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The Qur'anic Sūrat al-kawthar and the Islamic Kawthar


The Tafsir Sūrat al-kawthar Qur'an 108.


Stephen Lambden (UC-Merced).

Last modified 2009-10

The Tafsīr Sūrat al-Kawthar or `Commentary on the Surah of the Fount of Abundance' of the Bāb is one of the most important  early Tafsir works of the Bāb. It expounds in  detail and often in a non-literal, letter by letter hermeneutical fashion, the brief (three verse) probably Meccan 108th Surah of the Qur'ān. This Surah reads, with the English translation of A. J. Arberry (d. 1969) and a little transliteration added, as follows:


Qur'an: CVIII

The Surat al-Kawthar, Sura of the Abundance

بِسْمِ اللهِ الرَّحْمنِ الرَّحِيم


In the  Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate


إِنَّا أَعْطَيْنَاكَ الْكَوْثَر

    Surely We have given thee abundance


فَصَلِّ لِرَبِّكَ وَانْحَرْ

So pray unto thy Lord and sacrifice


إِنَّ شَانِئَكَ هُوَ الْأَبْتَرُ

Surely he that hates thee, he is the one cut off.

The Surat a-Kawthar (Qur'an 103) in Islamic Tafsir literatures

The qur'anic hapax legomenon (a word occurring once only) الْكَوْثَر al-Kawthar  means "abundance" and is derived from an Arabic root  K-W-TH-R  meaning to be  "plentiful", "abundant", etc . It is given a variety of interpretations in Islamic Qur'an commentaries and other related writings.  Western scholars and academics have variously translated kawthar and many Islamic authorities reckon Kawthar to be indicative of a celestial stream or river (nahr) located within or somewhere in the region of the celestial Paradise. 

 Some Islamic Tafsir literatures spell out the circumstances of the revelation of the Sūrat al-Kawthar. In, for example, the Tafsir al-Qur'ān al-`azīm ("The Commentary upon the Mighty Qur'an") of  Abu'l-Fiḍā' Ismā'il  Ibn Kathīr  (d. 774/1373)  the following ḥadith is recorded along with various comments upon the meaning of  Q. 108:1 :

Imam Aḥmad [ibn Ḥanbal] (d. 241/855)...  narrated that Anas Ibn Mālik said: `[One time] the Messenger of God was falling deep asleep, slumbering, when he [suddenly] raised up his head wreathed with smiles. [At that moment]  either he said to them [his Companions], or they said to him, "Why did you laugh?". Then he [Muhammad] said: "A certain Surah has been revealed to me." Then he [Muhammad] recited: "In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate. Surely We have given thee Abundance" (al-Kawthar),  etc., until its end (= Q. 108:1-3), Then he  said [to his associates] : "What do you understand by al-Kawthar?" They replied: "God and His Messenger are best informed"  whereupon he [Muhammad] said: 

`It [Kawthar] is a  River (nahr) given unto me by my Lord (  أَعطَاْنيهَ  cf. Q. 108:1a) [located] in Paradise (al-jannat). Within it is  abundant goodness (khayr kathīr, cf. kawthar). My [Islamic] community (ummatī) will be held back from it until the Day of Resurrection (yawm al-qiyāma). Its [drinking]  vessels (āniya) are [as numerous as] the stars (al-kawakib) though it inhibits the servant (al-`abd) from attaining thereto [in order to drink] save I [Muhammad] should exclaim: "O Lord! This one is of my community (ummatī)", although it will yet be declared to him, "You have no knowledge of what [Islamic norms] they established after you!" 

[The above] was related by Imam Aḥmad [ibn Hanbal]  (d. 241/855) according to a threefold chain to transmission (isnād). And the following is [a clarification] of its successive ideas.  It is [clear that these details were] set forth relative to the nature of the  حوض [the eschatological ḥawḍ = a `water basin' / `pool' / 'reservoir'  or  'pool' to be established on] the Day of Resurrection (yawm al-qiyāma).  There gushes forth  within it two  waterways [canals] (mīzābān) from heaven (min samā'), from the River of Kawthar (min nahr al-kawthar). Related thereto are [drinking] vessels (āniya) as numerous as the stars of heaven (nujūm al-samā'). This ḥadith was  related by Muslim, Abū Dāwūd and al-Nasā'ī from Tarīq Muhammad al-Fuḍayl (         ) and `Alī ibn Musir (          ) both of whom related from al-Mukhtar ibn Fulful (           ), from Anas  ADD HERE.

 Many Qur'an reciters (qurrā' ) have taken this as proof that the Sūrah was revealed in Madinah, while many jurists (fuqahā՝ ) have deduced from it that the Bismillah is an integral part of the Sūrah and that it was revealed along with it.  As for the words of God: "Verily, we have given you Al-Kawthar" (Q. 108:1) it has already been mentioned that al-Kawthar is a river in Paradise and that Imam Aḥmad [ibn Hanbal] (d. 241/855) has narrated, on the authority of Anas, that he recited this Sūrah and then he said:

 `The Messenger of God said: "I have been given al-Kawthar and it is a flowing river in Paradise which does not flow along a normal channel, but instead its banks are domes of pearl and I struck its earth with my hand and it was a strong-smelling musk, and its pebbles were pearls."

