Sabaan Mina Al-Mathani: The Seven Which Are Often Repeated

In an article marked by a characteristically polemical style which is the hallmark of almost any writing to be found on Answering Islam, the author has exerted his utmost effort to prove that the reference in the Qur’an (15:87) to the “seven oft-repeated” is “an example of the Qur’an’s incompleteness and incoherence.” The referred Qur’anic verse reads as:

“We have given thee of the seven Mathani and the wondrous Qur’an”

Following is a quote from this article which is representative of the author’s approach, style and tone:

…what exactly does the phrase seven oft-repeated refer to? Seven oft-repeated what? Seven verses? Seven chapters? Seven practices? Seven sayings? Seven praises? Seven curses? Or perhaps the seven most often repeated logical mistakes committed by Muslims when they seek to convince others of the divine origin of the Qur’an?

Additionally, the author imposes a restriction on his “Muslim readers” to prove, “by consulting the Qur’an alone”, what is meant by these seven oft-repeated. The author claims the appropriateness of this restriction by appealing to the Qur’anic verses 6:38 and 10:37, and their online commentary by “Pooya/M.A. Ali”. The author admonishes his “Muslim readers” that:

…appealing to extra-Quranic sources only serves to prove our contention that the Quran is incorrect regarding its assertion of being a fully detailed record.

It appears, however, that in the course of stipulating this restriction, the author fails to continue hiding his amusement when he makes the following additional comment:

However, as a number of previous publications have already shown, the Quran is anything but complete.

Now, had the author simply wanted to understand the meaning of the Qur’anic “seven oft-repeated” as mentioned in Sura 15:87, he would surely have realized that there really was no need to invoke the Qur’anic verses 6:38 and 10:37. Clearly, his “extra-Qur’anic sources”, which he forbids his “Muslim readers” to consult, include the Qur’anic commentaries as well. If “no”, then the author is obligated to qualify his restriction as: “appealing to extra-Qur’anic sources, other than the Qur’anic commentaries, only serves to prove our contention that the Quran is incorrect regarding its assertion of being a fully detailed record.” If “yes”, then why has the author himself appealed to the commentaries of Yusuf Ali, M. Asad, Ibn Kathir and Pooya/M.A. Ali, in order to show that the Qur’anic “seven oft-repeated” refer to:

    (a) the seven verses of Sura al-Fatiha, (because they are repeated daily in every ritual prayer);
    (b) or, the seven longest Qur’anic Suras (because of their repetitive treatment of various subjects, such as legal matters, etc.).
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So, in effect, what happened is that our author himself feels free to violate his self-created stipulation, but notifies others to abide by it, thereby making one wonder as to what really does he wish to achieve by this non-scholarly and amateurish conduct.

Now, since the issue of the Qur’anic verses like 6:38 and 10:37 has nothing to do with the meaning of the Qur’anic “seven oft-repeated” as mentioned in Sura 15:87, I shall not dwell upon the former two verses. I would, however, like to briefly mention here that the author has misunderstood the Qur’anic verses like 6:38 and 10:37, and then has duly used them in his polemical write-up.

The relevant portion of the verse 6:38, for instance, renders: “We have not let slip anything in the Book.” The classical Qur’anic commentators, such as az-Zamakhshari1 and al-Baidawi2, explain that by “the Book” here is meant not the Qur’an that we humans know as it is meant in the world, but by its heavenly prototype (“the mother of the book”, 43:4; “a concealed book”, 56:78; “a well-guarded tablet”, 85:22), in which indeed a perfect divine universal record is kept in which nothing is omitted (cf., Sura 10:61; 22:70, etc.). The Qur’an, in its earthly form, is merely a reflection of this heavenly “well-preserved tablet”, which indeed contains everything. Consequently, there is no room for any flawed polemical attempts to call upon the Qur’anic verses like 6:38 and 10:37 to obfuscate or hinder the meaning of the Qur’anic “seven oft-repeated.”

