بِسْمِ اللَّهِ الرَّحْمَٰنِ الرَّحِيمِ
In the Name of Allah, the All-beneficent, the All-merciful.
تَبَّتْ يَدَا أَبِي لَهَبٍ وَتَبَّ
Perish the hands of Abu Lahab, and perish he! (111:1).
مَا أَغْنَىٰ عَنْهُ مَالُهُ وَمَا كَسَبَ
Neither his wealth availed him, nor what he had earned. (111:2).
سَيَصْلَىٰ نَارًا ذَاتَ لَهَبٍ
Soon he will enter a fire of flames, (111:3).
وَامْرَأَتُهُ حَمَّالَةَ الْحَطَبِ
and his woman, the firewood carrier, (111:4).
فِي جِيدِهَا حَبْلٌ مِنْ مَسَدٍ
with a rope of palm fibre around her neck. (111:5).
Using the expression 'Perish ...!' - which means either to inform the audience of his ruin and loss, or to call for ruin upon him - is sometimes used in connection with a person's hand, which is the limb through which one executes his will, and at others used for the person himself, the owner of that hand.
The divine language, which conforms to this style, nullifies the deeds of the disbelievers just as these deeds ruin their persons! And after this divine threat - which includes all wrongdoers like Abu Lahab throughout history - why should there remain any fear in the hearts of the faithful?
One of the closest relatives to the noblest of Allah's creatures was Abu Lahab; even today in Arab and other societies, a paternal uncle (‘amm) is second only to a child's father in importance and often he will take on the responsibilities of a father in the event of the loss of the former. This is why Abraham (‘a) addressed his paternal uncle, Azar, as his father;
“When Abraham said to Azar, his father.....” (al-An'am, 6:74).
Therefore, wasn’t it right for one of the Prophet's (S) closest kin to decide that he was going to do whatever he wanted? In fact, the rebuke and threat issued here to the Prophet's (S) uncle is almost without an equal in the Qur'an, because an entire surah has been devoted to rebuke him and his wife, Umm Jamil.
There are some people who refuse to curse (la'n) others or make invocations that they be removed from the sphere of divine mercy, while we see that the Qur'an invokes curses in more than forty different locations with various expressions, including the formula we find in this surah, which is also, a curse and an invocation for someone to be denied mercy, and this one is specifically directed against Abu Lahab because he was outstanding in his persecution of the Prophet (S) to an almost unbelievable degree: He would stalk the Prophet (S) like a shadow, and whenever a delegation came to see him (S) they would first ask about him from his uncle, Abu Lahab, because of the latter's seniority, kinship and importance, and he would tell them: He is a magician, so, then they would go back without meeting him. But then there came a delegation to him who said: 'We will not leave without seeing him.' So, he told them: 'We are still trying to cure him of his madness, the unfortunate wretch!'
And one of them said of him: 'While I was in a covered market there was a young man who came, saying: 'O people! Say there is no god except Allah (la ilaha illa Allah) and be successful!' And there came a man behind him, pelting him with stones until he had bloodied his thighs and calves, saying: 'O people! He is a liar, so, don't believe him!'1
Supplications against the disbelievers, represented as they are by curses and invocations to expel them from divine mercy, usually have their effect on the Day of Resurrection, but the verses allude to these curses have consequences and effects in this world as well, which are:
a. The waste of their efforts opposing the prophetic mission:
“Perish the hands of Abu Lahab, and perish he!” (al-Lahab, 111:1).
b. That is Allah himself who will undertake to fight them, and who can possibly stand against the sovereign of the heavens and the earth?
“May Allah assail them, where do they stray?” (at-Tawbah, 9:30).
c. The utter destruction of their riches, as happened with the Pharaoh's clan:
“Our Lord! Blot out their wealth ...!” (Yunus, 10:88).
d. The ruin of their edifice:
“Then Allah razed their edifice from the foundations and the roof collapsed upon them from above.” (an-Nahl, 16:26).
A person who reads the Qur'an lives with what Allah has sent down as though it was sent down for his own time; they yearn for the bliss of Paradise when it is mentioned and seeks refuge from the punishment of Hellfire as though he hears its cries ringing in their ears; they give thanks whenever Allah reminds them of one of his blessings and disassociate themselves from Allah's enemies when they see them mentioned with ill-repute.
An instance of living with the Qur'an in this manner can be found in this surah; it is appropriate to supplicate against those whom Allah has rebuked in the harshest terms, and this too is a form of disassociation from the wrongdoers in the Qur'an. This is what has been narrated from Imam al-Sadiq (‘a): 'When you recite 'Perish the hands of Abu Lahab and perish he!(111:1)' then supplicate against Abu Lahab, for he was Indeed, one of the deniers who denied the Prophet (S) and what he brought from Allah.'2
All manifestations of bounties and power of this world will not avail a person if Allah does not bless him; for He is the giver of all bounties to people, just as He is the one who blesses them. This is why there are numerous verses demonstrating that the things the wealthy rely on in this world will not avail them, including:
a. Wealth and children, which Allah nullifies with His words:
“Neither their wealth nor their children shall avail them anything against Allah.” (Ale 'Imran, 3:10).
b. Friends and those whom a person relies upon in attaining his goals, which Allah nullifies with His words:
“the day when a friend will not avail a friend in any way.” (ad-Dukhkhan, 44:41).
c. Guile and plotting, which Allah nullifies with His words:
“the day when their guile will not avail them in any way.” (at-Tur, 52:46).
d. The intercession of the disbelievers, which Allah invalidates with the words:
“shall I take gods besides Him? If the All-beneficent desired to cause me any distress their intercession will not avail me in any way, nor will they rescue me.” (Yasin, 36:23).
e. Amassing numerous and well-armed host, which Allah invalidates by saying:
“your troops will never avail you though they should be ever so, many.” (al-Anfal, 8:19).
