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Surah al-Kawthar (No. 108: 'Kawthar')

Verses 1-3

بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ

In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful.

إِنَّا أَعْطَيْنَاكَ الْكَوْثَرَ

Indeed, We have given you abundance. (108:1).

فَصَلِّ لِرَبِّكَ وَانْحَرْ

So, pray to your Lord, and sacrifice. (108:2).

إِنَّ شَانِئَكَ هُوَ الْأَبْتَرُ

Indeed, your enemy is the one without posterity. (108:3).

1. The Qur’an’s Miraculous Inimitability

This surah, which is one of the smallest surahs in the Qur'an, does not differ in its formulation or style from other longer surahs, so, it is included in the Qur'anic challenge:

“Say, 'Then bring a surah like it, and invoke whomever you can, besides Allah, should you be truthful.” (Yunus, 10:38).

And this surah is one of those that demonstrate the Qur'an's miraculous inimitability (i'jaz), as it challenges the most eloquent speakers of the Arabs to produce three verses like those in this surah.

2. Unique Words

This surah is distinguished insofar as it uses words we do not find anywhere else in the Qur'an, such as kawthar (lit. "abundance"), nahr (lit. "sacrifice"), shani' (lit. "enemy") and abtar (lit. "without­ posterity"). It is the Prophet's (S) due that Allah should address him with this surah made unique by the words used in it, foremost amongst which is the word kawthar, meaning all kinds of abundant goodness.

3. Sagacious Use Of Words

The Qur'an is extremely precise and sagacious in how it uses words throughout its text, including its use of the first-person pronoun that refers to the Divine Essence.

a. Sometimes this pronoun appears in the singular ("I"), as in

“I am Indeed, the All-forgiving, the All-merciful” (aI-Hijr, 15:49).

or

“ ……I am Indeed, nearmost……” (al-Baqarah, 2:186).

It is supposed to give a sense of Allah's nearness and immanence to His servant, and this necessitates a feeling of familiarity, as is clear in Allah's address to Moses (‘a):

“Indeed, I am Allah - there is no god except Me. So, worship Me, and maintain the prayer for My remembrance.” (Ta Ha, 20:14).

b. But sometimes it also, appears in the plural ("We"), and this includes the opening verses of four surahs of the Qur'an:

“Indeed, We have inaugurated for you a clear victory” (al-Fath, 48:1).

“Indeed, We sent Noah to his people,” (Nuh, 71:1).

“Indeed, We sent it down on the Night of Ordainment.” (al-Qadr, 97:1).

“Indeed, We have given you abundance.” (al-Kawthar, 108:1).

What unites all these surah’s is a sense of the great act being attributed to Allah, whether granting a clear victory; or sending the first of the Great Prophets, who occupies the position of a second father to all humanity; or sending down the final divine message to mankind; or granting an abundance of good. There is a clear connection between all of these instances, namely: The prophethood of the Great Prophets, Divine Scripture, the Holy Household (‘a) equal to it, and outward victory, which guarantees the success of the prophetic mission.

4. Bestowing Ownership

It is possible to honour someone generously without actually making him the owner of something, as when one is granted its benefits (manfa'a) without being granted the object itself. But the act of giving here is manifestly bestowing ownership - which is the utmost honour - in addition to the fact that the person being addressed in the words 'We gave you' is the final prophet (S). It suggests that he has a special quality in this gift that entitles him to the abundance of goodness contained within this gift, as the readiness of the recipient engenders the act of the giver as well.

5. Prophecies

It is striking that as many as twenty-six different explanations have been offered for the term kawthar (abundance), all united by the idea that this kawthar contains abundant good. But the most appropriate interpretation in the broader context of this surah is 'an abundance of offspring' firstly because kawthar is contrasted with abtar (without posterity), which is a like a recompense for those who first accused the Prophet (S) of being without progeny, and secondly because of the command to sacrifice - according to one interpretation - which refers to the practice of offering a sacrifice when one is granted offspring.

