Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala begins this Surah by saying,
تَبَّتْ يَدَآ أَبِى لَهَبٍ وَتَبَّ
“Perish the hands of Abu Lahab and perish he!”
The first part is a supplication against him and the second is information about him. Abu Lahab’s real name was ‘Abd al-Uzza. He was called Abu Lahab because of his glowing, ruddy complexion. Lahab means the flame of fire, and Abu Lahab the one with a flaming, fiery face. There are several reasons for mentioning Abu Lahab by his nickname (kunyat) then the real one. First, he was better known by his kunyat; second, the Qur’an did not approve that he should be mentioned by his polytheistic name ‘Abd al-Uzza’ which means slave of Uzza (Uzza was a name of false god in the days of Jahiliyah); third his kunyat goes well with the fate he faced as described in this Surah.
Perishing of the hands, stated in the Surah, does not imply physical breaking of his hands. Instead, it means that a person completely fails in his plans for which he has exerted his utmost. Abu Lahab had tirelessly planned and acted to defeat the Messenger from spreading the message of Islam. Despite his efforts, within a short span of time big chiefs of Quraysh, who were once a party with Abu Lahab in his hostility towards Islam, were killed in the Battle of Badr.
When the news of the defeat reached Makkah, he was so shocked that he could not survive for more than seven days. His death occurred in a pitiable state. He became afflicted with malignant pustule and the people of his house left him to himself, fearing contagion. No one came near his body for three days after his death until the body decomposed and began to stink.
He reached his failure when the religion which he had tried his utmost to impede and thwart was accepted by his own children. This is how Abu Lahab ‘perished’.
Ayaat 2 – 3: Wealth and Children are not going to Save Anyone
Abu Lahab was a stingy, materialistic man. Ibn Jarir has stated that once in the pre-Islamic days he was accused of having stolen two golden deer from the treasury of the Ka’abah. Though later the deer were recovered from another person, the fact that he was accused of stealing indicates the opinion the people of Makkah held of him.
About his riches Qadi Rashid bin Zubair writes in his Adh-Dhakha’ir wat-Tuhaf. He was one of the four richest men of the Quraysh, who owned one qintar (about 260 oz) of gold each. His love of wealth can be judged from the fact that when on the occasion of the battle of Badr the fate of his religion was going to be decided forever, and all the Quraysh chiefs had personally gone to fight, he sent `As bin Hisham to fight on his own behalf, telling him: This is in lieu of the debt of four thousand dirhams that you owe to me. Thus, he contrived a plan to realize his debt, for ‘As had become bankrupt and there was no hope of the recovery of the debt from him.
In ayah 2, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says,
مَآ أَغْنَى عَنْهُ مَالُهُ وَمَا كَسَبَ
“His wealth and his children (Kasab) will not benefit him!”
Ibn Abbas radhiAllahu ‘anhu and others have said,
“…and his children (Kasab) will not benefit him!” Kasab means his children. A similar statement has been reported from `A’ishah, Mujahid, `Ata’, Al-Hasan and Ibn Sirin. It has been mentioned from Ibn Mas`ud radhiAllahu ‘anhu that when the Messenger of Allah salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam called his people to faith, Abu Lahab said, “Even if what my nephew says is true, I will ransom myself (i.e., save myself) from the painful torment on the Day of Judgment with my wealth and my children.” Thus, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala revealed,
مَآ أَغْنَى عَنْهُ مَالُهُ وَمَا كَسَبَ
Some commentators have taken ‘kasab’ in the meaning of the earning, i.e. the benefits that accrued to him from his wealth were his kasab (earning), and some other commentators have taken it to imply children, for the Prophet salAllahu ‘alayhi wa sallam said that a man’s son also is his kasab (earning). (Abu Da’ud, Ibn Abi Hatim).
Both these meanings fully correspond to the fate met by Abu Lahab. For when he was afflicted with the malignant pustule, his wealth availed him nothing, and his children also left him alone to die a miserable, wretched death. They did not even bury him honorably. Thus, within a few years the people witnessed how the prophecy which had been made in this Surah about Abu Lahab was literally fulfilled.
Then in ayah 3 Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says,
سَيَصْلَى نَاراً ذَاتَ لَهَبٍ
“He will be burned in a fire of blazing flames!”
meaning, it has flames, evil and severe burning.
Ayah 4: The Destiny of Umm Jameel, the Wife of Abu Lahab
Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala begins ayah 4 by stating,
وَامْرَأَتُهُ حَمَّالَةَ الْحَطَبِ
“And his wife, the carrier of firewood.”
His wife was among the leading women of the Quraysh and she was known as Umm Jameel. Her name was `Arwah bint Harb bin Umayyah and she was the sister of Abu Sufyan. She was supportive of her husband in his disbelief, rejection and obstinacy. Therefore, she will be helping to administer his punishment in the fire of Hell on the Day of Judgment.
The words ‘hammalat al-hatab’ literally means the carrier of wood. The commentators have given several meanings to it. Abdullan bin `Abbas, Ibn Zaid, Dahhak and Rabi` bin Anas say, she used to place thorns at the Prophet’s door in the night; therefore, she has been described as carrier of the wood.
Qatadah, Ikrimah Hasan Basri, Mujahid and Sufyan Thauri say, she used to carry evil tales and slander from one person to another in order to create hatred between them; therefore, she has been called the bearer of wood idiomatically.
Sa`id bin Jubair says, the one who is loading himself with the burden of sin, is described idiomatically in Arabic as: Fulan-un Yahtatibu ala zahri bi (so and so is loading wood on his back); therefore, hummalat al-hatab means: “The one who carries the burden of sin.” Another meaning also which the commentators have given is: she will do this in the Hereafter, i.e. she will bring and supply wood to the fire in which Abu Lahab would be burning.
Thus, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala says,
وَامْرَأَتُهُ حَمَّالَةَ الْحَطَبِ – فِى جِيدِهَا حَبْلٌ مِّن مَّسَدٍ
“And his wife, the carrier of firewood. In her neck will be a rope of palm fiber.”
meaning, she will carry the firewood and throw it upon her husband to increase that which he is in (of torment), and she will be ready and prepared to do so.
Ayah 5 says,
فِى جِيدِهَا حَبْلٌ مِّن مَّسَدٍ
“In her neck will be a rope of palm fiber.”
Mujahid and `Urwah both said, “From the palm fiber of the Fire.” Al-`Awfi narrated from Ibn `Abbas, `Atiyah Al-Jadali, Ad-Dahhak and Ibn Zayd that she used to place thorns in the path of the Messenger of Allah . Al-Jawhari said, “Al-Masad refers to fibers, it is also a rope made from fibers or palm leaves. It is also made from the skins of camels or their furs. It is said (in Arabic) Masadtul-Habla and Amsaduhu Masadan, when you tightly fasten its twine.” Mujahid said,
فِى جِيدِهَا حَبْلٌ مِّن مَّسَدٍ
“In her neck will be a rope of palm fiber.” This means a collar of iron. Don’t you see that the Arabs call a pulley cable a Masad?”
The word used for her neck is jid, which in Arabic means a neck decorated with an ornament. Sa`id bin al-Musayyab, Hasan Basri and Qatadah say that she wore a valuable necklace and used to say: “By Lat and `Uzza, I will sell away this necklace and expend the price to satisfy my enmity against Muhammad.”
The word jid here has been used ironically, thereby implying that in Hell she would have a rope of palm fiber round her neck instead of that necklace upon which she prides herself so arrogantly. This is similar to what has been said in Qur’an at several places, “Give them the good news of a painful torment.”
May Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala protect us from ignorance and arrogance, aameen.