This Surah was revealed at Makkah during the period when Abu Lahab had transgressed all limits in his hostility to the Prophet (peace be upon him), and his attitude was becoming a serious obstruction in the progress of Islam.
Major Issue, Divine Law and Guidance:
• Allah has cursed Abu Lahab and his wife who were the opponents of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Background of Allah's Curse by Name
This is the only place in the Qur'an where a person from among the enemies of Islam has been condemned by name, even though in Makkah, as well as in Madinah after the migration, there were many people who were in no way less harmful to Islam and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) than Abu Lahab. The question is, what was the special trait of the character of this person, which became the basis of this condemnation by name? To understand this, it is necessary that one understands the Arabian society of that time and the role that Abu Lahab played in it.
In ancient days there prevailed chaos, confusion, bloodshed and plunder throughout Arabia. The condition of Arabia for centuries was that a person could have no guarantee of the protection of life, honor and property except with the help and support of his clansmen and blood relations. Therefore, silah rehmi (good treatment of the kindred) was esteemed most highly among the moral values of the Arabian society and the breaking off of connections with kindred was regarded as a great sin. Under the influence of this Arabian tradition, the Prophet (peace be upon him) began to preach the message of Islam. The other clans of Quraish and their chiefs resisted and opposed him tooth and nail, but the Bani Hashim and the Bani Al-Muttalib (children of Al-Muttalib, brother of Hashim) not only did not oppose him but continued to support him openly, even though most of them had not yet believed in his Prophethood. The other clans of Quraish regarded this support by the Prophet's blood relations as perfectly in accordance with the moral traditions of Arabia. That is why they never taunted the Bani Hashim and the Bani Al-Muttalib, even though they seemingly had betrayed their ancestral faith by supporting a person who was preaching a new faith. They knew and believed that they could in no case hand over an individual of their clan to his enemies, and their support and aid of a clansman was perfectly natural in the sight of the Quraish and the people of Arabia.
This moral principle, which the Arabs in the pre-Islamic days of ignorance, regarded as worthy of respect and inviolable was broken only by one man in his enmity of Islam, and that was Abu Lahab, son of Abdul Muttalib, a real uncle of the Prophet, peace be upon him. In Arabia, an uncle represented the father especially when the nephew was fatherless. The uncle was expected to look after the nephew as one of his own children. But this man in his hostility to Islam and love of Kufr trampled over all of the Arab traditions with his actions.
Before the proclamation of Prophethood, two of the Prophet's daughters were married to two of Abu Lahab's sons, Utbah and Utaibah. When the Prophet began to invite people to Islam, Abu Lahab said to both his sons: "I would forbid myself seeing and meeting you until you divorce the daughters of Muhammad (peace be upon him)." Both of them subsequently divorced their wives.
Whenever the Prophet went to preach the message of Islam, Abu Lahab followed him and forbade the people to listen to him. Tariq bin Abdullah Al-Muharibi says: "I saw in the fair of Dhul-Majaz, the Prophet (peace be upon him) exhorting the people saying: ‘O people, say La Ilah ill-Allah, you will attain success.’ Behind him there was a man who was casting stones at him until his heels bled and he was telling the people: ‘Do not listen to him, he is a liar.’ I asked the people who he was. They said he was his uncle, Abu Lahab." (Reported by Tirmidhi).
In the 7th year of Prophethood, when all of the clans of Quraish socially and economically boycotted the Bani Hashim and the Bani Al- Muttalib, both of these clans, who remained steadfast in the Prophet's support, were besieged in Shi'b Abi Talib. Abu Lahab was the only person who sided with the disbelieving Quraish against his own clan. This boycott continued for three years, so much so that the Bani Hashim and the Bani Al- Muttalib began to starve. This, however, did not move Abu Lahab. When a trade caravan came to Makkah and a besieged person from Shi'b Abi Talib approached it to buy some food, Abu Lahab shouted out to the merchants to demand a forbidding price, telling them that he would make up for any loss that they incurred. Thus, they would demand exorbitant rates and the poor customer would return empty handed to his starving children. Then Abu Lahab would purchase the same articles from them at the market rates.
(Reported by Ibn S'ad and Ibn Hisham)
On account of these misdeeds Abu Lahab was condemned in this Surah by name. It was against the established traditions of Arabia that an uncle would oppose his nephew without a reason or pelt stones at and bring false accusations against him publicly. Therefore, people were influenced by what Abu Lahab said and were in doubt about the Prophet (peace be upon him). But when this Surah was revealed, Abu Lahab filled with rage started uttering nonsense, the people realized that what he said in opposition to the Prophet was not at all reliable and was out of hostility to his nephew.
When the Prophet's uncle was condemned by name, the people's expectations that the Rasool (peace be upon him) could treat some relative leniently in the matter of religion, was frustrated forever. When the Prophet's own uncle was taken to task publicly, the people understood that there was no room for preference or partiality in their faith. A non-relative could become a near and dear one if he believed, and a near relation may become non-relative if he disbelieved. Thus, there is no place for preferring the ties of blood in Islam if the relative is an unbeliever.
تَبَّتْ يَدَا أَبِي لَهَبٍ وَتَبَّ
مَا أَغْنَىٰ عَنْهُ مَالُهُ وَمَا كَسَبَ
سَيَصْلَىٰ نَارًا ذَاتَ لَهَبٍ
وَامْرَأَتُهُ حَمَّالَةَ الْحَطَبِ
فِي جِيدِهَا حَبْلٌ مِّن مَّسَدٍ