 Ibn Jarīr [al-Tabari] has narrated on the Qur'an reciters (qurrā) authority of Anas, that he asked the Messenger of God  about al-Kawthar and he said:

"It is α river in Paradise, given to me by my Lord, whose colour is whiter than milk and whose taste is sweeter than honey; upon it are birds whose necks are like those of camels." 'Umar said: "O Messenger of God! It is an ostrich." He replied: "Its meat is more delicate and tender than that, O 'Umar."

[Isma'il] al-Bukhārī (         ) relates on the authority of Ibn 'Abbās (d.        ), that he said al-Kawthar is the blessings bestowed on the Messenger  by God. Abū Bishr then told Sa'īd Ibn Jubair (who narrated this from Ibn 'Abbās):

 "But people say that it is a river in Paradise." Sa'īd replied: "The river in Paradise is from the blessings of this world and the Hereafter." And it has been confirmed that Ibn 'Abbās also explained it [al-Kawthar] as being a river.

 Ibn Jarīr narrates on the authority of Ibn 'Abbās that he said:

"al-Kawthar is a river in Paradise, its banks are of gold and silver and its bed is of precious stones and pearls and its water is whiter than snow and sweeter than honey."

Something very similar was narrated on the authority of Ibn Umar and al-Tirmidhī narrates something like it in a  ADD form (mawquf ). While Aḥmad [ibn Hanbal] (d. XXX/855)  has narrated it in a marfű' form. That is, since We have given you such blessings in this world and in the hereafter, including the River described previously, then devote your obligatory and your optional prayers to your Lord  alone, likewise your sacrifices and all your acts of worship. Worship Him alone, without associating any partners with Him and sacrifice in His Name alone, without associating any partners with Him, as in the Words of Allah" 

(Ibn Kathir, Tafsīr al-qur'ān al-'azim,  1420/2000, pp. 2037-40; partly revised corrected trans. from 1420/1999:252-256)

Select Twelver Shi`i Traditions

Among the hadith contained in the Arabic compilation of Muhammad ibn Ya`qub al-Kulayni (d. 329/941) entitled  al-Kafi ...  the following may be noted,

"Muhammad ibn Yahya has narrated from Muhammad ibn al-Husayn from Musa ibn Sa‘dan from ‘Abdallah ibn al-Qasim from 'Abd al-Qahhar from Jabir al-Ju‘fi from abu Ja'far ( a.s.) who has said that the Messenger of God [Muhammad] has said the following.

"Muhammad ibn Yahya has narrated from Muhammad ibn al-Husayn from Musa ibn Sa‘dan from ‘Abdallah ibn al-Qasim from 'Abd al-Qahhar from Jabir al-Ju‘fi from abu Ja'far ( a.s.) who has said that the Messenger of God has said the following. ...

Whoever would like to live as I have lived and die as will do and enter the garden that my Lord has promised to me and hold in hands the stick that Allah has planted with His own hands he then must love and acknowledge (Leadership with Divine Authority of) Ali (a.s.) and his successors after him because they do not lead you into the gates of misguidance ortake you out the gate of true guidance. Thus, do not try to teach them because they know more then you do. I have asked my Lord not to cause any separation between them and the Holy Quran until the time they will arrive in my presence near the al-Kawthar in paradise like this (showing his two fingers stretched side by side). The pond of al-Kawthar which is as big as from San‘a’ [now capital of Yemen] to `Ayla (a place between Mekka and Madina) with cups of gold and silver around it as many as the stars" (from al-Kafi vol.1 trans. Muhammad Sarwar, adapted, Hadith 541, Ch. 19, h 6).

It was the Messenger of Allah who explained it for them. The verse about obedience came "Believers, obey God, His Messenger, and your leaders (who possess Divine authority). . . ." (Qur'an 4:59) It came to declare that Ali, al-Hasan and al-Husayn (a.s.) were the leards who possessed Divine authority. The Messenger of Allah then said about Ali (a.s.), "On whoever I have Divine Authority, then Ali (a.s.) has Divne Authority over him also."He also has said, "I enjoin you to follow the book of Allah and my family because [I] have prayed to Allah, the Most Holy, the Most High not to separate these two from each other until He will make them arrive al-Kawthar (at the pool of Paradise) to meet me. He has granted my prayer as such." The Holy Prophet (s.a.) has said, "Do not try to teach them (The Imam (a.s.) becaue they are far more knowledgeable than you." ( al-Kafi vol.1 trans. Muhammad Sarwar, adapted, Hadith 757, Ch. 64, h 1).

... The Holy Prophet [Muhammad] has said, "The truth is with Ali wherever he would incline." The Holy Prophet has said, "I leave among two facts, would you hold to them firmly, you will never be mislead, the book of Allah, the Most Holy, the Most High, and my family, my descendents. O people, listen. I have certainly preached the message to you. You will arrive at the pool of al-kawthar, and will ask you about your dealings towards the two graviticious matters. The two graviticious matters are the book of Allah, the Most Holy, the Most High, and my family. Do not proceed ahead othem lest you will be destroyed. Do not try to treach them because they by far are more knowledgeable than you." ( al-Kafi vol.1 trans. Muhammad Sarwar, adapted, Hadith H 766, Ch. 65, h 3. cf. also ibid., Hadith Ch. 108, h 80.).