Repetition in the Quran: Why Allah Reiterates Certain Stories & Statements?

This Thaqlain Guide is prepared from Sayed Hossein Qazwini’s lecture delivered at Muslim Youth In Motion (linked here) and is dedicated in honour of Rasha Bahsoon.

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Repetition is generally viewed unfavourably by most people. When a speaker overuses repetition, it can lead to disinterest among the listeners. Similarly, the level of excitement that comes with reading a book or watching a series for the first time is not the same as experiencing it repeatedly.

So, if repetition is bad, then why do we see it in the Holy Quran? Why are so many of the stories in the Quran repeatedly mentioned?

The Extent of Repetition in the Quran

Before examining the wisdom behind the repetition found in the Quran, it is important to understand the extent the Quran repeats itself.

One primary case is the story of Prophet Musa, which is mentioned 110 times in the Quran. Whereas, stories related to Prophet Ibrahim as well as the creation and banishment of Adam and & Eve are also repeated frequently.

In some cases the Quran repeats certain sentences. For example, in Surah Rahman, Allah asks this question 31 times: “And which of your Lord’s bounties will you deny?”. Similarly, in Surah Mursalat, Allah repeats, “Woe to the deniers on that day!” ten times.

Given that the Quran is considered one of the most eloquent and profound texts ever, how can its repetition be explained? After all, there is nothing eloquent about repeating oneself.

Scholars have deduced the following reasons why the repetition in the Quran is not only deliberate but necessary.

Reason 1: Repetition To Remind

The Holy Quran is a book that serves as a reminder for humanity.

إِنَّ في ذٰلِكَ لَذِكرىٰ لِمَن كانَ لَهُ قَلبٌ أَو أَلقَى السَّمعَ وَهُوَ شَهيدٌ
“There is indeed an admonition in that for one who has a heart or gives ear, being attentive.”
[Quran 50:37]

Humans tend to forget things and lose their focus quickly. The mind does not remember everything it hears or sees, hence the reminders.

This is why teachers repeat themselves to get their students’ attention. Politicians repeat their agendas and their slogans for the public to remember. In the very same way, the Quran repeats its words and instructions so people do not forget.

As Allah instructs the Prophet in the Holy Quran:

فَذَكِّرْ إِن نَّفَعَتِ ٱلذِّكْرَىٰ
“So admonish, for admonition is indeed beneficial.”
[Quran 87:9]

Hence, the Quran retells stories in different ways so they become unforgettable, and their lessons and morals are etched in our minds.

Reason 2: Repetition To Challenge

The Arabs used to point fingers at the Prophet, accusing him of authoring the Holy Quran. In response, Allah challenged the people of Arabia to bring a verse, a chapter, or a book similar to the Quran while stating that such a thing was impossible.

To prove the point even further, Allah continuously sent verses in the Quran with repetition, demonstrating every time that the like of the Quran could only be brought by its Creator.

Understandably, throughout history, no one has produced a text that could replicate the essence of the Holy Quran or its literary and spiritual excellence. The Holy Book is a living miracle and replicating its verses & chapters is an ongoing challenge.

Reason 3: Repetition To Emphasise

Sometimes, restating questions and statements is necessary to emphasise their importance. So, even though the Quran is the word of Allah, and it carries all the elements of a powerful speech, repetition is at its core.

One of the most impressive examples is found in Surah Rahman, where Allah repeatedly mentions His innumerous bounties and then asks, “And which of your Lord’s bounties will you deny?” These words have a spiritual effect of their own, and the repetition seems to be utterly justified, given the context. There couldn’t have been a better way to admonish men who disregard Allah’s favours.

The point of such repetition, also found in Surah Mursalat, is to instil fear of Allah and the day of judgement. It motivates a person to be more aware and conscious of their actions in this world.

Reason 4: Repetition to Comfort The Prophet

Allah conveyed in the Quran through Surah Hud verse 120:

وَكُلًّۭا نَّقُصُّ عَلَيْكَ مِنْ أَنۢبَآءِ ٱلرُّسُلِ مَا نُثَبِّتُ بِهِۦ فُؤَادَكَ

“And We relate to you O Prophet the stories of the messengers to reassure your heart.”

The Holy Prophet was repeatedly reminded about the incidents that happened during the time of previous prophets so he could take inspiration from their stories, draw strength and motivation from their trials, and know that the previous representatives of Allah faced similar ordeals from their communities.

Moreover, previous prophets too were called liars, poets, magicians, insane, and crazy, just like Prophet Muhammad (sallalahu alaihe wa’alihe). So, mentioning their stories and how they weathered through those challenges comforted his heart and soul.

Reason 5: Repetition To Promote Eloquence

Sometimes, repetition can be eloquent. How? Try telling a story eloquently and then retelling the same story differently. Then do this a third time, a fourth time, and a fifth time. Most people give up after their first few tries, or worse, they come up with unappealing combinations and choices of words.

In other words, there are only so many “eloquent” ways to tell a story, and humans tend to run out of them pretty quickly.

But not the Quran! The Quran repeats like a pro, like an expert orator trained to handle repetition. It gives away so much information by using a slightly different combination of words and expressions. In this way, it retells the same story with a unique touch every time, while never compromising on eloquence.

But Why Only Repeat the Stories of Select Prophets?

Allah sent 124,000 prophets to Earth, but the Quran only mentions twenty-five of them by their names, and of them, it tells the stories of a select few. Why is that so?

Among the 124,000 prophets, most were sent to a particular village or tribe. Their stories, though important, were not as impactful or influential on a universal scale as the stories of some prominent prophets.

