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Islam

The Mysticism That Lies Beyond the Letter

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.

 

 

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