It should be remembered that this surah is an instance in which the Qur'an is divulging knowledge of the unseen, and these instances are known collectively as the prophesies of the Qur'an (malahim al-qur'an); this glad tiding came in Mecca while the Prophet (S) had few supporters and scant resources, while his enemy was a person of importance and influence. And yet, events would confirm the veracity of the Qur'an's prophesy - as was the case with all other prophesies - for no lineage in history has been preserved like that of the Final Messenger (S).

6. ‘Kawthar’

The ambiguity of the word kawthar - which has produced such diverse interpretations amongst different commentators - could be intended to illustrate the breadth of the scope of this abundant goodness. The interpretations of this word have varied greatly, from those that say it refers to the scholars of the ummah, to others who say it is a river in Paradise, and others who say it means wisdom (hikmah), which another verse also, describes as abundant good!1

It is the habit of the Qur’an to leave some words ambiguous in their meaning, in order to prompt people to use their intellect and ask questions from one angle, and to ultimately refer those questions to the companion of the Qur'an represented by the Prophet's (S) Household (‘a) from another!

7. Maleness And Femaleness

It was the Divine Will to realize the abundant good contained within the descendants of the Prophet (S) through his daughter, Fatimah (sa). Remember this was at a time when having a daughter was considered ill fated:

“When one of them is brought the news of a female, his face becomes darkened and he chokes with suppressed agony.” (an-Nahl, 16:58).

Just as Allah willed to realize His word and spirit, Jesus (‘a), through the Virgin Mary (sa). This contains a powerful lesson for us; which is that blessings are directed at the spiritual realm, while the male and female genders are physical attributes, and these have no relation to receiving the divine effusion of munificence.

8. Fulfillment Of A Divine Promise

We can see this surah as the fulfillment of the divine promise contained in Surah ad-Duha:

“Soon your Lord will give: you [that with which] you will be pleased.” (ad-Duha, 93:5).

This is because dedicating an entire surah to the promise to give him abundant good (kawthar) implies that there was something important which the Prophet (S) was awaiting, which would grant him utter happiness and satisfaction.

And there is no doubt that the divine gift represented by Fatimah (sa) contained the satisfaction of Allah's Messenger, and that is because her influence in this world was plainly manifested in the form of an abundance of offspring, and in the Hereafter it was manifested in the form of intercession for this ummah.

9. ‘Kawthar’

When Allah blessed His Prophet (S) with the conquest of Mecca, He commanded him to glorify Him and plead forgiveness

“and you see the people entering Allah's religion in throngs,” (an-Nasr, 110:2).

“then celebrate the praise of your Lord, and plead to Him for forgiveness” (an-Nasr, 110:3).

- as a kind of thanksgiving to the One who granted him this victory, but when He granted him the blessing of kathwar, He commanded him to pray -'so, pray' - which contains both glorification and pleading for forgiveness.

This shows that this kawthar has a great effect in bringing people to Allah's religion in droves; and that is throughout all ages, not just at the time of Mecca's conquest.

10. “Your Lord”

It is inconceivable that the prayer of the Prophet (S) should be for anyone except the Lord. But in spite of that, the verse affirms that this prayer is directed towards 'your Lord' and is only for Allah, because it is obvious that any deed not done seeking His countenance, no matter how great the deed or its doer, is ultimately without substance.

11. Surah Al-Kawthar And Surah At-Takathur

There is a contrast - which is clear to anyone who reflects - between Surah al-Kawthar and Surah al-Takathur, even though the two words are derived from the same root (kaf-tha-ra):

a. In the first, we see an abundance that causes a person to worship Allah -

“so, pray to your Lord” (al-Kawthar, 108:2).

while in the second we see an abundance that causes a person to forget the remembrance of Allah:

“rivalry distracted you ...” (at-Takathur, 102:1).

b. In the first, the call to pray brings Allah's servants to their prayer niches, while in the second, rivalry drives them to the graves to count the deceased of their tribe -

“until you visited the graves.” (at-Takathur, 102:2).

c. Kawthar is represented by an abundant good given by Allah to His beloved Prophet (S), which is a real (rather than perceived) good that lasts across generations, while the kind of rivalry being censured in Surah al-Takathur is actually something illusory and perceived. In itself, an abundance of children is not something valuable, not to mention that this perceived value loses its worth to a person who dies in this world, let alone in the Hereafter.

d. The kawthar given by Allah is an emanation of Allah's overflowing munificence, and it is well known that everything that comes from Allah and everything that is for Allah's sake grows. On the other hand, the source of immoral rivalry is the love of this world, being deceived by it and feeling proud of it before one’s peers. Of course, whatever is for the sake of someone other than Allah will fade and disappear.

