Why Does The Qur’an Mention A Person Such As Abu Lahab?
Why does the Qur’an Mention a Person Such As Abu Lahab Who Was an Inveterate Enemy of Islam? What is the Wisdom in Doing So? How does it befit the Dignity and Purport of the Divine Book?
Abu Lahab was one of the uncles of Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him. His real name was ‘Abd al Uzza. He was popularly called Abu Lahab (literally, “the father of flame”) on account of his ruddy complexion and hot, fiery temper. He was one of the most inveterate enemies of early Islam. His hostility came from his inborn arrogance, pride in his great wealth and children, and a dislike of the messages the Prophet conveyed. Abu Lahab’s wife, Umm Jamil, was equally vehement in her spite and cruelty against the Prophet and his followers. Her hatred was so intense that, in order to cause the Prophet bodily injury, she would often make up bundles of thorns with ropes of twisted palm fiber and, under the cover of darkness, strew them around his house and on the paths he was expected to take. Also, she used her considerable wealth and great eloquence in persistently slandering the Prophet and his message.
At that early time of Islam, the Prophet called the people to come together and listen to his preaching and warning. When they had assembled, he asked them, “If I were to inform you that enemy warriors are about to fall upon you from behind that hill, would you believe me?” They answered, “Yes, we would.” Thereupon he said, “Behold, then, I am here to warn you of the coming of the Last Hour.” At that, Abu Lahab flared up and cursed the Prophet, saying, “Did you summon us here just for this? May you perish!” Shortly after that incident the chapter Masad (111th chapter, also called Tabbat) was revealed, which derives its name from its last word, masad (the twisted strands). It is the sixth in the order of revelation and relates to the bitter hostility always shown to the Prophet’s message by Abu Lahab.
Perish the hands of the father of flame! Perish he! No profit to him from all his wealth, and all his gains! Burnt soon will he be in a fire of blazing flame. His wife shall carry the (kindling) wood as fuel; A twisted rope of palm leaf fiber round her neck. (Masad 111)
Abu Lahab and his wife used their will and wealth in the wrong way. Though they lived very close to the Prophet, they never tried to understand his message. While the Prophet and the Muslims were marching toward the Ka’ba, they scattered thorns and set up fires to prevent their progress. They spent their life in unrelenting rage and hatred, cruel plots and persecutions; their punishment was to be the same kind as what they had relentlessly inflicted on Muslims.
Abu Lahab was unable to take part in the Battle of Badr. He was sitting in a large tent near the Ka’ba when the news of the battle was brought to him. When he was told how “men in white with turbans on piebald horses between heaven and earth” had helped the Muslims and fought against the unbelievers, he was greatly shaken. Umm al Fadl, ‘Abbas’ wife, and Abu Rafi’, ‘Abbas’ slave, were among those who listened to the same news in the corner of the tent. They were both Muslims who had kept their Islam secret from all but a few. But Abu Rafi’ could not contain himself for joy at the news of the Prophet’s victory. On hearing of “the turbaned men in white, between heaven and earth,” he exclaimed, “By God, those were the angels!” An impulse of maddening rage seized Abu Lahab who struck Abu Rafi’ in the face, bore him to the ground, knelt over him and struck him repeatedly. Then Umm al Fadl took up a wooden pole used to reinforce the tent posts, and brought it down with all her strength on Abu Lahab’s head, heavily wounding him. “Will you treat him as of no account, now that his master is away and cannot protect him?” she cried. Since she was his sister in law, Abu Lahab did not say anything to her and went home directly. His wound did not heal, but putrefied. As a result of this blow or for other reasons, he was infected with a disease called adasa (malignant measles, black measles), at that time considered to be more deadly than plague. His wealth, his position, or his children were of no avail. Even his own wife and the children, of whom he had always boasted, abandoned him. His whole body was covered with festering pustules. After writhing in pain for a week, he died with no one to attend his deathbed. No one came to remove his dead body from the house until, eventually, his embarrassed relatives hired some Bedouins from the desert, and had them take the rotten corpse out, throw it to a pit and heap some stones on it.
