The Fire of Surat Al-Masad and the Light of Surat Al-Ikhlas: Wisdom in their Placement

Ring composition of Surah 111
Ring Composition of Surah 111

Surah 111 Al-Masad, less commonly called Surat Lahab (flame) directly precedes Surat Al-Ikhlas (Sincerity) #112, one of the most important surahs in the Quran, one could say its very “heart.” Since I have seen “connections” between adjacent surahs, I wondered how two so vastly different surahs could be connected. To find the answer, I examined the surah using ring composition, as the illustration shows, supplementing this analysis with other Quranic verses, as well as examining the number of words and letters in this surah, and found some striking results.

Usually this surah is interpreted at face value as a surah condemning Abu Lahab, a polytheist from the Quraish tribe who was an outstanding enemy of Prophet Mohammad and his Muslim followers because Islam rejected the traditional Quraish idols to worship instead one Almighty Merciful God, and so Abu Lahab pointedly attacked and antagonized the prophet, aided by his wife who actively participated in this enmity by, among other things, putting thorns in front of the prophet’s door. He used his considerable wealth and stature to harm Prophet Mohammad and his message. This despite the fact that the prophet never personally attacked them—but only rejected their idolatry.

Bond between Abu Lahab and Wife Turns Against Them

Viewing the ring composition arrangement illustrated above with color coding showing the “mirror” pattern, one can see in the first and last verses (1 and 5) a relationship between Abu Lahab’s hands yada — and his wife’s neck zhediha — which rhyme in Arabic, emphasizing this connection. His hands are “ruined”; her neck is similarly “ruined” by having a rope around it, made of twisted (palm) fiber, from which flammable material the surah gets its name. The rope is a symbol of their marital tie. It is used in the Quran to refer to that which “ties” as a bond or close relationship, and immediately brings to mind, and powerfully contrasts with, this well-known Quranic verse:

And hold firmly to the rope of Allah all together and do not become divided. And remember the favor of Allah upon you – when you were enemies and He brought your hearts together and you became, by His favor, brothers. And you were on the edge of a pit of the Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus does Allah make clear to you His verses that you may be guided. (Emphasis mine.)

Surah Al-Imran 3:103

Here the “rope of Allah” is described as that “connection” or “tie/ bond of faith which in turn, as a shared bond, keeps believers from being divided amongst themselves (over various arguments in religion and more), itself an admonition Muslims need to keep in mind today. This very same rope of faith keeps those of faith from the pit of fire, directly relating to Surat Al-Masad where this husband-and-wife “team,” once a bond of cooperation and love, are now tied together inside that pit of fire, and worse, that same rope is tied around her neck.

The symbolism of “neck” in Arabic is also significant here: it represents pride or arrogance, both in the good and bad sense which one can derive from context, the context here being hell, so obviously it refers to arrogance. But it also is used in idiomatic expressions of devotion: “my neck” in Arabic is often invoked to express “I would do this (or anything) for you” or “you can count on me.” Certainly Abu Lahab could count on his wife to be as passionate as he was in enmity to Islam. Hence the image of the rope, that marriage tie, being around her neck, shows the result of her fealty: the tie itself is now fuel for her burning. 

Worse yet, his hands are associated with her neck, that is, it is implied that he is literally strangling her! This would not be done willingly, but in hell, the extremity of regret and horror would cause him to turn on the one he probably loved most, and thus we are left with this metaphor or image, symbolizing what happens in cooperation in evil: that very cooperation becomes itself an evil and literally “ruins” those who do so. This directly corresponds with this excerpt from Surat Al-Ma’ida 5:

…and cooperate in righteousness and piety, but do not cooperate in sin and aggression. And fear Allah; indeed, Allah is severe in penalty.

And look at the severity of the penalty: each party must take part in the destruction of the other, enduring both the pain of the fire itself plus the pain of the heart in extreme remorse for now participating in the perpetration of each other’s torment. And witnessing it as well as suffering from it. 

In the “matching” verses 2 and 4, “his wealth…or that which he gained” in his worldly life is now also worthless, and this is linked to her being the “carrier of the firewood” in hell. His wealth/ gains are that for which his hands made an effort, in part to support his wife certainly and make her comfortable. In return, her hands carried “in sin and aggression” thorns which now are “firewood” or literally fuel, but now fuel for each other’s burning in hell.

