Brother, Sister
(akh, ikhwān, ikhwa, akhawāt, ukht)

Muzaffar Iqbal and Csaba Okvath

The Qurʾānic terms for “brother” and “sister”, akh and ukht, both from the root ʾ-kh-w, are lineal terms (min al-nasab) respectively denoting the son and daughter of one’s father and mother—or one of them—including the one who has suckled from the same mother (Samīn, ʿUmdasub ʾ-kh-w). Both akh (dual: akhawān, plural: ikhwatun and ikhwānun) and ukht (dual: ukhtān, plural: akhawāt, Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Azharī, Tahdhībsub ʾ-kh-w) are also used in the Qurʾān metaphorically (see below).

Definitions and Usage

Lexically, metaphorical usage of akh denotes a friend (ṣadīq), companion (ṣāḥib), associate, or fellow (Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān, sub ʾ-kh-w) as well as tribal ascription (akhū Tamīmlit. “he is the brother of Tamīm”), and affiliation through religion (fīl-dīn), occupational trade (fī ṣanʿa), mutual transaction (fī muʿāmala), and shared love (fī mawadda). It is also used in the sense of possessor (dhū, e.g., huwa akhū-l-ghinā, “he is the possessor of wealth”; or akhū-l-khayr, “the possessor of good), or any character trait (e.g., huwa akhū-l-ṣidq, lit. “he is the brother of truth”, meaning, “he cleaves to truthfulness”) (Rāghib, Mufradāt; Fayyūmī, Miṣbāḥ, sub a-k-h)— whence the usage in the hadith, “Sleep is the brother of death” (al-nawm akhū al-mawt) (Ṭabarānī, Awsaṭ, man ismuhu Aḥmad).

In the dialect of Banū Ṭayʾ, akh is considered to be a derivative of wakhā, from the root w-kh-y, meaning aim, goal, desire (qaṣd), because a brother (akh) has the same aim, goal, endeavor, or desire, as his akh (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn; Azharī, Tahdhīb;  Zabīdī, Tāj). The noun akh is also said to be derived from akhiyya or ākhiyya (pl. awākhin/awākhī) “tether” (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn)—a rope with two ends buried in the ground, with an exposed loop to which animals are tied (Azharī, Tahdhībsub ʾ-kh-w)—as though brothers were attached to one another the way a horse is tied to its post ((Zabīdī, Tāj). This form appears in a Prophetic hadith narrated by the Anṣārī Companion Abū Saʿīd al-Khudrī (10 bh–74/612–693), Allah be well-pleased with him: “The likeness of the believer and belief is that of a horse which roams with its [loose] tether (ākhiyya); the believer may become inattentive and preoccupied, but finally he returns to faith” (Aḥmad, Musnad, 17:435 §11335 Bāqī al-Musnad al-Mukthirīn, musnad Abī Saʿīd al-Khudrī; Ibn Sīda, Muḥkam; Zabīdī, Tāj).

Three forms of the root ʾ-kh-w occur 96 times in the Qurʾān: akh (“brother”), along with its dual akhawayn and plurals ikhwān and ikhwa (x75); ukht (“sister”), along with its dual ukhtayn and plural akhawāt (x14); and ikhwatun (x7) (“brothers, brothers and sisters”) (for complete list, see ʿAbd al-Bāqī, Muʿjam).

Muqātil b. Sulaymān (d. 150/767), one of the earliest scholars to compose a work on Qurʾānic polysemy and collocation (al-wujūh wal-naẓāʾir), identified six semantic facets of the term akh. His younger contemporary, Hārūn b. Mūsā (d. 170/786), omitted brotherhood “in love and affection” from Muqātil’s list; two centuries later, Abū Hilāl al-Ḥasan al-ʿAskarī (ca.308-395/920-1004) retained the six-fold typology, but Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. ʿAlī Ibn al-Ḥammūya al-Dāmaghānī (398-478/1007-1085) added a seventh aspect, “brotherhood “in similitude” to Muqātil’s list; later yet, Abū al-Faraj Jamāl al-Dīn Ibn al-Jawzī (510-597/ca.1116-1200) reduced the seven-fold typology to five by not including brotherhood “in similitude” and combining brotherhood “in Islam” and other religions into a single category. Taken together, these scholars provide a seven-fold typology for the two terms:

  1. isiblings: the son or daughter of one’s father, mother, or both;
  2. in Islam (considered as type iii below by Ibn al-Jawzī);
  3. in religion;
  4. in tribe, as rooted in common ancestry;
  5. in love and affection (omitted by Hārūn b. Mūsā);
  6. companionship; and
  7. similitude (shibh) (added by al-Dāmaghānī).

