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Critical Evaluation of the Occasion of Revelation of Surah Abu Lahab
Hadith & Sunnah
Dr. Shehzad Saleem

Critical Evaluation of the Occasion of Revelation of Surah Abu Lahab


I Introduction

Narratives mention that Surah Abu Lahab was revealed in response to a curse expressed by Abu Lahab for Prophet Muhammad (sws) when the latter informed the Quraysh that he had been sent to them as a warner before the great punishment.

In this article, these narratives will be critically analyzed. 


II A Representative Text

 حدثنا عُمَرُ بن حَفْصِ بن غِيَاثٍ حدثنا أبي حدثنا الْأَعْمَشُ قال حدثني عَمْرُو بن مُرَّةَ عن سَعِيدِ بن جُبَيْرٍ عن بن عَبَّاسٍ رضي الله عنهما قال لَمَّا نَزَلَتْ وَأَنْذِرْ عَشِيرَتَكَ الْأَقْرَبِينَ صَعِدَ النبي  صلي الله عليه وسلم  علي الصَّفَا فَجَعَلَ يُنَادِي يا بَنِي فِهْرٍ يا بَنِي عَدِيٍّ لِبُطُونِ قُرَيْشٍ حتي اجْتَمَعُوا فَجَعَلَ الرَّجُلُ إذا لم يَسْتَطِعْ أَنْ يَخْرُجَ أَرْسَلَ رَسُولًا لِيَنْظُرَ ما هو فَجَاءَ أبو لَهَبٍ وَقُرَيْشٌ فقال أَرَأَيْتَكُمْ لو أَخْبَرْتُكُمْ أَنَّ خَيْلًا بِالْوَادِي تُرِيدُ أَنْ تُغِيرَ عَلَيْكُمْ أَكُنْتُمْ مُصَدِّقِيَّ قالوا نعم ما جَرَّبْنَا عَلَيْكَ إلا صِدْقًا قال فَإِنِّي نَذِيرٌ لَكُمْ بين يَدَيْ عَذَابٍ شَدِيدٍ فقال أبو لَهَبٍ تَبًّا لك سَائِرَ الْيَوْمِ أَلِهَذَا جَمَعْتَنَا فَنَزَلَتْ   تَبَّتْ يَدَا أبي لَهَبٍ وَتَبَّ ما أَغْنَي عنه مَالُهُ وما كَسَبَ

 ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas said: “When the verse وَأَنْذِرْ عَشِيرَتَكَ الْأَقْرَبِينَ (warn your near in kin) was revealed, the Prophet climbed the hillock of Safa and started to call out to various tribes of the Quraysh like the Banu Fahr and Banu ‘Adi and others until all of them gathered. A person who was not able to go sent a representative on his behalf in order to know what had happened.  Thus Abu Lahab and the rest of the Quraysh gathered. Once the had assembled, the Prophet said: ‘What if I inform you that there is an army in the valley that plans to attack you; Will you believe me?’ They replied: ‘Yes because we have always witnessed the truth from you.’ The Prophet said: ‘Listen! I am a warner to you before the great torment.’ Thereafter Abu Lahab replied: ‘Curse be on you all days; Is this is what you gathered us for?’ At this, Surah Abu Lahab was revealed.”1


III Critical Analysis

Following is the critique put forth by Amin Ahsan Islahi on this narrative: 

In other words, when Abu Lahab misbehaved with the Prophet (sws) by uttering these words, the Almighty, in order to assure the Prophet (sws), revealed this surah in condemnation of Abu Lahab and his wife. Since this incident occurred early in the Makkan period, exegetes regard this surah to belong to that time. Now, as far as this incident is concerned, one cannot deny it; however, for various reasons it is improbable that this surah was revealed in response to Abu Lahab’s misdemeanour and to condemn him and his wife.

Firstly, it seems unlikely that the misbehaviour of an adversary of a Prophet (sws) would be responded to in such a tit-for-tat manner. Abu Lahab was not the only one who showed such enmity and disrespect to the Prophet (sws). Most leaders of Makkah and Ta’if were involved in this offence; however, in response to these excesses, the Prophet (sws) not only showed perseverance and ignored them, he urged his Companions also to adopt an attitude of forbearance and the Almighty too directed him repeatedly to adhere to it. Never did the Prophet (sws) utter even a word of condemnation in response to even the severest display of disrespect to him by any of them. He had been directed by the Almighty to call his people to the truth with wisdom and with kindly exhortation and he always adhered to this directive. He did not even label his people as kuffar until, as is evident from my exegesis of Surah al-Kafirun, the truth had been communicated to them to such an extent that they were left with no excuse to deny it and until the time had arrived to migrate from them after announcing his acquittal, let alone condemning and censuring them. The prophets before him adopted no different a methodology. How then is it possible that right at the beginning of his preaching mission, he became so offended by a remark of his uncle that for his assurance a whole surah was revealed as a result – a surah in which according to our exegetes not only is his uncle taken to task but also his aunt?

