What the story of Habeel and Qabeel says about our creation
ABDULLAH bin Masʽūd reported that the Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, "No person is killed unjustly but that the elder son of Adam bears the burden of that blood because he was the first to begin the practice of murder."1
That wretched soul was Qābeel (Cain), who was led by arrogance and envy to do away with his younger brother, Hābeel (Abel). The story is related in Sūrah al-Mā’idah2, beginning directly with the incident which provoked the resentful brother to obey his evil inclination:
"And recite to them the story of Adam's two sons in truth, when they presented an offering and it was accepted from one of them but was not accepted from the other."
At the outset, one might wonder why. It appears that both brothers had performed a righteous deed seeking the approval of Allah.
Why Was Qabeel's Sacrifice Not Accepted?
A few of the Prophet's companions and their students gave an answer to this question in the form of background material (apparently borrowed from Old Testament legends) to the effect that Qābeel had already rebelled and angered his Lord. He refused to marry his twin sister to Hābeel as their father, Adam, had ordered because he desired her for himself.
Then Hābeel, who was a shepherd, sacrificed the best of his flock to Allah while Qābeel, who was a cultivator of crops, offered only that which was spoiled and unfit to eat. So Allah sent a flame from the heaven which consumed the offering of Hābeel, showing His acceptance of it, while that of Qābeel remained untouched.
However, there is no hadith from the Prophet ﷺ confirming any of those details, and Allah knows best.
Enraged at the rejection of his offering, Qābeel threatened his brother. "He said, 'I will surely kill you!'"
The sudden outburst is shocking, given that the brothers had just completed an act of worship, and in so doing, should have been in a state of grace.
Quoting Hābeel's reply, Allah, the Exalted, makes all speculation about details of the past irrelevant. "He said, 'Allah only accepts from the righteous.'" The answer is plain and simple – that Allah considers the intent and general attitude of someone who offers anything to Him.
And another fact becomes clear from these words: that Qābeel was not of the righteous. Whether it was disobedience to his father, coveting the sister who was unlawful to him, jealousy, tyranny or heedlessness toward the right of his Creator, he was a person who had earned for himself the displeasure of Allah.
There was no need to mention the nature of his transgressions.
Through these few words, Hābeel was also offering his brother sound advice: "If you expect to be favored by Allah, you must make efforts to please Him. If you are obedient to Him, considerate of His creation, humble, honest and sincere in your service, your noble Lord will surely accept whatever you do for Him."
Then he continued, "If you should raise your hand against me to kill me, I shall not raise my hand against you to kill you. Indeed, I fear Allah, Lord of the worlds."
Perhaps this example of forbearance would have moved a more attentive soul to reconsider or to reduce his resentment and rage, but Qābeel was not affected.
Hence, Hābeel could only warn him of the consequence of his crime, explaining why he would not fight him and risk becoming a killer himself: "Indeed, I intend for you to obtain my sin and your sin so you will be among the companions of the Fire. And that is the recompense of the unjust." By "my sin" he meant, "the sin you will commit by killing me."
The Burden of the Crime
Could Qabeel have known then, that in addition to his own crime, he would share in the sin of every murder committed up until the Day of Resurrection – countless human souls slaughtered mercilessly by beasts in the form of men, driven by malice or greed, by anger or lust, by love of power or merely love of killing?
That he would share the burden of every murder by stone, knife, rope or poison, by sword, axe, arrow or spear, by bullet, missile, bomb or chemical, by every method devised for that purpose until Allah inherits the earth?
Millions of victims to be avenged one by one, throughout eternity. What torment could possibly suffice for the miserable Qābeel? But at that moment, he did not care, or worse, he did not believe.
The Prophet of Islam ﷺ disclosed, "Whoever initiated a good tradition which is practiced by others after him will have the reward of it and the same as their rewards, although their rewards will not be decreased at all; and whoever initiated a bad tradition which is practiced by others after him will have the sin of it and the same as their sins, although their sins will not be decreased at all."3
This is so because the first time something is undertaken, it will require more thought and effort, whereas to imitate it is inevitably easier. And the one who acts initially is either directly or indirectly showing others how to do the same.
Ruling on Defending Oneself
Commentators mention in passing that Hābeel's serene conduct of saying that he will not be defending himself was out of personal choice, preferring the justice of the Hereafter to that of this world. However, a Muslim is certainly allowed to fight back in defense of his person and property.
As narrated in the "Ṣaḥeeḥs" of al-Bukhāri and Muslim: A man asked the Prophet ﷺ, "What if someone is forcing me to give him my property?" He replied, "Prevent him." He asked, "What if he assaults me?" He said, "Fight him." "And if he kills me?" He answered, "You are a martyr." "And if I kill him?" He said, "Then he is in the Hellfire."
Most jurists consider that defending oneself is obligatory and that passivity is permissible only at times when greater fitnah4 is feared, as during the insurrection when the caliph ‛Uthmān was killed while refusing to resist.
Ibn Katheer relates that after Qābeel threatened Hābeel, the younger brother, who was the stronger of the two, took his flocks up into the mountains to avoid confrontation.
However, Qābeel was still intent upon eliminating the brother he saw as a rival who had been preferred by Allah. But he knew not how to accomplish it.
Upon finding Hābeel asleep in the pasture, Qābeel stood there, wondering what he should do to be rid of him. Iblees lost no time in aiding the wicked man who had so willingly become his ally. He taught him how to kill – not in fair combat but treacherously, while the victim slept; to sever forever his ties of blood and of religion.
Qābeel threw away any last reservation he may have had in order to fulfill his evil desire. "And he permitted himself the murder of his brother, so he killed him and became among the losers."