(Muqātil, Wujūh, p. 135-136; Hārūn, Wujūh, p. 344; al-Dāmaghānī, Qāmūs al-Qurʾān; Ibn al-Jawzī, Nuzhat, Bāb al-akh)


The Qurʾān specifically mentions the following siblings:

  • Hārūn and Mūsā, upon them both peace, as blood brothers who were both Prophets, Hārūn being the oldest (see below);
  • the unnamed sister of Mūsā—identified by the exegetes as Maryam bint ʿImrān (Tafsīrs of Muqātil; Ṭabarī; Baghawī; Qurṭubī, sub Q 28:11)—who is sent by their mother to watch over baby Mūsā after casting him in the river on divine instructions (Q 28:11), “to see if he survives or not” (Ṭabarī, Rāzī, Tafsīrs) and who directs the people of Firʿawn (Pharaoh, q.v.) to her own household for taking care of the baby, thus becoming instrumental in the divine fulfillment of the promise (Q 28:7) to bring him back to his mother (Q 20:40);
  • the two unnamed sisters in Madyan, who were holding back their flock and waiting for the shepherds to move away so that they could water their flocks (Q 28:23);
  • the eleven unnamed brothers of Prophet Yūsuf, upon him peace, whom he saw in a dream as eleven stars prostrating before him, as per exegetical explanations of Q 12:4, based on reports from Ibn ʿAbbās (3bh-68/619-688), Qatāda b. Diʿāma (d. 117/735), and al-Ḍaḥḥāk (d. 102/ca.721) (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī; Qurṭubī; Rāzī; Ibn Kathīr);
  • the two sons of Ādam, upon him peace (identified in Hadith as Hābīl (Abel) and Qābīl (Cain), see Two Sons of Ādam);
  • the two half-brothers and Prophet-sons of Ibrāḥīm, Isḥāq and Ismāʿīl, upon them all peace

Hārūn and Mūsā, upon them both peace, as Prophet-brothers

One of the most important aspect of the brotherly relationship between Hārūn and Mūsā is the supplication of Mūsā, upon him peace, who asked Allah Most High to “appoint for me a helper from my family—my brother Hārūn” (Q 20:29-30). His supplication was answered, We shall strengthen your arm with your brother (28:35; also see Q 20:25; 25:35), and Hārūn, who was three years older than Mūsā (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr), was honored with prophethood. An insightful reflection on this supplication by Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī (543-606/1148-1209) poses a question: what help could be gained from a wazīr by a Messenger (as distinct from a king), who is charged with conveying the Divine Message (see Conveying the Message), and how could a Messenger have a “partner in his affair”? Al-Rāzī responds to his own question: what Mūsā, upon him peace, sought was fraternal cooperation and help in their common and great cause (Tafsīr, sub Q 20:29-30). The brotherly relationship between the two Prophets is highlighted in the incident of the Calf (also see Children of Isrāʾīl). When Mūsā, upon him peace, returned from his sojourn at Mount Ṭūr and found his people worshipping the Calf, he seized his brother by his head and dragged him towards himself. He (Hārūn) said, ‘Son of my mother, truly the people deemed me weak, and they were about to kill me. So let not [our] enemies rejoice over me, and do not count me among the wrongdoers’—whereupon Mūsā said, ‘My Lord, forgive me and my brother, and admit us into Your Mercy; for You are the Most Merciful of those who show mercy’ (Q 7:150-151; cf. Q 20:86-94). The form of address “son of my mother” (Q 7:150; 20:94) rather than “son of my father or my brother”, invokes mercy (raḥma) through the mother’s womb (raḥim) (Tafsīrs of Ṭabarī; Zamakhsharī; Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 7:150).

