The significance of a concept in the Islamic worldview can be grasped by surveying its occurrence in the Qur’an, the peak of divine revelation and the fount of knowledge and guidance. One aspect of such study is to follow the appearance of a certain word in its various contexts, extracting lessons and drawing conclusions.
The concept of brotherhood (and sisterhood) is increasingly discussed in our times as a foundation for human equality, reconciliation and cooperation. Words pertaining to brotherhood (i.e. derivatives of the Arabic root ʾ–kh–w / أ–خ–و) occur in the Qur’an in almost one hundred places. This study looks at these occurrences, beginning with those in their literal meanings, and then outlining the various metaphorical senses in which brotherhood is mentioned. Then there is a specific focus on Islamic brotherhood in faith and the broader concept of brotherhood in humanity, with reference to Islamic scripture and the opinions of Muslim scholars.
1. Quranic Usage
The word akh, meaning brother, and ukht, sister, literally denote a person with whom one shares either parent or both, or who has suckled from the same wet-nurse. Its plural forms – for a male or mixed group – include ikhwah andikhwān, brethren. Note: the noun ukhuwwah signifies brotherhood, but as is generally the case with masculine-form words, it similarly encompasses both genders in terms of the sibling relation, whether literal or metaphorical. For convenience, this English term will be used in the remainder of this paper.
The terms brother and sister occur with their literal meanings in several contexts, including the rules of social relations (e.g. 24:61), modest concealment (24:31), inheritance (e.g. 4:176) and marriage (4:23). The latter verse, which prohibits men from certain categories of women in marriage, includes your sisters through nursing, indicating that brotherhood in Qur’anic usage extends to milk-relations as well as blood-relations. Al-Rāghib al-Aṣfahānī counts this as a literal usage when he states: “The brother is one who shares parentage with another from both sides, or one of them, or through suckling”.
The word is also used in a more general sense to indicate relatives of a single generation (e.g. 6:87). The Qur’an cautions against excessive love of one’s relatives, particularly those who actively oppose the religion (e.g. 58:22). Among the horrors of the Day of Resurrection is that a man will flee from his brother, his mother and father, and his wife and children(80:34-36).
In the narratives of past nations, among the most prominent brothers were Mūsā and Hārūn (e.g. 19:53), both prophets, as were Ismāʿīl and Isḥāq (e.g. 4:163) (both sons of Ibrāhīm by different mothers) – peace be upon them. In the chapter containing the story of Prophet Yūsuf (on whom be peace), the termbrother is used for siblings sharing both parents, as well as for the paternal half-brother (12:59); it is used for the older sibling as well as the younger (12:77).
A. Faith community:
This meaning is established by a verse of Surat al-Ḥujurāt (49:10), which says:The believers are but brothers, so reconcile between your brothers; the verse and its implications are addressed in more detail below. In numerous instances, terms of brotherhood are used in the Qur’an to indicate fraternity for the sake of faith, rather than a blood relationship. Muslims are enjoined to supplicate for our brothers who preceded us in faith (59:10), while a provocative image is presented of the backbiter as eating the flesh of his dead brother (49:12).
The fact of brotherhood is tied to the importance of reconciliation in places other than the verse quoted above. A verse of Sūrat al-Baqarah (2:178), while encouraging the acceptance of blood-money in lieu of retribution for murder, refers to the guardian of the murdered party as his brother, i.e. that of the murderer, thus reminding both parties of the bonds of faith that tie them. The specific expression brothers in religion occurs in the context of anti-Islamic militants repenting and embracing Islam (9:11), as well as that of adoption (33:5).
B. Association and shared attributes:
Another metaphorical usage of brotherhood is as a similarity or association based on shared attributes, whether positive or negative.