Secondly, there is a world of difference between the words of Abu Lahab تَباً لَكَ and the words تَبَّتۡ یَدَاۤ اَبِیۡ لَهَبٍ of this surah. The former do imply condemnation and are used to demean and debase someone; however, this does not mean that other idioms which begin with the word تَباً also carry in them the meaning of humiliating and demeaning someone. Had the revealed words been تَبًّ لِأَبِي لَهَبٍ there could have been a possibility that Abu Lahab was being paid back in the same coin; however, the revealed words are تَبَّتۡ یَدَاۤ  اَبِیۡ  لَهَبٍ. These words in no way have a ring of condemnation and reprimand, but, as will be explained later, they refer to the end of Abu Lahab’s political dominance, a defeat of all his friends and allies and a devastation of his pomp and wealth. In other words, this sentence is not a statement of fact; it is a prediction of Abu Lahab’s destruction given in the past tense. This prediction was made when the truth had been communicated to him in such an ultimate form that he was left with no excuse to deny it. It is thus incorrect to believe that this surah is an early Makkan one. It was revealed when the signs of Abu Lahab’s destruction were becoming evident. He died a little after the battle of Badr; thus the revelation of this surah too should be around this period. It is also evident from the style of the surah that it was revealed before his death. Had it been revealed after his death, the style of the surah would have been like اَلَمۡ  تَرَ کَیۡفَ (Have you not seen?) or words similar to it. The past tense adopted in the opening verse of the surah is employed for expressing the certainty of a future event. Examples of this style abound in the Qur’an and we have referred to them several times earlier.2 


B. Analysis of the Isnad


Following is a shortened schematic illustration of the variants of this narrative:


All narratives have the ‘an‘anah of Sa‘id ibn Jubayr from Ibn ‘Abbas.3 It may be noted that in the corpus of Hadith literature there are many narratives which Sa‘id ibn Jubayr has directly heard from Ibn ‘Abbas (rta) and others which he has not directly heard from him and has in fact heard them from people who heard them from Ibn ‘Abbas. Whenever Sa‘id narrates directly from Ibn ‘Abbas (rta), he always specifies this by saying:حدثني ابن عباس  (Ibn ‘Abbas narrated to me) or  سمعت ابن عباس  (I heard from Ibn ‘Abbas)  أخبرني ابن عباس (Ibn ‘Abbas informed me). When he narrates indirectly from Ibn ‘Abbas (rta), he either names the person in between eg. حدثني مجاهد عن ابن عباس (Mujahid narrated to me from Ibn ‘Abbas) and حدثني عكرمة عن ابن عباس (‘Ikramah narrated to me from Ibn ‘Abbas) or does not name anyone at all and just says عن ابن عباس (from Ibn ‘Abbas). Now as far as the narrative under discussion is concerned, if all its variants are analyzed it will be found that in all of them the words without any exception are عن ابن عباس (from Ibn ‘Abbas) which means that Sa‘id never heard this narrative directly from Ibn ‘Abbas (rta). In all probability, Sa‘id heard it from someone who had attributed it to Ibn ‘Abbas (rta) and trusting this person, Sa‘id ascribed it to Ibn ‘Abbas (rta).

About ‘Ikramah, it is recorded:

 حدثنا الحسن بن علي ومحمد بن أيوب قالا حدثنا يحيی بن المغيرة قال حدثنا جرير عن يزيد بن زياد عن عبد الله بن الحارث قال دخلت علی علي بن عبد الله بن عباس فإذا عكرمة في وثاق عند باب الحسن فقلت له ألا تتقي الله قال فإن هذا الخبيث يكذب علی أبي

 ‘Abdullah ibn al-Harith said: “I came to ‘Ali ibn ‘Abdullah ibn ‘Abbas and found that ‘Ikramah was chained near the door of Hasan. So I said to him: ‘Do you not fear God?’ He replied: ‘This is because this hideous person fabricates lies about my father.’”4


According to ‘Ali ibn al-Madini, when Da’ud narrates from ‘Ikramah, he is munkar al-hadith.5

Though Ibrahim ibn Isma‘il ibn Abi Habibah (d. 165 AH) has been regarded to be trustworthy by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, here is the jarh recorded on him by al-Mizzi: Yahya ibn Ma‘in says that he is salih yuktabu hadithuhu wa la yuhtajju bihi and at another place states that he is laysa bi shayy; Abu Hatim is shaykh laysa bi qawi yuktabu hadithuhu wa la yuhtajju bihi; Al-Bukhari says that he is munkar al-hadith; Al-Nasa’i says that he is matruk.6 Ibn Hibban says kana yuqallibu al-asanid wa yarfa‘u al-marasil.7 Al-Daraqutni says that he is laysa bi al-qawi fi al-hadith.8

Finally, this narrative becomes totally unreliable because of the presence of Muhammad ibn ‘Umar al-Waqidi in its chain of narration. Here is the jarh on him.

