Explanation of Surah al-Ma’un

It’s Name

In most of the copies of the Qur’an, this chapter is referred to as Ma’un, which in Arabic means “small kindness.” It is also named the chapter “Have You Seen,” a name given by al-Bukhari in his collection of authentic Prophetic traditions as well as Ibn ‘Atiyyah in his famous explanation of Qur’an. In addition, Al-Suyutti states that this chapter is also called the chapter of “religion” Others refer to it as the chapter of “denial” and the chapter of “the orphan.”

Time of Revelation

According to most scholars, this chapter was revealed in Mecca, and it was the 17th chapter revealed to the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) after Surah al-Takathur and before al-Kafirun. Ibn ‘Abbas noted that part of this chapter was revealed in Mecca and the other part in Medina. This is because the hypocrites did not exist in Mecca. So, the reference to them could have only occurred in Medina. That opinion seems more plausible and reflects the deep understanding of Ibn ‘Abbas (ra).

Reason for Revelation

Those who contend that this is a Meccan chapter state that these verses were sent due to one of the following people: al’As bin Wa’il al-Sahmi, al-Walid bin al-Mughira al-Makhzumi or ‘Amru bin ‘Aidh al-Makhzumi. Others say that it was sent about Abu Sufiyan, before he accepted Islam, because he used to repel the poor. Still others hold that it was sent due to  Abu Jahl because he was abusive to orphans.

If we follow the logic of Ibn ‘Abbas, that this chapter was sent in both Mecca and Medina, then it is probable that the first part of this chapter is talking about one, some or all of the people above, and the second half is talking about the hypocrites of Medina. Thus, this chapter is providing examples of those personality traits that Muslims should avoid. It is an answer to our prayer, Guide us to the straight path – the path of those upon whom You have bestowed favor, not of those who have evoked [Your] anger or of those who are astray(Qur’an, 1:6-7).

Its Objectives

  • Amazement at a person who could deny faith in God and the Hereafter;
  • Concern for the weak and exploited of society is a sign of complete faith;
  • Hypocrisy and its signs.

Have you seen the one who denies the recompense?

The letter أ is used to ask a question. It is different than the usual particle used to ask a question in Arabic, هل. The latter carries the meaning of “have.” However, أ also brings with it the meaning, “Did you see?” This usage is found in our own language. For example, if someone did something outrageous, a person might say, “Did you see that?” What this accomplishes in Arabic is that it causes the person who hears “did you see” to think “see what?”

Qur’an: “Did you see?”
Listener: “See what?”
Qur’an: “Who denies the Recompense!”
Listener: “What about them is so strange? What qualities set them apart!?”
Qur’an: “…repels the orphan…”

That is the one who repels the orphan.

Perhaps a better translation would be “Then, that is the one,” carrying with it the meaning of “because he denies the recompense, he repels the orphan.” This means that a person struggling to be a better Muslim should strive to do the opposite of these deeds as they are a sign of one who denies the Recompense. The words “denies,” “repels,” and “does not encourage,” all appear in the incomplete tense, meaning that the actions have no end. Thus, these are constants that follow the one who denies the Recompense.

There is an important rule in Arabic rhetoric that I would like you to pay attention to: when a verb is incomplete, the present future tense [Ar. f’al al-mudar’i] carries the meaning of consistency. If the meaning of the verb is an admirable quality, like prayers, then it is considered a form of praise for its subject. Thus, we find in the Qur’an, “Those who establish the prayers.” Meaning, they pray and will pray. The opposite holds true for evil actions such as “deny”, “repels”, and “does not encourage”, meaning the evil people of Mecca described here were constantly engaged in these acts.

That is the one who repels the orphan

The word “repels” implies to push and force them away. Allah says, “The Day they are thrust toward the fire of Hell with a [violent] thrust…” (Qur’an, 52:13)

And does not encourage the feeding of the poor

The phrase “feeding of the poor” could mean stopping others from feeding the poor or it could mean their right to be fed. The latter is called idafa mahda [En. Pure possessive] and implies the official name of something or, as is the case here, something specific to its possessor: “Does not encourage the giving of the food that is the right of the poor.” It could also mean, “Does not encourage those in charge of the poor to feed them.”

The Poor

The word for poor in Arabic is miskin. It is taken from the same word as knife, sikin, because the latter stops something from moving. A poor person is given this title because he is literally not able to move or look after his affairs.


We gather from these verses that a benchmark of those who deny the Hereafter is oppression. Oppression is not something to be taken lightly. In a Hadith Qudsi we find, “O My servants, I have forbidden oppression for myself and I have forbidden it for you, so do not oppress.” The statement “do no oppress” is a transitive verb whose object is hidden. This is done so that a universal meaning is applied to the object “do not oppress [anything or anyone].” The Prophet ﷺ  said in a sound narration, “Oppression will be met with oppression in the Hereafter.”

Classical scholars defined it as:

وضع الشّيء في غير موضعه، والتّصرّف في حقّ الغير، ومجاوزة حدّ الشّارع

“Placing something in its wrong place, overstepping the rights of others and bypassing the limits of Islam.”