On the contrary, the five Ulul-Azm Prophets—Nuh, Ibrahim, Isa, Musa, and the Final Messenger of Allah, Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon all of them—came with a universal message. The magnitude of their message is one reason they’re mentioned more than the other prophets. Their stories are epic, and the Quran tells them in a powerful and morally satisfying way—several times.

The Curious Case of Prophet Musa

Out of all the Prophets mentioned in the Quran, Prophet Musa’s stories occupy the most space. And although his story is retold more than a hundred times, it is done in such a unique manner that every time a different scene is recalled or a different angle of the story is explored; the reader learns something new.

But why did Allah retell his story from many different perspectives?

One reason is that his story is epic. It’s full of powerful antagonists, extraordinary circumstances and timeless lessons. His birth teaches us that God’s plans are ultimately victorious. His interaction with Qarun teaches us that material wealth is useless without God. The rescue of Bani Israel teaches us that we should never lose hope, and God’s support will eventually arrive—even if the entire world is against us.

However, there is a deeper reason behind the repetition. The epics of Prophet Musa and Bani Israel share striking similarities with the events that happened with the Ummah of Prophet Muhammad (sallalahu alaihe wa’alihe).

a) Similarity in Psychology

One big reason why the story of Bani Israel is repeated so often in the Quran is that it has a lot in common with the psychology of Muslims. For example, when Prophet Musa commanded his people to fight for access to the sacred area, they refused by saying,

قَالُوا۟ يَـٰمُوسَىٰٓ إِنَّا لَن نَّدْخُلَهَآ أَبَدًۭا مَّا دَامُوا۟ فِيهَا ۖ فَٱذْهَبْ أَنتَ وَرَبُّكَ فَقَـٰتِلَآ إِنَّا هَـٰهُنَا قَـٰعِدُونَ

“They said, ‘O Moses, we will never enter it so long as they remain in it. Go ahead, you and your Lord, and fight! We will be sitting right here.”
[Surah Ma’idah, Verse 24]

Similarly, Munafiqeen used to refuse the Prophet’s command to fight in the battles.

Another example of this similarity is how Bani Israel used to cause emotional pain to Prophet Musa, especially when they accused him of committing adultery. Similarly, there are countless incidents where the companions of the Holy Prophet caused him emotional pain. The Quran mentions this similarity in the following verse,

يَٰٓأَيُّهَا ٱلَّذِينَ ءَامَنُوا۟ لَا تَكُونُوا۟ كَٱلَّذِينَ ءَاذَوْا۟ مُوسَىٰ

“O you who have faith! Do not be like those who offended Moses…”
[Surah Ahzab, Verse 69]

b) Similarity in Succession

Another key area of similarities between Bani Israel and the early Islamic Ummah is in regard to the Prophet’s supporter (Vizier). Allah shares the prayer of Prophet Musa to make his brother, Prophet Harun as his Vizier. So, just as Prophet Musa was supported by Prophet Harun, Prophet Muhammad (sallalahu alaihe wa’alihe) was supported by Imam Ali.

“The Prophet said to Ali: Are you not satisfied to be to me like Harun to Musa?”
[Sahih Bukhari, Volume 6, Page 3 and Volume 5, Page 24]

There are many parallels between Prophet Harun and Imam Ali, which were highlighted during and after the life of Prophet Muhammad. For example, when Imam Hasan and Hussain were born, angel Jibraeel told the Prophet to name them Shabbir and Shubbar after the names of Prophet Harun’s sons. The Prophet named them Hasan and Hussain, the Arabic equivalents meaning-wise.

Moreover, Imam Ali was the only person after the Holy Prophet who was allowed to enter Masjid Nabawi in Janabah. The same is true for Prophet Harun, who was also allowed to enter the place of worship in the state of Janabah.

c) Similarity in Challenges

There’s also a similarity between the treatment of Prophet Harun after Prophet Musa went to Mount Sinai and the treatment of Imam Ali after Prophet Muhammad’s demise. Even the reasons behind the silence of Prophet Harun and Imam Ali were similar.

When Prophet Musa returned from the Mount and asked Prophet Harun why he did not stop the people from worshipping the golden calf, he answered:

قالَ ابنَ أُمَّ إِنَّ القَومَ استَضعَفوني وَكادوا يَقتُلونَني فَلا تُشمِت بِيَ الأَعداءَ وَلا تَجعَلني مَعَ القَومِ الظّالِمينَ

“He said, ‘Son of my mother, indeed these people thought me to be weak, and they were about to kill me. So do not let the enemies gloat over me, and do not take me with the wrongdoing lot.”
[Quran 7:150]

This verse was also recited by Imam Ali when he was being dragged away by the oppressors who’d burnt the door of Lady Fatima’s house.

Also, the contrast between Prophet Musa and the Egyptian Pharaoh is that of pure good and pure evil, as witnessed in the event of Karbala, which happened a mere fifty years after the Holy Prophet. Imam Hussain stood against Yazid the same way Prophet Musa had stood against the Pharaoh.

There Is Wisdom in Repetition

Allah has repeated things in the Holy Quran, and this repetition accentuates His message further. Many of the Quran’s surahs are interlinked through this repetition, manifesting that they belong to a unified corpus.

Yes, it may seem like an excellent suggestion to have only a new and unique story on every page of a supreme religious text, but the Quran is not a history book; it’s meant to guide us. Hence, the Quran chooses the stories that best guide us.

Allah could have made a larger Quran. But if He has kept it short and has repeated His words, then it is all the more reason to pay attention and ponder.

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