In any case, I would like to inform the readers that my following interpretation of the Qur’anic “seven oft-repeated” is indeed strictly based upon the Qur’an alone. There is another verse in the Qur’an that lays down an important feature of those “Seven Mathani”: “God has sent down the fairest discourse as a Book, similar in its oft-repeated [mutashabihan mathaniya], whereat shiver the skins of those who fear their Lord!” (39:23) Keeping this important feature of those “seven Mathani”, i.e., “seven oft-repeated” in mind, there are some strong reasons to believe that they are to be understood as the punishment-stories frequently told by the Qur’an.

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There are seven main punishment-stories (strafgerichten) as told in the Qur’an:

(i)- Nuh. This story is repeated in some ten places in the Qur’an. Nuh is sent as a messenger to his people; and they persist in their disbelief and are drowned consequently, while he and those who believe are saved in the Ark.

(ii)- `Ad. They were a prosperous, mighty and a well-off people (Qur’an 7:69) to whom Hud was sent as a Messenger. However, they were incessant on their disbelief, and were destroyed by a strong wind. Their history is also repeated in various places (for instance: 41:15; 26:123 ff., etc.) in the Qur’an.

(iii)- Thamud. They were also materially well-off and built chateau and rock-hewn habitations (Qur’an 7:74). To them a Messenger, Salih, being one of them, was sent, and as a proof of the truth of his message a she-camel and a foul were miraculously produced. Thamud, however, remained defiant in their disbelief and hamstrung the camel. Consequently, there were destroyed by the Almighty. Their story is also often repeated in the Qur’an (for instance, in addition to the above reference: 11:61-68; 15:80-84; 54:23-31).

(iv)- Ibrahim and his people. The story of the monotheist and prophet Ibrahim, and his attacking the idol-worship of his father and people, and, when disbelieved, withdrawing from them while his people were “made the worst losers” (21:70) and “the inferior” (37:98), is related at four places in the Qur’an.

(v)- Lut and his people. Lut’s people were morally-downgraded and he accuses them of indecency and sodomy. When they oppose and threaten to expel him, he and his household are delivered, while they are overwhelmed by a devastating rain of gravels (54:34). This story is also oft-repeated in the Qur’an.

(vi)- Shu`aib and the people of Midian. Shu`aib is sent as a Messenger to the people of Midian, who exhorts them to give full measure and just weight. Like other disbelieving people, they were destroyed. Their narrative also occurs frequently in the Quraan (for instance 11:84-95; 29:36 ff., 7:85-93 etc.).

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(vii)- Musa and his people. Musa and Harun go with God’s authority and signs as Messengers to Pharaoh and his chiefs, but they behaved insolently and arrogantly refused to believe. Therefore, they are destroyed (23:45-48). The story of Musa, Bani Isra’il and Pharaoh is also repeated many times in the Qur’an.

In addition to these seven main punishment-stories, there also occur some minor punishment-stories in the Qur’an, such as:

  • The disbelievers of ar-Rass and their destruction, 25:38; 50:12.
  • The unbelievers of Tubba` and their punishment, 50:14; 44:37.

The occurrence of these additional punishment-stories is in fact exactly in accordance with the exact rendering of the Arabic original phrase: “sab`an mina l-mathani” (Qur’an, 15:87), i.e., “seven of the mathani”, clearly implying thereby that seven were not all the mathani. Furthermore, these punishment-stories also fit the description of the Qur’anic verse 39:23, for the punishments usually cause fear, while the deliverance of the Messengers and their followers in those stories softens the hearts of the readers and listeners.

Further, those oft-repeated seven prominent punishment-stories “resemble one another” [mutashabihan mathaniya] in two ways: Firstly, the general scheme is the same: a Messenger is sent to a people; he delivers his message, but is disbelieved and the message rejected; the punishment of God then falls upon the people for their unbelief. Secondly, the form of words is often similar. And the reason why 15:87 distinguishes the “seven of the mathani” from the “mighty Qur’an”, is precisely owing to their arousing a heart-rending effect in their listeners, as specified in 39:23. It to highlight this peculiar effect of theirs that those “seven of the mathani” are spoken of apart from the “mighty Qur’an”.

And only Allah knows best!

Footnotes

  1. al-Kashshaf, Beirut: an-Nashir Dar al-Kitab al-`Arabi, u.d., vol. ii, p. 21. []
  2. Anwar at-Tanzil wa-Asrar at-Ta’wil, vol. i, pp. 377-78. []

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