12. Kindling Hearts

There is a clear connection between the statement 'We have given you ...' and the command 'So, pray...' that follows it. Recalling one of Allah's gifts should motivate someone to pray to Him, which is something that confers (the feelings of) awe and humility upon the worshipper. This is one of the ways in which people's hearts can be kindled, they should 'pray' whenever they see themselves slipping. Equally, one of the ways in which people can be called towards Allah is by reminding them of the blessings that came before the call to obey Him; it has been narrated in a hadith qudsi: 'Allah revealed to Moses (‘a): "Endear me to my creation, and endear my creation to me." Moses asked: "My Lord, how should I do that?" He said: "Remind them of by blessings and gifts that they might love Me."2

13. ‘Kawthar’ As The Prophet’s Sons

By attaching the Lord to the Prophet (S) in the phrase '...to your Lord' the Qur'an suggests that the very same divine favour that this and other surah’s mention flows from the station of Lordship; were it not for the fact that the Lord of the Worlds undertook to exalt the name of His beloved prophet, Muhammad (S), this honour would never have stretched through the ages.

One of the interpretations offered by Fakhr al-Razi for the word kawthar is that it refers to his sons, to which he appends: 'Because this surah only came down to refute those who mocked the Prophet (S) for his lack of male progeny. So, this means that Allah will give him a lineage that will endure with the passage of time; see how many members of the Prophet’s (S) Household (‘a) were slain, and yet the world is filled with them, while not a single worthy descendent of the Umayyad clan remains! Then look how many great scholars came from his offspring: al-Baqir, al-Sadiq, al­ Kazim, al-Rida, the Pure Soul (al-nafs al-zakiyya ),3 and the likes of them.'4

14. A Surah Addressing The Prophet (S)

Despite this surah's brevity - being only three verses long - it addresses the Prophet (S) directly five times, whether using the explicit pronoun - 'to your Lord' - or the implicit one - 'and sacrifice'5 - as if the axis around which this surah revolves is none other than the Prophet (S) himself, even if its purpose is to expound the blessings of kawthar in response to the reproach of his enemy, who sought to disparage most noble and honoured of Allah's creatures.

15. And Sacrifice! 1

“.... and sacrifice” (al-Kawthar, 108:2).

‘sacrifice’ is explained to mean the sacrifice of a she-camel - whether on the two Eid days, or generally - and it fits within the context of the Qur'an's emphasis on the correspondence between fulfilling the rights of the Creator and fulfilling the rights of the Creatures, as we also, can see in how the Qur'an repeatedly combines of the injunction to pray and that to give zakat, and its forbiddance on neglecting prayers and refusing to help others.

It is from this perspective that the Qur'an bids the Prophet to give thanks for the blessing of kawthar sometimes by praying and others by feeding the needy; neither one removes the need for the other.

16. And Sacrifice! 2

Another interpretation of the injunction wanhar ('and sacrifice') is to raise one's hands level to one's neck when reciting the takbir that begins the prayer.6 If this is the case, then mentioning this after the injunction to pray suggests that this fundamental component of prayer is very important. After all, this takbir;

a. accompanies the very beginning of a person's prayer and symbolizes his entry into the divine presence through his ascent in prayer.

b. Consists of one of the most important Islamic invocations (dhikr), as the utmost praise of the station of Lordship is conceding one's inability to adequately describe or praise the Lord, which is the essence of the words of the takbir (‘allahu akbar' – ‘Allah is greater’).

17. Best Ways To Give Thanks

One could say - based on the ideas gleaned from this surah - that one of the best gifts Allah can bestow upon His servants is righteous children, and some of the best ways to give thanks is:

a. To offer prayers before Allah that are attached to that blessing, as indicated by the conjunction 'So...' (fa) in the phrase

“So, pray to your Lord and sacrifice.” (al-Kawthar, 108:2).

b. Offering sacrifices seeking nearness to Him, based on Allah's command to His Prophet (S) ('and sacrifice.')

