How the Qur’an Uses Contrasting Pairs and Repetition: Tafsir ibn Kathir

Allah describes His Book in surah al-Zumar by saying:

اللَّـهُ نَزَّلَ أَحْسَنَ الْحَدِيثِ كِتَابًا مُّتَشَابِهًا مَّثَانِيَ

Allah has sent down the best speech: a mutashaabih and mathaani Book. [39:23]

The word “mathaani” [مَثَانِي] is often translated into English as “oft-repeated” or sometimes as “paired”. Also, when used in conjunction with “mathaani“, the word “mutashaabih” [مُتَشَابِه] is it is often translated as “consistent”. But as often happens in translation, the translated terms do not sufficiently convey the meaning of the original. In what follows, the great scholar of tafsir al-haafidh Ismaa’eel ibn Kathir provides some clarification and examples of these terms which can help the reader to better understand these two recurring features of the Qur’an.

Even before reaching surah al-Zumar, ibn Kathir draws the reader’s attention these features at their first occurrence in the mushaf under his commentary of 2:25 by writing:

لما ذكر تعالى ما أعده لأعدائه من الأشقياء الكافرين به وبرسله من العذاب والنكال ، عطف بذكر حال أوليائه من السعداء المؤمنين به وبرسله ، الذين صدقوا إيمانهم بأعمالهم الصالحة ، وهذا معنى تسمية القرآن مثاني على أصح أقوال العلماء ، كما سنبسطه في موضعه ، وهو أن يذكر الإيمان ويتبعه بذكر الكفر ، أو عكسه ، أو حال السعداء ثم الأشقياء ، أو عكسه . وحاصله ذكر الشيء ومقابله . وأما ذكر الشيء ونظيره فذاك التشابه ، كما سنوضحه إن شاء الله ؛ فلهذا قال تعالى : ( وبشر الذين آمنوا وعملوا الصالحات أن لهم جنات تجري من تحتها الأنهار ) ـ

After having mentioned the pain and punishment that He has promised to those miserable enemies of His who disbelieve in Him and His Messengers, Allah then immediately follows that up by mentioning the condition of His joyful allies who believe in Him and His Messengers – those who actualize their eemaan with righteous good deeds. This is the essence of what the Qur’an refers to as Mathaani according to the strongest position of the scholars, a topic which we will discuss in more detail in its proper place. Essentially, Mathaani is to mention eemaan and then to follow that up by discussing kufr, or vice versa, or to mention the state of the people of ultimate joy and then the people of ultimate misery, or vice versa. In short, it is mentioning one thing and then contrasting it with its opposite.

Now as for mentioning something alongside a close corollary, that would be al-Tashaabah [i.e. their “mutashaabih-ness”], which is another topic that we will clarify in further detail, inshaAllaah.

So that is why [after having finished discussing the punishment of the disbelievers], Allah says:

وَبَشِّرِ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ أَنَّ لَهُمْ جَنَّاتٍ تَجْرِي مِن تَحْتِهَا الْأَنْهَارُ

So give glad tidings to those who believe and do righteous good deeds that they will have gardens under which rivers flow [2:25]

[Tafsir ibn Kathir 1/204]

As promised in the above excerpt, Ibn Kathir returned to this subject in his explanation of surah al-Zumar to provide a more complete discussion:

اللَّـهُ نَزَّلَ أَحْسَنَ الْحَدِيثِ كِتَابًا مُّتَشَابِهًا مَّثَانِيَ تَقْشَعِرُّ مِنْهُ جُلُودُ الَّذِينَ يَخْشَوْنَ رَبَّهُمْ ثُمَّ تَلِينُ جُلُودُهُمْ وَقُلُوبُهُمْ إِلَىٰ ذِكْرِ اللَّـهِ ۚ ذَٰلِكَ هُدَى اللَّـهِ يَهْدِي بِهِ مَن يَشَاءُ ۚ وَمَن يُضْلِلِ اللَّـهُ فَمَا لَهُ مِنْ هَادٍ

