Muzaffar Iqbal and Najah Nadi Ahmad

The Qurʾān uses derivatives of the root ṣ-ḥ-b to denote a companion in travel, service, learning, friendship, marriage, or dwelling. The root carries the following basic meanings: closeness, association, and cohabitation (muqāranamuqārabamuṣāḥaba,  muʿāshara) (Ibn Fāris, Maqāyīs; Ibn Manẓūr, Lisān; Fayrūzābādī, Qāmūs). The noun ṣāḥib can also be used to denote ownership, as in the expression ṣāḥibu māl (lit. companion of money) for one who owns wealth (dhū māl) (Farāhīdī, ʿAyn), or the leader of a group, as in the expression ṣāḥib al-jaysh (lit. companion of the army) (Rāghib, Mufradāt). Abū al-Ḥusayn al-Qāsim b. Muḥammad al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī (d. 502/1108) defines al-ṣāḥib lexically as al-mulāzim, that is, one who is in attendance, whether attending humans or animals, or a place or time—and whether referring to physical co-presence or attending others through one’s concern and care (bil-ʿināya wal-himma). Al-Rāghib explains that companionship (al-iṣṭiḥāb) implies a relationship sustained over an extended period and so differs from a mere meeting (ijtimāʿ) (Mufradāt).

Definitions and Usage

Derivatives of ṣ-ḥ-b occur 97 times in the Qurʾān in five forms:

I.  Ten times as the masculine noun ṣāḥib (Q 4:36; 7:184; 9:40; 18:34, 37; 34:46; 53:2; 54:29; 68:48; 81:22);

II.  Four times as the feminine noun ṣāḥiba—twice in the context of Allah’s transcendence over ever having a female partner (Q 6:101; 72:3); and twice in the context of a man’s willingness to sacrifice his wife for the sake of his own salvation in the Hereafter (Q 70:12; 80:36);

III.  Twice as the dual noun sāḥibay[-i] (Q 12:39, 41), both in the story of Prophet Yūsuf, upon him peace, referring to his two fellow prisoners;

IV.  78 times as the plural noun aṣḥāb to denote sixteen groups of people:

i.  People of Paradise (aṣḥāb al-janna), thirteen times (e.g. Q 2:82; 7:42, 44, 46, 50; 10:26), also called People of the Right Hand (aṣḥāb al-yamīn) five times (Q 56:27, 38, 90, 91; 74:39) and three times as aṣḥāb al-maymana (Q 56:8 (2x); 90:18) ; (see Paradise);

ii. People of the Fire (aṣḥāb al-nār), twenty times (e.g. Q 2:39, 81, 217), referring to the denizens of Hell, also called People of the Left Hand (aṣḥāb al-mashʾama and aṣḥāb al-shimāl (Q 56:9 (2x); 90:19 and Q 56:41 (2x); (see Hell);

iii. People of the Graves (aṣḥāb al-qubūr), once (Q 60:13) (see Graves);

iv. People of the Thicket (aṣḥāb al-ayka), four times (Q 15:78; 26:176; 38:13; 50:14), a people who were notorious for their corruption in trade to whom the Prophet Shuʿayb, upon him peace, was sent (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr, sub Q 15:78) (see People of Ayka);

v. People of the Cave and Inscription (aṣḥāb al-kahf wa-l-raqīm), once (Q 18:9) in the verse that begins the account of the youth who took refuge in a cave to escape persecution because of their faith (Q 18: 9-26) see People of the Cave);

vi. People of the Elephant (aṣḥāb al-fīl), once (Q 105:1), referring to the army from Yemen which sought to destroy the Kaʿba in the year of the Prophet’s birth (ca.570 CE), called “Year of the Elephant”, because the army, led by Abraha al-Ḥabashī al-Ashram (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr) had elephants;  some exegetes hold that there was only one elephant (Baghawī, Tafsīr; Ibn ʿAṭiyya, Muḥarrar), others mention eight or twelve elephants (Māwardī, Nukat; Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf; Rāzī, Tafsīr);