Ibn Abī Ḥātim al-Rāzī (d. 327/938) narrates a report from the Prophet’s wife ʿĀʾisha (d. 58/678), Allah be well-pleased with her, that she overheard at a Bedouin’s campsite—while she was traveling to Makka to perform ʿUmra—someone ask, “Who was most beneficial to his brother in this world?” In the ensuing silence, some said, “Allah knows best,” but her host responded, “By Allah, I know.” ʿĀʾisha says, “I said to myself, “What boldness! And he did not even say ‘if Allah so wills’.” When the fellow Bedouins asked him to tell them, he answered, “Mūsā, when he asked for Prophethood for his brother.” She comments, “I said to myself, ‘By Allah, he spoke the truth; and Allah the Exalted has said in praise of Mūsā, upon him peace, in the sight of Allah he was most honored (wajīhan; cf. Q 33:69)’” (Tafsīr, sub Q 20:32).

“O sister of Hārūn”—a misunderstood appellation

The phrase O sister of Hārūn (yā ukhta Hārūn) used for Maryam, upon her peace, in the account of the Israelites’ slur against her when they realized she had given birth to a child in Q 19:28 (O sister of Hārūn, your father was not a wicked man, nor was your mother unchaste) was misunderstood by some Christians from Najrān who construed “Hārūn” to refer to the well-known Prophet discussed above:

Al-Mughīra b. Shuʿba said, “When I went to Najrān, [Christians there] remarked to me, ‘You recite O sister of Hārūn, but Mūsā was born long before ʿĪsā [and Maryam]!’ When I returned to the Messenger of Allah, upon him blessings and peace, I asked him about this. He replied, “They (i.e. the ancients) used to call [their contemporaries] by the names of their Prophets and the righteous ancestors [who lived] before them” (Muslim, Ādāb, al-nahy ʿan al-takannī bi-Abī al-Qāsim wa-bayān mā yustaḥabb min al-asmāʾ).

Such usage is attested among the Arabs, who say yā akhā Tamīm to anyone from the tribe of Tamīm (Qurṭubī, Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrs).

Brothers of Yūsuf, upon him peace

The story of the Prophet Yūsuf, upon him peace, in the eponymous sura (Q 12)—the best of stories (Q 12:3) (see Chronicles of the Qurʾān)—details the relationship between brothers in a chronicle in which there are signs (āyāt) for those who ask (Q 12:7). It is a narrative set in motion by fraternal jealousy. Yūsuf saw in his dream (see Dreams and their Interpretation) eleven stars (representing his brothers: Ṭabarī; Qurṭubī; Rāzī), the sun, and the moon (representing his father and mother: Ṭabarī; Qurṭubī; Rāzī; Ibn Kathīr) prostrating to him (Q 12:4). His father, Yaʿqūb, upon him peace, tells him, “Recount not your dream to your brothers, lest they devise some scheme against you,” because he “feared for his son and wanted to save him from his siblings’ envy and wrongdoing” (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr). The brothers nevertheless planned against him and one of them suggested that they ‘kill Yūsuf or cast him out to a land; so that the favor of your father may be given to you alone, and after this you can be a righteous people’ (Q 12:9). This plan arose from sheer jealousy (maḥḍ al-ḥasad, Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 12:9-10). One brother suggested that rather than killing him, they should cast him into the depths of a well (Q 12:10). The brothers were deceitful and sought to destroy their righteous brother and to submit him to the disgrace of slavery (Rāzī, Tafsīr).

Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Qurṭubī (600-671/1204-1273) writes, “In this, there is proof that the brothers of Yūsuf were not Prophets neither before nor after their act, because Prophets do not join together to kill a Muslim. They were, nonetheless, Muslims, committing an act of disobedience; then they showed repentance” (Tafsīr, sub Q 12:9). In addition to deceit and jealousy, their sin involved the severance of familial relations (qaṭīʿat al-raḥim) (see Kindred) and opposition to their father (Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīr, sub Q 12:10).

