It is a fundamental principle of Shi‘ite exegesis that the imam is the only person who may legitimately interpret the sacred Text, having been chosen and inspired by God for this purpose

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It is a fundamental principle of Shi‘ite exegesis that the imam is the only person who may legitimately interpret the sacred Text, having been chosen and inspired by God for this purpose. Indeed, according to a saying attributed to ‘Alī, the Qur’an “does not speak in a language; it needs its own interpreter.” The latter can only be an infallible imam, just as the Prophet was. At the purely literal level, without the imam’s hermeneutics, the Book does not mean anything; it is a “mute Qur’an.” It is the imam who renders it intelligible and it is for this reason that he is called the “speaking Qur’an.

The youngest of the great religions of the Book, Islam attributes the utmost sacredness to its own Scripture. In Sunnism, the Qur’an’s sacralisation has often led to a closing of the doors as much in the field of historical criticism as in that of spiritual hermeneutics. This is not, however, the case in Shi‘a Islam, which not only calls itself a religion of the Book but also – and this right from its origins – a religion of the Book’s interpretation. This definition holds good for its two main historical forms, Twelver Imamism (based on the twelve imams) and Ismailism.

In the Shi‘ite vision of the world, each thing possesses both a manifest (or exoteric) exterior aspect (zāhir) and a hidden (or esoteric) interior content (bātin). This is true, above all, of God who is, according to the Qur’an, “the Outward and the Inward” (57:3). As a consequence, it is also true of the divine revelations bestowed during the course of history. Since the letter of a sacred Scripture always carries a hidden meaning that constitutes the latter’s spirit, the coming of a prophet with a literal revelation (tanzīl) cannot do without a series of imams who have the task of producing its spiritual exegesis (ta’wīl). According to the Shi‘ite conception of holy history, just as Moses had Aaron as his first imam, and Jesus had the apostle Simon, so the prophet Muhammad had, as his first imam, his young cousin, ‘Alī b. Abī Tālib, husband of his daughter Fatima and father of his only male line of descendants. If prophecy comes to an end with Muhammad, then the last cycle of the divine alliance (walāya), entrusted to the imams, opens with ‘Alī. Shi‘ite prophetology is inseparable from an imamology and the latter is inseparable from a hermeneutic of the Book.

The term ta’wīl derives from the root awl, which denotes the idea of return. As the verbal noun of the causative verb awwala, it indicates the act of taking something back to its origins and, by extension, the interpretation of a sign. The Qur’an uses it in relation to the interpretation of dreams (12:6 and 21, with regard to Joseph) and of actions that offend common moral feeling (18:78 and 82, with regard to Moses) but also of its own signs or verses (āyāt): “It is He who sent down upon thee the Book, wherein are verses clear that are the Essence of the Book, and others ambiguous. As for those in whose hearts is swerving, they follow the ambiguous part, desiring dissension and desiring its interpretation; and none knows its interpretation, save only God and those firmly rooted in knowledge. They say, ‘We believe in it; all is from our Lord’; yet none remembers, but men possessed of minds” (3:7). Unlike Sunni commentators, the Shi‘ites pause after the words “and those firmly rooted in knowledge” (rather than after “God”) when they read this verse and this fact permits some men to interpret or “decipher” the Book. According to various hadīths of the imams, those who are “firmly rooted in knowledge” are none other than Muhammad, ‘Alī and the imams descended from him who all know the whole of the Book’s ta’wīl. As for the term tafsīr, this was synonymous with ta’wīl during the first centuries of Islam but later came to designate an exoteric commentary on the Qur’an that was either linguistic or historical. Such a commentary may be the work of any scholar, whereas ta’wīl properly designates an esoteric commentary that can only be the work of a man “firmly rooted in knowledge.” The distinction was nevertheless to remain nominal in Shi‘ite circles, where many tafsīr on the Qur’an are, in all reality, esoteric commentaries.

