Surah 104. The Slanderer

1. Woe unto every slandering backbiter,

2. Who amasses wealth and [continuously] tallies it,

3. Assuming that his wealth will make him immortal.

4. No indeed! He will surely be cast into the crushing Fire (hutamah).

5. And what will make you understand what the crushing Fire (hutamah) is?

6. [It is] the fire of God, ignited,

7. Rising over [and engulfing] the hearts,

8. Indeed it enclosed upon them,

9. In outstretched pillars.

The name of this chapter is derived from its first verse. It begins with wayl (woe; وَيْلٌ), which is repeated forty times in the Qur’an. Forty, known as “the perfect number,” obviously has a profound meaning. Wayl, which is used when one encounters hardship or faces a tragedy, also denotes regret and remorse. The question here is “What causes such misfortune?” This word, which appears in the Qur’an 27 times in the indefinite form and 13 times with a pronoun, admonishes those who transgress, as in: “So woe unto those who write the book with their hands, then say, ‘This is from God’” (2:79), which uses wayl three times to warn people who tamper with God’s words; “Woe unto the unbelievers” (14:2), or a kāfir (one who hides the truth); “Woe unto the idolaters” (41:6); “Woe unto those whose hearts are hardened to the remembrance of God” (39:22); “Woe unto every sinful liar” (45:7); “Woe on that Day (of Judgment) to the deniers” (77:15); “Woe unto the defrauders” (83:1); and “Woe unto those who are praying” (107:4).

Such people are devoid of compassion and feelings for the orphans, the hungry, and the indigent. The only thing that matters to them is holding on to their power through the pretense of offering prayers and making an ostentatious display of doing so. They go through the prayer’s motions and gestures, but have not established (iqāmah) it in their hearts. This conduct is equivalent to denying the Day of Judgment: “Woe unto you. Do not fabricate a lie against God” (20:61) and “Oh, woe unto me! Would that I had not taken so-and-so for a friend” (25:28).

All of these cases are worthy of contemplative study so that we may understand what moves humans to sigh in pity. Some of these wayls will be uttered here and others in the Hereafter, such as: “And when the book [of deeds] will be set down. Then you will see the guilty fearful of what is in it. And they will say, ‘Oh, woe unto us! What a book this is! It leaves out nothing, small or great, save that it has taken account thereof.’ And they find present [therein] whatsoever they did” (18:49).

[104:1] Woe unto every slandering backbiter,

The title of this chapter, Humazah (Slanderer; هُمَزَة), denotes an amplified meaning contained in the root H-M-Z, which means “to break, quash, crush,” and, in essence, “to trample on the character and integrity of another, defame, and engage in fault-finding.” This verse is directed toward those who desire to destroy others’ character by words or deeds through gossip or other underhanded tactics for personal gain. The Qur’an relates that moral vice is like eating the corpse of one’s blood brother. In order to present yourself in a better light and elevate your status and distinction, you destroy your brother/sister in faith’s character and denigrate him/her.

It is one thing to brag about oneself, but quite another to destroy another person’s character. Lumazah (لُمَزَة) is defined as a scandal-monger and fault-finder who mocks, belittles, insults, indulges in scathing criticism, and makes taunting and sarcastic remarks, whereas humazah is, in essence, character assassination. These twisted personalities allow themselves to damage and injure other people’s character and prestige – not just destroying their property, but tormenting, oppressing and annoying them, and assaulting their rights in other ways.

The Qur’an informs those whom the Prophet invites for a meal not to linger afterward and talk at length, because he is too shy to ask them to leave: “When you have eaten, then disperse, without socializing for conversation; for that annoys the Prophet, but he shies away from telling you. Truly that would affront the Prophet, and he would shrink from telling you” (33:53). At that time, houses generally did not have multiple rooms. Pay attention to how remarkable and unique the Prophet’s character is. He is the community’s leader and highest authority, yet he is too shy to ask those who have stayed too long to leave. This is very important, for it reflects the fact that his morals, character, and standards were so high and exalted that he would not permit himself to even slightly annoy or irritate others.

[104:2] Who amasses wealth and [continuously] tallies it,

So who are the defamers and the slanderers? Those who are laser-focused on amassing wealth and constantly adding it up. They are not interested in spending it, for they derive pleasure just from knowing exactly what they have and watching it increase. They enjoy hearing how rich they are and relish having their names appear on the list of the world’s wealthiest people. In addition to fame, wealth intoxicates them. An anecdote might put this point in sharper context.