In Sacred Law

Brothers and sisters are generically mentioned in verses pertaining to certain legal rulings: Brothers receive a fixed portion in inheritance (Q 4:11-12, 176) (see Inheritance and Patrimony); a brother can demand retribution (qiṣāṣ) or blood money (diya) for a slain sibling (Q 2:178); siblings cannot inter- marry (Q 4:23) (see Marriage and Divorce), sisters need not veil  themselves in the presence of brothers (Q 24:31); brothers of the wives of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, were exempt (Q 33:55) from the requirement to address them from behind a veil mentioned in Q 33:53; a brother may eat freely out of his brother or sister’s home (Q 24:61). These rulings also apply to milk-siblings, who are specifically forbidden to marry those who were suckled by the same woman (Q 4:23), and the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “breastfeeding  prohibits whatever lineage prohibits” (Bukhārī, Shahādāt, al-shahāda ʿalā al-ansāb, wal-raḍāʿ al-mustafīḍ wal-mawt al-qadīm; Muslim, Raḍāʿ, taḥrīm al-raḍāʿa min māʾ al-faḥl).

Fraternal bonds will dissolve and be of no avail on the Day of Resurrection, when the deafening call shall be sounded; on a Day when each man shall flee from his brother (Q 80:33-34). Everyone who was lost in sin will on that Day desire to ransom himself from the torment of the Day by offering his children and his spouse and his brother and any kinfolk who might save him (Q 70:11-13).

Brotherhood in Islam

The brotherhood of believers, mentioned in Q 49:10 (The believers indeed are brothers, so set things right between your two brothers. And be conscious of Allah; haply you will find mercy) and invoked in many Prophetic Hadiths, refers to the special bond that establishes an inviolability (ḥurma) superior even to that of lineage (fīl-nasab), because the latter can be dissolved  by opposing one another’s religion, whereas ties of faith cannot be dissolved by opposing another’s lineage (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr). Elucidating Q 49:10, Abū al-Faḍl Shihāb al-Dīn al-Sayyid Maḥmūd b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Ālūsī (1217-1270/1803-1853) says, “The use of the noun brothers (ikhwa) for believers is an eloquent simile, for [believers] are compared to brothers due to their affiliation to a single root: faith (īmān). This may imply eternal life [in the Hereafter], or it can be metaphorical, since the collective participation in faith is compared to the origin of procreation (aṣl al-tawālud), both of which being causes of existence (baqāʾ): procreation is the basis of life and faith is the basis of eternally abiding in the Gardens” (Rūḥ).

The supplication in Q 59:10 (And those who came [into the faith] after them say: Our Lord! Forgive us and our brethren who were before us in the faith, and place not in our hearts any rancor toward those who believe. Our Lord! You are Kind, Merciful), is an example of the attitude of all believers toward one another (Rāzī, Tafsīr) as it involves mutual loyalty, generosity, and unselfishness; for they give [their brethren in faith] preference over themselves (Q 59:9). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said: “None of you [truly] believes until he loves for his brother that which he loves for himself” (Bukhārī, Īmān, min al-īmān an yuḥibba li-akhīh mā yuḥibbu li-nafsih; Muslim, Īmān, al-dalīl ʿalā anna min khiṣāl al-īmān an yuḥibba li-akhīh mā yuḥibbu li-nafsih min al-khayr).

Brotherhood through Islam is a special blessing conferred upon the believers by Allah Most High: And hold fast, all of you together, to the rope of Allah, and be not divided among yourselves. And remember the blessing of Allah on you, for you were enemies one to another but He joined your hearts together, so that, by His blessing, you became brethren; and you were on the brink of a pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus, Allah makes His signs clear to you, that you may be guided (Q 3:103). Believers are also called ‘protecting friends’ (walī) of one another: The believing men and the believing women are protecting friends (awliyāʾ) one of another; they enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong (Q 9:71; see Clients and Patrons). The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “Were I to choose a khalīl (close friend) from among the nations of the earth, I would have chosen Abū Bakr to be my khalīl. But the brotherhood of Islam is better.” (Bukhārī, Faḍāʾil al-Ṣaḥāba, qawl al-Nabī ṣallā-Llāhu ʿalayh wa sallam, law kuntu muttakhidhan khalīlan).