This hermeneutic position of Shi‘a Islam obviously has its history and the latter has, in its turn, an exterior aspect and an interior dimension. When Muhammad was still alive, a group of Muslims considered ‘Alī to be his only legitimate heir as head of the community and the first repository of the revelation, if not actually the messiah announced by it. According to a hadīth also cited by Sunni sources, the Prophet would have said, shortly before dying, “I bequeath two precious objects to you and if you take care of them, you will not lose your way after my death: they are God’s Book and the people of my family.”[1] For the Shi‘ites, ‘Alī was the point of intersection for these two precious objects: he was the only one after Muhammad to know the Qur’an in full, and he was the second father to the Prophet’s family. But these two precious objects would have been maltreated and profaned by enemies of the Truth.

According to the most ancient Shi‘ite sources and contrary to what the Sunni sources state, the compilation of one consolidated text of the revelation after the Prophet’s death was anything but consensual: ‘Alī was not only removed from power by way of a plot but also prevented from producing the Qur’an that he had collected. Some accounts tell of a text that was much more voluminous than the Vulgate we know (which is referred to as the Uthman text): others mention works of censorship and additions in the official Qur’an, whilst other Twelver traditions suggest that Alī’s Qur’an was handed down from imam to imam as far as the twelfth one, the hidden imam, who is keeping it and will reveal it when he returns at the end of time.

During the persecutions, these theses were gradually abandoned in favour of an esoteric position: what ‘Alī and the imams possess is not the authentic Qur’an (of which the Vulgate would be a censured and modified version) but, rather, the spiritual exegesis of the official Qur’an i.e. of the literal revelation. Such fact does not prevent this exegesis being consubstantial with the letter of the Book, to the point that the authentic Qur’an consists of the sum of its tanzīl and ta’wīl. Thus it is reported that once ‘Alī became caliph, he resigned himself to fighting other Muslims, referring to what the Prophet would have said to him: “You will fight for the Qur’an’s interpretation as I have fought for its revelation.”[2] According to another tradition, Ibn ‘Abbās (the Prophet’s cousin and ‘Alī’s companion) would have had a heated argument about the Qur’an with Mu‘āwiya, ‘Alī’s sworn enemy and founder of the Umayyad dynasty, who had forbidden the virtues of both ‘Alī and the people of the Prophet’s family to be mentioned publically. Ibn ‘Abbās asked him if he wished to forbid them to read the Qur’an and Mu‘āwiya answered in the negative. Ibn ‘Abbās asked him if he wished to forbid them to interpret the Qur’an and Mu‘āwiya answered in the affirmative. So then Ibn ‘Abbās asked how it was possible to read the Qur’an without seeking to know God’s intention and put it into practice.[3] According to this hadīth and many others, the revelation’s hidden meaning concerns ‘Alī and the Prophet’s descendants and this meaning is so necessary to the letter that a literalist reading that refuses to seek it is tantamount to a censorship of the Qur’an.[4]


Divisions after the Battle of Karbala

Like God’s Book, the Prophet’s family also suffered a tragic fate. The tragedy reached its peak when al-Hussein, Muhammad’s favourite nephew and the third Shi‘ite imam (after his father ‘Alī, and his older brother Hasan), was killed by the Umayyad army at Karbala in 65/680. Shi’ism subsequently split into numerous branches, most of which did not survive state repression. Amongst the descendants of the imams who gave birth to Twelver Shi‘ism, a renunciation of political activity went hand in hand with an intensification of spiritual teaching and hermeneutics. One must nevertheless avoid a (convenient but reductive) functionalist interpretation that sees in Shi‘ite hermeneutics no more than a surrogate for historical aspirations or a consolation for political defeat. Let us, rather, seek to see, in the imams’ tragic history, the exoteric aspect, the hidden meaning of which was their hermeneutic mission.