vii. People of Rass (aṣḥāb al-rass), twice (Q 25:38; 50:12), of disputed identity, a nation who worshipped idols, possessing wells and livestock (Rāzī, Tafsīr); Rass is the name of the well (al-biʾr), where these people often gathered (Muqātil, Ṭabarī, Tafsīrs; Māturīdī, Taʾwīlāt; Samarqandī, Baḥr). Some exegetes say it was around Antioch (Anṭākiya) (Muqātil, Baghawī, Tafsīr; Samarqandī, Baḥr; Thaʿlabī, Kashf; Māwardī, Nukat). According to Qatāda (d.117/735) it is a village in the region of al-Yamāma (Ibn al-Jawzī, Zād);

viii. People of the Pit (aṣḥāb al-ukhdūd), once (Q 85:4);

ix. People of the Sabbath (aṣḥāb al-sabt), referring to Israelite sabbath-breakers, once (Q 4:47) (see Sabbath; Children of Isrāʾīl);

x. People of the Heights (aṣḥāb al-aʿrāf), once (Q 7:48), referring to those perched atop a barrier between Paradise and Hell (ʿAbd al-Razzāq, Tafsīr) from where they would see both Paradise and Hell (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf), their good and bad deeds were equal and they await a final Divine judgment (Rāzī; Ibn Kathīr, Tafsīrs), hoping to enter Paradise (Q 7:46) (see Heights);

xi. People of Madyan (aṣḥāb madyan), twice (Q 9:70; 22:44), a tribe to whom Prophet Shuʿayb, upon him peace, was sent (see Madyan);

xii. People of Ḥijr (aṣḥāb al-ḥijr), once (Q 15:80), being another name for the Thamūd, who lived in a rocky plain (ḥijr) of western Arabia (Zamakhsharī, Kashshāf), in the Wādī al-Qurā region (Muqātil, Ibn ʿĀshūr, Tafsīrs), between Madīna and Syro-Palestine (al-Shām; q.v.) (Yāqūt, Buldān, bāb al-ḥāʾ wa-l-jīm wa mā yalīhimā);

xiii. People of the Sound Path (aṣḥāb al-ṣirāṭ al-sawiyy), once (Q 20:135);

xiv. People of Mūsā (aṣḥāb Mūsā), once (Q 26:61) (see Mūsā, upon him peace; Children of Isrāʾīl);

xv. People of the Ark (aṣḥāb al-safīna), once (Q 29:15) (see Ark);

xvi. People of the Town (aṣḥāb al-qarya), once (Q 36:13) in the chronicle of an unidentified town (see Anonymous Mentions) whose inhabitants denied three messengers;

V.   Three times in two verbal forms (Form I and III):

i. fa-lā tuṣāḥibnī (Q 18:76: do not keep me company) in the story of Prophet Mūsā, upon him peace, with reference to his unnamed teacher, who is identified as al-Khaḍir in exegetical literature and Prophetic traditions;

ii. wa ṣāḥibhumā fī-l-dunyā maʿrūfā (Q 31:15: keep company with them both [your parents] in this world with kindness) (see Parents);

iii. yuṣḥabūn, “they will not be accompanied” in the sense of “protection” (Muqātil, Ṭabarī, Tafsīrs; Farrāʾ, Maʿānī) (Q 21:43: nor can they [disbelievers] be protected from Us)—nothing will accompany them from Allah, neither tranquility (sakīna), nor refreshment (rawḥ), nor gentle treatment (Samīn, ʿUmdat, sub bāb al-ṣād, faṣl al-ṣād wa-l-ḥāʾ).