Another aspect of these verses is showing his wealth and gain (including social status/ power), his world’s ideal (as well as modern capitalism’s ideal) of male “success”, is only of this world because Abu Lahab staunchly denied the next world, the Hereafter. So when that which he denied came to pass, he had not prepared for it and nothing he had gained had any value or saving grace. Similarly, his wife’s worldly “success” in gaining her husband’s love and approval by helping him carry a burden, feminine “success” in the context of their society, was worthless in the Hereafter whose reality she too vehemently denied. For both, what they thought was gain turned to fuel for the fire of their destruction. This is also a warning to all of us that the truly lasting values are those of faith in Allah/God alone and its ensuing ethical behavior of helping the disadvantaged in material ways, fighting/ working against injustice and persecution of others, especially the weaker (in wealth and power) in society. As the Quran states in Surat Al-Baqara 2:166:

When those who were followed will disown those who followed them, and they will see the retribution, and all excuses will abandon them.

This shows that obedience to a husband, leader, or other authority, to the point of sincerity, ties followers to the same fate of the leaders. The exception is in Surat Al-Nahl 16:106: “except for he who is forced while his heart is still content with belief.” As for example the wife of Pharoah who could do nothing about her husband’s behavior but her faith was acknowledged and named as exemplary by Allah in Surat Al-Tahrim 66:11. 

The central verse, “he will burn in a fire of (blazing) flame,” is clearly the central message of this surah as discussed above. It is also a striking wordplay on the name Abu Lahab, meaning “the father of flame,” which had been used by his father as a term of endearment and a sort of compliment for his passionate nature, but here has become a prophecy of his demise in hell for his enmity and hostile acts toward Prophet Mohammad and the believers. As the central verse is the “fulcrum” of this surah, it is also the inescapable setting for the dramatic scene of torment. 

How does this surah 111 connect to Al-Ikhlas 112?

How can such a horrific torture scene contain any sort of connection to the surah that follows it, the very exalted “heart” of the Quran, full of light, which declares Allah as indivisibly One, and is entitled Al-Ikhlas meaning “Sincerity”? For one, the very title “Sincerity” gives us a clue. Indeed, both Abu Lahab and his wife were sincere to each other. What they lacked was sincerity to Allah the Exalted. That has made all the difference! In fact, I wondered sometimes why Surah 112 was named “Sincerity” since it was about Allah as One; and some do refer to it as “Unity” or “Tawheed” which struck me as a better title. Until I saw this connection to Surat Al-Masad. Indeed it is that element of sincerity and its demise when lacking faith in Allah that is clearly emphasized in the jolting juxtaposition, right at the bottom of the spiral architectural chart, between a surah of demise and a surah of salvation

It should be a moment of pause and reflection. Are we aiming for success in this life, where more money can buy more luxury and adulation from a deluded public, or are we working towards Allah’s acceptance and upholding eternal values? Are those celebrity preachers, for example, or celebrities who promote worldly success in general, really people we would benefit from following? Or would they only “ruin” us and our all-important relationship with God? Can we see the difference between temporary and eternal values, or are we living in and for this world of time alone? Can we see beyond it, or is our intuition already blinded by the desire for wealth and power? Allah’s help is also present and effective in this life, even more so for those who do not deny the eternal realm, which is the only realm in which we can fully know God. 

Surat Al-Baqara 2:165 points out ““And from among the people are some who take other than God as equals to Him, they love them as they love God; but those who believe love God more strongly;” giving us a connection between this surah and Surah 112, between the love of Allah taking precedence over the love of anything or anyone one might worship beside Him, such as a spouse, material possessions, or honorable prophets such as Jesus or even Mohammad. Since we cannot see Allah face-to-face in this world, faith in the eternal realm and in Judgment Day are an essential element of sincere faith in God/ Allah.

Now it’s true that the surah titles were added later and are not formalized as part of the Quranic text. It’s common practice these days to refer to to the surahs by their numbers only for brevity and sometimes for other reasons. Nonetheless I find value in their use, both as clues to their content, and for ease of recognition: it’s simply easier to recall a meaningful title than a number. And because most surah titles refer to some element within the surah, I found “Sincerity” an exception to that rule, since the word does not appear in the surah. But this connection of two kinds of sincerity surely exists between the two surahs in their placement itself and is highly instructive.

For those intrepid souls who wish to dive yet deeper into this surah, I’ve also examined the numbers of words and letters and their relationship to the surah’s meaning and connection to Surah 112, whose number and letter counts have proved deeply meaningful. This analysis will be updated soon insha’Allah.

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