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.

A Course on the Qur’an as Literature

By Emran El-Badawi

I offered an undergraduate course last spring for the first time on the Qur’an as Literature. My goal was simple, I wanted my students to read the text closely and interpret its verses themselves. Their apprehension, at first, to commit to this bold exercise soon gave way to an ease and skill with handling the text.

Framing this course on the Qur’an as “literature” emphasized the literary qualities of the text and de-emphasized a theological approach. It meant going deep into the rhyme, rhetoric and homiletic nature of the text. It also entailed divorcing the text, to some extent, from Tafsir. I took some cautionary notes from Andrew Rippin’s article on the pitfalls of “The Qur’an as Literature,”[1], but some of this was new territory for me.



Part of the course description reads:

This course examines the content and literary style of the Qur’an and in the context of the late antique Near East, ca. 2nd-7th centuries CE. We will read the text alongside the texts belonging to the “People of the Scripture” (ahl al-kitab), i.e. Christians and Jews, and other religious groups explicitly mentioned in the Qur’an. Their scriptures include the Hebrew Bible (al-Tawrah), the New Testament (al-Injil), Zoroastrian texts (cf. al-majus) and Arabian prophetic speech (shi‘r kahin). This comparative approach will provide students with a rich understanding of the Qur’an as an integral part of world literature, and challenge contemporary and traditional assumptions about the text. This approach will also allow the Qur’an to speak for itself, rather than reading it through the eyes of medieval interpretation (Tafsir) or prophetic tradition (Hadith) which began in the 9th century CE. This course also exposes students to some of the scholarly challenges of studying the different layers of a text (Meccan vs. Medinan), identifying its audience, trying to construct the history of its transmission (oral vs. written) without much evidence, and to the limits of translation.

Fortunately, the class size was fairly small, 15 or so, and students came from different religious as well as cultural backgrounds, which made for much lively discussion and debate. Students were pushed to think critically and in a systematic function about the Qur’an, as well as challenge their own assumptions about the text. For students I find two principle barriers that stand between them and the Qur’an. These are the ‘politicization of the text’ on the one hand, and the ‘confusion of the text with traditional interpretation’ on theother. More broadly speaking, I wanted them to appreciate scripture not just as a religious text, but as an integral part of world literature that holds value in the academy.

For an undergraduate course like this, all instruction and materials were in English. Reading materials included  How to Read the Qur’an by Carl Ernst (who incidentally has a terrific course on this subject!) [2] and several supplementary articles including: a rhyming translation of Q 93-114 by Shawkat Toorawa, a qur’anic reading of the Psalms by Angelika Neuwirth, and a humanistic reception of the text by me.[3] Students were encouraged but not required to buy a translation of the Qur’an, given the plethora of translations online. (Although for practical purposes we used Yusuf Ali’s translation during class time). Finally, included in the course materials were sections of the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, post-biblical exhortations (e.g. Ephrem the Syrian), Zoroastrian texts and Pre-Islamic poetry. For some students it was the first time they had read the Qur’an; for others the first time they read the Bible. In both cases, students expressed how pleased they were at this eye-opening experience and fruitful exchange.

The course benefited a great deal from following stories posted on the IQSA blog (that’s right, this blog!) and the Qur’an Seminar at the University of Notre Dame, which was still running at the time. To my surprise, students were both curious and welcoming of the technical dimensions of Qur’an study. Some of our best discussions, for example, involved scrutinizing the rhyme of Arabic poetry or considering a particular Syriac word. The course naturally explored a number of qur’anic themes like apocalypticism, prophecy, law, etc, as well as introduced students to debates concerning the text’s chronology, speaker and structure. My happiest moment was when a student expressed to me how the course “made the Qur’an part of a much more intellectual conversation.”

Teaching this course was a tremendous learning experience for both the students and myself. The students learned how to navigate a sometimes unwieldy text and appreciate its tremendous contribution to the world in which they live. Collectively, we learned that as long as one approaches any scripture respectfully as well as critically, the task of understanding it becomes that much easier.

[1] Andrew Rippin, “The Qur’an as literature: perils, pitfalls and prospects,” Bulletin of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies, 10.1, 1983.

[2] Carl Ernst, How to Read the Qur’an: A New Guide with Select Translations, Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2011.

[3] Shawkat Toorawa, “’The Inimitable Rose’, being Qur’anic saj‘ from Surat al-Duhâ to Surat al-Nâs (Q. 93–114) in English rhyming prose,” Journal of Qur’anic Studies, 8.2, 2006; Angelika Neuwirth, “Qur’anic readings of the Psalms” in Ed. Angelika Neuwirth et al. (eds.), The Qur’an in Context, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2009; Emran El-Badawi, “A humanistic reception of the Qur’an,” Scriptural Margins: On the Boundaries of Sacred Texts, English Language Notes, 50.2, 2012.

© International Qur’anic Studies Association, 2013. All rights reserved.