Archive for the ‘Sura 111: al-Masadd’ Category

Abu Lahad and The Elephant

August 31, 2010 Leave a comment

In Ashland Oregon, right after I got stumped by the Elephant again, I picked up a book called "Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources" by Martin Lings. Within a century or so of Muhammad's death, a number of historians had codified biographies of Muhammad collectively referred to as sīra. This book is basically a summary of the broader sīra literature. It feels–to me–a lot like some of the early parts of the New Testament that I've read about Jesus. Or at least, maybe its the stories outside of the New Testament that have sprung up.

Clarification about al-Masadd and Abu Lahab

Anyway, when I was blogging about Abu Lahab, it felt wrong, specifically the bit about familial relationships. The footnotes told me that Muhammad had been raised by his uncle, Abd al-Uzza b. Abd ul-Muttalib and his wife Jumayl. I dutifully repeated this.


Maybe Muhammad spent some time in their household, but according to Ling's book Muhammad was raised by his grandfather Abd ul-Muttalib after his mother died when he was just a few years old, and the subsequently by his uncle Abu Talib after Abd ul-Muttalib passed away.

Anyway, doesn't change the story of Abd ul-Uzza and Jumayl's opposition, but it does confuse me as to the "why" of the footnotes in that one edition of the Qur'an.

The Elephant

Ling's book also explains the Elephant. It wasn't a story from Muhammad's time as I thought. It dates to the time of Abd ul-Mutallib, Muhammad's paternal grandfather. Apparently, a Yemeni deputy to the Abyssinian king decided to build a new temple to wrest away the lucrative pilgrimage business from Mecca and the Quraysh. After building the temple in Sana'a, the deputy took an army to raze the Ka'bah in Mecca, and that army was led by a single war elephant that was supposed to terrify and trample on the Qurayshi forces.

When the army arrived, the elephant just sat down and refused to advance, even when tortured. The elephant would get up and move as long as it was in a direction away from Mecca. But not forward.

Then, a flock of seagulls that would put Alfred Hitchock to shame blackened the sky and dropped pebbles (three per bird) from their months that moved with such force they pierced armor and organs, decimating the Yemeni army and driving them home in disarray.

Having recently watched the first half of Henry IV Part I (we skipped out on the 2nd half–we were tired from a long drive from Eugene which included our rental car breaking down in Rice Hill), I can but wonder if an Arab Jack Falstaff was an officer in the Abyssianian Army who told the exaggerated story of the Abyssianian defeat. Hal and Ned Poins would have burst their spleens and died of laughter.

Al-Masad: Gettin’ Personal

July 31, 2010 Leave a comment

This is part of what I love about reading the Qur'an: it gets super personal in places, and that reveals a lot about what was going on in Muhammad's day.

First, the text of this super short sura.

Destroyed will be the hands (power) of Abu Lahab,
and he himself will perish.
Of no avail shall be his wealth, nor what he has acquired.
He will be roasted in the fire,
And his wife, the carrier of firewood (tales of evil and slander?),
Will have rope twisted around her neck.

actually combining bits of the Ahmed Ali and Ali Unal translations,
as… well, I like the Ahmed Ali translation because he translates what
he thinks is the intent the text, not just the literal meaning of a
metaphor, which is confusing. But when I look at other translations,
Ahmed Ali loses interesting nuggets, to which Ali Unal is a bit more
faithful. I think I'll be doing this a lot).

So there's this guy, Abd al-Uzza b. Abdul Muttalib, who had red cheeks so was nicknamed Abu Lahab or "Father of Flame." He wasn't just some guy, though. He was also Muhammad's uncle, though it was more like Uncle with a capital U. When Muhammad's father passed away, his brother, Abdul Muttalib was Muhammad Godfather, responsible for raising the infant as if he were his own son.

The Qur'an doesn't actually identify Abdul Muttalib as Abu Lahab (or if it does, I haven't found it yet), let alone describe what it was that he and his wife, Umm Jamil, did to deserve this special place in the fire. A lot of the context and interpretation of the Qur'an–including the putative order in which they were revealed–is based on something called hadith, or reports of things Muhammad did and said as told by a chain of individuals. The shorter the chain, the more reliable the people in the chain, and the closer the initial teller was to Muhammad make the chain more "true" than others.

In this case, Abd Allah b. Abbas, a cousin of Muhammad's on his father's side, related the following:

When the Verse:–'And warn your tribe of near-kindred, was revealed, the Prophet
ascended the Safa (mountain) and started calling, "O Bani Fihr! O Bani 'Adi!"
addressing various tribes of Quraish till they were assembled. Those who could
not come themselves, sent their messengers to see what was there. Abu Lahab and
other people from Quraish came and the Prophet then said, "Suppose I told you
that there is an (enemy) cavalry in the valley intending to attack you, would
you believe me?" They said, "Yes, for we have not found you telling anything
other than the truth." He then said, "I am a warner to you in face of a terrific
punishment." Abu Lahab said (to the Prophet) "May your hands perish all this
day. Is it for this purpose you have gathered us?" Then it was revealed: "Perish
the hands of Abu Lahab (one of the Prophet's uncles), and perish he! His wealth
and his children will not profit him…." (111.1-5)

Basically, Muhammad went up a neighboring mountain used by watchman to spot incoming raiding parties, and raised the warning cry of an impending attack. He gets everyone there, and then starts preaching, not of the danger of physical attack, but of spiritual torment. Muhammad had sort of cried wolf, and Abu Lahab responded with "Dude, WTF?" and then (maybe) throw a few rocks at Muhammad. Another time, Abu Lahab apparently even goes so far as to ask Muhammad if he (Abu Lahab) would receive preferential treatment from this new god. Muhammad counters by saying that all men are equal in the eyes of god, so, "No." There's even a story of Abu Lahab tossing entrails on Muhammad when he was praying at the Ka'aba.

Umm Jamil wasn't quite as confrontational, but apparently, she spread a lot of gossip and slander to try to drive wedges among the small, nascent Islamic community in Mekkah.

In short, Abu Lahad and his wife, Umm Jamil were vocal and active opponents of Muhammad and his new faith. They also violated the accepted social bonds of the Mekkan and Arab community: Muhammad was basically their son, and while they had the option of rejecting his religion, their open and active opposition was socially beyond the pale.