The Prophetic teachings are emphatic about keeping the rights of fraternal relations established through Islam. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said:

Do not envy one another, do not outbid one another (lā tanājashū), do not hate one another, do not turn your backs on each other, and let none of you sell against the sale of another. Be, O slaves of Allah, brothers, [for] a Muslim is a brother of a Muslim. He does not wrong him, leave him in the lurch, lie to him or despise him. God-wariness (taqwā) is here—and he pointed three times to his chest (heart). It is sufficient evil for a man to despise his brother Muslim. All of a Muslim is inviolable for any other Muslim—his blood, his property, and his honor. (Muslim, Birr wal-ṣila wal-ādāb, taḥrīm ẓulm al-muslim; a variant, included by both Bukhārī and Muslim, adds, “Nor is it lawful for a Muslim to cut off speaking with his brother for more than three days”: Bukhārī, Adab, Mā yunhā ʿan al-taḥāsud wal-tadābur; Muslim, Birr wal-ṣila wal-ādāb, al-nahy ʿan al-taḥāsud wal-tabāghuḍ wal-tadābur)

In his commentary on the part of the hadith which states, “Do not hate each other,” Ibn Rajab al-Ḥanbalī (736-795/ca.1335-1393) cites another hadith in which the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, provides a practical methodology of strengthening of brotherly bonds; he said, “By the One in Whose Hand is my soul, you will not enter Paradise until you have faith, and you will not have faith until you love each other. Shall I not tell you something which, if you practice, you will love each other? Spread salām (greetings of peace) among you” (Jāmiʿ al-ʿulūm wal-ḥikam 2:256; for the hadith on spreading salām, see Muslim, Īmān, bayān annahu lā yadkhul al-janna illā-l-muʾminūn…).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, also said, “[For him] who supplicates for his brother [in faith] in his absence (lit. “behind his back”), the Angels commissioned [to carry the supplication to Allah] say ‘Amen, and the same be for you!’” (Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, Ṣalāt, tafrīʿ abwāb al-witr, al-duʿāʾ bi-ẓahr al-ghayb).

Dealings among brethren in faith have consequences for the Hereafter, as the Prophet upon him blessings and peace, said: Whoever has committed a wrong against any of his brother, concerning his honor or anything else, should ask him to forgive him before the Day [of Resurrection] (variant: even today), before [the time when there will be] no dīnār and no dirham [to compensate with]. If he has a good deed, that good deed will be taken away from him in proportion to the wrong [committed by him]; but if he has no good deeds, the sins of the wronged person will be removed and loaded on him (Bukhārī, Maẓālim, man kānat lahu maẓlama ʿinda rajul).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, also said: “None of you should nurse mutual hatred; none of you should be jealous and nurse enmity. Be slaves of Allah, as brothers. It is not permitted for a Muslim to keep his relations with his brother alienated beyond three [days]” (Muslim, Birr wal-ṣilat wal-ādāb, taḥrīm al-taḥāsud wal-tabāghuḍ wal-tadābur).

Prophets as Brothers to one another and to their Nations

Five Prophets are called brothers to their nations: When their brother Nūḥ said to them, will you not fear [Allah] (Q 26:106); When their brother Lūṭ said to them, will you not fear [Allah] (26:161); To ʿĀd [We sent] their brother Hūd (q.v.) (Q 7:65; 11:50; cf. 26:124; 46:21); and to Thamūd their brother Ṣāliḥ (q.v.) (Q 7:73; 11:61; 27:45; cf. 26:42); and to Madyan their brother Shuʿayb (q.v.) (Q 7:85; 11:84; 29:36). Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī explains that the Prophets “are called brothers of their nations because of their compassion (ishfāq) for them, like a brother’s compassion (shafaqa) for his brother” (Mufradāt, sub ʾ-kh). The exegetes also underscore additional affiliation through lineage. For instance, Abū al-Ḥasan ʿAlī b. Aḥmad al-Wāḥidī (d. 468/1075) says, “Allah sent to the tribe ʿĀd their brother Hūd, that is, the descendant of their forefather (ibn abīhim). Al-Kalbī said: he is their brother not by religion but by lineage” (Wasīṭ, sub Q 7:65). Al-Qurṭubī adds: “And it is said [to mean] their brother by tribal relation; and it is also said [to mean] a man from among the descendants of Ādam” (Tafsīr, sub Q 7:65). All of the above explanations are in line with the polysemic definitions reviewed above under the wujūh. Such brotherhood makes them belong to the same nation, which in turn can help facilitate the conveying of the message (q.v.), because this facilitates people’s recognition of a Prophet’s sincerity and truthfulness (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf, sub Q 7:65).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “I am the nearest of all mankind to ʿĪsā b. Maryam, in this world and in the Hereafter.” People asked him: “How is this?” He responded: “The Prophets are brothers on the paternal side (al-anbiyāʾ ikhwat min ʿallāt). Their mothers are different, but their religion is one; and there is no Prophet between us (i.e. between Muḥammad and ʿĪsā)” (Muslim, Faḍāʾil, faḍāʾil ʿĪsā).