Discussing the significance of Maryam, mother of Prophet ‘Īsā – peace be on them – being addressed by her people as sister of Hārūn (19:28), exegetes have advanced various views. Ibn Kathīr (d. 774/1373) states that the reference is to the Prophet Harūn (Aaron), peace be upon him, and that her description as his “sister” is purely in the sense of being similarly devoted to worship. He also quotes the opinion that “she was from his descendants, as someone from the tribe of Tamīm would be addressed: O brother of Tamīm”. Another possibility is that the Hārūn referred to was a contemporary of hers, or even her actual brother. This is supported by the hadith in which the Prophet – blessings and peace be upon him – responded to a criticism of this verse posed by the Christians of Najrān, saying: “They used to name their children after the Prophets and righteous people before them” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim).
At the opposite end of the spectrum of virtue and vice, squanderers of wealth are described as brothers of the devils (17:27). Brotherhood between devils and humans – the polytheists – is also established in another verse (7:202), in the sense of being allies to one another. The unbelievers are brothers to one another (3:156), while the hypocrites (munāfiqūn) are brothers of the unbelievers (59:11) – including the People of Scripture – due to their surreptitious rejection of faith.
Yet Allah – Most High – still ascribes brotherhood, in a more literal sense, between the martyrs of the Battle of Uḥud and the hypocrites from among their tribesmen who stayed behind (Q 3:167-8; see Ibn ʿĀshūr). This point has significance in responding to those who go so far as to consider difference in religion as nullifying natural bonds of blood.
C. Daʿwah community:
A further usage of the term brother occurs in the context of the mission of the Prophets to their people. In Sūrat al-Aʿrāf, the accounts of various Messengers are opened as follows: To (the tribe of) ʿĀd, (We sent) their brother Hūd (7:65), To Thamūd, their brother Ṣāliḥ (7:73) and To Madyan, their brother Shuʿayb (7:85). Similar is said of the Prophets Nūḥ and Lūṭ (26:106, 161) – may blessings and peace from Allah be upon them all.
One verse (50:13) mentions the brothers of Lūṭ, referring to the people he was sent to reform, particularly their majority who were destroyed for their evil deeds. Since Prophet Lūṭ, nephew of Prophet Ibrāhīm (peace be upon them), was not related to that Canaanite community, the term here merely refers to his having “lived in their lands, dwelt among them, allied with them and supported them” (Ibn ʿĀshūr).
The Prophets are described as the brothers of their people to emphasise their sincere concern for their well-being, “having compassion like the compassion of one brother for another” (al-Rāghib). This is in addition to the possibility of a literal relation being intended in certain cases, such as the Prophet Hūd being referred to simply as the brother of ʿĀd in Q 46:21. It is also of note that the Prophets are brothers to one another, as mentioned in the hadith in al-Bukhārī: “The Prophets are paternal brothers; their mothers are different, but their religion is one.”
The inhabitants of Paradise are made to be brothers, facing each other on thrones (15:47), meaning that they live in perfect harmony after all traces of rancour are removed from their hearts (Ibn Kathīr).
The word for “sister” occurs twice in the very non-literal sense of “fellow, predecessor” (the operative word being feminine in each): Every time a nation (ummah) enters [the Fire], it curses its ukht (7:38); We showed them no sign (āyah) but that it was greater than its ukht (43:48). Commenting on the latter usage, Al-Samīn al-Ḥalabī (d. 756/1355) said: “Each new sign is described as the sister of the one before because it shares its qualities of truth and clarity. It means that they all share in greatness, the difference between them being slight, as is normally the case between siblings who are close to one another in virtue.”
2. Brotherhood in Faith
As mentioned previously, one of the key meanings of brotherhood in Quranic discourse is the bond that unites one Muslim believer with another, irrespective of tribal or national affiliations or boundaries.
Thus it is closely allied to the concept of the Ummah, the global nation of Islam, and the call to brotherhood is a call to unity: And hold fast to the rope of Allah, all together, and be not divided. And remember the grace of Allah upon you in that you were enemies, then He joined your hearts so you became, by His grace, brothers… (Q 3:103) The believing men and women are described in another verse (9:71) as being loyal, protecting friends (awliyāʾ) to one another.