Allah has sent down the best speech: a mutashaabih and mathaani Book. The skins of those who fear their Lord shiver from it, then their skins and hearts soften to the remembrance of Allah. That is Allah’s guidance, through which He guides whom He wills. And whomever Allah leads astray, then there is no one to guide him. [39:23]

هذا مدح من الله – عز وجل – لكتابه القرآن العظيم المنزل على رسوله الكريم ، قال الله تعالى : { الله نزل أحسن الحديث كتابا متشابها مثاني } قال مجاهد : يعني القرآن كله متشابه مثاني . وقال قتادة : الآية تشبه الآية ، والحرف يشبه الحرف . وقل الضحاك : { مثاني } ترديد القول ليفهموا عن ربهم عز وجل . وقال عكرمة ، والحسن : ثنى الله فيه القضاء – زاد الحسن : تكون السورة فيها آية ، وفي السورة الأخرى آية تشبهها . ـ

This is Allah praising His Book, the Glorious Qur’an, which He sent down to His noble Messenger. Allah said:

اللَّـهُ نَزَّلَ أَحْسَنَ الْحَدِيثِ كِتَابًا مُّتَشَابِهًا مَّثَانِيَ

Allah has sent down the best speech: a mutashaabih and mathaani Book

Mujahid said: Meaning that the entire Qur’an is mutashaabih and mathaani.

Qatadah said: One ayah resembles and supports another, and one harf resembles and supports another.

al-Dhahhaak said: Mathaani is to repeat a statement so that the people might understand their Lord.

‘Ikrimah and al-Hasan said, “Allah has repeated His decrees throughout the Qur’an” with al-Hasan going on to say, “So one surah will have a certain ayah and another surah will have another ayah that resembles and supports it.”

وقال عبد الرحمن بن زيد بن أسلم : { مثاني } مردد ، ردد موسى في القرآن ، وصالح وهود والأنبياء ، عليهم السلام ، في أمكنة كثيرة . وقال سعيد بن جبير ، عن ابن عباس : { مثاني } قال : القرآن يشبه بعضه بعضا ، ويرد بعضه على بعض . وقال بعض العلماء : ويروى عن سفيان بن عيينة معنى قوله : { متشابها مثاني } أن سياقات القرآن تارة تكون في معنى واحد ، فهذا من المتشابه ، وتارة تكون بذكر الشيء وضده ، كذكر المؤمنين ثم الكافرين ، وكصفة الجنة ثم صفة النار ، وما أشبه هذا ، فهذا من المثاني ، كقوله تعالى : { إن الأبرار لفي نعيم وإن الفجار لفي جحيم } [ الانفطار : 14 ، 13 ] ، وكقوله { كلا إن كتاب الفجار لفي سجين } [ المطففين : 7 ] ، إلى أن قال : { كلا إن كتاب الأبرار لفي عليين } [ المطففين : 18 ] ، { هذا ذكر وإن للمتقين لحسن مآب } [ ص : 49 ] ، إلى أن قال : { هذا وإن للطاغين لشر مآب } [ ص : 55 ] ، ونحو هذا من السياقات فهذا كله من المثاني ، أي : في معنيين اثنين ، وأما إذا كان السياق كله في معنى واحد يشبه بعضه بعضا ، فهو المتشابه وليس هذا من المتشابه المذكور في قوله : { منه آيات محكمات هن أم الكتاب وأخر متشابهات } [ آل عمران : 7 ] ، ذاك معنى آخر . ـ

‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Zayd ibn Aslam said: Mathaani is to repeat and reiterate something. The story of Moosaa is repeated throughout the Qur’an, as are the stories of Saalih and Hud and all the Prophets in many places.

Sa’eed ib Jubayr reported that ibn ‘Abbaas said about this word: The various parts of the Qur’an resemble and support one another, with some parts responding to others.

