This surah’s title has been translated in English variously as “The Expansion,” Al-Sharh in Arabic (also I’ve seen written Al-Inshirah), which does mean something like “expansion” but more of a “spiritual/ soul” opening with a sense of “relief” than the English word. Al-Sharh gives the sense as if God were widening one’s inner “chambers” so one could “take a deep breath” again. We are all familiar with a kind of “tightness” in one’s chest from anxiety or discomfort from a difficult situation. It is the relief from that tightness which inshirah or sharh accomplishes. It was the first thing Prophet Musa (Moses) asked Allah for (TaHa 20:25) when Allah the Exalted gave him the mission to bring Allah’s message to the Pharaoh; the meaning implied was that inshirah would enable Musa to alleviate his anxieties so he could accomplish this task. It is a way of strengthening one’s resolve by Divine reassurance. Thus sharh is variously translated as “uplifted your heart,” “relieve the tightness in your chest,” “expand for thee thy breast,” and “comfort your chest,” among others. The title is variously translated Solace, Consolation, Relief, and The Expansion.
At first, the above color coding may seem to have a glaring mistake: shouldn’t the two repeated ayat 5 and 6 (“with hardship comes ease”) be the same color as they are essentially a pair?
Below is my justification for this; the surah’s structure reveals thematic connections giving the repetition a purpose, to show us two meanings/ applications: one for this world and one for the Hereafter, thus “expanding” our knowledge of its message.
Although I am analyzing this as a variation of ring composition, there isn’t one individual aya in the center. Instead the central theme is expressed in a central section of four ayat, framed by two pairs of ayat, one pair at the beginning and one at the end. The commentary below first compares the “frame” ayat using chiastic analysis showing the correspondences between “mirrored” ayat at the beginning and end, then explicates the central section.
THE FRAME: (1 & 2 Beginning, 7 & 8 End)
Ayat 1 and 8 (how they “connect” as mirrorform):
The “longing” or directional emotion of aya 8 comes from the “breast” mentioned in aya 1. It has been expanded/ opened to Allah the Exalted but still one must continually maintain one’s taqwa or awareness of Allah like an ppl inner compass or direction. One’s “longing,” also translated “desire,” is stronger than “seeking” because it is the motivation of seeking, the inner desire for Allah’s acceptance above all else. This is directed to the Prophet specifically but it is applicable to all, as are many such directives.
Ayat 2 and 7 (how they connect as mirrorform):
Removal of the burden from aya 2 must be followed by the subsequent standing up to pray/ striving in Allah’s way in aya 7. These two ayat function as if they are two clauses of one sentence: “(We) removed from you your burden, so when you are free (from it), exert yourself (in worship).”
Analysis as two pairs:
One can also look at ayat 1 + 2 and ayat 7 + 8 as each being a related pair: ayat 1 and 2 show two ways Allah the Exalted helped/ gave mercy to Prophet Mohammad: aya 1 mentioning “expanding the breast,” a help/ relief for the soul of a person; aya 2 mentioning removal of a burden, further described in aya 3 as physical, weighing on the prophet’s back. Ayat 7 and 8 describe the proper response by the prophet to Allah’s mercy described in ayat 1 and 2. Aya 7 refers to how freeing up from the physical burden (mentioned in associated aya 2) should allow Prophet Mohammad to “stand” or “strive” in devotion to Allah, both a kind of “rising to the occasion” of being free/ relieved. Aya 8 refers to how the best response to the relief of the soul (which the Quran locates symbolically in the “breast”) is to direct one’s heart’s desire to Allah the Exalted (the heart being located in the breast with the lungs whose function of breathing is associated with the “spirit” or soul).
The central section emphasizes that Allah the All-Merciful always brings relief from hardship and difficulties (although not always in the time and way that we expect, which fact is not mentioned here, but we must learn through patience). Ayat 3 and 4 each express a different kind of hardship, and ayat 5 and 6 are the corresponding reassurances that each kind of hardship is followed by relief. This is the heart of the surah.
Ayat 3 and 6: in aya 3, the weighing down of the back expresses the hardship of the physical “worldly” burden, hence it is paired with the first of the two “relief from hardship” ayat, the relief/ ease from the hardship of this world, from which the All-Merciful relieved Prophet Mohammad (pbuh) and by association/ example, the believers, in aya 6.
Ayat 4 and 5: these consecutive ayat work together to show another second aspect of “ease”: in aya 4, Allah raises the prophet’s thikr, translated here “reputation,” but implying more than that — how he will be remembered — both between people of future generations and nations in this world, and among the believers who have died in Allah’s acceptance in the Hereafter, a kind of exaltation and reward. Here thikr is superior to all the things of this world, and reminds us of the aya:
فَاذْكُرُونِي أَذْكُرْكُمْ وَاشْكُرُوا لِي وَلَا تَكْفُرُونِ
So remember Me; I will remember you. And be grateful to Me and do not deny Me.Surah Al-Baqara 2:152
The word for remember is again thikr, and means to remember, to mention, and to bring to mind. So when we remember and think about Allah frequently, invoking/ calling upon His name(s), He in turn mentions and remembers us. Imagine the Exalted, Almighty, Most High, Eternal, All-Knowing Lord of All mentioning one of us, mere specks in this unimaginably vast creation.
Thus the two repeating ayat of this surah can be seen, illuminated by chiastic or “ring composition” analysis, as two distinct kinds of ease, relief and reward: 1) removal of pain/ hardship itself in this world, and 2) being “raised up” in reputation and thikr in this world and the Hereafter, for simply having patience and maintaining one’s faith throughout that hardship. Both examples of “after hardship, there is relief.”