The Prophet as Companion

In four verses (Q 7:184; 34:46; 53:2; 81:22), the Prophet Muḥammad, upon him blessings and peace, is called companion (ṣāḥib) of the people among whom he lived. Q 7:184 is specifically addressed to the Makkan idolaters—who called him “possessed by jinn (majnūn)” (cf. Q 15:6; 23:70; 34:8; 37:36; 44:14; 68:51; 81:22)—reminding them that if they but reflected on it, their own knowledge of the Prophet over years of coexistence belies their false accusations (cf. Ṭabarī, Samarqandī, Rāzī, sub Q 7:184; Zamakhsharī and Ibn Kathīr, sub Q 34:46, 53:2; Qurṭubī, sub Q 53:2, 81:22; and Baghawī, sub Q 81:22). Elsewhere (Q 52:29; 68:2), the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, is divinely assured that he is not possessed, but a clear warner (Q 15:89; 22:49; 29:50; 38:70; 46:9; 67:26).

Q 34:46 instructs the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, to: Say, I exhort you to do one thing only: stand for Allah in pairs or singly and then reflect: there is no madness in your companion; he is but a warner to you before a severe punishment. Abū al-Layth al-Samarqandī (d. 373/983) cites an explanation by Abū Muḥammad Ibn Qutayba al-Dīnawarī al-Qutabī (213-276/828-889), who said that when the polytheists accused the Prophet of being a sorcerer, a liar, and a madman, Allah Most High asked His Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, to tell them to counsel yourselves, and to keep your desires (hawā) from overcoming you, and then stand before Allah in some place with your companion (ṣāḥibih), agreeing to be honest with one another. Then say to your companion: have we ever seen madness in this man or have we ever experienced falsehood from him? Then separate each from his companion (ṣāḥibih) and reflect and ponder. This shall prove to you that he is [in truth] a warner” (Baḥr; cf. Ibn Qutayba, Gharīb). Such reflection is enjoined because contemplation strengthens faith and ability to do good deeds (Ibn ʿAjība, Baḥr), singly, that is, individually, so that crowds will not sway them from the remembrance of Allah (Rāzī and Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr), or in pairs, so that two minds can compare reflections. In either case they will reach the same conclusion, that the Prophet is of sound mind and that he is not misguided, but rather is a true warner (Qurṭubī, Tafsīr).

Other Individuals

In addition to the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, four individuals are called “companions” in the Qurʾān: (i) the Prophet Yūnus, upon him be peace, is the “Companion of the Whale” (ṣāḥib al-ḥūt: Q 68:48); (ii) Abū Bakr al-Ṣiddīq (d. 13/634), Allah be well-pleased with him, who accompanied the Prophet during the Hijra, is the second of the two, when they were in the cave and he (the Prophet) said to his companion (Abū Bakr) (Q 9:40) (see Abū Bakr; Companions of the Prophet; Hijra); (iii) two unnamed fellow prisoners of Prophet Yūsuf, upon him be peace (Q 12:39, 41); and (iv) the respective owners of two gardens in a parable of mercy and faith (Q 18:34-37).

The “Companion at Your Side”

Q 4:36 enjoins good treatment of the “companion at your side” (al-ṣāḥib bil-janb) along with others: Worship Allah and associate none with Him, and be virtuous toward parents and kinsfolk, orphans and the poor, the neighbor who is  of kin and the neighbor who is not of kin, toward the companion at your side and the wayfarer, and toward those slaves whom your right hands possess. Verily, Allah does not love the proud and boastful (Q 4:36). The companion at your side is understood by the exegetes here as one’s traveling companion (Abū ʿUbayda, Majāz; Ibn Qutayba, Gharīb), a spouse (Rāzī, Tafsīr), or an assiduous attendant seeking benefit (Ṭabarī, Tafsīr) including a partner in a worthy endeavor such as learning, management, or craft (Bayḍāwī, Tafsīr). “One must be mindful of the companion’s rights and strive to make the relationship an avenue (dharīʿa) of moral excellence (iḥsān) (Rāzī, Tafsīr). Abū Muḥammad Sahl b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Tustarī (d. 283/896) adds an esoteric meaning: “As for its inner meaning, the neighbor who is near of kin refers to the heart (qalb); the neighbor who is not of kin is nature (al-ṭabīʿa), and the companion at your side is the intellect (ʿaql), which is guided by Sacred Law (sharīʿa); the wayfarer refers to the parts of one’s body (jawāriḥ), which are in a state of obedience to Allah. This is the inner meaning of the verse” (Tafsīr).

