Arabic / الفتاوى العطائية (al-Fatawa al-'Ata'iyya)

“Multiple Antithesis in the Qur’an…an example”

Muqabala: Multiple Antithesis”


Shaykh `Ata’ Ibn Khalil (may Allah preserve him) mentions in one of his Q&A an example of a semantic embellishment known as muqabala (multiple antithesis):[1]

بل هذا أسلوب في العربية وهو أسلوب المقابلة، فتذكر صنفين وتتبعهما بصنفين بحيث يكون الصنف الثالث يقابل الصنف الأول، والصنف الرابع يقابل الصنف الثاني، فمثلاً يقول سبحانه ﴿وَإِنَّا أَوْ إِيَّاكُمْ لَعَلَى هُدًى أَوْ فِي ضَلَالٍ مُبِينٍ﴾ وتكون هكذا: ﴿وَإِنَّا﴾ تقابل ﴿لَعَلَى هُدًى﴾، ﴿إِيَّاكُمْ﴾ تقابل ﴿فِي ضَلَالٍ مُبِينٍ﴾، ولا تعني أن ﴿وَإِنَّا أَوْ إِيَّاكُمْ﴾ متشابهان في كفة واحدة و﴿هُدًى أَوْ فِي ضَلَالٍ مُبِينٍ﴾ متشابهان في كفة واحدة، بل كما قلنا الأول يقابل الثالث والثاني يقابل الرابع

“[…] rather, it is a style in Arabic known as muqabala (‘multiple antithesis’) where you mention two clauses followed by two antithetical clauses as in the third clause is opposed to the first and the fourth opposed to the second. As an example, He (Glorified is He!) says: {Say, ‘Who provides for you from the heavens and the earth?’ Say, ‘Allah. And indeed, we or you are either upon guidance or in clear error’}”[2] The verse is as follows: {We are} pairs with {are upon guidance} and {you are} pairs with {in clear error}. This does not mean that {we or you} and {guidance and clear error} are equivalent respectively; but as we already mentioned, the first clause is contrary to the third and the second is contrary to the fourth…”[3]


  • The meaning of the verse from Ibn Kathir’s commentary reads:

(And verily, (either) we or you are rightly guided or in plain error). ‘One of the two sides must be speaking falsehood, and one must be telling the truth. There is no way that you and we could both be following true guidance, or could both be misguided. Only one of us can be correct, and we have produced the proof of tawhid which indicates that your shirk must be false.’ […] (And verily, (either) we or you are rightly guided or in plain error). Qatada said: “The Companions of Muhammad said this to the idolaters: ‘By Allah, we and you cannot be following the same thing, only one of us can be truly guided’…” `Ikrima and Ziyad b. Abi Maryam said: ‘It means: we are rightly guided and you are in plain error.’[4]


  • Multiple antithesis is when there is two or more meanings whose contrary meanings occur respectively.
  • Examples from the Qur’an include Q.9:82 {let them laugh a little and then weep much} and 7:157 {He permits them what is good and forbids them what is filthy}. As for the first verse, multiple antithesis is achieved by use of two sets of antonyms. The lexical item “يضحك/laugh” is the antithesis of “يبكي/weep” and the lexical item “كثير/much” is the antithesis of “قليل/little”. In the case of the second verse, there are three sets of antonyms. There is “يحل/permits” an antonym of “يحرم/forbids”, “لهم/for them” the antonym of “عليهم/against them” and “طيبات/good” the antonym of “خبائث/filthy”.[5]
  • The preposition “أو/or” can take the meaning of “/and”.[6]


[1] For the definition, function and effects of semantic embellishment within classical Arabic rhetoric, see my Introducing Arabic Rhetoric, pp.17-26. Cf. pp.117-118 where this verse is discussed from the angle of prepositions (huruf).

[2] See Q. 34:24.

[3] See

[4] See

[5] H. Abdul-Raof, Arabic Rhetoric, pp.252-253.

[6] al-Qurtubi in al-Jami` li-Ahkam al-Qur’an, 14:269 cites Abu `Ubayda and al-Farra’ as saying:

وقال أبو عبيدة والفراء : هي بمعنى الواو، وتقديره : وإنا على هدى وإياكم لفي ضلال مبين . وقال جرير

أثعلبة الفوارس أو رياحا عدلت بهم طهية والربابا

يعني أثعلبة ورياحا . وقال آخر

فلما اشتد أمر الحرب فينا وتأملنا رياحا أو رزاما

“And it [s: the preposition أو] means ‘and’ with the intent of: ‘We are the ones on guidance and you are on clear error.’ al-Jarir said:

What, you equate the horsemen of Tha`laba and Riyah with those of Tahiyya and Rubab?

Meaning the tribe of Tha`laba and Riyah [s: not ‘or’]. And another poet said:

So when the matter of war between us worsened, we considered Riyah and Rizam…”

– meaning and Rizam. (See the Diwan of Jarir, p.814, al-Hamawi, Khazanat al-Adab, 11:69 and Ibn Durayd, Jamharat al-Lugha, p.290. Note: many variations of Jarir’s verse has the tribe name “Khashab” instead “Rubab”. Also, see al-Shinqiti’s remarks in Adwa’ al-Bayan, 1:469).


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