Not only did Abu Lahab not benefit from the Prophet, in spite of his kinship with him, he became his most inveterate enemy. Therefore, a terrible end and punishment in both this world and the next were his due. His hands, the instruments of his action, perished, and he perished himself. His words, power and influence proved futile.
Umm Jamil came from the noble and wealthy family of Banu Umayyad. She never held back from any of the cruel and unrelenting persecutions inflicted upon the Prophet and the Muslims; rather, she took a deep, even malicious, pleasure in them. She collected and carried thorns, scrub and pieces of wood to scatter and make fire on the ways the Prophet was likely to take. “Carrying fire wood” may also be a metaphor for “carrying tales” between people to embroil them, another of her vices. Though excessively fond of ostentatious luxury and of using servants, her rage against the Prophet and Islam was such that she disregarded her pride in her high rank and stooped to work that, in those days, was done by only slaves and servants. Instead of necklaces and jewelry, she took delight in putting the rope of twisted palm fiber around her neck with which she carried thorns and wood on her back to use against the Prophet. Her punishment in the Hereafter would be of the same kind as what she relentlessly inflicted on Muslims in this world. The Qur’an implies as such.
Abu Lahab was a particularly determined, stubborn person. Abu Jahl, who knew this side of Abu Lahab’s character, would say, “Never enrage him. If he should join the other side [i.e. the Muslims], no one will ever be able to turn him back.” Unfortunately, Abu Lahab used this strength of determination in enmity against the Prophet. He and his wife both revered the idols at the Ka’ba. They never gave a thought to the Prophet’s teaching, even though he was a near relative, one raised in their immediate neighborhood and known to everyone (including themselves) for steadiness of character, impeccable honesty, and trustworthiness. While they had not the least idea that their kinsman and neighbor was chosen by God as His Last Messenger to humankind, they certainly knew no wrong of him, nor had they suffered any harm at his hands. Nevertheless, they determined, in the most resolute and spiteful way, to do him injury and harm to the extent of their influence and power.
Abu Jahl, a close ally and associate of Abu Lahab, organized the three year economic and social boycott against the Muslims in Makka. The boycott forbade any trade or any contract of marriage between the Muslims and idolaters. Some of the elderly and the very young among the Muslims died as a result of the hardships, physical and mental, imposed upon them. Alas, their sufferings did not stir the least bit of sadness or compassion in Abu Lahab.
The Prophet’s wife, Khadija (umm al mu’minun—mother of believers), died at that time. In the same year, later known as the “year of sadness,” died another uncle of the Prophet, Abu Talib, beloved by him, and who was the Muslims’ most significant and reliable protector. But for the authority and influence of Abu Talib, the idolaters in Makka would not have hesitated to kill the Messenger outright. However, though he protected the Muslims as kinsfolk, as best he could, Abu Talib himself did not embrace Islam. He was one of those whom the Prophet particularly desired should believe. When Abu Talib was on his deathbed, the Messenger again invited him to belief, but idolaters like Abu Jahl and Abu Lahab surrounded him so as to prevent his embracing Islam. The Prophet was deeply grieved that Abu Talib had passed away in unbelief.
On the day of the conquest of Makka, Abu Bakr, the closest Companion of the Prophet, took his aged father who had then accepted Islam to God’s Messenger. As he did so, Abu Bakr sobbed bitterly. Later, he explained:
O Messenger of God, I desired very much that my father should believe, and now he has believed. But I desired the belief of Abu Talib even more than that because you desired it. That is why I am weeping.
Whereas Abu Talib did everything he could to protect the Prophet, Abu Talib’s brother, Abu Lahab encouraged and took part in all sorts of cruelties against the Prophet and the Muslims.
When the Prophet went from clan to clan inviting the people to the principle that all human beings are equal before God and will be judged by Him on their merits alone, one man, with red beard and complexion would follow him like a shadow and seek to undermine the impression he made on audiences. Whereas people from the farthest clans and tribes came to affirm some form of kinship or other with the Prophet, Abu Lahab considered getting far away from him as almost a duty, an obligation. It is of one so willfully blind that he refused even the light of the sun rising around him, that the Qur’an declared, Perish the hands of Abu Lahab!