Sūrat al-Ḥujurāt (49) contains numerous guidelines and directives for a successful society built upon brotherhood in faith, encompassing faithfulness, morality, respectful behaviour, establishing facts, and reconciliation between disputing parties. Its key statement concerning brotherhood is that The believers are but brothers; so reconcile between your (two) brothers and fear Allah, that you may receive mercy. (49:10) The majority reading (qirāʾah) has it as your (two) brothers in the dual, while that of Yaʿqūb al-Ḥaḍramī has it in the plural (respectively: bayna akhawaykum /ikhwatikum). Both are canonical readings and the implications are the same.
The surah goes on to outline an ethical framework through which fraternal harmony is achieved and maintained: the prohibition of insulting and ridiculing one another or using offensive nicknames (49:11); the prohibition of spying and undue suspicion, and of backbiting (49:12); and establishing the sole criterion favouring one human being over another as being his or her piety and God-consciousness (49:13).
In his commentary upon this last verse, Sayyid Quṭb (d. 1966) wrote: “Colour, race, language, homeland and similar factors are of no importance in God’s sight. There is only one criterion to determine people’s worth… Noble indeed is the one who is noble in God’s sight… This is the banner raised by Islam in order to save humanity from the evil consequences of fanatic bonds of race, homeland, tribe, clan, family etc.”
The Prophetic Sunnah is replete with examples of brotherhood in action, as well as teachings regarding its principles. The arrival of the Prophet – may Allah’s blessings and peace be upon him – to Madinah heralded the end of the internecine warfare between the Aws and Khazraj tribes, who would henceforth be known collectively as the Anṣār (supporters). They played the role of welcoming the Muhājirūn (emigrants) to their city, even to the extent of preferring them over themselves (see Q 59:9). The Prophet established the fraternal system known as al-muʾākhāh. Moreover, non-Arabs and others customarily marginalised from society, such as slaves, were now integrated fully within the spirit of Islamic brotherhood.
Among the many sayings of the Prophet (on whom be peace) that elaborate on brotherly relations is the following: “Do not envy one another; do not inflate prices against one another; do not hate one another; do not shun one another; and do not undercut one another in transactions; but be servants of Allah, brothers. A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim: he does not wrong him, let him down or look down on him. Piety is here (pointing to his chest three times). It is evil enough for a Muslim to hold his brother-Muslim in contempt. All things of a Muslim are inviolable for another Muslim: his blood, his property and his honour.” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim)
Another highly expressive hadith states: “The believers, in their mutual love, mercy and compassion, are like a (single) body: if one part of it feels pain, the rest of the body joins it in wakefulness and fever.” (Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim)
Duties of Brotherhood in the Ethics Literature
The literature pertaining to Islamic akhlāq and ādāb (character and etiquette) is replete with guidance for proper interaction between Muslims. Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 505/1111), in his Iḥyāʾ ʿulūm al-dīn, termed these as “general rights of brotherhood”. In addition, he listed eight “personal rights” to be observed in the contractual relationship of brotherhood, which he likened to the contract of marriage. We summarise these duties of brotherhood by way of illustration:
3. Brotherhood in Humanity
Reference is made by numerous scholars, in recent times particularly, to the concept of “brotherhood in humanity”. The Qur’anic basis for this concept is the repeated emphasis on the shared parentage of the entire human race, as in the verse mentioned previously: O mankind, indeed We created you from a (single) male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that you may know one another. Truly the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the most pious of you. (49:13)
Similarly, in the hadith of Allah’s final Messenger, peace be upon him: “Allah has rid you of the disgrace of Jāhiliyyah and its boasting about ancestry. (One is only) a pious believer or a miserable sinner. All people are children of Adam, and Adam was from dust.” (Sunan al-Tirmidhī)
In addition, various metaphorical uses of the term in the Qur’an, as outlined above, provide support for this concept. The meaning of shared attributes is relevant to a description of all human beings as brothers and sisters in humanity. Moreover, the implication that the Prophets – on whom be peace – displayed fraternal compassion for the people they invited to Islam is relevant to the role of Muslims in the wider world today.
