Who were Abu Lahab and His Wife? A View from the Hebrew Bible


Ercan Celik*

In The Qur’an and Its Biblical Subtext, G. S. Reynolds observes that

…scholars of the Qur’an accept the basic premise of the medieval Islamic sources that the Qur’an is to be explained in light of the life of the Prophet Muhammad…

However, he proposes that critical Qur’anic scholarship not depend on prophetic biography (sīrah) or traditional Qur’anic exegesis (tafsīr), but rather,

the Qur’an should be appreciated in light of its conversation with earlier literature, in particular Biblical literature…This argument necessarily involves an examination of both the relationship of Muslim exegetical literature to the Qur’an and the relationship of the Qur’an to Biblical literature.

Sūrat al-Masad (Q 111) offers a valuable example for how a Biblical perspective can augment our understanding of the Qur’anic text. The text of the sūrah names its main character Abu Lahab, and mentions that he has a wife, but does not provide any further identifying information. Only extra-Qur’anic literature can give us more details about who he was. In this blog post, I compare how he may be identified through the Islamic literary sources and through the Hebrew Bible.

Abu Lahab In Islamic Literature

Image courtesy of Vince Pahkala; accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Image courtesy of Vince Pahkala; accessed from Wikimedia Commons.

Abu Lahab, meaning “the father of flame,” is identified as the uncle of the prophet Muhammad, ʿAbd al-ʿUzza ibn ʿAbd al-Muṭṭalib, nicknamed Abu Lahab on account of his reddish complexion. He is said to have been a rich and proud man, and he and his wife Umm Jamil, sister of Abu Sufyan, are depicted as fierce enemies of Muhammad and the early Muslim community. There are many anecdotes in the Islamic literary sources about their verbal and physical attacks on the prophet. Some Qur’an commentators say that Umm Jamil used to litter Muhammad’s path with harmful thorns of twisted palm leaf fibres, and that this is the historical context for the final verse of Sūrat al-Masad: “Will have upon her neck a halter of palm-fibre” (Q 111:5).

Abu’l-Ahab in Biblical Literature

In searching the Hebrew Bible for a wicked man whose name resembles Abu Lahab, one finds Ahab (Hebrew: אַחְאָב), the seventh kings of ancient Israel (r. ca. 885-874 BCE), son of King Omri and husband of Jezebel of Sidon. We could read “Abu Lahab” alternatively, and without substantial change, as “Abu’l-Ahab,” father of Ahab. According to the Hebrew Bible, the father of Ahab is Omri, who is described in 1 Kings 16:25 as having acted “more wickedly than all who were before him.” His son Ahab, in his own time, “married Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and went to serve Baal and worshiped him . . . Thus Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him” (1 Kings 16:31-33).

Frederic Leighton,

Frederic Leighton, “Jezebel and Ahab,” ca. 1863, Scarborough Art Gallery; image from Wikimedia Commons.

As for Jezebel, it is said that she ordered the killing of prophets (1 Kings 18:4). The prophet Elijah escaped her persecution and with God’s command confronted Ahab with a challenge to the priests of Baal: “You call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God” (18:24). The supporters of Baal called upon their god to send fire to consume their sacrifice, but nothing happened. When Elijah called upon the name of the Lord, fire came down from heaven immediately and consumed their offering.

Eventually Ahab in killed in battle, and when Elisha, successor to the prophet Elijah, anoints Jehu king of Israel, the latter had the house of Ahab killed. Jezebel was captured by her enemies, thrown out of a window, trampled by a horse, and her flesh eaten by dogs.

A Comparison of the Qur’anic and Biblical Characters

There are some significant parallels between the qur’anic character of Abu Lahab and the biblical character of Abu’l-Ahab. To illustrate these, let us evaluate Sūrat al-Masad in light of the biblical account:

  • May the hands of Abu Lahab [Abu’l-Ahab] be ruined and ruined is he. The biblical story of Ahab fits well with this verse, in both linguistic and narrative/thematic terms. The father is invoked for ruin. Omri was the first person to introduce the worship of Baal in Israel, for which his progeny are to be ruined. In Qur’anic Arabic terminology, hands (here, yadā) are symbolic of power and of progeny. The fate of Omri’s progeny is pronounced not so much in the tafsir literature as in the biblical texts.
  • His wealth will not avail him or that which he gained. The Ahab of the Bible seems to have had greater wealth than the Abu Lahab of Islamic tradition; his great wealth failed to prevent his demise by God’s command.
  • He will [enter to] burn in a Fire of [blazing] flame. Hellfire is an eschatalogical concept associated with unbelief, especially with the sort of idolatry instituted by Omri and Ahab.
  • And his wife [as well]—the carrier of firewood. The feature of firewood (ḥaṭab) is key. The challenge at Mount Carmel consisted of sacrificing bulls on firewood in order. We can imagine Jezebel supporting the Baalist priests by collecting the best woods to burn the sacrifice easily. The image of Jezebel carrying firewood makes more sense of this verse than that of Umm Jamil dumping thorns.
  • Around her neck is a rope of [twisted] fiber. Traditional exegetes struggle to explain the meaning of the rope of palm-fiber (masad). It may be better understood in light of the Jezebel story. The term masad appears to be a hapax legomenon in the Qur’an that might have a Hebrew root and be related to Jezebel’s violent death. This term begs for further examination along these lines.