The Female Companion

The word ṣāḥiba denotes a female companion in four verses (Q 6:101; 70:12; 72:3; 80:36). Two of these verses refute the false belief that Allah Most High has a female companion and progeny: The Originator of the heavens and the earth! How can He have a child when He has no companion (ṣāḥiba); and He created all things; and is Aware of all things (Q 6:101). And Exalted is the Majesty of our Lord: He has taken neither a female companion (ṣāḥiba) nor a son (Q 72:3). Muḥammad b. Muḥammad Abū Manṣūr al-Māturīdī (d. 333/ca.945) explains that created beings pair with spouses to satisfy their desires—but Allah, the Creator of desires, has no desires Himself, and therefore has no need for a spouse. These verses also respond to the idolaters’ claims that angels are the daughters of Allah Almighty (Taʾwīlāt, sub Q 72:3). Jār Allāh Abū al-Qāsim Maḥmūd b. ʿUmar al-Zamakhsharī (467-538/ca.1074-1143) notes that Q 6:101 refutes the possibility of Allah having a son from three aspects, one of which is that birth can only take place through the relations of a couple of the same genus. But Allah is transcendent above having a congeneric (mujānis). It is impossible that He have a female companion, and therefore impossible that He have a son (Kashshāf, sub Q 6:101; cf. Rāzī, Tafsīr). ʿAlī b. Muḥammad al-Khāzin (678-741/1280-1341) writes that to attribute a wife or child to Allah is to attribute a likeness to Him, whereas He is Exalted above such likeness. This verse, thus, is a rational argument against the Christian attribution of a child to Allah (Tafsīr, sub Q 6:101).

The other two occurrences of ṣāḥiba describe the desperate scene of the Day of Reckoning, when the wrongdoer will wish to sacrifice his loved ones for his own salvation: The criminal will wish that he could save himself from the punishment of that Day by [sacrificing] his children. And his wife (ṣāḥibatih) and his brother. And his nearest tribal kin (faṣīlatih) who sheltered him. And everyone on earth, if it could save him (Q 70:11-14). People will be so preoccupied with their own fate on that Day that they will abandon their loved ones: Then, when the Deafening Blast comes, the Day a man will flee from his brother, his mother and his father, and his wife (ṣāḥibatih) and his children—each one of them, that Day, will have concerns of their own (Q 80:33-38). Abū ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad b. Aḥmad al-Qurṭubī (600-671/1204-1273) offers various reasons for a man’s abandonment of loved ones: being overwhelmed by the experience of that Day; fearing that his loved ones might ask him to bear some of their punishment, or to donate some of his reward to them; fearing that they will hold him accountable for his injustices toward them; or simply knowing that they will not be of benefit to him (Tafsīr, sub Q 80:33-38). Al-Khāzin specifies that a man’s wife will complain of unfulfilled rights, and his children will complain that he did not teach and guide them (Tafsīr, sub Q 80:36). The Ot­toman mufti and exegete Abū al-Suʿūd al-ʿImādī (900-982/1495-1574), however, stresses that the reason one would flee from one’s beloveds is the extraordinary preoccupation with one’s own fate, as clarified in Q 80:38 (each one of them, that Day, will have concerns of their own) (Irshād).