Commenting on the hadith of al-Bukhārī and Muslim: “None of you (truly) believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself”, Yaḥyā b. Sharaf al-Nawawī (d. 676/1278) states: “It is best to interpret this as the broadest sense of brotherhood, such that it encompasses both non-Muslims and Muslims.” On this understanding of the hadith, as supported by other texts of the Qur’an and Sunnah, Islam promotes the empathy principle widely known as the “Golden Rule”.
Even a term like ummah, while generally designating the Muslim community worldwide, can have broader meanings since the word means any group bound by common features, such as faith, location or era. The document created by the Prophet Muḥammad on his arrival at Madinah – described by Muhammad Hamidullah (d. 2002) as “the first written constitution in the world” – included in its articles: “The Jews who agree to this document are one ummah with the believers. The Jews have their religion (dīn), and the Muslims theirs.” More broadly, scholars have described all people after Muḥammad (on whom be blessings on peace) as being his nation, in the sense that they are the ones invited to his call (ummat al-daʿwah). As for the Muslims, they are the subset of those who respond (ummat al-ijābah).
According to Maḥmūd Shaltūt, former Grand Imam of al-Azhar (d. 1963): “If the non-Muslims maintain the state of peace, then they and the Muslims are, in the sight of Islam, brothers in humanity (ikhwān fī al-insāniyyah) cooperating for the common good. Each has his religion to which he invites with wisdom and fair preaching, without harming anyone or depriving him of his rights.” His intent was to underline the essential principle, not to make the fact of brotherhood contingent on a state of peace.
Dr. Yūsuf al-Qaraḍāwī, renowned Azharite and president of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, considers the call to a world of human cooperation to be one of the essential purposes of the Quranic revelation. In his Kayfa nataʿāmal maʿ al-qurʾān, he states: “Among the fruits of the tawḥīd that Islam calls to is human brotherhood (ukhuwwah bashariyyah), which entails equality between human beings. This brotherhood is built on two bases. First: that all people – according to the monotheistic message – are servants of one Lord who created and fashioned them; and second: that they are all children of one father, Adam, however much they may differ in terms of geography, colour, language or class. That is what the Prophet (peace be upon him) conveyed to the Ummah at the Farewell Pilgrimage, when he addressed them saying: ‘O people, your Lord is one, and your father is one. All of you are from Adam, and Adam was from dust. An Arab is not superior to a non-Arab, nor a white man over a black man, except by taqwā (God-consciousness and piety).’”
On a television programme entitled Mafāhīm, Mauritanian scholar Muḥammad ibn al-Ḥasan al-Dedew told the interviewer: “You may call a non-Muslim ‘brother’ because he is a brother to you in humanity, being a descendant of Adam just like you. There is brotherhood of religion (dīn) and brotherhood of clay (ṭīn): the former is higher in status, but the latter also exists and there is no escaping that.”
In short, a Muslim has a duty to his brother-human and especially his neighbour, including well-wishing, kind treatment and sharing the message of Islam; and he has an additional set of duties to his brother-Muslim as detailed in the Qur’an, Sunnah and Islamic tradition.
 The point may be extended with reference to the “believer from the family/people of Pharaoh” (40:28) and the “wives” in Q 66:10-11, and even further according to the interpretation of the upright “people of the Book” (3:113-115) as being converts to Islam.
 Al-Qaraḍawī also supports this meaning by citing a report narrated by Imam Aḥmad on the authority of Zayd b. Arqam, to the effect that the Messenger of God used to recite words after each prayer which included: “O Allah, Lord and Master of all things, I am a witness that all the servants are brothers.” The wordal-ʿibād has the import of “all humans”. However, as this hadith is not established by an authentic chain, it does not serve as an independent proof.
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