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