One could say that the difference between 'his wealth' and 'what he earned' is that the first refers to a person's possessions, even if he has not earned it, such as inherited property, while the second refers to his efforts, assuming that 'what' (ma) conveys the meaning of a verbal noun.
Therefore, the divine wrath encompasses all of this entity, as represented by his efforts 'hands', his person 'Abu Lahab', his 'wealth' and his efforts in life 'what he earned.' So, what will become of such a person when Allah's curse surrounds all aspects of his being?
In a number of verses, the Qur'an refers to the guile of the disbelievers and their plotting, but it does so, with contempt and derision in order to strengthen the hearts of the believers when they see plots by the disbelievers so, severe as to move mountains. One example of this is when Allah says:
“ .... but the stratagems of the disbelievers only go awry” (al-Ghafir, 40:25).
“(know] that Allah undermines the stratagems of the disbelievers.” (al-Anfal, 8:18).
We find yet another instance in this surah, when Allah describes the ruin of the foremost opponent of the Prophet, Abu Lahab, and says that whatever wealth he had at his disposal to persecute the Prophet (S) would not only not avail him but actually kindle a blazing fire for him in Hell.
Allah's punishment in the Hereafter will correspond to how a person was in this world; so, Abu Lahab's recompense in the Hereafter will be rooted in his own being, and the punishment for his wife will be rooted in her deeds; she used to carry firewood and thorns and throw them in front of the Prophet (S), so, it is only right that this will become fuel for a blazing fire whose intensity is too great to be known, as indicated by the use of the indefinite 'a fire with flames' to inspire horror. After all, every fire has flames.
The word 'wife' (zawjah) implies a kind of bond and affection which Allah places between spouses, which is why the Qur'an does not use this relationship - i.e. marriage - to denote someone whose fate is Hellfire, which is why we read in this surah:
“and his woman, the firewood carrier” (al-Lahab 111:4).
which is the way in which Allah refers to the wives of Noah and Lot [to disassociate His prophets from them]:
“Allah draws an example for the disbelievers: the woman of Noah and the woman of Lot..'” (at-Tahrim, 66:10).
Conversely, He uses the same expression for the wife of the Pharaoh to disassociate her from her husband:
“Allah draws an example for those who have faith: the woman of Pharaoh, when she said, 'My Lord! Build me a home near You in paradise, and deliver me from Pharaoh and his conduct. ..” (al-Tahrim, 66:11).
a. So, in the first case is an example of a corrupt woman in the company of a corrupt man.
b. The second is an example of a corrupt woman with a righteous man.
c. The third is an example of a righteous woman with a corrupt man.
d. As for the fourth case, that is of a righteous wife in the care of a righteous husband, this is the best match between spouses in existence, and this match is idealized in the marriage of 'Ali and Fatimah (a2) insofar as:
“He merged the two seas, meeting each other.” (ar-Rahman, 55:19).
“There is a barrier between them, which they do not overstep.” (ar-Rahman, 55:20).
“So, which of your Lord's bounties will you both deny? (ar-Rahman, 55:21).
“From them emerge the pearl and the coral.” (ar-Rahman, 55:22).
The essential connection between two spouses is an obvious social reality; so, the appropriateness of a carrier of firewood to Abu Lahab (of the fire with flames) is not something arbitrary; generally speaking, a husband and a wife support one another, for good or for evil, because of the essential connection they share. If there were any seeds of goodness in the wife of Abu Lahab, she might have chided her husband or tried to curb his cruelty. And this is why it is so, important to be careful in choosing a spouse; a person should look at the position he is placing himself!
One form of punishment in Hellfire is the humiliation of its inhabitants in various ways, such as what we read in this surah concerning the carrier of firewood, the wife of Abu Lahab, for she has been portrayed repulsively in Hellfire. Normally a woman wears a necklace of gold, but this unfortunate woman has a rope of palm-fibre around her neck, rough to the touch, wound from fibres, carrying the fuel for her own punishment in Hellfire. This, in its entirety, is nothing less than the physical manifestation of how she was in this world, for it is not unlikely that she wore around her neck a vessel fastened with a rope wound from fibre, which she had filled with thorns to throw in front of the Prophet (S).
This surah is one of the prophesies of the Qur'an that impart knowledge of the unseen; it was revealed while Abu Lahab was still alive and was a disbeliever. Had he wanted to, he could have challenged the Qur'an by pretending to believe in the Prophet (S) and thus proving this prophecy to be false! And yet, because Allah knew that this would never happen, he sent down this surah containing the exposition of a general rule, whose upshot is that even when Allah foretells the deeds of His servants this does not remove free will from them; whatever deeds of theirs are described are only mentioned assuming that they will have free will. Otherwise, if these prophesies left them without free will, there would be no punishment for their deeds!