The two fundamental principles of Shi‘ite exegesis are that the Qur’an needs to be interpreted and that the imam is the only person who can legitimately interpret it, being elected and inspired by God for this purpose. According to a saying attributed to the imam Alī, “this Qur’an is nothing other than a piece of writing drawn up between two [cover] boards, it does not speak [by itself] in a language but needs its own interpreter.”[5] The latter can only be an infallible imam (ma‘sūm), just as the Prophet was. At the purely literal level, without the imam’s hermeneutics, the Book does not mean anything: it is a “mute Qur’an.” It is the imam who renders it intelligible and it is for this reason that he is called the “speaking Qur’an.” The various imams belonging to Twelver Shi‘ism have made this hermeneutic mission their own. The sixth imam, Ja‘far al-Sādiq, is supposed to be the author of the first mystical commentary on the Qur’an and the eleventh imam has had a tafsīr attributed to him. In particular, the imams’ Hadīth a monumental corpus that was compiled while they were still alive and under their supervision – contains a complete exegesis of the sacred Scripture. As for the first tafsīrs, these were produced by Imamite scholars such as al-Qummī (d. 307/919) or al-‘Ayyāshī (d. 320/932) and are composed solely of the imams’ hadīths. They do not contain any personal opinions.

According to ancient Shi‘ite exegesis, the imam is not just a hermeneut or “speaking Qur’an:” his divine alliance or walāya is, itself, the hidden meaning to which the ta’wīl leads back. It is what the Qur’an is talking about; the Book’s Alpha and Omega. This is what is emphasised in the Shi‘ite interpretation of the first sura, the Fātiha, which is recited by every Muslim during prayer. A hadīth attributed to ‘Alī states, “I am the dot underneath the bā in bi-smi-llāh” i.e. in God’s name, which is the formula that opens the sura. In verse 6, the “straight path,” mentioned in the words “Guide us in the straight path,” is identified as the imam, whose knowledge leads to a knowledge of God and to salvation in the next life. As for the two groups from whom the person praying dissociates him/herself in verse 7, “those against whom God is wrathful” and “those who are astray” (whom the Sunni exegetes generally associate with the Jews and the Christians), in Shi‘ite traditions these designate, rather, those of the Muslims who act like the Jews and Christians; the former by rejecting Alī’s sanctity as the Jews rejected Christ’s (and they are the Sunnis) and the latter by excessively emphasizing Alī’s sanctity as the Christians did with Christ (and they are the Shi‘ite “exaggerators” – ghulāt).[6] In the same way, the verses about jihad are interpreted in a trans-historical sense to announce the eschatological battle to be waged by the last imam, the Mahdī. The aim of the battle will be “to cover the earth with justice and equity, just as it was covered with injustice and iniquity before” and restore God’s Scriptures, namely, the Torah, the Gospel and the Qur’an.[7] Like the one ‘Alī fought during his caliphate, it will be a battle fought for hermeneutics, but this time victory will be guaranteed. Thus will the end of History be brought about.

Many Shi‘ite commentaries seem to limit themselves to identifying the historical figures that the Qur’an’s ambiguous verses consider positively (the imams) or negatively (their enemies) and this can seem like a system for exploiting the gaps left by censorship. The sacrosanct figure of the imam, ‘Alī, is the most frequently central figure in this “personalised” exegesis. This interpretation may seem too exclusive to be spiritual but one should not allow oneself to be fooled. The hidden meaning that the Shi‘ites find throughout the Qur’an in the name of the imam – the central point where the whole revelation begins and ends and around which it rotates – has itself a properly religious, metaphysical and trans-historical interior meaning: the need for a divine Man, the idea that God, insofar as He is Manifest and not just Hidden, cannot do without a human manifestation and that humankind could not love a God who did not reveal Himself in the world, nor reach salvation without a divine guide.

The Ismaili Shi‘ite tradition broke away from mainstream Imamism after Ja‘far al-Sādiq and has a more detached relationship with the Qur’an than does the Twelver tradition. The Ismailis have not supported the thesis that the Qur’an has been falsified and have lost interest in the historical details of the revelation. Whilst amongst the Twelvers the imam’s exclusive authority in matters of ta’wīl prevailed for a very long time, amongst the Ismailis (who have seen an almost uninterrupted succession of imams up to the present day) philosopher-preachers (du’āt) began to practise a Qur’anic hermeneutic fairly early on, drawing up their personal reflections under the imam’s authority. Nevertheless, unlike the Twelvers, the Ismaili thinkers have not produced very many complete commentaries on the Qur’anic text. They have preferred to concentrate their energies on particular verses, the interpretation of which is included in theological and philosophical works.

