Baʿl

Muzaffar Iqbal

Baʿl (Baal in English) is mentioned once in the Qurʾān (Q 37:125) as a pagan deity.

Definitions and Usage

Baʿl is derived from the root b-ʿ-l. Of this root, two forms occur seven times in the Qurʾān: Baʿl three times (Q 4:128; 11:72; 37:125) and the plural buʿūlatun four times (2:228; 24:31 thrice). The root has two different basic meanings, the first denoting a husband; a lord, master, owner or a possessor of a thing; a head, chieftain, ruler, or a person of authority; someone overbearing. Its second meaning denotes a tract of land elevated above other land; any tract of land upon which flows neither torrential nor even running water, and which does not receive rain except once a year; a male date-palm, especially one whose roots reach groundwater and hence does not need to be irrigated (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs; Zabīdī, Tāj). The word appears in several hadith reports referring to cultivated but unirrigated land (Mālik, Zakāt, zakat al-ḥubūb wal-zaytūn; Abū Dāwūd, Zakāt, ṣadaqa al-zarʿa).

According to al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. 502/ca.1108), the meanings of Baʿl include husband, as in Q 11:72 (and this my husband is old), the plural being buʿūla, as in Q 2:228, and more generally anyone who towers over others or puts himself above others. He adds: “the Arabs thus named their idol (by whom they sought nearness to Allah) Baʿl, because of their belief in its superiority; hence the saying of the Most High Do you invoke Baʿl and forsake the Best of the Creators? (Q 37:125)” (Mufradāt).


Qurʾānic Usage

Baʿl in Q 37:125 is variously understood by commentators to be (i) the name of a specific idol worshiped by the people of Prophet Ilyās, upon him peace; (ii) a woman whom they worshipped; and (iii) a common name used to denote a deity or lord (rabb) (Ṭabarī, Tafsīrsub Q 37:125), with the predominant view being the first (Qurṭubī, Tafsīrsub Q 37:125). Al-Kalbī (d. 204/819) did not list Baʿl in his Kitāb al-Aṣnām (“Book of Idols”); it was listed by Yāqūṭ al-Ḥamawī (d. 626/1229) in his Muʿjam al-buldān as an idol which “was worshipped by the people of Baʿlabakk in an ancient town in al-Shām (see Syro-Palestine), where great old castles and ruins are to be found” (Yāqūt, Buldānsub Baʿl and Baʿlabakk). Baʿlabakk, or Baalbek, is a town in Lebanon, some 85 km northeast of Beirut.

The Qurʾān mentions Baʿl as a deity in the Makkan Sūrat al-Ṣāffāt (Q 37:125) in a pericope situated in the flow of verses succinctly narrating what happened to the ancient multitudes to whom Allah, Most High, had sent Messengers but who had afterwards gone astray. Beginning with the prelude, And, indeed, most of the people of old went astray before them, although verily We had sent warners unto them (37:71-72), the stories of five Prophets are narrated in rapid succession. These include NūḥIbrāḥīmIsḥāqMūsā, and Hārūn—peace be upon all of them. Then comes the mention of Ilyās, upon him peace, and his people, worshippers of BaʿlIndeed, Ilyās too was among the Messengers. When he said to his people: “Will you not be conscious of Allah? Do you call upon Baʿl and forsake the Best of Creators? Allah is your Lord and the Lord of your ancestors of yore.” But they denounced him as a liar, so they will surely be arraigned, except Allah’s chosen servants (Q 37:123-128). Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (d. 606/1209) says Baʿl was a golden idol some twenty cubits high, with four faces and 400 attendants (sadana); Satan entered into its mouth and preached a religion of misguidance (bi-sharīʿat al-ḍalāla) (Rāzī, Tafsīrsub Q 37:125).


Bibliography

Abū Dāwūd. Sunan.

Farāhīdī. ʿAyn.

Fayrūzābādī. Qāmūs.

Ibn Fāris. Maqāyīs.

al-Kalbī, Abū al-Mundhir Hishām b. Muḥammad b. al-Sāʾib. Kitāb al-Aṣnām. Ed. Aḥmad Zakī Bāshā. Cairo: Maṭba‘at Dār al-Kutub al-Miṣriyya, 1343/1924. Trans. Nabih Amin Faris as The Book of Idols: being a translation of the Kitab al-Asnam. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1952.

Mālik. Muwaṭṭaʾ.

Qurṭubī, Tafsīr.

Rāghib. Mufradāt.

Rāzī. Tafsīr.

Ṭabarī. Tafsīr.

Yāqūt. Buldān.

Zabīdī. Tāj.

 

 

 


See also

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