Brotherhood in Love and Affection

In the Hereafter, those who have reverent fear of Allah Most High (al-muttaqūn) would be as brethren sitting upon couches, facing one another, after their hearts have been purified of whatever rancor was there (Q 15:47). This is brotherhood of love and pure devotion (fīl-mawadda wal-mukhālaṣa), as He said: Close friends (al-akhillāʾ), on that Day, will be enemies one to another, except for reverent believers (Q 43:67) (Rāzī, Tafsīr, sub Q 15:47). Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd al-Ḥaqq b. Ghālib Ibn ʿAṭiyya (d. 481-541/1088-1147) says, “This is a brotherhood of religion and love” (Muḥarrar). This pure fraternity will be achieved before entering Paradise, as the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said:

The believers, after being saved from Hell, will be stopped on a bridge (qanṭara) between Paradise and Hell, where their mutual recompense—concerning the wrongs they committed against one another in the worldly life—will occur. After they have been cleansed and purified, permission will be granted to them to enter Paradise. And by Him in Whose Hand is the soul of Muḥammad, every one of them will know the way to his home in Paradise better than he knew the way to his home in this world. (Bukhārī, Riqāq, al-qiṣāṣ)

After this purification, their bliss is described in Q 7:43: We shall strip away all rancor that is in their breasts; beneath them shall flow rivers; and they will say, ‘Praise belongs to Allah, Who guided us unto this; had Allah not guided us, we had surely never been guided. Indeed our Lord’s Messengers came with the truth.’ And it will be proclaimed: ‘This is your Paradise, which you have been granted as your inheritance for what you did.’

Brotherhood in Companionship

Al-Dāmaghānī cites two passages in which “brother” is used in the sense of companion (al-ṣāḥib): Q 38:23 and Q 49:12. The first verse is in the context of the two litigants who went to Prophet Dāwūd, upon him peace, for judgment. One had wronged the other (Q 38:22), and the latter said, “This is my brother. He has ninety-nine ewes, and I have one ewe; so he said: ‘Entrust it to me’, and he overpowered me in speech”. Ibn Masʿūd (d. 32/ca.653), Allah be well-pleased with him, explained the “brotherhood” of the two litigants as their being co-religionists (Ṭabarī; Ibn Abī Ḥātim, Tafsīr). Other commentators take the “brotherhood” in this verse to be metaphorical, since two visitors were angels, who appeared before Dāwūd in the guise of two disputants (Zajjāj, Maʿānī; Qurṭubī, Tafsīr; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar; Ālūsī, Rūḥ). Jār Allāh Abū al-Qāsim Maḥmūd b. ʿUmar al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143) and al-Rāzī both extensively give other possible types of brotherhood implied by This is my brother; these include brotherhood in friendship (ṣadāqa, ulfa), partnership (sharika), and association (khalṭa), as in Q 38:24: And verily, many companions (khulaṭāʾ) wrong one another (Kashshāf; Tafsīr).

The second verse cited by al-Dāmaghānī as expressing this type of brotherhood is Q 49:12, where he glosses brother as companion: O you who believe, shun much suspicion; indeed some suspicion is a sin. And do not spy or backbite one another. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? You would abhor it. And fear Allah; truly Allah is Oft-relenting, Most Merciful. Most exegetes, however, explain the usage with reference to the enormity of backbiting (ghība), which is likened to eating the flesh of a dead brother in order to create aversion (Ṭabarī; Zamakhsharī; Ibn Kathīr) (see Conjecture).

