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.
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, “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.
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