There once was a respectable and an honorable man who enjoyed collecting antiques. In addition to owning a store, he filled one floor of his house with them. Every morning he would go there and spend all day cleaning and dusting them. One day he brought along a friend and spent a few hours showing off his collection, which contained items from practically every part of the globe and some of which were extremely rare and unique. He explained each one’s history. As he was an old man and did not have much longer to live, his friend advised him to consider selling these valuable pieces because no one else knew their true value. He could then use the proceeds to build hospitals, schools, or other beneficial projects. Unfortunately, the owner misread his friend’s advice as a pitch to donate money to his own projects or those of his choice, and thus ended the conversation by saying that he was already helping charities as much as he could.

It is a moral failing to become attached to any objects and spend large sums of money to acquire them. Wealth and bank accounts fall in the same category. Some people think, mistakenly, that wealth is the criterion by which they achieve a high social status. The downside of this view is that by competing to amass more, they become different people.

[104:3] Assuming that his wealth will make him immortal.

Reviewing these three verses in the reverse order might further clarify this point. Why do scandal-mongers slander others? Because they are innately inclined to long for immortality. Recall how Satan managed to deceive Adam and Eve, as recounted in 7:20 and 20:120: “Satan whispered to him. He said, ‘O Adam! Shall I show you the tree of everlastingness and a kingdom that never decays?’” (20:120).In other words, humans are motivated by two desires: to achieve immortality and acquire infinite resources and power. Incidentally, the Qur’an says that the Jewish religious scholar Bal‘am opted to cling to Earth and remain there forever (7:176). Of course we all know that one day we will die. But to most people, that is just a conceptual and abstract idea, for even how we conduct ourselves reveals that we do not truly believe in death’s reality, as if it will somehow pass us by.

People suppose that wealth and power bring about immortality, whereas in actuality this is the result of investing in the Hereafter by doing good and charitable acts, working for the people’s good and welfare, seeking truth, and exemplifying God’s attributes in our conduct: “Wealth and children are the adornment of the life of this world, but that which endures – righteous deeds – are better in reward” (18:46). Righteous deeds last forever and receive the best reward from God.

What is so bad about wanting to live for eternity, to amass wealth and power, and to relish their increase? To achieve such goals by lawful means is no easy task, and so they may resort to defamation, slander, and fault-finding to raise themselves over others. They put others down, break and destroy their characters, exploit and colonize them. This has happened over and over again in the course of human history.

The top 0.1 percent of Americans possesses as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of the population. Income inequality is also grotesque throughout the Third World. Based on 2014 figures, the world’s richest 1 percent own more wealth than 98 percent of the global population; soon, they will own more than the rest of us combined! What does the future hold as the powerful compete for the same scarce resources with the intent to hoard them? Will they exploit their power against the weak and the oppressed? The powerful have a tendency to trample on the sovereign rights of other countries by pressuring, disgracing, and demeaning them through corruption, as well as preventing them from achieving higher levels of technological and other advancements. This holds true as long as the powerful prevent others from partnering with them. However, some promote oppression and rivalry by pitting one group or faction against another. How do they do that? Through an interrelated approach featuring character assassination via disgracing and ruining their spirits, as well as characterizing their thoughts and opinions as weak, deficient, and regressive.

[104:4] No indeed! He will surely be cast into the crushing Fire (hutamah).

So what is the end result? The word يُنْبَذَنَّ (yunbadhanna) is derived from N-B-Dh, “to hurl, fling, or toss away,” and حُطَمَ (hutama) is derived from H-T-M, “to break, shatter, or demolish.” The latter word appears in two other places: “O ants [said one ant], enter your dwelling, lest Solomon and his hosts crush you, while they are unaware” (27:18) and in 39:21, which describes how crops, plants, and dry leaves wither away and turn to chaff with the change of seasons. The transgressors will be cast into the grinder, where they will be crushed and demolished. Thus those who demean and devastate other people’s character will come to know of their own character and be cast into the dustbin of history, crushed by the unwavering laws of the universe set by divine power.

[104:5] And what will make you understand what the crushing Fire (hutamah) is?

