Observations on the Structure and Organization of Sūrat al-Masad
Sūrat al-Masad (The Palm-Fiber) is a unique sūrah in that it is wholly dedicated to the condemnation of two individual disbelievers from the time of the Messenger ﷺ; his uncle, Abu Lahab, and Abu Lahab’s wife1. It was revealed towards the end of the Meccan period, at the height of the persecution the Muslims were experiencing.
It is one of the shorter suwar and appears to be organized in a ring structure.
The sūrah begins with the immediate condemnation of the uncle of the Messenger ﷺ, Abu Lahab. On the opposite end of the sūrah lies the condemnation and punishment for Abu Lahab’s disbelieving wife. In the case of Abu Lahab, Allah ﷻ mentions his "hands” and for the wife, her “neck.”
In [B], Allah ﷻ tells us that the wealth and actions of Abu Lahab will not protect him from the Fire. In [B’], his wife is told the same thing. “The carrier of firewood” actually holds multiple meanings2 which describe both her livelihood and her actions. On one hand, it tells of her job wherein she used to transport firewood for people. On the other, it is a reference to how she used to drop wood and kindling in the path of the Messenger ﷺ to obstruct his path. Taken together, neither her wealth nor her actions will benefit her.
The center contains the main thesis of the sūrah. Abu Lahab (and his wife) have been condemned to the Fire for their insolence towards the Messenger ﷺ. Abu Lahab is actually the nickname of the uncle and translates to “the father of the flame,” which is a reference to his handsomeness and reddish skin tone. In an ironic play on words, Allah ﷻ uses the same word, "lahab (flame)” to describe the Flame which Abu Lahab is destined to enter.
In summary, the sūrah appears to be organized as so:
And Allah ﷻ knows best.
One has to ask, “Why didn’t Abu Lahab and his wife repent and feign conversion to Islam to sufficiently damage or even destroy the religion?” Islam teaches that even sinful Muslims will eventually be rescued from the torments of Hell and entered into Paradise. Why didn’t either of them pretend to convert? It’s not for lack of time to think about it.
Sūrah al-Masad was revealed 3–4 years before the Muslim community’s migration to Medina, and Abu Lahab died 2 years after the migration. His wife died roughly six years later. So, Abu Lahab and his wife had over five and ten years respectively to speak out. A couple who had no qualms about lying, torturing, or even mocking the death of their own nephew so long as it was at the expense of the Messenger ﷺ. So why stop at hypocrisy?
Muslims maintain that it’s because the only One who can make a prediction like this is Allah ﷻ. The One who knows and determines the future. That promise can only be made by the One who knows He will not allow His book to be contradicted.
Ibn Jarīr aṭ-Ṭabarī, Jāmiʿ al-Bayān, Sūrah al-Masad, https://tafsir.app/tabari/111/4, accessed July 31, 2020.