Based on this, classical scholars divided oppression into three parts:

  1. Between the oppressor and his Lord by disbelief in Him, associating partners with Him and hypocrisy. Allah says, “Associating partners with Allah is a grave oppression.” (Qur’an, 31:13).
  2. Between the oppressor and other people. Allah says, “Allah does not love the oppressors.”(Qur’an, 42:40)_
  3. Between the oppressor and himself by committing sins. Allah says, “Some of them have wronged themselves.” (Qur’an, 35:32)

Abuse is a Part of Oppression

Abuse in all its forms is part of oppression. Our community is no different than any other in this regard, except we have failed to address this problem. Imams (religious leaders) and community leaders can produce lists of examples of spousal and child-abuse that occur from time to time. Though not the norm, our community must effectively address this problem or face the consequences of ignoring a form of oppression and the statement of our beloved Prophet ﷺ “Help you brother whether he is oppressed or an oppressor (by stopping the latter).” The danger of oppression is such that it is mentioned at least 165 times in the Qur’an and the Prophet ﷺ  said, as related by al-Bukhari in his Sahih, that a Muslim who has oppressed others, after being punished in the fire, will be brought from it and his entrance to Paradise will be delayed until the abuse he practiced is addressed.

One of the things we have to mention is the danger of physical abuse amongst spouses. Brothers! The Prophet ﷺ said to us, as related by al-Bukhari, “Your women are a right entrusted to you by God” and “Treat your wives well.” These are important words and we must be careful that we do not extinguish the light of the Prophet ﷺ with the evil of certain social constructs foreign to Islam.

Sisters! Verbally chopping your husbands head off at the end of the day is not only ineffective, it is forbidden. Your words have the ability to give him the wings to soar or burn them before he can he try to set flight.

I would like to address child abuse here, but time will not allow. Let me finish by saying, that Imams are not the sole answer. They must develop a network between themselves, social workers and Muslim professionals that they can refer such cases to. If not, this problem will continue and we could possibly be answerable to Allah (swt). Also, we need to join with other organizations that are well established and proven champions of human rights and defending the abused.

If the Prophet ﷺ said a woman will go to Hell for abusing a cat, what is to be said about abusing human beings? Add to that not any human being, but those entrusted to us by Allah?! On the flip side, the Prophet ﷺ  said, as related by al-Tirmidhi, that even “the fish in the seas will pray for a student of religious knowledge.” I heard from one of my teachers that this is because religious knowledge will teach him to be just with the environment – not abusive to it. Thus, the creatures will pray for him. Ponder!

In this chapter, we see a direct correlation between abuse and denial of the Hereafter. ‘Umar (ra) said, “If it wasn’t for the Hereafter, people would go crazy.” As a community, we must begin to address abuse that occurs under our noses, or risk being suffocated by its stench.

So woe to those who pray

Those who contend this chapter was sent in Medina say that this is in reference to the hypocrites of Medina who actually prayed but did so for show and that the word “then” is simply used to show a relationship between the evil these people do and the evil of those in Mecca. This was the opinion of Malik and his student.

Who are heedless of their prayer

This statement regulates the threat “Woe” to those who prayer but do so for show or don’t pray at all.

The word “of” is used here instead of “in” since the latter would imply that they pray on time. Here, however, the meaning is that they are heedless of their prayer because they pray after their time is gone.   This also makes it clear that the “negligence” here is not the same as that done in prayer and requires two prostrations. It could also mean, “Those who pray only to be seen,” or “Those who pray without sincerity and humility in their prayers so their words are like those of the heedless.”

Those who make a show

This refers to those who do these acts so others will think they are good and will spread the word that they are good people. This is a serious spiritual illness that can destroy the heart like cyanide destroys the body.

And withhold small kindnesses

“Small kindess” is a word that is usually applied to money. It could mean here charity or it could mean zakah (alms-giving). The latter was the opinion of Malik and Ashab. This is supported by the poem:

قَوْمٌ عَلَى الْإِسْلَامِ لَمَّا يَمْنَعُوا … مَاعُونَهُمْ وَيُضَيِّعُوا التَّهْلِيلَا

“A group of people who were Muslims. When they refused to pay (ma’ouna), meaning zakat, they ruined their prayers.” (Rajiz)


Allah (swt) warns us of  the qualities of those who deny the Hereafter. As Muslims, we should work diligently to acquire and preserve their opposites.

About the author

Suhaib Webb

Suhaib Webb is a contemporary American-Muslim educator, activist, and lecturer. His work bridges classical and contemporary Islamic thought, addressing issues of cultural, social and political relevance to Muslims in the West. After converting to Islam in 1992, Webb left his career in the music industry to pursue his passion in education. He earned a Bachelor’s in Education from the University of Central Oklahoma and received intensive private training in the Islamic Sciences under a renowned Muslim Scholar of Senegalese descent. Webb was hired as the Imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, where he gave khutbas (sermons), taught religious classes, and provided counselling to families and young people; he also served as an Imam and resident scholar in communities across the U.S.

From 2004-2010, Suhaib Webb studied at the world’s preeminent Islamic institution of learning, Al-Azhar University, in the College of Shari`ah. During this time, after several years of studying the Arabic Language and the Islamic legal tradition, he also served as the head of the English Translation Department at Dar al-Ifta al-Misriyyah.

Outside of his studies at Al-Azhar, Suhaib Webb completed the memorization of the Quran in the city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. He has been granted numerous traditional teaching licenses (ijazat), adhering to centuries-old Islamic scholarly practice of ensuring the highest standards of scholarship. Webb was named one of the 500 Most Influential Muslims in the World by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Center in 2010.


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