He had never wished to resist his malicious impulse, so Iblees assisted him in the accomplishment of his aim. But, as he will admit to his followers at the time of Judgement: "I had no authority over you except that I invited you and you responded to me. So do not blame me but blame yourselves."5
Had Qābeel feared Allah in the slightest or remembered Him, he would have saved himself a miserable destiny. He supposed that he could gain satisfaction by removing the one whose presence constantly reminded him of what he should be – the brother who could have been his best and closest benefactor.
Instead, he lost everything when, by his own will, he lost the mercy of Allah. He lost the brother who tried to save him from himself. He lost the forgiveness of his Lord and eternal Paradise. And he even lost the peace of mind he thought he could obtain in this world, for his crime began to haunt him from the moment it was completed.
There lay the corpse of his brother on the ground as clear evidence of his shameful deed. Moreover, it was beginning to undergo disturbing changes that revolted and terrified him. Again, he wondered what to do.
This time there was no more evil to be accomplished and Iblees had abandoned him.
The Sunnah of Burial
Allah, who had taken the pure soul of Hābeel, showed mercy to his body as well. He taught the criminal, and through him all mankind, the proper way to dispose of a body after death: "Then Allah sent a crow searching [i.e., scratching] in the ground to show him how to hide the disgrace of his brother."
The word "disgrace" or "shame" is normally used in Arabic to refer to the private parts of a male or a female, something which is concealed by every dignified person. The word suggests that in the same way, the body of the deceased should be covered and buried so as not to be observed by the living.
Indeed, the grave is among the greatest blessings of this world, for it conceals the body when it is in a state that no one would like others to observe.
Qābeel had never seen death before; perhaps it was the first occurrence among the children of Adam. The crow sent by Allah alighted nearby. It began to scratch the ground until a hollow appeared, and Qābeel perceived that this was the way to conceal his brother's body. "He said, 'O woe to me! Have I failed [even] to be like this crow and hide the disgrace of my brother?'"
How helpless is man without the knowledge and guidance provided by Allah!
This affair had turned into a disaster for the killer – a nightmare of anxiety, fear and distress. "So he became of the regretful."
How deeply he regretted this affliction he had caused himself – yet he did not regret his evil deed nor did he repent from it! Had he done so, Allah would have forgiven him as He forgave his parents after they forgot the command of their Lord and then repented.
The mention of his regret implies also that Qābeel was punished by Allah in this world even before the next. We are not told what happened to him, but commentators cite the Old Testament narration which relates that he was cursed upon the face of the earth, to wander about hungry and lost.
And the Messenger of Allah ﷺ confirmed, "There is no sin more worthy of Allah's hastening the penalty for its perpetrator in this world along with what He has stored for him in the Hereafter than committing an outrage and severing ties of relationship."6
Qābeel had done both.
The Value of Life
Allah, the Mighty and Majestic, concludes the narration by disclosing the enormity of such a crime, and thus prepares the Muslim ummah for the legislation which is to follow. It shows the divine concept of human life, its value in the sight of Allah, and the great distinction one earns by preserving a life.
And He confirms as valid for all humanity until the Day of Resurrection the ruling that had been given to the Children of Israel as a result of this first vindictive violation: "Because of that We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul, unless [legally] for another soul or for corruption done in the land, it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever keeps one alive, it is as if he had saved mankind entirely."7
Yet, the Prophet ﷺ foretold that before the Final Hour there would be widespread massacres and bloodshed – to the point that men would not know why they killed or why they were being killed.8
He advised people at that time to take refuge from general chaos and civil strife, avoiding it as much as possible.9
The Angels Were Amazed, But Allah Knew...
When our Lord first announced that He was going to create the father of mankind whose progeny would inhabit the earth in spite of their clear tendencies toward corruption and bloodshed10, the angels were amazed.
But they could not be blamed for their wonder, so their Lord merely reminded them of His perfect and absolute knowledge with a sufficient reply: "He said, 'Indeed, I know that which you do not know.'"
For Allah knew: …that there would be much good in humanity in spite of the deviant individuals who would be a source of trial for others. …that men could be guided to right conduct, and that prophets and messengers would be sent for that purpose. …that those passionate creatures would be honored with knowledge and a free will to choose and act.
They would be given the power to control that will and to make it subservient to their Creator when they chose to do so, and to struggle and strive for His acceptance and approval.
Among them would be martyrs, upholders of truth, worshippers, pious scholars and righteous workers, loving and fearing Allah, seeking His acceptance and competing for His approval, following the path of His messengers in order to become close to Him. They would have the capability to consciously and patiently exert themselves and even suffer great hardships to earn His reward, making them superior to the angels, who know not desire and are unable to disobey.
Yes, many would choose the path of Iblees, as did Qābeel, but many others would prove worthy of the responsibility entrusted to mankind, of the honor bestowed upon Ādam when Allah ordered the angels to prostrate before him, and of the Paradise prepared for the righteous by their Lord.
This is what the angels in their purity and goodness could not have known. But it has been proven true throughout human history, and it will continue to be so until that Day when each individual is returned to his Creator to face the precise and just account of all his deeds and intentions.
The choice is man's to make or to amend, and the door of repentance is always open. Everyone can prove something to the angels.
1. Narrated by al-Bukhāri, Muslim and others.
2. Āyahs 27-31
3. Narrated by Muslim.
4. Among the meanings of fitnah are persecution, oppression, injustice, terrorism, civil strife, discord, trial and torment.
6. Aḥmad and at-Tirmidhi – ṣaḥeeḥ.
7. This does not include legal retribution or jihād, which are different matters altogether.
10. Refer to Sūrah al-Baqarah, 2:30.