There are several verses in the Qur’an that allude directly or indirectly to people who did whatever they could to abuse and persecute the Prophet, to run down his doctrine, and to injure those who believed in him. One of these inveterate enemies was Walid ibn Mughira, father of Khalid soon to become Islam’s first great military commander. Walid was pondering ways to slander the Prophet and to undermine the wonderful influence that the Qur’anic verses had on their listeners. He hesitated over which accusation to use, whether “poet” or “magician” or “soothsayer.” Eventually, he determined in favor of saying “magic” of the Qur’an and “magician” of the Prophet. To this incident, the Qur’an refers in the verse:
. . . And Woe to him! How he determined! . . . (Muddathir 74:19)
Other unbelievers are reproached and threatened in other verses. That being so, there is no reason why Abu Lahab should have been excepted. Indeed, if Abu Lahab had not been reproached whereas Walid ibn Mughira had been, some people are bound to have wondered if Abu Lahab was spared just because of his familial relationship to the Prophet. But the Qur’an did not give any grounds for such a notion; it included Abu Lahab in the same category as all the idolatrous unbelievers.
The chapter naming Abu Lahab was revealed in Makka, well before the battle of Badr. The Qur’an said that Abu Lahab and his wife would die as unbelievers, and so it happened just a week after Badr. Before the fighting at Badr, the Prophet walked around the battlefield and pointed to particular locations, saying, “Abu Jahl will be killed here, Utba here, Shayba here, Walid here,”  and so on. After the battle the Companions found the corpses where it had been predicted they would be. This served to boost the morale of the believers at a time when they were few and their enemies too many. In a similar way the prediction and the fact of Abu Lahab’s death served to increase the believers’ morale and became a caution, a stern forewarning, to all.
Sometimes an understanding or self-knowledge gained through a slight misfortune or calamity can lead to spiritual attainment such that (if the veil of the Unseen is lifted and one sees what he has gained) one would ask for the misfortune and calamity to recur, because in comparison to what is gained ultimately, the misfortune or calamity amount to very little. On the other hand, there are people whose humanity is so destroyed, who have doomed themselves to losing it perpetually, that they cannot gain anything from misfortunes. Whether the Qur’an does or does not use dire, threatening language about them will not affect in the slightest degree the course or consequences of their actions, or their ends. Those people determined and prepared their own irreversible end. The Qur’an’s specific mentioning of Abu Lahab and his wife strike some readers as inappropriate to the dignity of a Divine scripture. But, over the centuries the verses have encouraged millions of people to reflect upon their intentions and actions, to seek to avoid falling into the condition of Abu Lahab and his wife, to encourage each other on the path of right actions. Thus, there is much wisdom in the naming such in these verses; psychologically and pedagogically it has proved to be useful and necessary for the benefit of the believers.
At the same time the chapter produced doubts and misgivings on the part of the unbelievers. By turning their fixed, secure unbelief into doubts and misgivings, it made coming to Islam easier for them. The affirmation of faith, too long imprisoned in their consciousness, was able to penetrate into their hearts and minds. Many people forsook their once resolute unbelief and became Muslim, and started to guide, instruct and enlighten others.
In short, specifically mentioning a couple who were notorious for their determined enduring hatred of Islam, expounding the Divine wrath that persistent hatred incurs and specifically indicating the outcome for that couple, is not an example of a failure of substance or style. On the contrary, it is evidence of and another example of the profundity and marvelous variety of the Qur’an’s methods and meanings. It is like throwing a small stone into an ocean and producing an endless sequence of waves all over that ocean. That sequence of waves has been continually causing the hearts of millions of people to be moved. The Qur’an was revealed in such a lofty style that by informing of an individual’s death in unbelief in a way that balances attraction and repulsion, the chapter became a means for millions of people to attain guidance. Its meaning is much wider than its reference in the first instance to two specific individuals. This befits and conforms to the eloquence, clarity and the purport of the Qur’an, which is the very wisdom and appropriateness.
By M. Fethullah Gulen
 Abu Dawud, 2/53; Muslim, 5/170.