The Qur’anic phrase “And what will make you understand” is a profound question that appears 13 times to denote a phenomenon beyond human comprehension whose underlying laws and mechanisms are unknown to us. These people will be crushed and pummeled, but we are given only a terse explanation of how this will happen.

[104:6] [It is] the fire of God, ignited,

Unlike the fire known to us, this one has a source and origin attributed to God, the One who has created the world’s laws. Therefore, it has the potential to actualize it for those who deserve it due to their sins. For example, eating rotten food will show its effect in the body once active agents take their natural course and cause harm. And this “fire” will affect the body in the same way.

[104:7] Rising over [and engulfing] the hearts,

The Sun rises after the darkness of night has engulfed everything. Yet when it rises, its light replaces the darkness and becomes dominant over everything, just as this fire does when it arises from and then engulfs the heart. It is narrated that the heart is a clean white slate that is slowly tarnished and darkened by one’s accumulation of sins, just as an object is affected by dust or rust. The initial blemish will gradually cover the entire heart until it becomes impervious to light and unable to resist succumbing to dullness. This is what is meant by “rise” (tulū‘), namely, to dominate and overcome the conscience, character, and personality of the scandal-mongers and slanderers. All throughout their lives they hold people in contempt, trample upon and disregard their rights, until very little is left of their own humanity. One cannot expect one iota of affection and feeling to be left in such individuals.

A while ago, an investigating group from the Iman Institution prepared a report on the status of those Iranian civilians who had suffered from the chemicals sprayed on them during the Iran-Iraq war. According to it, more than 60,000 persons were affected; a few of them die each day. Some of the injured have become blind, and more will eventually become so. Others have lungs that are so damaged that they also are destined to die. Most of the injured were not soldiers, but ordinary and defenseless civilians living mainly in Kurdistan. Saddam Hussein dropped chemical weapons on them to both severely punish and terrify them for opposing him during the war. How can even one iota of humanity survive in such a person?

Germany, France, the former Soviet Union, the United States, and other countries sold chemical precursors and weapons to Saddam, which he then deployed against the Iranians and the Kurds of both countries. The Qur’an says that such heartless people have eradicated their spiritual and primordial disposition of goodness, which had emanated from the “divine breath,” and thus it is now time for this fire to burn in their hearts. This is not the type of fire that we are used to, the one that is external and into which people are sometimes thrown. Even the fire from outside affects our nervous system, for our brain receives the message and instructs the body to feel the appropriate pain. The source of these internal actions and reactions impact our brain cells. Those who have damaged these cells will acutely sense the rise of the fire dominating their entire self or “heart,” being deeply regretful and full of remorse. The conscience shrieks as it is being burned. We are fully aware of the external fire, but heedless of and inattentive to the inner fire.

[104:8] Indeed it enclosed upon them,

Once the heart and the conscience are overpowered, this fire be-comes infused into and inextricably linked with one’s being. After it does so, one can no longer distance oneself or escape from it.

[104:9] In outstretched pillars.

Imagine that a prisoner is kept under a roof supported by columns. The Qur’an uses this metaphor to stress that no escape is possible from such an “enclosure,” although the prisoners imagine otherwise. As such, the fires that they instigated will now engulf their hearts. There are many similar verses, for example: “They will long to come forth from the Fire, but they shall never leave it, and there is a lasting punishment for them” (5:37). In other words, this everlasting fire has penetrated their substance and very nature. Or 22:22: “Whenever they desire, in their grief, to leave it, they will be turned back into it, while [being told], ‘Taste the punishment of the burning.’” They want to be relieved of their miseries and difficulties, just like a deeply depressed person does. However, the latter does not even come close to what the former will suffer. They cannot even avoid thinking of the pending torment, because it constantly comes back to remind them. After all, their self has been overwhelmed by forces that it can no longer control. In that torment, the nature and essence of the person who “burned” the “hearts” of others through scandal-mongering and character assassination will show itself. Many verses mention that this torment and fire, which reside within one’s self and being, now rule that person’s conscience. In other words, it is not an external fire from which one can escape.

Chapters 104 and 103 should be compared to each other and read in conjunction with chapters 99 to 102, inclusive, so that those who are reading them will realize that each chapter is focusing on the same subject and reality, but from different vantage points.

Translator: Amir Douraghy
Editor: Hamid Mavani