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The Mysticism That Lies Beyond the Letter

Ibn 'Arabi's grave in Damascus, Syria [Nuruddin - Wikimedia Commons]

The first glimmerings of an interpretation of the Qur’an that goes beyond the text’s immediate meaning can already be glimpsed in the works of the first exegetes and the imams in the Prophet’s family

This article was published in Oasis 23. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2019-05-06 10:09:31

The first glimmerings of an interpretation of the Qur’an that goes beyond the text’s immediate meaning can already be glimpsed in the works of the first exegetes and the imams in the Prophet’s family. Yet it was primarily the birth of a specific way of knowledge, Sufism, that started a long tradition of spiritual and esoteric interpretation: an inexhaustible well-spring, fed just as much by the text as by the Sufi tradition, which has always sought the source of its inspiration in the Revelation.



The Qur’an leads its readers onto the paths of exegesis through what it says about itself. Although it declares itself to be a discourse that is clear and explicit (bayān), the Qur’an entrusts the Prophet with the mission of explaining its meaning to humankind (Qur’an 16:44 and 64) and reminds the People of the Book that the Alliance involves a duty to make the Book known and not hide any of its contents (3:187). Like all sacred texts, the Qur’an has recourse to symbols and parables, using one and the same term, āya (or āyāt, in the plural) to indicate the verses of the Book, the signs of creation and the miraculous evidence of prophecy. Creation, Revelation and stories of the prophets thus constitute one and the same book and humankind must meditate on its teachings. This meditative or hermeneutic reading accompanies humankind along the path from this world towards the world to come and from exterior signs to their interior meaning, the ultimate sense of which lies solely with God. It is thus the Qur’an itself that inaugurates a hermeneutical path and the latter’s terminology. The Prophet and some of his companions partly defined its milestones. The first generations of Muslims took care, above all, to explain the Qur’an’s language and to link the text to those of the traditions regarding sacred history (i.e. that of the Prophet and the prophets preceding him) that could foster understanding of an often allusive text. The first glimmerings of a spiritual interpretation can nevertheless be glimpsed in the works of the first exegetes and the imams in the Prophet’s Family. Yet it was primarily the birth of a specific way of knowledge, Sufism, that started a long tradition of spiritual and esoteric Qur’anic interpretation, the history of which remains to be written.






The Esotericism of Letters



Al-Hasan al-Basrī occupies an important place amongst the earliest Qur’anic commentators. He and his contemporary, Abū l-‘Āliya, identified the “right path,” mentioned in the Fātiha, with “the  Messenger of God and his Successors;” which is tantamount to equating the Path with the one who guides people towards it. This interpretation is not without its Gospel echoes and announces the Prophet’s increasingly emphasized role as the source of all guidance. Together with other figures from the era of the Successors (i.e. those coming after the Prophet’s Companions), al-Basrī inaugurated that period of Muslim spirituality that was marked both by al-zuhd fī l-dunyā, (renunciation of the world) and by a decidedly ascetic life that developed into Sufism. The commentary attributed to al-Hasan reflects this: with regard to verse 2:41 (“And sell not My signs [the Book’s verses] for a little price”) he writes: “The little price is this world and all that it contains.” Or again, in relation to verse 8:67 (“you desire the chance goods of the present world, and God desires the world to come”): “If the only sin that we fear for our souls’ sake is love of this world, we should already be afraid for our souls.”



This type of exegesis is based on the immediate application to oneself of the Qur’an lived “as an exhortation” that contrasts this world with the world to come. A more esoteric exegesis particularly concerned with “the Isolated letters” can also be found in the commentaries dating to this era. With regard to the letters a-l-m that open the sura of the Cow, Tabarī reports a saying attributed to Ibn ‘Abbās who interprets them as “the supreme Name of God” or acronym of “I, God, am the wisest” (Ana ALlāh a‘laM). Tabarī further cites the fuller saying of al-Rabī‘ Ibn Anas: “The isolated letters are some of the twenty-nine letters of the alphabet present in all languages. There is not a letter amongst these that is not the “key” to one of God’s Names, that does not signify divine graces and proofs and that does not indicate the life-span of a people.” Here there is a clear allusion to what was to become, in Islam, the “science of the Letters” (‘ilm al-hurūf)[1] and was to acquire a dual orientation: metaphysical and spiritual or cosmic and divinatory. In this context, Tabarī (d. 310/923) reports a tradition that we can already find in Muqātil (d. 150/767), according to which some Jewish scholars from Medina, after hearing these letters, would have tried to infer the life-span of Muhammad’s community by calculating their numerical value (hisāb al-jumal) but would have given up in the end because the combination of the letters was too complex. Thus they confirmed, against their will, the principle by which, “none knows its interpretation save only God” (3:7).