Ismaili thinking was soon pervaded by neo-platonic doctrine, identifying the One beyond Being (as defined by Plotinus) with the Creator God in the Qur’an. Following a schema inherited from Plato’s allegory of the cave (Book VII of The Republic), such thinking maintains that the divine revelations bestowed over time do not regard physical persons and temporal events but, rather, spiritual, a-temporal realities that the prophets have a mission to translate into perceptible signs in order to make them known to men. Thus, for the Ismailis, all the revealed books (the Torah, the Gospel and the Qur’an) possess an essentially symbolic meaning and their letter is nothing other than a simple, outer, perceptible wrapping that hides their intelligible meaning. This is the case, above all, with the verses of the Qur’an that treat of the extreme points of holy history’s timespan. Like the promised delights in Paradise and the torments of Hell, the story of Adam and Eve and the tree of Good and Evil are allegories that require a philosophical unveiling. The Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-safā) active in the fourth/tenth century interpreted the figures of Adam and the serpent as metaphors of the intellective soul and the carnal soul respectively.[8] Nasīr al-Dīn Tūsī (d. 672/1274) saw in the first paradise, i.e. Adam’s paradise (Qur’an 2:35), “the first inexistence” and in the true monotheists’ final Paradise (89:28-30) “the second inexistence or extinction (fanā’) in the Oneness of God.”[9] The legislative and worship-related verses that make up the sharia also possess an esoteric meaning without which the duties and prohibitions would be no more than an absurdity.[10] That does not mean that the Law’s prescriptions may be ignored once its hidden meaning – which can only be revealed by established philosophers – has been achieved: it means, rather, that a worship-related action does not truly please God if it is not accompanied by a clear knowledge of the divine intention that orders it. Thus the Qur’an calls for a spiritual exegesis or ta’wīl just as much in its legal verses as in its theological and eschatological discourse.

As we have seen, in Twelver Shi‘a Islam, interpretation of the Qur’an is the imam’s first prerogative and one that, unlike political authority, was never abandoned by any of ‘Alī’s successors. Thus the concealment of the twelfth imam in 260/874 left a theological vacuum that could not be filled, namely, the imamate as the presence of revelation. For as long as the imam was present, the Qur’an spoke and was alive. But how could the Qur’an be prevented from degenerating into a dead letter after the imam’s disappearance? Whereas the rationalist jurists took action to snatch the imam’s social prerogatives for themselves after the Concealment, the Shi‘ite philosophers and mystics took his hermeneutic mission upon themselves. The philosophical exegesis of the Qur’an passed from Ismailism to Twelver Imamism with Nasīr al-Dīn Tūsī at the time of the Mongol conquest. This exegesis blossomed with Haydar Āmolī (eighth/fourteenth century) who incorporated the theosophy and doctrine on holiness of the mystic thinker Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 638/1240) into the Shi‘ite theology and imamology, thereby relating everything in the book of the Qur’an with its counterpart in the great book of the world. After him, the philosophers interpreted the Qur’an or the imams’ Hadīth by marrying reason with mystical intuition. According to a hadīth of the eighth imam, the fathers’ teaching, like the Qur’an, presents some clear words (muhkamāt) and others that are ambiguous (mutashābihāt).[11] From this point onwards, the philosopher becomes the hermeneut’s hermeneut and the imam’s true representative. Whilst the jurist-theologians did their best to abrogate the imams’ esoteric teaching in order better to secularize the religion to their own advantage, the philosophers became, in their turn, “fighters for ta’wīl,” struggling to preserve the interior, spiritual dimension not only of the Qur’an but also of Shi‘ism itself as a hermeneutic religion.[12]

