By Ali Jabbar
ed. Ali Imran
This is a transcript of a commentary on Sūrah al-Masad given by Shaykh Haider Hobbollah over four lessons. The transcripts will be split into two posts – this is part one. Click to read part two.
The chapter has been referred to as:
- Al-Lahab by a number of scholars and this name is taken from the word Lahab that is mentioned twice in the chapter
- Sūrah al-Masad, taken from 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 Allatī Dhukira Fīhā al-Masad
- Sūrah Tabbat 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 this chapter was revealed, because if it is established that the chapter was revealed in Makkah, then it would be deemed as one of the miracles of the Qurān as it gives information about the future. Consensus ought to not scare us – we need to analyse these claims based on the evidence available to us.
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 says that the Prophet (p) had three years of secret propagation – assuming this is true, there is a 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 on the edges of Makkah 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 say, 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 Abū 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.
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 reports, but some of them are narrated by Ibn ‘Abbās who was not even born at the time. Perhaps he or someone else may have been done a 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 Abū 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 of 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 Abū Lahab and His Wife
Abū Lahab was the direct uncle of the Prophet and his name is disputed. The famous opinion is that his name is ‘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 (p). 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 – she was the sister of Abū Sufyān and the 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 a scribal error (taṣḥīf) may have occurred on this issue. She is historically known for gathering logs and 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 and place them on his (p) path. 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 explain later. It can refer to a person who slanders and gossips 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 one who has wealth and status will not benefit from it; all of it will perish and bring misery upon them.
A point to note is that the Qurān generally does not mention names of contemporaries of the Prophet, not his supporters, or detractors. This is very different from 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 implicit message here is to point out that being a relative of the Prophet (p) is not a means of salvation. Here his uncle, a person very close to the Prophet, will end up in hellfire. For Arabs, this would have 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 help 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, otherwise, this logic is very faulty.
There are two important topics worth highlighting and 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 a different language because the Prophet was affected by the Medinan society. Furthermore, some Muslims who apostatize also focus on this element of the Qurān, and since they claim to be against insults and abuse, they are 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 a 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
May the hands of Abu Lahab be ruined, and ruined is he
What Does Tabb Mean?
Linguistically it means loss and destruction. Some say it is losing continuously until reaching the end point of destruction while others say it is a 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 a type of loss that will perish him, and he will end up despondent.
The Hands of Abū 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 a reference to 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 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 own 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 the 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 much wider than the reports.
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 is 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.
Therefore, 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 also 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 the third person which aids our view that it is not creative. Further, the subsequent verse relates to it being a report and a 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, such as people with names like 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 found 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.1
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 (lit. slave of ‘Uzza – the idol). 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 indicating 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.
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 than wealth?
a) Some have said what he gained (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) Others have said 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 grander and more intimidating.
All fires naturally have a flame, 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.
The Arabs did have a culture where they would call lowly professions as mihan, which comes from mahānah – that is disgraceful (hawān). Therefore the Arabic language does have this word to refer to lowly professions, and such a culture even exists today in the world.
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.