The First Sufi Commentaries



One can already find an opening to the prophecy’s symbolic meaning and metaphysical dimension existing alongside a philological and historical approach detailing the circumstances of the revelation in the commentary of Muqātil bin Sulaymān. For example, in his interpretation of the verse of the Light (24:35), the “lamp in a glass” symbolises Muhammad’s luminous nature, whilst the “olive that is neither of the East nor of the West,” whose oil fuels the lamp, represents the figure of Abraham to whom the Prophet traces his origin.



Through a study of the ashbāh wa l-nazā’ir literature dedicated to the Qur’anic terminology’s polysemy, Paul Nwyia found that spiritual experience played an increasingly important part in the understanding of the Qur’anic text from Muqātil to Tirmidhī (d. around 300/890). Marked as much by the longing for God as by mistrust of the soul’s deviousness, this hermeneutic approach translates into a certain number of partial commentaries, the first of which is attributed to the imam Ja‘far al-Sādiq (d. 148/765) and in which the main concepts of Sufism and an interior, symbolic reading can already be found. The twelve fountains gushing forth from the rock that Moses was ordered to strike with his staff (7:160) represent the different ways of knowing God, ranging from an attestation of divine unity to the highest levels of realisation in God. In the same way, the verse “Blessed be He who has set in heaven constellations (burūj)” (25:61) gives rise to a linguistic and symbolic juxtaposition made by numerous exegetes: heaven (samā’, from the same root samā i.e. to rise), is equated with the heart destined to rise to the object of its knowledge. The twelve constellations or signs of the zodiac, which represent the world’s order, correspond to that through which the heart achieves its elevation: faith, knowledge, intellect, certainty, love… Nwyia inclines towards the authenticity of this commentary, which he has reconstituted after taking the Haqā’iq al-tafsīr by Abū ‘Abd al-Rahmān al-Sulamī from Nishapur (d. 412/1021) as his starting point. This latter work is a synthesis of the earlier commentaries of Ja‘far, Sahl al-Tustarī (d. at Basra in 283/896) and Ibn ‘Atā’, as well as of comments on verses attributed to various masters or anonymous figures and, lastly, numerous spiritual teachings on virtues and Qur’anic concepts that have thus been transferred to an exegetical context.



In Sahl [al-Tustarī]’s tafsīr one can find a concept that was to be of great importance for Sufism subsequently: “the Light of Muhammad,” from which all the prophetic lights issued. Rather than functioning as an exegesis in the strict sense, Sahl’s commentary indicates the milestones both of the Way and of the knowledge inspired by the Qur’anic text. “Set up not compeers to God wittingly” (2:22) i.e. opposites to God (addād). And the greatest opposite is the soul that commands evil. Like the discourses collected by Sulamī, this interpretation follows an interiorizing process that is closely linked to a practice of the spiritual way, just as al-Sarrāj of Tūs (d. 378/988) emphasises with regard to the Sufi commentaries on the Qur’an, the Hadīth and the words of the masters. This method, or “science of allusion” (‘ilm al-ishāra) consists in understanding the meaning of a verse or expression by grasping an allusion to one’s own spiritual state. Such inferred meanings (mustanbatāt, from the verb istanbata, which can be found at Qur’an 4:83 and means, etymologically, to make water gush from the well) are defined as “the meanings inferred by men of understanding, men who have achieved self-realisation, by virtue of their exterior and interior conformity with God’s Book, their exterior and interior imitation of the Messenger of God and their practising with the whole of their being, exteriorly and interiorly.” The insistence on the reference to the Qur’an, the Sunna and the balance between the exterior and the interior fits into an apology of Sufism directed both against the exotericists, who scorn interior meaning, and against the esotericists (bātiniyya) who would neglect the exterior meaning. The same apologetic intention can be found in Sulamī’s introduction to the Haqā’iq when he cites the answer Alī Ibn Abī Tālib gave to the person who asked him whether he had received any other revelation from the Prophet apart from the Qur’an: “No, by He Who created the seed and gave existence to the soul, only an understanding of His Book like that which God grants to some of His servants.”