* Ercan Celik is a certified public accountant in Turkey.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2015. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Who were Abu Lahab and His Wife? A View from the Hebrew Bible

  1. Celik finds an interesting intertextuality between the Qur`anic characters, Abu Lahab and his wife, and the biblical characters Ahab and Jezebel. The damnable activities of both couples as they are presented in the respective texts relate in a compelling way.

    A further point of interest is Celik’s comment that *masad* appears to be a hapax legomenon while the only mention of the similar form in Hebrew ( *masad*, 1 Kings 7:9) has the meaning of ‘foundation’ and is found in a description of masonry for palace building. The expression ‘tie a (mill)stone around the neck’ springs to mind, and seems a plausible option for *masad* in Q111.5. Stones tied around necks seems to have been a well-known form of execution as attested to in the Gospels e.g., Luke 17:2.

    Georgina Jardim

    Dr. Georgina L. Jardim Research Associate Universities of Gloucestershire (UK) and Pretoria (South Africa) Cheltenham United Kingdom

    *New Publication:* *Recovering the Female Voice in Islamic Scripture: Women and Silence* (Ashgate, Aug 2014), http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781472426376

  2. Thanks to Ercan Çelik for his interesting proposition.
    I would like to comment briefly on the last point of the post, the term masad. It should be noted that the term, while a hapax legomenon in the Qur’ān, is common in the earliest Arabic literature, i.e. early poetry. We find it e.g. in ʾAbū Ḏuʾayb al-Huḏalī, where it apparently denotes a rope. A. Ḏuʾayb seems to have been a _muḫadram_, a younger contemporary of the prophet Muḥammad. Like him, he hailed from the Hijaz. The attestation suggests it’s a common Arabic word. As for it being a crux interpretum, I think we should look for the meaning in an Arabic context first; it should be possible to ascertain what wearing a rope around one’s neck might suggest. Note that _ǧīdun_ would denote a ‘beautiful neck’, hence making the statement grimmer? On the surface one might say that the wife of ʾAbū Lahab just had a rope around her neck to help her carry the firewood she collected (strangling might also possibly be suggested). One may be forgiven, however, to look for some additional meaning, word ‘play’ etc. in this passage. Having said that, if one wanted to try for a ‘Hebrew reading’, the best I can come up with, for now, is ḥebel mim-massād ‘destruction from the foundation up’*. If one was to look for a perhaps more straight forward, i.e. inner-Arabic double-reading (_double entendre, tawriyya_), something like _fī ǧīdihā ḥabalun min maʾsad_ ‘on her neck, an offspring of a den of lions’ is possible. This is not meant as a rather random emendation, but as a possible implied variant reading, suggesting then, that the wife of ʾAbū Lahab would go out for firewood and end up being attacked (and killed) by lions. In defence of this parallel reading, it might be said that _ḥabal_ vs. _ḥabl_ is rather trivial and that _maʾsad_ and _masad_ would sound pretty much the same in Hijazi Arabic with its notorious loss of _hamza_ (glottal stop). A reference to lions wouldn’t be astounding, as early Arabic poetry abounds in such references in all sorts of contexts. Even the word _ḥaṭ(a)b_ in the preceding line can also mean ‘calamity, peril’, although I’m not sure here, whether that is pre-Quranic, but it would seem so. Those who like Biblical parallels might also be referred to Daniel 6:24 (in the Vulgate and ESV, 6:25 in the Hebrew Bible and LXX). Here, those who wrongly accused the prophet, including their wives and children (!) are thrown into the den of lions where they are being lacerated. The verses in the Qur’ān too, seem to deal with an inimical slanderer whose perdition and that of his offspring and wife is announced or called for.
    * חבל ממסד:

    David Kiltz, University of St Andrews.

    In the meanwhile I see that Georgina Jardim has mentioned Hebrew _massād_ on the IQSA mailing list. The above had been written some days ago, but I was waiting to see whether mark up could be used in the comments field.

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