Ukht as Simile

The feminine noun ukht (sister) is used as simile in two verses. In Q 7:38, each succeeding nation entering the Hellfire will curse its sister (laʿanat ukhtahā)…. Ibn ʿAbbās held that the verse refers to the general state of the denizens of Hell, as each group entering will curse all nations which had entered before them (Wāḥidī, Wasīṭ). This is also attested by the description of mutual disavowing  and rancor of the unbelievers (e.g., Q 2:166-67; 29:25; 34:31-33). Abū Zakariyyā al-Farrāʾ (d. 207/822) explains the usage of sister to mean “sisters in religion, not by lineage” (Maʿānī). As if it is being said that each nation will curse earlier generations from their own nation and religion. Thus, the polytheists will curse polytheists, the Jews will curse Jews, the Christians will curse Christians, the Ṣabians will curse Ṣabians and the Majūs will curse Majūs (as per Suddī, Tabarī, Tafsīr).

The second verse (Q 43:48) using ukht in such resemblance, And We showed them not a single sign but was greater than its sister (min ukhtihā)…. refers to the miracles (q.v.) granted to the Prophet Mūsā, upon himi peace, some being “more detailed” than others (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf). “Here the sisterhood is one of analogy (mushākala) and correspondence (munāsaba), as it is said, so and so is the companion of so and so, that is, the two are close to each other in meaning” (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr).

Brotherhood in Unbelief

Brotherhood in unbelief (kufr) and hypocrisy (see Hypocrisy and Hypocrites) constitutes yet another category of brotherhood mentioned in the Qurʾān: O you who believe, be not like those who disbelieve and who say to their brothers when they travel through the land or go out to fight “If they had been with us, they would not have died or have been killed”; that Allah may make it a [source of] anguish in their hearts. Allah gives life and causes death. And Allah is All-Seeing of what you do (Q 3:156). Al-Qurṭubī explains the phrase to their brothers in this verse refers either generally to “brotherhood of hypocrisy” or “brotherhood through lineage” with regard to a specific group—the detachment (sarāyā) sent by the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, to Biʾr Maʿūna (Tafsīr). Abū Isḥāq Aḥmad b. Muḥammad al-Thaʿlabī (d. 427/1035) says the phrase who disbelieve refers to the hypocrites, such as ʿAbd Allāh b. Ubayy and his followers and their brothers means their fellows in hypocrisy (fī-l-nifāq) (Kashf). Al-Zamakhsharī, however, holds that this is a reference to their common race and lineage (Kashshāf). It is also glossed as a brotherhood “with regards to their destiny” (Jalālayn, Tafsīr).

Brotherhood in unbelief and hypocrisy also characterized the relationship between the hypocrites of Madina and the Jewish Madinan tribe of Banū al-Naḍīr in Q 59:11 which alludes to the Muslim siege of that tribe after their treachery during the Battle of Trench: Have you not observed the hypocrites who say to their brothers (li-ikhwānihim) among the People of the Book who disbelieve, ‘If you are expelled, we too will certainly go out with you; and we shall never obey anyone against you. And if you are attacked, we shall indeed help you.’ But Allah bears witnesses that they are truly liars. The “hypocrites” in this verse are generally agreed to be ʿAbd Allāh b. Ubayy and his followers, while “their brothers among the People of the Book” are the “traitorous Jews of Madina” (Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād). Fakhr al-Dīn al-Rāzī explains this to be a (i) brotherhood in unbelief, for the Jews and the hypocrites were united in denying the prophethood of Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace; (ii) brotherhood based on their mutual friendship (muṣādaqa), alliance (muwālāt), and assistance (muʿāwana); and (iii) brotherhood based on their common hostility toward Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace (Tafsīr).

Devils as Brothers to One Another and to Impious Humans

The phrase their brethren in Q 7:202, Their brethren plunge them further into error and cease not is explained by al-Rāzī in two ways: (i) the brothers of devils who help the devils to increase their error, for the devils among mankind are “brothers” of the devils among the jinn. Hence devils of men throw men into error, and this is their assistance (imdād, citing the Qurʾānic phrase yamuddūnahum, increase or help) to the devils of the jinn in spreading temptation (ighwāʾ) and leading astray (iḍlāl); or (ii) the brothers of the devils are impious humans (nās), in which case the devils are their helpers. In either case, every unbeliever has a brother from among the devils (Tafsīr, sub Q 7:202).

In Q 17:27, Indeed, the squanderers are brothers of satans, and Satan is ungrateful to his Lord, the squanderers are called brothers of satans because “[these people] agree with satans in everything to which the satans call them” (al-Wāḥidī, Wasīṭ). This is so because they are of the same kind (amthālahum)—similar to them in wickedness, and they are their brothers and friends, because they obey them in everything they order; or [it can mean that] they are their fellows (quranāʾuhum), united in Hellfire (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf). “They (the brothers) are absolutely similar to them (the satans) in their disobedience to Allah” (Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād). Abū Ḥafṣ Sirāj al-Dīn ʿUmar b. ʿAlī Ibn ʿĀdil (d. 775/1373) says, “This brotherhood represents a complete resemblance and corresponding similarities to [devils] (…); are brothers of the devils can mean that they are their close companion[s] (qarīn; pl. quranāʾ) in this world and in the Hereafter, as in His Words Whosoever turns blindly away from the remembrance of the Compassionate, We assign to him a satan who is then a companion unto him (Q 43:36)” (Lubāb, sub Q 17:27). Ibn ʿĀshūr says, “These are the followers (atbāʿ) and allies (ḥulafāʾ) of the satans, and they follow them as a brother follows his brother” (Tafsīr).

Fraternal Bonds in Early Islam

Shortly after his arrival in Madina (see Hijra), the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, formally established ties of brotherhood (muʾākhāt) between the Muhājirūn—Muslims who had migrated from Makka—and the Anṣār, the Muslims of Madina (see examples below). This brotherhood is implied in Q 59:9: And those who dwell in the city (lit. madīna), and precede them in belief; [they] love whosoever has emigrated to them, not finding in their hearts any need for what they have been given, and preferring others above themselves, even though poverty be their portion; and whoso guards against the avarice of his own soul, such are those who are successful. This extraordinary fraternity was such that the Anṣār and the Muhājirūn even inherited from each other, until the revelation of Q 8:75 abrogated it and limited the causes of inheritance to relatives (see Abrogation;Clients and Patrons;Inheritance and Patrimony). Ibn Kathīr explains that the possibility of such inheritance had been based on Q 4:33 (And to all We have appointed heirs of that [property] left by parents and relatives. To those also with whom you have made a pledge [of brotherhood] give their due portion); Q 8:75 abrogated that form of inheritance but maintained the obligations of fraternal help (naṣr), mutual assistance, and good will (Tafsīr).

This brotherhood transcended the divisions of tribal Arabia, whether of lineage, alliance, or wealth. For example, Salmān the Persian was made “brother” of Abū al-Dardāʾ; ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAwf was made “brother” of the rich Anṣārī Saʿd b. al-Rabīʿ b. ʿAmr, who offered him half his wealth (Bukhārī, Adab; Bukhārī, Manāqib al-Anṣār, ikhāʾ al-Nabī ṣallā-Llāh ʿalayh wa sallam bayn al-muhājirīn wal-anṣār; for a full list of names, see Ibn Hishām, Sīra, al-Muʾākhāt bayn al-muhājirīn wal-anṣār). This special bond joined them in the spirit of Islamic brotherhood (Ibn Hishām, Sīra, al-muʾākhāt bayn al-muhājirīn wal-anṣār). Abū al-Qāsim ʿAbd al-Raḥmān b. ʿAbd Allāh, al-Khathʿamī al-Suhaylī (d. 581/1185) writes:

The Messenger of Allah, upon him blessings and peace, established fraternal brotherhood after arriving in Madina in order to remove from them (the Emigrants) the loneliness of expatriation (waḥshat al-ghurba), to console them for having left their families and relatives, and to strengthen them with one another. But after Islam gained strength and unity [among Muslims] was completed and the feeling of loneliness disappeared, Allah revealed Q 8:75: And those who have believed afterwards and emigrated, and struggled with you—they belong to you; but those related by blood are nearer to one another in the Book of Allah; surely Allah has knowledge of everything. Then He made all Muslims brothers to one another, The believers are but brothers (Q 49:10), that is, in their mutual love. (Rawḍ, al-muʾākhāt bayn al-muhājirīn wal-anṣār)


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See also

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