīr and other works. To access all of them collectively, one can either refer to Biḥār al-Anwār if they are looking for a Shī’ī author or Durr al-Manthūr of Ṣuyūṭī if they are looking for a Sunnī author.
Generally speaking, proponents of this interpretation differentiate between kawthar and abtar – they do not link the two together. As per their understanding, the chapter is essentially saying, indeed we have given you a river in heaven, and your enemies will be deprived of a progeny – there is no connection between the two verses.
As far as observations on this interpretation are concerned, we mentioned already we will not go into a detailed analysis of the traditions as that will become very lengthy. However, what we know is that this interpretation is solely based on these reports and does not have a Qurānic or a linguistic argument. If there were no traditions saying kawthar is a pond or a river in paradise, it seems far-fetched for someone to have just arrived at that conclusion.
When we look at the traditions – be it in Durr al-Manthūr or Biḥār al-Anwār – we see that there is a set of traditions that speak about a river in heaven. This set has nothing to do with our discussion, because all they say is that there is a pond or river in heaven or that the Prophet (p) is given a pond in heaven, or that the believers and the nation of the Prophet (p) will drink from the pond, or that ‘Alī (a) will be your companion at the pond. The pond in these traditions is called Kawthar, but the mere resemblance of words does not mean that the Qurānic verse is speaking about this pond.
The set of traditions relevant for our discussion are those that explicitly speak about Sūrah al-Kawthar and identify the word kawthar to mean a pond in heaven. As far as these traditions are concerned, then an overwhelming amount of them have weak chains of transmissions, in both Sunnī and Shī’ī works – in fact, many of them have broken chains (mursal).
A number of reports which are not problematic from the perspective of their chains are in fact not ahadīth attributed to the Prophet (p), instead they are attributed to the companions. Therefore, they could be from the personal opinions of the companion. These companions are primarily Ibn ‘Abbās, ‘Āyesha, Ḍaḥḥāk and Ḥuzayfa – and their personal opinions are not binding on us.
What is strange in some of these reports is that Ibn ‘Abbās is describing the revelation of this chapter in Makkah and that the Prophet (p) was asked about its meaning. Ibn ‘Abbās was not even born during the Makkan period and even if we take the earliest date for his possible birth it would have been two or three years before the migration to Medina. In any case, a final point about these traditions is that most of them are Sunnī – though I do not intend that just because that is the case, they are wrong, rather this is what their condition is.
Nevertheless, given there are a very small number of reports on this matter that can be authenticated, then a scholar must stick to the meaning conveyed in this tradition if they accept the probative force of an authentic solitary speculative tradition in matters of exegesis.
However, if a scholar – like ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī – believes in the probative force of only those traditions where one attains conviction in their utterance, then with the condition of the reports we have at our disposal, it may be difficult to attain such conviction and assurance regarding these reports.
Nevertheless, whether one accepts this interpretation to a degree of certainty or not, it still acts as a speculative barrier in front of the previous two interpretations. One cannot easily discard it away.
4) These are essentially two different interpretations, but I am combining them since their argument is the same. Proponents say that kawthar is a reference to the progeny of the Prophet (p) until the Day of Judgement. Or some say kawthar is just a reference to Fāṭima (s), not all of the progeny. Even though this opinion has absolutely no explicit tradition to back it up, it has become extremely popular to the extent that it has become symbolic for Fāṭima (s). Proponents of this interpretation rely on four arguments – 2 from the Qurān and 2 from the traditions.
The first argument is that the word abtar in Arabic refers to someone who does not have a progeny. This is correct, the word abtar is used in this meaning as well. Proponents say that if you do not understand the word kawthar to mean the progeny of the Prophet (p) or Fāṭima (s), then that would mean the chapter is talking about two different subject-matters. This is while the chapter is very short, and the presumption is that it is talking about one subject-matter. If the chapter had two subject matters, it would read like this:
Indeed, We have given you a lot of good, or a pond in heaven, or wisdom and knowledge, so pray to your Lord and sacrifice. Indeed, your enemy will be deprived of a progeny.
What does the last verse have to do with the first two verses of the chapter? Nothing – and it rather sounds absurd. However, if we understand the chapter to have one subject-matter, it will read like this:
Indeed, We have given you a large progeny, or Fāṭima (s) – who is the basis of your progeny, so pray to your Lord and sacrifice. Indeed, your enemy will be deprived of a progeny.
These scholars have first taken the meaning of abtar to then explain the meaning of kawthar.
Their second argument relies on the combination of two words “inna” and “huwa” in the last verse. The composition of “inna” with “huwa” conveys that the verse is identifying someone or something in contrast to something that was said earlier. In other words, the chapter is saying, indeed we have given you X, and as a matter of fact, it is your enemy who is deprived of a progeny. X would only make reasonable sense if it means progeny.
The third argument which is from outside the Qurān is also important, especially because ‘Allāmah Ṭabāṭabā’ī is also a proponent of this view. The argument is that the traditions regarding the reasons for the chapter’s revelation back up the claim that the context of it was the progeny of the Prophet (p). When his (p) son Qāsim died, the Prophet (p) was called abtar – what is understood from this is that the chapter had to do with progeny and children.
The last argument is the following tradition:
أرسل إليه عمرو بن العاص يعيبه بأشياء منها أنه يسمي حسنا و حسينا ولدي رسول الله ص فقال لرسوله قل للشانئ ابن الشانئ لو لم يكونا ولديه لكان أبتر كما زعمه أبوك.
‘Amr b. al-Āṣ sent forth (someone to Imam ‘Alī) to denounce him on different matters. One of them was that he names Ḥasan and Ḥusayn as the sons of the Messenger of Allah (p). He (a) said to the messenger (of ‘Amr), say to the hater son of the hater, if they were not his sons, he (p) would be abtar just as his father had thought.1
The above tradition shows Imam ‘Alī (a) referencing the event that occurred when the Prophet (p) was called abtar in context of him not having any sons.
We will offer our observations on this interpretation and analysis, but before that, we want to mention that the word kawthar in this chapter has been interpreted to mean the progeny of the Prophet (p) since the earliest centuries of Islamic scholarship and it is not something new. However, restricting the word to specifically mean Fāṭima (s), then this is a relatively new position perhaps dating back to around two centuries. Although in our current discussion whether an interpretation is old or new makes no difference, rather the evidence is what matters.
- Sharḥ Nahj al-Balāgha of Ibn Abī al-Ḥadīd, v. 20, pg. 334
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