On the authority of Ja‘far al-Sādiq, the degrees of interpretation correspond both to the degree of chosenness (“Adoration is for the common man, allusion is for the élite, the subtle meanings (latā’if) are for the holy men and the divine realities are for the prophets”) and to that of the word’s perception: hearing, intelligence, contemplation and total acceptance. The interpretative levels overlap according to the reader’s predisposition and state. “That is the Book (or Scripture) …” (2:2): the book of destiny that records the becoming of all things, the love and knowledge inscribed by God in the hearts of His holy ones that will make them accept His decree, or again, that which God has prescribed to Himself from all eternity: “My mercy has preceded my anger.” It is the idea of prescription, rather than book, that prevails here; in contradiction with classical exegesis but in accordance both with one of the meanings of kitāb (scripture, book, Ed.) and with the general meaning of the sura of the Cow. If the commentary described as “allusive” (ishārī) was frequently criticized by the esotericists it is because it often isolates a term or one aspect of a passage in order to find a reference that is pertinent to the reader rather than the text itself. Thus, in the passage on the angels who, after protesting about man’s viceroyship over the earth and comparing his tendency to corruption with their praise and glorification of God, have to recognize Adam’s knowledge and prostrate themselves before him (2:30-32), many masters see an allusion to the presumptuousness of the soul that must, in the end, recognize its own ignorance.






The Book Symbol of The Whole



 The author of one of the first Sufi tafsīrs, Sahl al-Tustarī also composed an epistle on the Letters in which he raised questions about the common origin of the Book and the world. The first principles emanate from the Word and the Light, just like the primordial Letters that, on a lower level, are in a relationship with the elements that make up the physical world. The relationship between God and the world is thus analogous to the book’s production through the Word. Sahl’s metaphysical and cosmological doctrine was certainly not without its influence on his disciple al-Hallāj.



Sahl’s work was continued and completed by Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 638/1240), a native of Murcia who nevertheless undertook his formation in Seville. Before leaving the West for the East, Ibn ‘Arabī composed a vast commentary which has since disappeared. Through his own testimony we know that the commentary stopped at the story of Moses and al-Khadir in the sura of the Cave (18), that it comprised 66 volumes and that it gave a most important place to the science of the Letters. Ibn ‘Arabī composed some minor treatises of an exegetical and hermeneutical nature but two works of his, above all the Futūhāt al-Makkiyya and Fusūs al-hikam – partly fall into the category of spiritual exegesis by virtue of the high number of verses they comment on. Their very structure closely corresponds to the order of the Qur’an, as Michel Chodkiewicz has demonstrated. Ibn ‘Arabī’s hermeneutics follow various paths but mainly that of i‘tibār or ishāra i.e. allusion to an interior state. It is characterised, above all, by a great attention to the letter of the text from which the spiritual meaning springs. For him, as for his predecessors, “there is not a word in the universe that cannot be interpreted,” because all levels of existence are in a relationship with each other. His metaphysical and initiating doctrine led him to clearly formulate an almost coinciding relationship between the Qur’an, God’s Word, and the perfect or universal Man, the sum of all perfections, intermediary and, at the same time, veil between God and the kingdom of manifestation. He explains thus, but via different paths, the idea – present in the original Shi‘ism – of the Qayyim al-Qur’ān, i.e. the one who, after the Prophet, must fully assume the Revelation’s meaning and function.



Ibn ‘Arabī’s work has had numerous continuators, ranging from his direct disciples, such as Sadr al-Dīn al-Qunāwī (d. 673/1274), to some contemporary exegetes. This long chain shows that the Qur’an’s spiritual interpretation is an inexhaustible well-spring, fed just as much by the text itself as by the Sufi tradition, which, in its turn, has always sought the source of its inspiration in the Revelation.






* This article is a concise version of the entry “Mystical Exegesis” contained in Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi (Ed.), Dictionnaire du Coran (Bouquins, Paris, 2007).






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] Pierre Lory, La science des lettres en islam (Dervy, Paris, 2004).

To cite this article

Printed version:
Denis Gril, “The Mysticism That Lies Beyond the Letter”, Oasis, year XII, n. 23, July 2016, pp. 42-46.


Online version:
Denis Gril, “The Mysticism That Lies Beyond the Letter”, Oasis [online], published 29th July 2016, URL:

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