In Shi‘ite philosophical hermeneutics (more alive than ever in the modern era), there is a fruitful tension between the imamocentrism of its origins and the monism of the “oneness of existence” inspired by Ibn ‘Arabī. For Mīr Dāmād and Mollā Sadrā (eleventh/seventeenth century), the ideal of the perfect Man or Wise Man tends to replace the concrete figures of the imam ‘Alī and his descendants, whose words are cited with the same authority as are the verses of the Qur’an. Of the verse that states, “We offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they refused to carry it and were afraid of it; and man carried it. Surely he is sinful, very foolish” (33:72) Mīr Dāmād writes that this Trust is knowledge of the Divine Essence’s unknowability, a docta ignorantia that is the preserve of the true philosopher.[13] Of the verse that states, “I have not created jinn and mankind except to serve Me” (51:56), Mollā Sadrā writes “or except to know Me” and adds, “The wise man is the final objective of the existentiation of the spheres, the elements and the composite realities.”[14] This is how the religion of the imams preserves its own hermeneutic vocation in their physical absence by attributing a universal significance to its exegesis.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation

[1] Muhammad Bāqir al-Majlisī, Bihār al-anwār (Mu’assasat al-wafā, Beirut, 1403/1983), XXIII, p. 108. These  hadīths are to be found in the Sahīh of Muslim and Ibn Hanbal.

[2] Haydar Āmolī, “al-Muhīt al-a‘zam,” cit. in Silsilat al-mukhtārātmin nusūs al-tafsīr al-mustanbit (Hekmat, Tehran, 1388 h.s./2009-10), II, p. 195.

[3] Kitāb Sulaym b. Qays (Mu’assasat al-A‘lamī li-l-matbū‘āt, Beirut, undated), pp. 202-203.

[4] See Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, Le Coran silencieux et le Coran parlant (CNRS éditions, Paris, 2011) on these theses.

[5] Nahj al-Balāgha, edition edited by H. al-A‘lamī, (Mu’assasat al-A‘lamī li-l-matbū‘āt, Beirut, 1413/1993), p. 270.

[6] Rajab al-Bursī, al-Durr al-thamīn, edition edited by ‘A. ‘Āshūr (Mu’assasat al-A‘lamī li-l-matbū‘āt, Beirut, 1424/2003), pp. 22-30.

[7] Ibn Abī Zaynab al-Nu‘mānī, Kitāb al-Ghayba, edited by M. J. Ghaffārī, (Dār al-kutub al-islāmiyya, Tehran, 1390 h.s./2011-12), bāb 13, h. 26, pp. 334-335.

[8] See our translation in Martino Diez, “Jihad explained by the Muslims,” Oasis 20, 2014, p. 83.

[9] Jalal Badakhchani, Shi’i Interpretations of Islam (I.B. Tauris, London, 2010), p. 41 of the Persian text.

[10] Daniel De Smet, La philosophie ismaélienne (Le Cerf, Paris, 2012), p. 24.

[11] Muhsin Fayd Kāshānī, Tafsīr al-Ṣāfī, edition edited by M. Emāmiyān, (Dhawī l-qurbā, Qumm, 1388 h.s./2009-10), vol. I, p. 230.

[12] Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi, La religion discrète (Vrin, Paris, 2006), pp. 231-251.

[13] Tafsīr āyat al-amāna, Mosannafāt-e Mīr Dāmād, edition edited by ‘A. Nūrānī, (Anjoman-e āthār va mafākher-e farhangī, Tehran, 1381 h.s./2003), I, p. 543.

[14] Mullā Sadrā Shīrāzī, Le Verset de la Lumière. Commentaire, trad. Christian Jambet, (Les Belles Lettres, Paris, 2009), pp. 67-68.

To cite this article

Printed version:
Text by Mathieu Terrier, “The Imams Who Make the Book Speak”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 33-40.


Online version:
Text by Mathieu Terrier, “The Imams Who Make the Book Speak”, Oasis [online], published 29th July 2016, URL: