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: Continue reading

A Parable of Two Slaves: Ibn al-Qayyim

Allah strikes the following parable in surah al-Zumar:

ضَرَبَ اللَّـهُ مَثَلًا رَّجُلًا فِيهِ شُرَكَاءُ مُتَشَاكِسُونَ وَرَجُلًا سَلَمًا لِّرَجُلٍ هَلْ يَسْتَوِيَانِ مَثَلًا ۚ الْحَمْدُ لِلَّـهِ ۚ بَلْ أَكْثَرُهُمْ لَا يَعْلَمُونَ

Allah presents an example of one man owned by quarreling partners and another man belonging exclusively to a single man – are they equal in comparison? Praise be to Allah! But most of them do not know. [39:29]

The great scholar Ibn al-Qayyim commented on this ayah by writing:

هذا مثل ضربه الله سبحانه للمشرك والموحد فالمشرك بمنزلة عبد يملكه جماعة متنازعون مختلفون متشاحون والرجل المتشاكس الضيق الخلق فالمشرك لما كان يعبد آلهة شتى شبه بعبد يملكه جماعة متنافسون في خدمته لا يمكنه أن يبلغ رضاهم أجمعين . ـ

Allah has made this parable about one person who associates others with Allah and another person who singles Him out for worship. The one who associates partners with Allah is like a slave owned by a group of clashing, conflicting, and quarreling people. The word mutashaakis used in this ayah means one who has stiff and inflexible character. Similarly, when a person tries to worship multiple deities, he is like a slave owned by a group of people all competing with one another for his service, thus preventing him from being able to please them.

والموحد لما كان يعبد الله وحده فمثله كمثل عبد لرجل واحد قد سلم له وعلم مقاصده وعرف الطريق إلى رضاه فهو في راحة من تشاحن الخلطاء فيه بل هو سالم لمالكه من غير تنازع فيه مع رأفة مالكه به ورحمته له وشفقته عليه وإحسانه إليه وتوليه لمصالحه فهل يستوي هذان العبدان . ـ

On the other hand, when a person worships Allah exclusively, then he is like a slave with a single master. Such a person is completely at the service of his master and knows what his master wants and how to please Him. He is free from any joint-owners quarreling over him and is instead entirely in the service of his owner without any others clashing over him. At the same time, he enjoys the care, mercy, kindness, and goodness that his owner has towards him, and the fact that his owner considers his best interests. Continue reading

The Story of Yunus: Tafsir al-Sa’di

In his book of thematic tafsir, sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Naasir al-Sa’di detailed a number of the stories of the Prophets along with mentioning various benefits derived from each of them. He would compile the details as they appeared in various places in the Qur’an to provide a straight-forward narrative of each story, and then list some extracted benefits from the story. What follows is his brief explanation of the story of the Prophet Yunus:

قصة يونس صلى الله عليه وسلم وهو من أنبياء بني إسرائيل العظام، بعثه الله إلى أهل نينوى – من أرض الموصل – فدعاهم إلى الله تعالى فأبوا عليه، ثم كرر عليهم الدعوة فأبوا، فوعدهم العذاب وخرج من بين أظهرهم، ولم يصبر الصبر الذي ينبغي، ولكنه أَبَقَ مغاضبا لهم، وهم لما ذهب نبيهم ألقي في قلوبهم التوبة إلى الله والإنابة بعدما شاهدوا مقدمات العذاب، فكشف الله عنهم العذاب. ـ

This is the story of Yunus (ﷺ), who was one of the great prophets of the Banu Israa’eel. Allah sent him to the people of Nineveh – in the area of Mosul [Iraq] – and he called them to Allah but they refused his call. He then repeated his call to them but they refused, so he promised them an impending punishment and left from their midst, and he did not exercise the steadfast patience which he ought to have exercised. On the contrary, he fled from them while in a state of anger. But after their prophet had left them, repentance and returning to Allah were placed in their hearts after witnessing an approaching punishment, and so Allah removed the punishment from them.

والظاهر أن يونس علم انكشاف العذاب عنهم، واستمر في ذهابه عنهم، ولهذا قال تعالى: {وَذَا النُّونِ إِذْ ذَهَبَ مُغَاضِبًا} [الأنبياء: 87] وقال تعالى: {إِذْ أَبَقَ إِلَى الْفُلْكِ الْمَشْحُونِ} [الصافات: 140] ـ

It appears that Yunus knew that the punishment would be lifted from them but still decided to leave them. This is according to Allah’s statement:

وَذَا النُّونِ إِذ ذَّهَبَ مُغَاضِبًا

And mention Dhu’l-noon, when he went off in anger… [21:87]

as well as His statement: Continue reading

He is upon a Light from His Lord: Tafsir al-Tabari

Allah asks the question in part of surah al-Zumar:

أَفَمَن شَرَحَ اللَّـهُ صَدْرَهُ لِلْإِسْلَامِ فَهُوَ عَلَىٰ نُورٍ مِّن رَّبِّهِ ۚ فَوَيْلٌ لِّلْقَاسِيَةِ قُلُوبُهُم مِّن ذِكْرِ اللَّـهِ ۚ أُولَـٰئِكَ فِي ضَلَالٍ مُّبِينٍ

So is one whose breast Allah has opened to Islam and he is upon a light from his Lord [like one whose heart rejects it]? So woe to those whose hearts are hardened against the remembrance of Allah. Those are in manifest error. [39:22]

The great mufassir Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari began his commentary of this ayah by writing:

يقول – تعالى ذكره – : أفمن فسح الله قلبه لمعرفته ، والإقرار بوحدانيته ، والإذعان لربوبيته ، والخضوع لطاعته ( فهو على نور من ربه ) يقول : فهو على بصيرة مما هو عليه ويقين ، بتنوير الحق في قلبه ، فهو لذلك لأمر الله متبع ، وعما نهاه عنه منته فيما يرضيه ، كمن أقسى الله قلبه ، وأخلاه من ذكره ، وضيقه عن استماع الحق ، واتباع الهدى ، والعمل بالصواب . وترك ذكر الذي أقسى الله قلبه ، وجواب الاستفهام ؛ اجتزاء بمعرفة السامعين المراد من الكلام ، إذ ذكر أحد الصنفين ، وجعل مكان ذكر الصنف الآخر الخبر عنه بقوله : ( فويل للقاسية قلوبهم من ذكر الله ) . ـ

Allah says: Is the one whom Allah makes a space in his heart for knowing Him, for affirming His unrivaled divinity, for completely submitting to His Lordship, for yielding to His obedience

فَهُوَ عَلَىٰ نُورٍ مِّن رَّبِّهِ

… and he is upon a light from his Lord

Allah is saying: so this person has clarity and certainty regarding what he is upon due to the light of truth in his heart, and because of that he is characterized by following Allah’s commands and turning away from whatever Allah has prohibited for him which he would otherwise like to do.

Is this person like the one whom Allah has hardened his heart, has made it devoid of His remembrance, has restricted it from heeding the truth, from following the guidance, and from doing what is right?!

Continue reading

Using the Past Tense to Refer to the Future: Tafsir ibn ‘Uthaymeen

In part of surah al-Saffaat, Allah describes the events of the Day of Recompense by saying:

وَقَالُوا يَا وَيْلَنَا هَـٰذَا يَوْمُ الدِّينِ

This can be literally translated as:

And they said: Woe to us! This is the Day of Reckoning! (37:20)

In his explanation of this surah, sheikh Muhammad ibn Saalih al-‘Uthaymeen said:

وقوله تعالى (وَقَالُوا يَا وَيْلَنَا هَـٰذَا يَوْمُ الدِّينِ ) قالوا أتى بفعل الماضى مع أنه القول المستقبل ، لتحقق وقوعه ، وهذا كثير في اللغة العربية ، والقرآن الكريم يعبر عن المستقبل بالماضي لتحقق وقوعه ومثاله قوله تعالى(أتى أمر الله)فإن أمر الله لم يأت بدليل قوله تعالى(فلا تستعجلوه)لكن أتى هنا بمعنى يأتي وعبر عن المستقبل بالماضي لتحقق وقوعه

Allah’s statement:

وَقَالُوا يَا وَيْلَنَا هَـٰذَا يَوْمُ الدِّينِ

And they said: Woe to us! This is the Day of Reckoning!

the word “they said” comes as a past tense verb despite the fact that it is a future statement. This is done to affirm that this definitely will take place. This is a common practice in the Arabic language, and the Qur’an will refer to a future event by using the past tense in order to affirm that it certainly will come to pass. An example of this is Allah’s statement: Continue reading

Three Levels of Responding to People’s Harms: Tafsir al-Sa’di

Allah says in surah al-Shooraa:

وَجَزَاءُ سَيِّئَةٍ سَيِّئَةٌ مِّثْلُهَا ۖ فَمَنْ عَفَا وَأَصْلَحَ فَأَجْرُهُ عَلَى اللَّـهِ ۚ إِنَّهُ لَا يُحِبُّ الظَّالِمِينَ * وَلَمَنِ انتَصَرَ بَعْدَ ظُلْمِهِ فَأُولَـٰئِكَ مَا عَلَيْهِم مِّن سَبِيلٍ * إِنَّمَا السَّبِيلُ عَلَى الَّذِينَ يَظْلِمُونَ النَّاسَ وَيَبْغُونَ فِي الْأَرْضِ بِغَيْرِ الْحَقِّ ۚ أُولَـٰئِكَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ * وَلَمَن صَبَرَ وَغَفَرَ إِنَّ ذَٰلِكَ لَمِنْ عَزْمِ الْأُمُورِ

The retribution of a harmful act is a harm like it. But whoever pardons and makes reconciliation, then his reward is due from Allah. Indeed, Allah does not love the unjust ones. * And whoever seeks revenge after having been treated unjustly, there is nothing against these ones. * The grounds for actions is only against those who wrong others and cause trouble in the earth without due right. For these ones there will be a painful punishment. * But whoever exercises patience and forgives; indeed, that is one of the ‘azm al-umoor. [42:40-43]

In his famous book of tafsir, sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman ibn Naasir al-Sa’di wrote:

ذكر الله في هذه الآية، مراتب العقوبات، وأنها على ثلاث مراتب: عدل وفضل وظلم. ـ

In this noble ayah, Allah mentions the different levels of retribution for harms, and that there are three different levels of responding to harms:

  • Justice
  • Goodness
  • Injustice

فمرتبة العدل، جزاء السيئة بسيئة مثلها، لا زيادة ولا نقص، فالنفس بالنفس، وكل جارحة بالجارحة المماثلة لها، والمال يضمن بمثله. ـ

The level of justice is that you repay a harmful action with a harm similar to the original harmful action without any increase or decrease. So a life for a life, or an equivalent piece of the body for piece of the body harmed, or wealth of an equal amount to that lost. Continue reading

The Meaning of “Laylah al-Qadr”: Tafsir al-Shinqitee

Allah describes Laylah al-Qadr in the beginning of surah al-Dukhaan by saying:

إِنَّا أَنزَلْنَاهُ فِي لَيْلَةٍ مُّبَارَكَةٍ ۚ إِنَّا كُنَّا مُنذِرِينَ * فِيهَا يُفْرَقُ كُلُّ أَمْرٍ حَكِيمٍ * أَمْرًا مِّنْ عِندِنَا

Indeed, We sent it down on a blessed night. Verily, We are ever warning * On that night every hakeem matter is apportioned *  A command from Us … [44:3-5]

Sheikh Muhammad al-Ameen al-Shinqitee discusses some of the issues related to these ayaat in his famous book of tafsir. We have already translated his explanation of ayah number 3 here, and what follows is his explanation of ayah number 4:

قوله – تعالى – : فيها يفرق كل أمر حكيم أمرا من عندنا . معنى قوله : يفرق ، أي يفصل ويبين ، ويكتب في الليلة المباركة التي هي ليلة القدر – كل أمر حكيم ، أي ذي حكمة بالغة ; لأن كل ما يفعله الله مشتمل على أنواع الحكم الباهرة . وقال بعضهم : حكيم ، أي محكم ، لا تغيير فيه ولا تبديل . [ ص: 173 ] وكلا الأمرين حق ; لأن ما سبق في علم الله لا يتغير ولا يتبدل ، ولأن جميع أفعاله في غاية الحكمة . وهي في الاصطلاح وضع الأمور في مواضعها وإيقاعها في مواقعها . ـ

Allah’s statement:

فِيهَا يُفْرَقُ كُلُّ أَمْرٍ حَكِيمٍ * أَمْرًا مِّنْ عِندِنَا

On that night every hakeem matter is apportioned * A command from Us … [44:4-5]

The meaning of Allah’s statement


… is apportioned …

is that every hakeem matter is determined, made clear, and written during that blessed night which is Laylah al-Qadr.

Continue reading

Choosing the Best Over What is Merely Good: Tafsir al-Shinqitee

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

الَّذِينَ يَسْتَمِعُونَ الْقَوْلَ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ أَحْسَنَهُ ۚ أُولَـٰئِكَ الَّذِينَ هَدَاهُمُ اللَّـهُ ۖ وَأُولَـٰئِكَ هُمْ أُولُو الْأَلْبَابِ

Those who listen to speech and follow the best of it. Those are the ones Allah has guided, and those are people of understanding. [39:18]

Sheikh Muhammad al-Ameen al-Shinqitee included the following valuable discussion inside his tafsir of surah al-Zumar. We have added section headings inside brackets for the sake of clarity and ease of navigation:

قوله تعالى : الذين يستمعون القول فيتبعون أحسنه . أظهر الأقوال في الآية الكريمة ، أن المراد بالقول ، ما جاء به النبي صلى الله عليه وسلم ، من وحي الكتاب والسنة ، ومن إطلاق القول على القرآن قوله تعالى : أفلم يدبروا القول الآية [ 23 \ 68 ] . وقوله تعالى : إنه لقول فصل وما هو بالهزل [ 86 \ 13 – 14 ] . وقوله تعالى في هذه الآية الكريمة : فيتبعون أحسنه [ 39 \ 18 ] أي : يقدمون الأحسن ، الذي هو أشد حسنا ، على الأحسن الذي هو دونه في الحسن ، ويقدمون الأحسن مطلقا على الحسن . ويدل لهذا آيات من كتاب الله . ـ

[Explanation of Vocabulary and General Meaning]

Allah’s statement:

الَّذِينَ يَسْتَمِعُونَ الْقَوْلَ فَيَتَّبِعُونَ أَحْسَنَهُ

Those who listen to speech and follow the best of it [39:18]

Out of the various opinions regarding this noble ayah, the most apparent is that the intended meaning of the word “speech” in it is the divine inspiration of the Qur’an and the Sunnah which the Prophet (ﷺ) brought. One example of the word “speech” being used to refer to the Qur’an is Allah’s statement:

أَفَلَمْ يَدَّبَّرُوا الْقَوْلَ

Then have they not reflected over the speech… [23:86]

or His statement:

إِنَّهُ لَقَوْلٌ فَصْلٌ * وَمَا هُوَ بِالْهَزْلِ

Indeed, it is a decisive speech * And it is not amusement [86:13-14]

As to Allah’s statement in this noble ayah:

 فَيَتَّبِعُونَ أَحْسَنَهُ

… and follow the best of it [39:18]

meaning: they give precedence to the best – that which is the greatest good – over other forms of good which are lesser in goodness; they give precedence to the absolute best over just plain good. And there are a number of ayaat in Allah’s book which support this interpretation. Continue reading

Those who say “our Lord is Allah” and then have al-Istiqaamah: Tafsir al-Baghawi

In part of surah Fussilat, Allah praises:

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ قَالُوا رَبُّنَا اللَّهُ ثُمَّ اسْتَقَامُوا تَتَنَزَّلُ عَلَيْهِمُ الْمَلَائِكَةُ أَلَّا تَخَافُوا وَلَا تَحْزَنُوا وَأَبْشِرُوا بِالْجَنَّةِ الَّتِي كُنْتُمْ تُوعَدُونَ

Those who say “our Lord is Allah” and then have al-Istiqaamah, then the angels will descend on them: “Do not fear and do not grieve! And have glad tidings of al-Jannah which you have been promised!” [41:30]

In his tafsir of this ayah, Imam Husayn al-Baghawi mentioned the following narrations:

 قوله عز وجل : ( إن الذين قالوا ربنا الله ثم استقاموا ) سئل أبو بكر الصديق – رضي الله تعالى عنه – عن الاستقامة فقال : أن لا تشرك بالله شيئا . وقال عمر بن الخطاب – رضي الله عنه – : ” الاستقامة ” أن تستقيم على الأمر والنهي ، ولا تروغ روغان الثعلب . وقال عثمان بن عفان – رضي الله عنه – : أخلصوا العمل لله . وقال علي – رضي الله عنه – : أدوا الفرائض . وقال ابن عباس : استقاموا على أداء الفرائض . ـ وقال الحسن : استقاموا على أمر الله تعالى فعملوا بطاعته ، واجتنبوا معصيته . ـ وقال مجاهد وعكرمة : استقاموا على شهادة أن لا إله إلا الله حتى لحقوا بالله . ـ وقال مقاتل : استقاموا على المعرفة ولم يرتدوا . وقال قتادة : كان الحسن إذا تلا هذه الآية قال : اللهم أنت ربنا فارزقنا الاستقامة . ـ

Allah’s statement:

إِنَّ الَّذِينَ قَالُوا رَبُّنَا اللَّـهُ ثُمَّ اسْتَقَامُوا

Those who say “our Lord is Allah” and then have al-Istiqaamah

Abu Bakr al-Siddiq was asked about al-Istiqaamah and he replied by saying, “It is that you do not associate any partners with Allah at all.”

‘Umar ibn al-Khattab said, “al-Istiqaamah is that you steadfastly observe the commands and prohibitions, and that you do not swerve off into falsehood and deceit.”

‘Uthman ibn ‘Affaan said, “They make their deeds sincerely for the sake of Allah.”

‘Ali ibn Abi Taalib said, “They perform the obligatory duties.” Continue reading

“If it had been good, they would not have preceded us to it”: Tafsir ibn Kathir

Allah says in surah al-Ahqaaf:

وَقَالَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لِلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَوْ كَانَ خَيْرًا مَّا سَبَقُونَا إِلَيْهِ ۚ وَإِذْ لَمْ يَهْتَدُوا بِهِ فَسَيَقُولُونَ هَـٰذَا إِفْكٌ قَدِيمٌ

And those who disbelieve say of those who believe, “If it had been good, they would not have preceded us to it.” And when they are not guided by it, they will say, “This is an ancient falsehood.” [46:11]

In his famous commentary on the Qur’an, Abu’l-Fidaa’ Ismaa’eel ibn Kathir wrote the following words regarding this ayah:

وقوله تعالى : ( وقال الذين كفروا للذين آمنوا لو كان خيرا ما سبقونا إليه ) أي : قالوا عن المؤمنين بالقرآن : لو كان القرآن خيرا ما سبقنا هؤلاء إليه . يعنون بلالا وعمارا وصهيبا وخبابا وأشباههم وأقرانهم من المستضعفين والعبيد والإماء ، وما ذاك إلا لأنهم عند أنفسهم يعتقدون أن لهم عند الله وجاهة وله بهم عناية . وقد غلطوا في ذلك غلطا فاحشا ، وأخطئوا خطأ بينا ، كما قال تعالى : ( وكذلك فتنا بعضهم ببعض ليقولوا أهؤلاء من الله عليهم من بيننا ) [ الأنعام : 53 ] أي : يتعجبون : كيف اهتدى هؤلاء دوننا ; ولهذا قالوا : ( لو كان خيرا ما سبقونا إليه ) وأما أهل السنة والجماعة فيقولون في كل فعل وقول لم يثبت عن الصحابة : هو بدعة ; لأنه لو كان خيرا لسبقونا إليه ؛ لأنهم [ ص: 279 ] لم يتركوا خصلة من خصال الخير إلا وقد بادروا إليها . ـ

Allah’s statement:

وَقَالَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لِلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَوْ كَانَ خَيْرًا مَّا سَبَقُونَا إِلَيْهِ

And those who disbelieve say of those who believe, “If it had been good, they would not have preceded us to it.”

meaning: they remark regarding those who are believers in the Qur’an, “if the Qur’an were any good, then these people would not have beaten us to it.” And they were referring to Bilal, ‘Ammaar, Suhaib, Khubaab and other such weak ones and slaves. And they only did this because they held themselves to have a certain standing and importance with Allah, however they were severely mistaken and in clear error regarding this assessment. This is like what Allah said: Continue reading