18. Allah Defending Prophet Muhammad (S)

Allah wastes no opportunity to defend His favourite Prophet (S); He generally defends the believers:

“Allah Indeed, defends those who believe.” (al-Hajj, 22:38).

What more His chosen Messenger? When the idolaters accused him of being insane, Allah responded:

“...you are not, by the blessing of your Lord, crazy.'” (al-Qalam, 68:2).

And when they denied that he was a Messenger –

And those who disbelieve say: You are not a messenger…” (ar-Ra'd, 13:43).

Allah responded:

“……and you are Indeed, one of the Messengers.” (al-Baqarah, 2:252).

And when they accused him of being a poet –

“... for a crazed poet” (as-Saffat, 37:36).

Allah responded in his defence:

“We did not teach him poetry, nor does it behoove him.” (Yasin, 36:69).

And we see this pattern continued in this surah when they claimed he was without progeny, whereby Allah defended him with the words:

“Indeed, it is your enemy who is without posterity.” (al-Kawthar, 108:3).

This was not idle talk on Allah's part; rather He demonstrated to everyone in reality the truthfulness of this description, and he had a great many offspring, not least amongst them were the Imams of the Prophet's (S) Household (‘a).

19. A Lack Of Posterity

Divine recompense always reflects the actions of the person, whether this recompense is meted out in this world or the Hereafter; so, it is very fitting that the person who disparaged the Prophet (S) for having no male heir - especially after the loss of his sons Qasim and 'Abd Allah - should be rewarded with the same kind of fate; namely a lack of posterity (batr), which is explained to mean someone who has no religion or lineage. And this is what ultimately happened; the enemy of the Prophet (S) has no exalted reputation, nor any surviving heirs, unlike the Prophet himself; Allah exalted his reputation and granted him abundant and blessed progeny until the Day of Resurrection.

20. Ostentation

Any important action that is not attached to Allah is without posterity (abtar), whether it concerns a person's connection to his Lord, such as prayer, or his connection to others, such as slaughtering a sacrificial animal. Hence the words 'to your Lord' are positioned between those of 'So, pray...' and '...sacrifice' to demonstrate the its positive aspect, just as the words '...those who show off...' are positioned between those of 'their prayers' and 'deny aid' to demonstrate the negative one.

Based on this, we can say that ostentation and showing off (riya') obliterates every kind of good deed, just as dedication (ikhlas) yields every act of obedience.

21. Being An Enemy Of The Prophet (S)

When Allah threatens the Prophet's enemy with a lack of posterity, it is as if he is to be the only person in history without offspring, because Allah says

“....your enemy is the one without posterity” (al-Kawthar, 108:3).

and this phrasing suggests either emphasis or specification. However, this threat is not restricted to this person in particular, for the meaning of the revelation is not restricted to the person about whom it was originally revealed; everyone who hates the Prophet (S) will suffer the same fate and be without posterity in all times. This is especially clear because the Arabic uses the noun of the active participle (fa'il) rather than that of the verb, which indicates that this recompense is for anyone who possesses this attribute (i.e. being the enemy of the Prophet) in any context.

  • 1. See Surah Al-Baqara:
    ' … and he who is given wisdom, is certainly given an abundant good.' (2:269).
  • 2. Al-jawahir al-Sunniyyah fi al-Ahadith al-Qudsiyyah, 525.
  • 3. This is Muhammad b. 'Abd Allah b. al-Hasan al-Muthanna b. al-Hasan b. 'Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 145/762), who led an unsuccessful uprising against the 'Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur, in Medina, while his brother, Ibrahim, led a parallel uprising in southern Iraq.
  • 4. Mafatih al-Ghayb, 32/313.
  • 5. This is because in Arabic grammar, the pronoun 'you' is treated as implicit in imperative commands.
  • 6. The command wanhar comes from the root nun-ha-ra which relates to the throat (nahr). It is this that makes both interpretations of the word possible; an animal is sacrificed by cutting its throat, and a worshipper raises his hands so, that his palms are level with his throat when pronouncing takbir (‘allahu akbar’) in prayer.