Companionship with the Righteous

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, is instructed to make your soul patient with those who call upon their Lord morning and evening, desiring His Face; turn not your eyes away from them… (Q 18:28; see Face of Allah). This verse was revealed when leaders of the Makkan aristocracy from the tribe of Muḍar visited the Prophet and showed willingness to listen to his teachings. But when they found him sitting with a group of Companions, they wanted him to leave that group and sit with them exclusively so that they would not be seen associating with the poor (Tafsīrs of Muqātil, Ṭabarī, Qurṭubī, Baghawī). Q 6:52 conveys a similar instruction to the Prophet: And do not drive away those who call upon their Lord morning and evening, desiring His Face… The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, said, “Praise be to Allah, for He included in my community (umma) those to whom I am commanded to abide myself” (Abū Dāwūd, Sunan, 3:323 §3666; al-Bayhaqī, Dalāʾil 1:357).

The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, instructed believers to seek the company of the righteous. He said, “The similitude of good and bad company is that of the perfume seller and the blacksmith. The perfume seller would either offer you some of it for free, or you would buy it from him, or at least you would smell its pleasant fragrance; as for the blacksmith, he either burns your clothes or leaves you with a repugnant smell” (Bukhārī, Buyūʿ, fīl-ʿaṭṭār wa-bayʿ al-misk; Muslim, Birr wal-ṣila wal-ādāb, istiḥbāb mujālasat al-ṣāliḥīn wa-mujānabat quranāʾ al-sūʾ). He also said, “Do not be a companion to any but a believer (lā tuṣāḥib illā muʾminan) and let only the reverent eat your food (wa-lā yaʾkul ṭaʿāmaka illā taqīy)” (Tirmidhī, Sunan, Zuhd, mā jāʾa fī ṣuḥbati muʾmin; rated ḥasan).

On the other hand, companionship of the disbelievers and the wicked is to be avoided, for it leads to ruin. The disbelievers will express regret in the next life: Oh, would that I had not taken so and so for a friend (Q 25:28). Abū al-Qāsim ʿAbd al-Karīm b. Hawāzin al-Naysābūrī al-Qushayrī (376-465/ca.986-ca.1073) comments that while disbelievers will regret the company of disbelievers, believers should rejoice in the company of their friends and loved ones for the sake of Allah. The disbeliever misleads his companion so that they both end up in Hell, while the believer guides his companion until they both reach felicity (Tafsīr, sub Q 25:27-28). A similar theme is expressed in Q 43:67: Friends on that Day will be enemies to one another, except for the righteous (al-muttaqīn). ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl b. ʿUmar Ibn Kathīr (700-774/1300-1373) explains that every friendship (ṣadāqa) and every companionship (ṣaḥāba) that was for other than Allah will turn into enmity on the Day of Judgment; only companionship for the sake of Allah will abide (Tafsīr, sub Q 43:67) (see Friends and Friendship).

Sufi texts expound on the excellence of keeping good company and on its etiquettes. Eloquent expositions on companionship (ṣuḥba) are found, for instance, in chapters thus entitled of Abū Naṣr al-Sarrāj al-Ṭūsī’s (d. 378/988) al-Lumaʿ, al-Kalābādhī’s (d. 380/990) al-Taʿarruf li-madhhab ahl al-taṣawwuf, Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī’s (d. 386/996) Qūt al-qulūb, Abū ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sulamī’s (325-412/936-1021) Ādāb al-ṣuḥba, and Abū al-Qāsim al-Qushayrī’s Risāla. Abū Hāmid Muḥammad b. Muḥammad al-Ghazālī (450-505/1058-1111) likens the ties among friends and companions to those between spouses, for both companionship and marriage give rise to rights and obligations. He dedicates Book XV of his magnum opus, Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, to “Etiquettes of Companionship and Cohabitation” (Kitāb ādāb al-ṣuḥba wal-muʿāshara), where he elaborates that the intimacy of companionship entails eight mutual duties: material assistance; personal aid; holding one’s tongue; speaking out; forgiveness; supplication; loyalty and sincerity; and relief from inconvenience and discomfort (Iḥyāʾ, 4:9-242).


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See also

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