Al-Bukhari9 opines that he is sakatu ‘anhu and that Ahmad and Ibn Numayr have abandoned him (tarakahu). At another place, al-Bukhari10 regards him to be matruk al-hadith. Al-Nasa’i11 also regards him to be matruk al-hadith. Ibn Hibban12 records that Ahmad has declared him to be a liar and that Yahya ibn Ma‘in regards him to be laysa bi shay’ and that ‘Ali ibn al-Madini says that he would forge narratives (yada‘u al-hadith). Al-Dhahabi13 records that in the opinion of al-Daraqutni fihi al-du‘f and that Ibn ‘Adi says that his narratives are not safe. Al-Mizzi14 records that in the opinion of Muslim he is matruk al-hadith and Abu Ahmad al-Hakim regards him to be dhahib al-hadith. Ishaq ibn Rahawayh15 also regards him to be a forger of hadith (‘indi min man yada‘u al-hadith). Ibn Hajar16 says that he is matruk.

Authorities have pointed out that Qabisah ibn ‘Uqbah ibn Muhammad is very suspect in his narrations from Sufyan al-Thawri17 (ie. in the variants of this narrative, he reports from Sufyan).


IV Conclusion

The questions raised on the text and chain of narration of this narrative render it unacceptable.




1. Al-Bukhari, Al-Jami‘ al-sahih, vol. 4, 1787, (no. 4492). See also: Ibid., vol. 4, 1804, (no. 4523); Ibid., vol. 4, 1902, (no. 4687); Ibid., vol. 4, 1902, (no. 4688); Ibid., vol. 4, 1902, (no. 4689); Muslim, Al-Jami‘ al-sahih, vol. 1, 193, (no. 208); Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, vol. 5, 451, (no. 3363); Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, vol. 1, 281, (no. 2544); Ibid., vol. 1, 307, (no. 2802); Ibn Sa‘d, Al-Tabaqat al-kubra, vol. 1, 199-200; Al-Fakihi, Akhbar Makkah, vol. 2, 213, (no. 1379); Al-Tahawi, Sharh ma‘ani al-athar, vol. 3, 285, Ibid., vol. 4, 288; Ibn Abi Hatim, Tafsir, vol. 9, 2825, (no. 16011); Ibid., vol. 9, 3072, (no. 17379); Ibn Hibban, Sahih, vol. 1, 486-487, (no. 6550); Al-Tabarani, Al-Mu‘jam al-kabir, vol. 12, 21, (no. 12352); Abu ‘Awanah, Musnad, vol. 1, 87, (no. 262); Ibid., vol. 1, 88, (no. 263); Al-Bayhaqi, Al-Sunan al-kubra, vol. 6, 371, (no. 12886); Ibid., vol. 7, 9, (no. 17503); Al-Bayhaqi, Dala’il al-nubuwwah, vol. 2, 181-183; Ibid., vol. 2, 182; Al-Nasa’i, Al-Sunan al-kubra, vol. 6, 244, (no. 10819); Ibid., vol. 6, 437, (no. 11426); Ibid., vol. 6, 256, (no. 11714); Ibn Mandah, Al-Īman, vol. 2, 882-883, (no. 949); Ibid., vol. 2, 883-884, (no. 950); Ibid., vol. 2, 884, (no. 951); Ibid., vol. 2, 884, (no. 952); Al-Tabari, Tarikh, vol. 1, 541-542; Ibid., vol. 19, 120-122; Ibid., vol. 30, 336-337; Al-Baghawi, Sharh al-sunnah, vol. 13, 327, (no. 3742); Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Ishaq, ‘Aml al-yawm wa al-laylah, vol. 1, 543, (no. 982); Ibid., vol. 1, 543, (no. 983); Abu Nu‘aym, Al-Musnad al-mustakhraj, vol. 1, 278, (no. 509).

2. Amin Ahsan Islahi, Tadabbur-i Qur’an, vol. 9, 629-630.

3. See: Mayrathi, Sahih Bukhari ka mutala‘ah, vol. 1, 18-24.

4. Al-‘Uqayli, Al-Du‘afa’ al-kabir, vol. 3, 373-374.

5. Al-Mizzi, Tahdhib al-kamal, vol. 8, 380.

6. Al-Mizzi, Tahdhib al-kamal, vol. 2, 43.

7. Ibn Hibban, Al-Majruhin, vol. 1, 109.

8. Ibn al-Jawzi, Al-Du‘afa’, vol. 1, 22.

9. Al-Bukhari, Al-Tarikh al-kabir, vol. 1, 178.

10. Al-Bukhari, Al-Du‘afa’ al-saghir, 104.

11. Al-Nasa’i, Al-Du‘afa’, 92.

12. Ibn Hibban, Al-Majruhin, vol. 2, 290.

13. Al-Dhahabi, Mizan al-i‘tidal, vol. 6, 273.

14. Al-Mizzi, Tahdhib al-kamal, vol. 26, 188.

15. Abu al-Wafa’ Ibrahim ibn Muhammad Sibt ibn al-‘Ajami al-Halbi, Kashf al-hathith ‘amman rumiya bi wad al-hadith, (Beirut: Maktabah al-nahdah al-‘arabiyyah, 1987), 243.

16. Ibn Hajar, Taqrib al-tahdhib, 498.

17. See, for example: Al-Mizzi, Tahdhib al-kamal, vol. 23, 484-485; Ibn Hajar, Tahdhib al-Tahdhib, vol. 8, 312.

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