Some of the scholars have relayed the following meaning from Sufyan ibn ‘Uyaynah:

مُّتَشَابِهًا مَّثَانِيَ

 mutashaabih and mathaani

The passages of the Qur’an are sometimes dealing with only one topic at a time. This falls under mutashaabih. At other times, a passage will mention something and then mention its opposite. For instance, it will mention the believers and then the disbelievers, or it will describe al-Jannah and then describe the Hellfire, and so on. This falls under mathaani.

Take for instance Allah’s statement:

إِنَّ الْأَبْرَارَ لَفِي نَعِيمٍ * وَإِنَّ الْفُجَّارَ لَفِي جَحِيمٍ

The Righteous ones will certainly be in pleasure * and the wicked ones will certainly be in the blazing fire [82:13-14]

or His statement:

كَلَّا إِنَّ كِتَابَ الْفُجَّارِ لَفِي سِجِّينٍ

No! Indeed, the record of the wicked is in sijjeen [83:7]

until He says:

كَلَّا إِنَّ كِتَابَ الْأَبْرَارِ لَفِي عِلِّيِّينَ

No! Indeed, the record of the righteous is in ‘illiyyun [83:18]

Or:

هَـٰذَا ذِكْرٌ ۚ وَإِنَّ لِلْمُتَّقِينَ لَحُسْنَ مَآبٍ

This is a reminder. And there is indeed, a good place of return for the righteous [38:49]

until He says:

هَـٰذَا ۚ وَإِنَّ لِلطَّاغِينَ لَشَرَّ مَآبٍ

So it is. And there is indeed an evil place of return for the transgressors [38:55]

and other similar examples of the passages of the Qur’an. All of these things are al-Mathaani – i.e. they have two messages.

Now as for when an entire passage is focused on one message, and it resembles and supports other similar passages elsewhere, then that is al-Mutashaabih. And the mutashaabih mentioned in this ayah is not the same mutashaabih found in Allah’s statement:

مِنْهُ آيَاتٌ مُّحْكَمَاتٌ هُنَّ أُمُّ الْكِتَابِ وَأُخَرُ مُتَشَابِهَاتٌ

In the Qur’an there are muhkam verses which are the foundation of the Book, and there are others which are mutashaabih [3:7]

That is a different meaning of the word being used there.

[Tafsir ibn Kathir 7/94-96]

To continue reading ibn Kathir’s explanation of this ayah from surah al-Zumar, see: How the Believers Respond to the Qur’an: Tafsir ibn Kathir

See also: Allah Has Sent Down the Best Speech: Tafsir al-Sa’di

See also: The Meanings of Muhkam, Mutashaabih, and Ta’weel: al-Lajnah al-Daa’imah

See also: Taking Ayaat out of Context: Sheikh ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Badr

See also: How The Qur’an Describes Itself: Tafsir al-Sa’di

See also: Encouragement and Intimidation in the Qur’an: Tafsir ibn Kathir

See also: The Qur’an is Free of Contradictions: Tafsir ibn Kathir

See also: A Recurring Sequence in the Qur’an: al-Zarkashi

See also:The Seven Oft-Repeated Verses: Tafsir al-Shinqitee

7 thoughts on “How the Qur’an Uses Contrasting Pairs and Repetition: Tafsir ibn Kathir

  1. Pingback: A Recurring Sequence in the Qur’an: al-Zarkashi | Tulayhah

  2. Pingback: The Meanings of Muhkam, Mutashaabih, and Ta’weel: al-Lajnah al-Daa’imah | Tulayhah

  3. Pingback: Guidance for Interpreting the Qur’an in Surah Aal ‘Imran: Tafsir ibn Kathir | Tulayhah

  4. Pingback: How The Qur’an Describes Itself: Tafsir al-Sa’di | Tulayhah

  5. Pingback: Encouragement and Intimidation in the Qur’an: Tafsir ibn Kathir | Tulayhah

  6. Pingback: Allah Has Sent Down the Best Speech: Tafsir al-Sa’di | Tulayhah

  7. Pingback: How the Believers Respond to the Qur’an: Tafsir ibn Kathir | Tulayhah

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.