The Story of the Quranic Word, Kalalah!

Question and answer details
The word kalalah occurs twice in the Surat An-Nisaa. Umar ibn Al-Khattab is reported to have said that he would rather know the meaning of this word than possess a sum of money equal to the poll-tax levied on the fortresses of Byzantium. How far is this report authentic and the what is the story of this word?
Ahmad Saad
Salam dear Mario,

Thank you for your question and for contacting Ask About Islam.

Your question touches on a very important subject, which is understanding the meanings of the noble Quran. Understanding the Quran is important for anyone who wants to get closer to the text and put its teachings into application.

The Companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) gave an excellent example in their keenness to learn the meaning of every verse and understand the meanings of the words that were new to them. But how would such words be new to the Companions, despite the fact that they were pure and genuine Arabs?

To answer this question, we need to bear in mind the fact that the noble Quran was revealed in the Arabic language that was spoken by all Arab tribes. This is of course due to the fact that it is not addressing the tribe of Quraish or the people of Makkah only.

Other tribes like Hudhail, Abs, Khatham and many others used to speak Arabic, but they had their dialectical differences which were represented in difference in the pronunciation of certain letters and letter combinations, in addition to the usage of other words to express certain things.

For instance the word 'baal' is mentioned in Surat As-Saffat to mean 'god'. This word is used to refer to this meaning by the tribe of Azd Shunuah. The same meaning is expressed by the tribe of Quraish by the word 'rabb'. There are so many other examples.

Therefore, it was natural for the Companions who were from Makkah to inquire about words they are unfamiliar with when they hear it in the Quran. As these words are used in another place by another tribe and they have no clue about them.

The great commentator of the Quran, Abdullah ibn Abbas (may Allah be pleased with him) who was one of the great knowledgeable Companions, said:

"I did not know the meaning of the word 'iftah' (lit: to open) in Surat Al-A`raf, until I heard the daughter of Dhi Yazan (a woman from the Yemeni tribe of Himyar) saying to her husband: 'ufatihuka' (i.e. I will take you to the court for arbitration and judgment). Thereupon, I understood the meaning and realized that the word is quoted from the dialect of the tribe of Himyar."

All this shows to us how keen were the Companions on understanding the meaning of the words of the Quran to refine their understanding of it, get closer to its essence and be able to put it into action.

Coming to the essence of the question you raised, I have searched the books of Hadith in order to be able to verify the story you quoted and found out the authenticity of this tradition. I found out that the story has not been mentioned in the authentic books of Hadith. Rather, it was mentioned in the tafseer of Imam At-Tabari on his commentary on the verse of Surat An-Nisaa' that speaks about the rulings of kalalah, and therefore, we cannot say it is authentic.

In fact, all the sources that have quoted this tradition are Shiite sources which are known for their bias against the great Companion Umar ibn Al-Khattab. It was very much quoted by a person called Mohammed At-Tijani As-Samawi who is known to support extreme Shiite beliefs.

All these things put doubt on the authenticity of the story and I personally tend to think it is not authentic at all. Even if it was true, it should be counted as something in favor of Umar, not against him, since it shows his keenness to learn and to get the full explanation of the rulings related to kalalah.

It was well known that Prophet Muhammad passed away without explaining these rulings in detail to the Companions and he left them to practice their personal reasoning based on the two available verses and the fact that the verses were not complicated.

Umar expressed his love to have an explanation from the mouth of the Prophet himself since this would make the whole issue decisive and not subject to any juristic effort.

It was the intention of the Prophet to refer Umar and other Companions to look for the verse and read it to arrive at a juristic understanding of the issue of kalalah, as it was not a very complicated issue and he wanted to encourage them to search for its meaning.

All authentic sources tell us though, that Umar was aware of the meaning of kalalah, along with many other Companions including Abu Bakr and Ali, a meaning which is adopted by the vast majority of scholars.

Now, coming to the story of the word, the Arabic word 'kalalah' is taken linguistically from the word 'takallalahu an-nasab' (lit. he has been surrounded by his lineage or relatives) or from the word 'kallat ar-rahim' (lit. the womb has gone far) and has some relation with the word 'ikleel' (garland or crown) which normally surrounds the head or the neck from all sides.

In the juristic sense, the word refers to a person who passes away without leaving any of his parents (or grandparents) or children (or grandchildren). In that we can understand the relation between this technical definition and the linguistic one.

They both refer to someone who does not have a stem or a branch in terms of family. But he has relatives from other sides like his brothers, sisters, half brothers and half sisters and so on and so forth who surround him while they are not as close to him as his son or his father.

This is the view adopted by Abu Bakr As-Siddiq, Umar ibn Al-Khattab and Ali ibn Abi Talib. By the way, this word can refer to the person (the deceased) who leaves no father or child behind and can also refer to the relatives of such a person i.e. his brothers, sisters, cousins, and so on. Therefore, we can say 'he is kalalah' and we can also say, 'they are his kalalah'.

The rulings related to kalalah have been mentioned after the rulings related to the sons and the fathers and the wives. The reason for this is that the relation of fatherhood and offspring is the strongest, next to that is the relation with one's wife and finally comes the relation with brothers and sisters.

It is because of this order that the Quran spoke first of the division of the estate in case of parents and children, then husbands and wives and finally brothers and sisters.

I hope this answers your question. Please stay in touch.


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On Islamic Inheritance Laws

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