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. Click to read part 1.
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 (ḥammālata). 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 hellfire. 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 the fact that she was famed 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 image depicting her 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 questions is whether this chapter contains a miracle 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 became 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 thus escaped from punishment. 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.
In response, 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 contextual indicator of the indefinite useage of the noun naran (fire) mentioned previously as indicative of the hellfire of the day of judgement. As such, even if he was dead and burning in the hellfire of Barzakh, the verse could still be referring to the subsequent hellfire.
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 lifetime and that it is an instance of a miracle. Even if we do not have complete certainty, we can still say we have some 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, then 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 certain cases, rather they are saying insulting and abusing are also permissible in certain 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 was a work of the Prophet (p) himself, 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 were 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 Morrocan, was 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 three 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, though unsure of whether this chapter came prior or subsequent to these divorces, says that if the chapter was revealed after the divorce, then it shows us why there was anger towards his uncle. If it was revealed before the 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 type of criticism in the form of poetry 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:
We refused [to follow] a condemned man
and his religion we abandoned
and his command we disobeyed
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’tazili 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 Critiques
1) 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 hatredf by insulting his uncle is resolved.
2) He said this chapter contains no 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 are worthy of divine wrath.
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 punishment which is 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 is simply 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.1 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. To summarize, religious texts respect the time and place that they are revealed within and they also respect the universal message that they want delivered to subsequent 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? Hamzah lost his life defending the Prophet and the strategy of Abū Ṭālib would have been much better for someone who had not truly converted out of belief.
Moreover, if the Prophet (p) had a 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 is a manifestation of one’s adherance to principles and not an expression of mere hatred.
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 thought 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, will rarely be found mentioning even one positive point 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.